The first big move of the New England Patriots’ offseason was already a sign of things to come. Before the start of free agency week, the team acquired Trent Brown via trade from the Las Vegas Raiders in an exchange for Day 3 selections in the 2022 NFL Draft.
With the Patriots’ offensive line headed for some personnel turnover — Joe Thuney left in free agency, Marcus Cannon was traded — adding Brown would ensure the unit would remain one of strength. It also showed that New England would not afraid to aggressively add talent to a roster that lacked just that during its disappointing 2020 campaign.
The trade also reunited Brown with the team that employed him as its starting left tackle during the 2018 Super Bowl run. The reunion was the first, but not the only one of its kind this offseason. In fact, five players were brought back after stints elsewhere over the last few months to compete for roster spots or playing time this year.
After trading for Brown, the Patriots also re-signed four free agents that had previously left New England to play elsewhere: linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Harvey Langi, offensive lineman Ted Karras and running back Tyler Gaffney are all back as well.
The question now becomes where they will end up on the Chung-Thompkins Scale.
Wait... the what?
In the grand tradition of ranking all sorts of things on a good-to-bad spectrum, the Chung-Thompkins Scale™ was created by Pats Pulpit to measure the impact of a player in his second stint with the Patriots. It looks like this, with safety Patrick Chung as the high-water mark for returnees and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins on the other end:
As can be seen, Chung is the returnee all others should try to become. A former second-round draft pick who had a solid but unspectacular career in New England, Chung left to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. One year later, however, he was re-signed by the Patriots and quickly became a cornerstone of their second dynastic run: playing a different role better suited for his skills, Chung was integral in the team’s last three Super Bowl wins.
Not every player had the same success in their second (or subsequent) stints. LeGarrette Blount was very good, while others such as Andre Carter or Martellus Bennett did not tip the scales. Brian Hoyer was pretty much the same whenever he was brought back into the fold, basically making him the Patriots’ Mario Mendoza and his spot on the scale the Hoyer Line.
Then, there was Thompkins who showed promise as a rookie in 2013 but never again reached the same plateau: he was cut in 2014, joined the then-Oakland Raiders as a waiver claim, and one year later returned for a three-week stint on New England’s practice squad. The former rookie free agent failed to duplicate his success, and thus finds himself on the opposite end of the spectrum.
So with all that said, where will this offseason’s five returnees end up? Let’s try to find out.
OT Trent Brown: Brown was re-acquired by the Patriots via trade this year, and he appears to be locked into one of the starting tackle spots with Marcus Cannon traded to Houston. Given this projected role and the upside he showed during his first season in New England back in 2018, he certainly has the potential to end up firmly on the Chung side of the Hoyer Line. Of course, a lot will depend on whether or not he can stay on the field after two injury-riddled seasons in Las Vegas.
LB Kyle Van Noy: A former second-round draft pick who struggled with the Detroit Lions, Van Noy became a star after his 2016 in-season trade to New England. He subsequently appeared in 61 games for the team and helped the organization win a pair of championships. Van Noy set the bar very high before his departure to the Miami Dolphins last offseason, and reaching that same level again will be difficult. That said, he is rejoining a team that invested plenty of resources in its front seven this spring and should allow him to play to his strengths.
OL Ted Karras: Karras spent the first four years of his career as a reliable depth option along the interior offensive line; he started five combined games over his first three seasons before filling in for center David Andrews throughout the 2019 campaign. Karras was a well-respected player who provided value despite not being a starter. If he can do the same this year, he will at least reach the Hoyer Line.
LB Harvey Langi: After appearing in just one game for the Patriots, a car crash changed the course of Langi’s career in New England. He ended his rookie season on the reserve/non-football injury list, was waived the following year, and eventually ended up spending three seasons with the New York Jets. Langi will not have to do much to match his previous contributions as a Patriot from a pure production perspective, but he will have to make the team first. That alone is not a given.
RB Tyler Gaffney: The Tyler Gaffney story is an interesting one. He earned two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots in 2014 and 2016, but has yet to appear in a single regular season or playoff game: he originally retired from football in 2018 to focus on his baseball career, but returned to the game in the summer of 2020. Like Langi, Gaffney essentially does not have a bar to clear when it comes to his first stint in New England but he also is far from guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster.
When the comes to the three high-profile re-acquisitions (Brown, Van Noy, Karras), the Patriots should realistically feel good about them if they can come close to the same performance they put forward during their respective first stints with the club. That will not be easy, but anything approaching that level of play should be considered a win for New England. As for Langi and Gaffney, meanwhile, any contributions beyond them being part of the offseason roster are a bonus.