The New England Patriots came out of the gate swinging when free agency week began last Monday. Just an hour into the legal tampering period, the team signed one of the two best tight ends on the market, Jonnu Smith, to a four-year, $50 million contract. The Smith deal was a sign of things to come, and just the first big splash made by New England.
The team went on to invest more than $300 million in total contract value over the next six days. Twelve outside free agents were added after the opening of the legal tampering window and into the new league year, while seven in-house free agents were either re-signed or tendered. The Patriots needed to make aggressive moves to bolster a team that struggled to a 7-9 season in 2020, and they did just that.
Given that the national narrative paints New England as a club known for financial restraint rather than one going after the big-name signing, this seemingly presented a course of action. As team owner Robert Kraft explained in a recent interview with NBC Sports’ Peter King, however, the Patriots’ spending spree was merely the result of their positioning within the marketplace.
“We had the second or third-most cap room at the start of free agency. This year, instead of having 10 or 12 teams competing for most of the top players, there were only two or three. And in my 27 years as owner, I’ve never had to come up with so much capital before,” Kraft told King.
After being in a bad financial place last March and entering the 2020 league year a mere $7.14 million under the salary cap, the Patriots found themselves among the most potent clubs in the league. They had $30.5 million available when the calendar was turned to 2021 last Wednesday, despite already having handed out high-end contracts to players such as Smith, linebacker Matthew Judon, or the other top-two tight end, Hunter Henry.
The majority of teams around the league, meanwhile, had to scramble to even get under the cap. With the Coronavirus pandemic impacting the league’s revenue, after all, the cap decreased for the first time in a decade: after being set at $198.2 million a year ago, negotiations between the NFL and NFLPA landed at $182.5 million for the 2021 season.
This impacted the free agency market as well, and the Patriots were among the few teams capable of bringing multiple high-quality free agents on board.
“It’s like investing in the stock market. You take advantage of corrections and inefficiencies in the market when you can, and that’s what we did here,” said Kraft about what has been the most active free agency week in the Patriots’ history. “We’ll see. Nothing is guaranteed, and I’m very cognizant of that. But we’re not in the business to be in business. We’re in this business to win.”
There are countless cautionary tales when it comes to spending big in free agency. The Jacksonville Jaguars, for example, invested a league-leading $494.1 million over the last four offseasons but went only a combined 22-42 along the way. The New York Jets ($463 million, 18-46) and Detroit Lions ($444.7 million, 23-41) are in a similar boat.
Robert Kraft is aware that spending big does not necessarily have to translate into winning big, but the Patriots have at least put themselves in a position to do the latter one year after their first losing season in two decades. It cost a lot of money, but their roster is significantly improved today than it was on Monday morning last week.
Adding Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry drastically reshaped New England’s tight end group; Matthew Judon and re-signed Kyle Van Noy bolster the depth on the defensive edge; wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne add starter-level talent to a wide receiver room lacking just that in 2020; bringing back David Andrews and adding backup Ted Karras improves the depth along the offensive line; the interior D-line was an area of emphasis as well. Add it all up and you get a deeper, more talented team with a higher floor.
“We’ll see,” said Kraft about the Patriots’ investments. “I do remember we always made fun of the teams that spent a lot in the offseason. So we know nothing is guaranteed, and I’m very cognizant of that.”