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2021 NFL free agency: What to make of the Patriots’ early spending spree

Related: Recap: Aggressive Patriots steal the show on Day One of the legal tampering period

Detroit Lions v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Despite the NFL being forced to lower its salary cap due to the financial fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic, the New England Patriots were in a comfortable position heading into free agency week. They were among the leaders in available cap space at around $65 million, and clearly above the league-wide average of $13.1 million.

That was quite the change for the team when compared to the previous year. Back in 2020, the average NFL team had around $43.3 million to work with heading towards the start of the new league year. The Patriots were only $3.3 million under the cap, on the other hand, which limited their financial flexibility and played a role in them parting ways with long-time cornerstones such as quarterback Tom Brady and linebacker Kyle Van Noy.

Head coach and general manager Bill Belichick acknowledged his team’s lack of resources during an interview in late October.

“We were pretty heavily invested in our team in the past few years. From a salary cap standpoint, we didn’t have much flexibility at all,” Belichick said.

Fast forward to this year’s free agency and the Patriots’ improved financial capabilities, and it is no surprise to see them as the most aggressive team on the first day of the legal tampering period. While New England did let two players go — long-time starting left guard Joe Thuney and depth safety Terrence Brooks — it also brought seven aboard from the open market and was able to re-sign two members of its in-house free agency class.

Based on initial reports, the Patriots invested north of $215 million dollars on those nine moves.

Adding Jonnu Smith and Matthew Judon to the tight end and linebacker groups, respectively, accounts for almost half of that, but the Patriots as a whole did something they were unable to do in 2020: they bolstered the entire roster. Smith and Judon addressed the top level, while others such as wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, defensive back Jalen Mills and defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. tackled the depth layers.

The Patriots lacked all of that last season. Following their free agency departures, opt-outs and unsuccessful recent roster construction at some key positions, they simply did not have enough blue-chip talent to keep the team in consistent contention on a week-to-week basis. Add the fact that the depth was also depleted, and you get the recipe for a 7-9 season.

This year, New England is in much better shape.

While it remains to be seen what kind of impact Monday’s deals will have on the team, the Patriots did regain the flexibility Belichick mentioned last October. The starting lineup and the middle class of the roster are noticeably stronger now than they were just a few days ago.

Given the state of the 2020 roster in combination with an abundance of cap space, New England had no other choice than to be aggressive this offseason. If you have money, why not spend it (even more so if you have to anyway under the Collective Bargaining Agreement)? Sure, Tom Brady leaving just to win a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay makes for a saucy headline, but the matter of fact remains: the Patriots, unlike last year, had a healthy cap situation and took advantage.

In this case, the 2021 free agency spending spree is similar to the one that took place in 2017. Back then, New England made big splashes by signing cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, extending linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Duron Harmon, and acquiring wide receiver Brandin Cooks via trade.

The resources were available, and they were used to improve a roster that was already coming off a Super Bowl win. While the 2020 Patriots obviously did not achieve the level of success the 2016 squad had, the salary cap flexibility the following offseasons still is comparable.

While Monday’s flurry of moves was therefore surprising in its quantity, the Patriots spending big when they have money available is not a first.

Of course, there are two enormous differences between 2017 and 2021 as well.

Four years ago, New England had a well-established starting quarterback on its roster around whom to build the offense. The current QB1, Cam Newton, may have an impressive track record going back to 2011, but he is not the same caliber player that 2017 Tom Brady was nor a long-time solution at the game’s most important position.

Furthermore, the Patriots’ draft capital was comparatively limited in 2017. A series of trades, including sending a first-round pick to New Orleans for the aforementioned Brandin Cooks, left the team with just four total selections — none of which in the first two rounds. This year, for comparison, New England is scheduled to own the 14th most valuable draft capital in the league and two selections within the top 50 picks.

Parts of that capital being used on a quarterback can be expected, and it would fit the Patriots’ free agency approach: QBs on rookie contracts are comparatively cheap and thus not impacting the salary cap as much as veterans at the position. While New England has one of those in the form of Newton — playing on a one-year deal with a $5.5 million salary cap hit — the total allotment of money at the position is comparatively negligible.

As a result, money can be used to build a strong foundation elsewhere on the roster.

The Patriots did just that early on in free agency. Now, they need to make additional moves to complement them — especially in the draft.