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Sunday Patriots Notes: Did New England get better in free agency?

Notes and thoughts on the Patriots and the NFL.

Indianapolis Colts (3) Vs. New England Patriots (26) At Gillette Stadium Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Free agency is winding down, and there is still a month to go until the draft. And yet, the NFL news cycle rarely sleeps. In order to get you up to speed on some of the secondary stories that emerged over the course of the last week, especially in regards to the New England Patriots, please enjoy this week’s edition of our Sunday column.

Today, our Sunday Patriots Notes will take a look back at free agency, Devin McCourty’s retirement press conference, and more.

Did New England get better in free agency? The Patriots made several moves since the start of free agency almost two weeks ago: they were actively or passively involved in 23 transactions, either through signing, re-signing, trades or losing players to other teams. The question is whether not the team actually got better because of them.

Obviously, charging the results is nearly impossible at this point in time — none of the players picked up have yet played a down for the team. However, there are ways to gauge the gains and losses.

One of those is using the Improvement Index created by veteran NFL analyst Kevin Cole of Unexpected Points. The Index basically works like this:

The model behind the Improvement Index projects the numbers of snaps and per-play efficiency for each player in every facet of offensive and defensive play: passing, rushing, receiving, blocking, pass rush, run defense and coverage. These models were trained on years of historical data, going back to 2006. The model incorporates player- and team-level assumptions based on each player’s prior performance, team coaching tendencies, forecasted opponents, and championship odds. These features help the model estimate the likely allocation of snaps among each position group and the likely points-added/lost per snap for each player based on that usage and historical trends.

When applying this methodology to the Patriots, one can see that free agency did not move the needle to much one way or the other. Instead, the team basically stood pat despite signing six players.

The following graphic illustrates this, with New England ranked 19th in a league-wide comparison — slightly below 0 on the Index:

Kevin Cole/Unexpected Points

Now, does this mean anything as far as the 2023 Patriots are concerned? Well, that depends on your point of view: if you go based off of past performance, then it shows that New England did not get better through free agency.

However, the flip side of that is that projections are only just that: players like JuJu Smith-Schuster or Mike Gesicki might very well outperform the projection and in turn would help push the number into the positive area.

So, did the Patriots get better in free agency? Time will tell.

The Patriots’ training regimen is in the spotlight again. Former New England punter Jake Bailey was introduced to the Miami Dolphins’ local media last week, and he opened up about what went wrong in his final year with the Patriots before his release. One part in particular raised eyebrows, namely him claiming that the training he did contributed to the back injury that eventually led him on injured reserve.

“A lot of it had to do with squatting a ton,” Bailey said. “I did not grow up squatting, loading my back with back squats. I didn’t do it at all in college. I tried to be more a part of the program. And it just really backfired the whole season I was doing it. It really made my accuracy struggle. And it just was kind of a sad, sad thing to have happen. I haven’t squatted since really Week 15 or 16 and feel pretty good.”

Bailey is not the first former Patriot to make statements about his training regimen post-departure. Tight end Rob Gronkowski did, as did cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

Clearly, every situation is different. Bailey’s remarks still stand out in light of a recent NFLPA player survey that had New England’s strength and conditioning staff ranked as just the 28th best in the league, and the training staff ranked ninth.

What Devin McCourty will miss the most in free agency. Former Patriots safety Devin McCourty was given an opportunity to bid farewell last week in a ceremony at the Patriots Hall of Fame. The 35-year-old touched on a variety of topics — from his confidence in the team’s leadership to his upcoming rabid fandom.

He also spoke about what he will miss the most, namely the relationships he has cultivated through the years.

“My time, from beginning to end here, has been a testament of just truly caring about people,” he said. “People first caring about me enough to encourage me. In 2011 ... I kind of sucked at corner. I was struggling. No one ever made me feel that way. I still remember in a squad meeting, Bill [Belichick] standing in front of the team — and a lot of our guys don’t pay much attention to what is said in the media — he said, ‘I don’t care what anybody says, we’ll take you any day of the week.’ That meant a lot to me, and just inspired me to keep going through good, through bad.

“There was never a doubt for me in this building that everybody believed in what I can do. And I think as a man, as a person, whether it’s football, whether it’s life, any job you have, you want to be surrounded by people that believe in you, and be surrounded by people that all want to experience and reach the same goal. It’s something rare. So, as I walk away from this game I understand how rare that is.”

McCourty continued by adding concrete examples of interactions he would have as something he will miss in his post-playing life.

“I understand standing in a circle and a group of guys looking at you for answers and believing in you is something I probably won’t find again,” he said. “As you guys have experienced, my three kids running around; I can get them in a circle, they won’t listen or care what I’m talking about. So, I know I’ll miss that. I know I’ll miss challenging Mike [Pellegrino] and Brian [Belichick] on different calls. I’ll miss challenging [Jerod] Mayo and Steve [Belichick] on giving us more information or giving us rules, even though they would say, ‘It’s your defense, run it.’

“I’m going to miss talking trash to [Matt Patricia] as he was on the other side this year, knowing the bond that we’ve had over so many years. I’m going to miss talking trash to Ted [Harper] about Purdue and how bad they are and lost to a school from New Jersey in the NCAA tournament. I’m going to miss all of those great things. I know I’m going to miss relationships more than football.”

McCourty also added that he would miss arriving at Gillette Stadium every day in hopes of getting better. But despite all of that, he is looking back positively on his career and the decision to end it after 13 years and three championships.

“It’s been a hell of ride,” the long-time safety said. “It’s been a hell of a journey, and I’m so content with my career that I’m sitting here very happy.”

McCourty also explained his approach to leadership. McCourty spent the last 12 of his 13 seasons with the Patriots as a captain. During his retirement ceremony he spoke about his style of leadership, and how fellow former Patriots Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo helped him develop it.

“Man, what an unbelievable group of individuals,” he said. “Coming in here with Vince and Jerod, who really took me in as like a little brother. And I would go to their houses, run around, play with their kids, joke around, allow me to just be myself and grow as a player. For me, learning from them, I learned what it meant to be a leader. It wasn’t yelling — I know you guys all watched those speeches before the game where I’m talking to the DBs.

“But that wasn’t it; it was being there for guys every single day. If a guy had to talk about an issue at home or had a problem with a coach or anything like that, it was being able to be there and being that kind of leader.”

Damien Harris talks lessons learned from Bill Belichick. Another player to leave the Patriots this offseason is running back Damien Harris. As opposed to McCourty, he did not hang up his cleats but rather depart to join the Buffalo Bills.

During his first conference call with Buffalo media, Harris also spoke about the Patriots — namely about the lessons he learned from head coach Bill Belichick after already spending his college career under Nick Saban at Alabama.

“I feel like I should be able to write a book with all the knowledge I’ve gained from those two,” he said. “I would say just the things I’ve taken from both of them is how to be a professional and how to conduct yourself in a professional manner from the way you show up every day ready to work, the mentality you have, the way that you affect others. And then, obviously, the way that you prepare and you perform.

“Professionalism, I feel like it covers so much ground and so many things. That word is really just what resonates with me. I feel like with Coach Saban at Alabama, he introduced me to what it means to be a professional and how to become a professional. And then once I got to New England, one thing Coach Belichick was great at teaching was how to maintain that level of professionalism, that way you can maintain success throughout your career.”

Harris spent four seasons at Alabama before joining the Patriots as a third-round selection in the 2019 draft. In four seasons in New England, he emerged as one of the game’s best young backs but a string of injuries limited him especially in 2022.

Potential Patriots draft target Jaxon Smith-Njigba is in some elite company. New England had several talent evaluators at the Ohio State Pro Day last week, including director of player personnel Matt Groh and director of college scouting Camren Williams. They were watching some potential first-round targets for the team, including arguably the best wide receiver in the class: Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

Smith-Njigba appears to be a realistic option for the team at No. 14 overall, and one would imagine a statistic recently shared on social media backs up this belief. He is, after all, in an elite group of pass catchers: according to Scott Barrett of Fantasy Points, the 21-year-old is one of just seven Power 5 wide receivers to average more than 3.0 yards per route run against both man and zone coverages in their college career.

The others in that group are Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, Tee Higgins, Jerry Jeudy and Marquise Brown. With the exception of second-round selection Higgins, all were drafted on Day 1. Most importantly, all six of them have successfully made the jump from the college level to the pros.

The Raiders have a painting of the ‘Tuck Rule Game’ on display, for some reason. From the “less than serious news” department comes the following video shared by the Las Vegas Raiders. With Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo familiarizing himself with his new club, a video surfaced that showed him talk about a painting of the Tuck Rule Game — the 2001 divisional playoff game between the Patriots and Raiders.

Garoppolo claiming the play was a fumble is not the main issue here; nowadays it would be just that but by the latter of the law it was not in January 2022. What stands out, though, is that the organization is displaying that picture to begin with.

The Tuck Rule Game, named after the rule that allowed what appeared to be a game-losing fumble by Patriots QB Tom Brady to be overturned, was one of the worst losses in franchise history. And yet, a reminder of it is on proud display at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium.

The Patriots, of course, have and had dozens of photos up at their own facility. However, only one of those famously came from a loss: Benjamin Watson chasing down Champ Bailey from more than 100 yards away to prevent a pick-six — an exemplary and inspiring display of effort.

The Tuck Rule is not that, especially from a Raiders point of view.