Free agency is not over yet, but from the New England Patriots’ perspective it very well might be.
First, there were the big splashes. After already acquiring offensive tackle Trent Brown via trade and bringing back starting quarterback Cam Newton on a cost-effective one-year deal, New England entered free agency week ready to pounce.
During the legal tampering period and into the new league year, the Patriots aggressively bolstered a roster that stumbled to a 7-9 record in 2020 and had holes all over the board.
Equipped with one of the biggest salary cap spaces in the NFL, the team rebuilt its tight end group, interior defensive line and edge positions. Starting-caliber players were also added at wide receiver and in the secondary, while the general talent levels along the offensive line and at linebacker was improved as well.
Then, New England brought back some pivotal members of its own free agents class. While guard Joe Thuney and defensive tackle Adam Butler will be playing in Kansas City and Miami in the future, the Patriots retained core pieces in all three phases — from center David Andrews and running back James White, to defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr, to special teamers Nick Folk, Justin Bethel and Cody Davis.
The latest member of this group will officially be brought back soon: as first reported on Wednesday afternoon, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy is set to return to the Patriots on a new four-year contract.
Guy was one of the biggest names on New England’s free agents list to begin with, but he remained unaccounted for the longest. While he did visit the Miami Dolphins on Monday, he did not sign a deal with the club. Instead, the Patriots were able to bring their team captain and longest-tenured defensive lineman back into the fold a few days later.
With the 30-year-old staying put, the last big piece of the Patriots’ free agency puzzle has now fallen into place.
Sure, some important contributors of years past remain on the open market — most prominently running back Rex Burkhead, linebacker John Simon and cornerback Jason McCourty — but they all lack quite the same combination of positional need, high level of play and leadership importance. Guy brought all those things to the table, and now will become the latest organizational pillar to return.
The Patriots, it seems, have recognized that keeping a strong leadership group intact in light of some major personnel turnover will be key in 2021. With 14 players from outside the organization added via trade of free agency over the last two weeks, and with a franchise-altering draft possibly taking place next month, strong locker room voices who can lead the way will be more important than ever.
While some such as Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower and Matthew Slater were expected back in 2021 anyway, others were not: Newton, Andrews, White and Guy all could have left via free agency.
New England made sure they did not — in part due to their quality on the field, but also due to the respect they enjoy off it and the transformational power they possess. If a vaguely defined concept such as the “Patriot Way” truly exists, these are the players best embodying it, and best equipped to hand the keys over to a next generation.
The Patriots will still make additional transactions between now and the draft, but from a big-picture perspective they have now made all of their big moves.
Lawrence Guy was the final missing piece, until Wednesday at least.