Coming off their first losing season in two decades, the New England Patriots were aggressive all offseason. They were the biggest spenders in free agency — taking advantage of a slowly developing market — and also made some big investments on the trade and draft markets.
There is no denying that the team is much improved compared to the one that went just 7-9 last year. But how do the Patriots compare to the rest of the league? Pretty favorably, at least according to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell.
Ranking each team in the league based on their respective offseasons, Barnwell had New England in second place behind only the defending world champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
2. New England Patriots
What went right: The Patriots found short-term and long-term options at quarterback by re-signing Cam Newton and using a first-round pick on Mac Jones. Neither player cost as much as it seemed; Newton’s one-year deal is really a $2 million guarantee, while the Pats were able to stay put in the draft and pick Jones at No. 15 without having to trade up and give away capital. Those quarterbacks will play with significantly improved weapons after the Patriots went on an offseason spending spree.
I’ll get to those moves in a second, but the Pats were also able to parlay their pre-2020 success into bringing back players on below-market deals. Bill Belichick traded for Trent Brown while getting the former Raiders free-agent signing to take a significant pay cut in the process. One year after signing a four-year, $51 million deal with the Dolphins, Kyle Van Noy came back for less than half of that average annual salary. COVID-19 opt-out Dont’a Hightower also returned to the fold, although Patrick Chung decided to retire and Marcus Cannon was dealt to the Texans.
What went wrong: Often the poster boys for knowing how to value NFL talent, the Patriots misread the market and got too aggressive in the opening hours of free agency. The Nelson Agholor deal is outlandish in context with the deals of more productive players at the same position. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry are being paid like superstars without any established run at that level. Belichick typically develops players such as Matt Judon, Jalen Mills and Davon Godchaux on the cheap; now, he’s paying them market value deals in free agency. The Patriots are unquestionably better than they were a year ago, but it’s hard to see many places where they got great value.
What they could have done differently: Built a different sort of offense. With a draft deep in wide receiver talent and a free-agent class mostly accepting one-year deals, the Pats could have likely found better value for their spending by focusing more on the top-tier wide receivers. It’s easier to envision Fuller delivering outsized value on his deal than Agholor, Henry or Smith.
Paying top dollar for the top two tight ends on the market to play out of 12 personnel looks great on paper, but it doesn’t suddenly turn Henry or Smith into Rob Gronkowski. And while working out of 12 personnel made plenty of sense with Newton as the starting quarterback in a run-heavy attack, using it as the base personnel isn’t as obvious of a solution if (and when) Jones goes under center. The Pats didn’t know they were going to come away with Jones, but they could have looked for a more pass-first quarterback than Newton in free agency by signing a veteran such as Ryan Fitzpatrick.
What’s left to do: Figure out the future at cornerback. Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson both will be unrestricted free agents in 2022. Gilmore was rumored to be in trade talks, although no deal ever transpired. The Patriots could work on extensions with either corner, although I wouldn’t be shocked if he was dealt before the season began. In the past, Belichick has dealt away Logan Mankins and Richard Seymour in the final few days before the season began. If the legendary coach gets a good offer for the former Defensive Player of the Year, Belichick could do the same with Gilmore.
Adding Mac Jones to the quarterback room can certainly be considered a win, as is the case with the other moves Barnwell mentioned: re-signing Cam Newton — a much respected member of the locker room and potential mentor for Jones — on the cheap and bringing in players such as Trent Brown and Kyle Van Noy raises the team’s floor heading into the new season and gives the Patriots some much-needed flexibility at crucial positions.
As for the criticisms, they may have their validity but it is hard to come to a definitive judgement without the proper context. Yes, the Patriots may have overpaid for some of their additions, but without knowing how the market for these players developed and whether or not a subjective overpay might have been necessary to get them on board — while keeping in mind that New England was among the league leaders in salary cap space — it is impossible to say that they “went wrong” with handing out those deals.
At the end of the day, the Patriots did what they had to do after a transition year in 2020. They took advantage of their financial potency compared to the rest of the league, to add some blue-chip talent to a roster in dire need of that.