The New England Patriots entered last month’s free agency with a perfectly aligning blend of needs and resources. Coming off a 7-9 season that saw the team struggle on both sides of the ball, the Patriots had to be aggressive if they wanted to turn their fortunes around heading into 2021.
Being among the league leaders in cap space and entering a depressed market created by the fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic, the team went to work as soon as the legal tampering window opened. When all was said and done, the Patriots had invested $168.8 million in guarantees while bolstering their depth across the board.
“It’s like investing in the stock market,” said owner Robert Kraft shortly after his organization’s unprecedented spending spree. “You take advantage of corrections and inefficiencies in the market when you can, and that’s what we did here. 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.”
While their roster is unquestionably a more talented one today than it was at the same time last month, the Patriots’ aggressiveness has not been met with universal praise. In fact, some prominent commentators have questioned New England’s approach.
Even before free agency, Pro Football Focus lobbied for the Patriots to liquidate their assets and try to tank for a quarterback in next year’s draft rather than restock the roster in a favorable market. PFF later labeled the entirety of New England’s free agency as “pretty questionable.”
Others such as members of Boston’s notorious sports talk radio clique joined in this refrain. The same was true for a recent ESPN story that crowned the winners and losers of free agency in various categories. What that story showed, however, is that the Patriots triggered a wide range of reactions: while some criticized them, others were pleased to see them proactively try to rebuild a roster that has not lived up to its end of the bargain in 2020.
ESPN’s Patriots beat writer, Mike Reiss, wrote the following, for example:
It’s a balance between “Are they smarter than the rest of the NFL?” and “Will they regret straying so far from the draft/develop/re-sign philosophy that has proved to be the best approach for sustainable success?” I understand their strategy: The cap goes down, better in-their-prime players hit the market because of it, there’s less competition to sign them, their cap space is abundant and the future cap is going to spike. So in the end, I give Belichick the benefit of the doubt. He has earned it.
Others echoed those remarks. Matt Bowen called the Patriots’ additions of tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry the best signings of free agency, while Seth Walder and Kevin Seifert named them the most improved team. Field Yates labeled New England as a “decidedly more talented team” than it was before free agency.
While those remarks were positive, others were less than pleased. Mike Clay, for example, named the Patriots when asked about free agency’s most head-scratching move:
The Patriots overpaying role-playing wide receivers. Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne are fine No. 3 or No. 4 options on most teams. But New England seemed to misjudge a soft wide receiver market by committing $16 million to the inconsistent Agholor (more than Will Fuller V and Marvin Jones Jr. earned, among others) and $5 million to Bourne (more than John Brown, Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams agreed to, among others).
The wide receiver additions, in particular that of Nelson Agholor, were popular targets for those critical of New England’s investments. Others include the inactivity at quarterback outside of re-signing Cam Newton before the start of free agency week.
So, which perspective is the more reasonable one?
That is hard to say in early April and with the draft as a major complementary tool to add talent only happening later this month. One point of view is this one, however: The Patriots knew that needed to add to their roster, and that this year’s free agency presented a unique opportunity to do just that — not only considering that they had more cap space than all but two other clubs.
Robert Kraft said so himself.
“We had the ... 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,” he pointed out.
The players brought in can be questioned to a certain degree, but the approach itself was a sound one. The Patriots had money, and they spent it. And while their aggressiveness may seem uncharacteristic, it was not according to head coach/general manager Bill Belichick.
“I don’t know how we could be any more aggressive than we were for the last five years — I’m talking about the ‘14 to ‘18 period, well I’ll throw last year in there, too,” he said during his end-of-season press conference in early January. “I would say we’re always trying to be aggressive. We’re always trying to improve the team in any way we can, whether that’s a play, a technique, a personnel decision, whatever it is, and we evaluate every single thing that we do.”
New England’s aggressiveness did not stop with its first losing season in 2020. Quite the opposite, actually. And while some were not happy with that, the fact remains that Belichick and company will try to take advantage of the market whenever they can to try to improve the depth and talent of their team. Last month was no different.
Will it pay off? That remains to be seen, but as Mike Reiss and Robert Kraft himself pointed out: Belichick has earned the benefit of the doubt.