A busy week for the New England Patriots and the NFL as a whole is coming to an end. The start of free agency and the new league year saw multiple noteworthy transactions, as well as big moves across the entire pro football landscape.
For a recap of New England’s free agency thus far, please make sure to check out our Patriots Free Agency Tracker. For some notes and thoughts about what has happened, please read along.
1. New England has a plan, but it is hard to see right now. The Patriots’ first free agency week was a quiet one, especially compared to last year’s spending bonanza. Given what transpired one can make an argument that the team is weaker than it was just a few days ago. Gone are possibly the two best players on both sides of the ball — cornerback J.C. Jackson and guard Shaq Mason — while the team also lost other valuable contributors.
In the meantime, it is left with major questions along its offensive line and cornerback positions. Linebacker, too, unless New England is confident in trade acquisition Mack Wilson becoming a suitable starting-caliber option and Ja’Whaun Bentley’s solid 2021 season not being a fluke.
The Patriots’ relative inactivity to fill those holes, however, has caused some stir among those either rooting for or covering the organization. The Boston Globe wrote about New England being passed by. The Boston Herald wondered if the club would fail to keep pace with its competition. WEEI, meanwhile, went so far as to question the intelligence of the team’s roster construction strategy.
So, what’s the deal with Bill Belichick and company?
Nobody outside of One Patriot Place knows, but one thing that can be said with confidence is this: they have a plan, even though it is hard to see right now what that plan exactly is.
Trading Shaq Mason for a fifth-round pick, for example, freed up some cap space and improved the team’s draft capital ever so slightly. However, in the process, New England considerably weakened the offensive line tasked with protecting young starting quarterback Mac Jones. The team has also not done anything with its new-found resources as far as adding outside reinforcements is concerned.
Questioning the motives behind the Patriots’ actions is legitimate, but those questions cannot be answered from the outside. That said, Belichick rarely if ever makes moves without the bigger picture in mind — something his former right-hand man pointed out earlier this year.
“The one thing that sticks out to me that Bill taught me is that Bill is a forward-thinker,” Dave Ziegler said during his introductory press conference as the Las Vegas Raiders’ general manager. “It’s not just about a decision in the moment, it’s about how one decision can impact four different things. One decision can impact what we’re going to do in 2022, 2023. And just to really have an understanding of how decisions can impact different parts of the organization, it can impact your team.”
The Patriots know that decisions such as moving on from Shaq Mason just a day after losing Ted Karras will have an impact on the team. However, to think that those two moves are not viewed in a bigger-picture setup would be naive.
Belichick is not without his flaws and has made personnel mistakes in the past, but his track record still gives him the benefit of the doubt.
2. The Patriots have lost some inspirational stories this offseason. With the first week of free agency almost over, New England has said goodbye to seven members of its 2021 roster. Among them are some of the more inspirational stories you will ever find in the NFL.
RB Brandon Bolden: Just last year, Bolden revealed that he was diagnosed with cancer during the 2018 offseason. He successfully underwent treatment and was back on the field the following season without skipping a beat. The 32-year-old, who signed with the Raiders this week, announced earlier this offseason that his latest scan showed that he remains cancer free.
FB Jakob Johnson: Johnson entered the league in 2019 as a participant of the NFL Pathway Program. He joined the Patriots as a roster-exempt 91st player but in his first training camp showed that he would not go down without a fight. He was eventually signed to the practice squad and made his way to the active roster. The last two years, he served as New England’s fullback of choice and signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract in Las Vegas this week.
WR Gunner Olszewski: From Division II defensive back to first-team All-Pro punt return — that is the Gunner Olszewski story. Olszewski joined the Patriots in 2019 as an undrafted rookie, who had played cornerback and return man at Bemidji State. New England, however, moved him to wide receiver and gave him a chance to work on his return skills. His impact as a wideout was limited in three seasons, but his ability to run back punts earned him a spot on the roster and major recognition.
G Shaq Mason: When Mason joined the NFL as a fourth-round draft pick, he was an undersized interior lineman with a notable upside but limited expectation given his lack of experience in pass protection. However, the Georgia Tech product kept working on his craft and developed into one of the elite guards in all of football. Mason has left the Patriots as one of the best draft picks of the Bill Belichick era.
Every NFL player’s history is unique in its own right. What the four men listed above did, however, is defy the odds to establish themselves as legitimate NFL players even when the circumstances made it hard for them to do so.
3. Signs continue to point towards Joe Judge being the Patriots’ de facto quarterbacks coach. When former Patriots special teams coach Joe Judge returned to New England after a two-year stint as head coach of the New York Giants, his title was officially announced as “offensive assistant.” What this entails is anyone’s guess, but it looks more and more likely that working with the quarterback position will be part of the deal.
An earlier report already noted that Judge is expected to work with Mac Jones and company, and it seems that another has now confirmed this. Let’s give Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal the floor:
On Wednesday, Western Michigan held their 2022 pro day in Kalamazoo. Scouts and assistant coaches from over 30 teams were reportedly there to check out players like receiver Skyy Moore and quarterback Kaleb Eleby. According to two reporters — Patrick Nothaft of MLive and the Kalamazoo Gazette and Tony Pauline from the Pro Football Network — the Patriots had their quarterback coach at Western Michigan’s Pro Day to watch Eleby.
When contacted about the identity of the quarterback coach scouting Eleby, Nothaft said it was “Joe Judge.”
When Judge first joined the Patriots in 2012, he did so as an assistant to special teams coordinator Scott O’Brien. He eventually took over O’Brien’s role himself in 2015, and held it through the 2019 season. Along the way, he gathered only limited experience on the offensive side of the ball: Judge worked as New England’s wide receivers coach in his last season before leaving for the Giants.
Now, he is back, and it seems the Patriots are trusting him with the most important position on the field. He likely will not be alone — Bill Belichick himself could take a more hands-on approach in the wake of former QB coach/offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ departure — but the responsibility is notable nonetheless.
4. Matthew Slater speaks highly of Joe Judge. Speaking of Joe Judge, one player who worked extensively with him during his first stint with the Patriots recently spoke about the 40-year-old: special teams captain and WRINO — wide receiver in name only — Matthew Slater, who recently re-signed with the club for another season.
“I love Joe Judge. I mean, he’s done so much for me, personally, over the course of my career,” Slater said this week. “I wouldn’t still be playing in this league if it wasn’t for Joe. I’m excited that he’s back. Obviously, we were pulling for him and things to work out in New York, but we’re glad he’s back. And I know Coach is such a dedicated, smart football coach.
“Whatever he’s asked to do, he’s gonna do it to the best of his ability and he’s gonna be an asset for our football team.”
Judge’s stint with the Giants may not have worked out, but it is clear the Patriots and their head coach think the world of him (and their actions and words confirm this). The same is true for New England’s most experienced player.
5. Offensive staff a mystery to Jakobi Meyers. Who will serve in which position? Who will call plays? How much will Bill Belichick be involved? There are numerous questions about New England’s offensive staff after Josh McDaniels and three fellow assistant coaches left to join the Raiders earlier this year.
Time will tell how they get answered, but it seems not even those who could be in the know truly know. Wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, who recently appeared on Sirius XM NFL Radio, was asked about New England’s staff on this side of the ball and gave the same answer anybody on the street would be able to give: I don’t know.
“We’ll probably all find out at the same time, honestly,” Meyers said. “I just have to hit the ground running as soon as I find out. The plan is for the [players] who were there to keep working, keep getting better, so whenever we get that structure in we’ll be ready to go regardless.”
Meyers, who received the second-round restricted free agency tender this week, originally joined the Patriots as an undrafted rookie in 2019. He worked with wideouts coach Joe Judge in his first season in New England.
6. The quarterback market keeps evolving, for better or worse. Average value per year is not a fully accurate way to measure an NFL contract, but it still shows how different positions are viewed in the league. Needless to say that the quarterback spot is more important than ever, and the recent contracts handed out are a reflection of that.
This offseason alone, three players signed deals averaging over $40 million per year. Previously, only three such contracts existed. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes ($45M), Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen ($43M) and Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott ($40M) were joined by the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers ($50.3M), Cleveland Browns’ Deshaun Watson ($46M) and Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford ($40M) lately.
While Rodger’s contract stands out due to its massive average, the one signed by Watson is the most controversial. While without a doubt an immensely talented player with a proven track record of production at the NFL level, his legal issues raise questions about Cleveland’s investment: is a player facing 22 civil lawsuits for alleged sexual assault as well as a potential suspension by the NFL really worth a fully guaranteed $230 million?
In the Browns’ eyes the answer is obviously “yes.” Whether or not the message they are sending is the right one given the serious accusations against Watson is another debate entirely.