No matter who wins the 2017 NFL Draft, I’m sure Patriots fans are hoping the team will get the most bang for their buck. This year’s class is stacked, and what’s interesting is that the Patriots didn’t spend much during this year’s free agency—and the majority of their acquisitions will be inside linebackers. If I’m New England, I’m hoping that their investments pay off in the long run.
The New England Patriots were one of the most active teams in the NFL free agency and and most of the signings seem to be a fulfillment of their plan. And they might see the results in 2019. The addition of wide receiver Josh Gordon and defensive end Jabaal Sheard were the most notable signings, who each signed for a reported three-year, $25 million. Gordon, who was suspended for the 2017 season, has the potential to make the Patriots an even better passing team, and Sheard should help solidify the front of the defense.
It seems like the Patriots are already getting results. The team reportedly signed free-agent defenders Stephon Gilmore and Kyle Van Noy to contracts worth $54 million and $54 million, respectively. Meanwhile, linebacker Dont’a Hightower is reportedly contemplating retirement.
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS — If history repeats itself, the free-spending 2021 New England Patriots should improve on their seven wins from the previous season. The more difficult task will be to keep it going beyond this year.
Consider that, according to ESPN Stats & Information data, the club that spent the most guaranteed money in NFL free agency improved by an average of 5.4 wins per season from 2016 to 2020. The next season proved a problem, as clubs who spent the most guaranteed money in free agency from 2016 through 2019 had a 5.5-win drop in Year 2.
The Patriots, led by coach Bill Belichick, have already surpassed the NFL record established by the 2020 Miami Dolphins ($147.2 million). The Patriots guaranteed $163 million in unrestricted free agency, which is a dangerous business, according to owner Robert Kraft.
It’s a strategy that’s typically reserved for the most desperate teams. The Patriots have not qualified for the playoffs.
But, after an atypical 7-9 season, albeit in a COVID-19 year, Belichick backed up the Brinks truck, and the short-term outlook appears much brighter, beginning with Sunday’s season opener against the visiting Dolphins (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).
“It was a unique experience. Cris Collinsworth, an analyst for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” remarked, “It was certainly different.” “When Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit the Patriots in Week 4, it will be a highly anticipated game.
“I felt they played on the negative side of the ledger last season because of all their COVID opt-outs and other things that occurred, like having to alter their offense to suit Cam [Newton], and I thought there was a sense of ‘let’s go back to Patriot football,’” he said.
Last season, the Patriots had the most opt-outs in the league, with eight, headed by returning linebacker Dont’a Hightower. To Collinsworth’s point, Belichick previously said that the Patriots will lack depth in 2020, owing to a restricted salary limit, after having “sold out and won three Super Bowls, participated in a fourth, and played in an AFC Championship Game” from 2014 to 2019.
Following last year’s reset, the Patriots went all-in on free agency, in part due to a point made by Kraft: recent drafts haven’t been as productive as hoped. Punter Jake Bailey became their first home-grown Pro Bowler since linebacker Jamie Collins in 2015 previous season as an illustration of this.
The Patriots are hoping that free agents Jonnu Smith, 81, and Hunter Henry can help the offense resurrect the two-tight-end approach that was popular early in Bill Belichick’s career. Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire photo
Collinsworth is most excited about the possibility of returning to a multiple-tight-end system, which was a mainstay of Belichick’s teams and was phased out in 2020 after six Super Bowl victories. So the Patriots spent a lot of money on probably the best two tight ends available, Tennessee Titans’ Jonnu Smith (four years, $50 million, $31.25 million guaranteed) and Los Angeles Chargers’ Hunter Henry (three years, $37.5 million, $24 million guaranteed). Henry, who had a shoulder injury during training camp, said this week that he intends to play on Sunday.
In an ideal world, the Patriots would have selected and developed two tight ends to create a one-two punch, similar to how they did in the early to mid 2000s with first-round selections Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson, and in the early 2010s with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
While free agency is usually accompanied by a “buyer beware” warning, the Patriots saw it as a more unique opportunity this year, thanks in part to the NFL’s declining salary cap (the limit of $182.5 million per team for 2021 was a long-anticipated 8% decrease from last season) that limited competition.
After going lean in 2020, the Patriots had a surplus, which Kraft described as an example of the club attempting to “take advantage of market inefficiencies.”
As a result, the owner who paid $172 million for the club in 1994 nearly spent the same amount on free agents this summer.
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Outside linebacker Matt Judon (four years, $54.5 million, with $30 million guaranteed); defensive back Jalen Mills (four years, $24 million, with $9 million guaranteed); defensive tackle Davon Godchaux (two years, $15 million, with $9 million guaranteed); and linebacker Kyle Van Noy (two years, $12 million, with $6 million guaranteed) were the other big-ticket signings.
Gil Brandt, a veteran Dallas Cowboys executive who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019, stated, “Free agency can assist you or harm you.” “On free agency, a player may become overweight, and he doesn’t play the same way he did when he was seeking for more money.”
“However, I continue to believe that [Belichick] can assemble a club via draft picks and free agency. When you’re selecting 27th, 26th, 28th, 30th — far down there, as he had been — it’s a lot tougher to develop it via draft selections. As a result, you may choose to focus on free agents.”
Taking a chance
When it comes to the risks of constructing a squad via free agency, the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles are often cited.
In 2021, Harry Douglas and Max Kellerman discuss their expectations for the Patriots and rookie quarterback Mac Jones.
They were NFC East winners the year before, going 10-6 with Michael Vick as quarterback and falling in the playoffs to the Green Bay Packers. The Eagles then signed cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (five years, $60 million, with $25 million guaranteed), defensive end Jason Babin (five years, $28 million), cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (acquired in a trade from Arizona), defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (five years, $25 million), and quarterback Vince Young (one year, up to $5.5 million).
Young had, of course, referred to them as the “Dream Team,” a moniker that hung over the Eagles all season as they crashed and burned after a 1-4 start, having to win four games in a row to finish with an 8-8 record.
However, in recent years, clubs who have taken an aggressive approach in free agency have typically seen a significant improvement right away.
The 2016 New York Giants improved to 11-5 from 6-10 the previous season after guaranteeing a league-high $107 million in free agency with key targets Olivier Vernon (pass rusher), Janoris Jenkins (cornerback), and Damon Harrison (defensive tackle). Ben McAdoo was in his first season as head coach, succeeding Tom Coughlin.
The 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars are in the same boat. They hired Doug Marrone to replace Gus Bradley as coach, and they spent a league-high $71.6 million on free agents, including defensive tackle Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye, and safety Barry Church. They improved from a 3-13 season to a 10-6 record.
The 2018 Chicago Bears, 2019 New York Jets, and 2020 Miami Dolphins all maintained the pattern of high-spending clubs achieving quick results.
After a 5-11 season, the Bears guaranteed $102 million in free agency, led by wide receiver Allen Robinson II, and went 12-4. That was also the year Matt Nagy took over as head coach after John Fox retired.
Despite spending $131 million guaranteed (not all of it wisely), the 2019 Jets improved to 7-9 after a 4-12 season. They were transitioning, like those before them, with Adam Gase taking over as coach from Todd Bowles.
Last season, the Dolphins improved from 5-11 to 10-6 in Brian Flores’ second season as coach after spending $147 million on guaranteed contracts.
While the large sums of money offered a temporary cure for those teams, it did not last.
The other clubs didn’t have much success in the second year since the Dolphins’ destiny was still up in the air.
The Giants fell from 11-5 to 3-13 in 2016.
The Jaguars dropped from 10-6 to 5-11 in 2017.
The Bears went from 12-4 to 8-8 in 2018.
The 2019 Jets went from a 7-9 record to a 2-14 record.
Since the year they lead the league in guaranteed money spent in free agency, those four clubs have played a total of ten seasons, with one playoff appearance and a 48-112 combined record.
The 2014 Denver Broncos were one of the last teams to see their free-agent spending pay off in their second season. DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, Emmanuel Sanders, and T.J. Ward were among the players they signed that year. After coming in Denver, all of them were selected to at least one Pro Bowl, and the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 in their second season.
What might make the Patriots more like the Broncos than other high-spending teams in previous years?
“It’s Belichick’s team. He looks a lot like [Tom] Landry. They’re both geniuses, in my opinion “Brandt expressed his admiration for the long-serving Cowboys coach.
“Here’s the thing: You have to have a feel for the guys you select and what you need, and he does. Stephon Gilmore [the cornerback who signed a five-year, $65 million contract with $31 million guaranteed as a free agency in 2016] is an excellent example. He must have had a strong impression of the man, and that he had the characteristics that prevent him from letting up on his game. Finally, he has useful knowledge.”
A strong 2021 draft class, which includes first-round selection Mac Jones, who knocked out Newton (who was later released) for the starting quarterback position, may also assist the case.
Putting fresh components together
To this far, Belichick has been happy with the Patriots’ free-agent class.
“They’ve done an excellent job. They were mostly here during the off-season. When they arrived at veteran minicamp and training camp, the pair who weren’t had been active participants “he said
Last season, the absence of a typical summer hampered the development of younger players, according to Kraft. Even with COVID-19 procedures in place, things are coming closer to normal this year, allowing younger players — and major free-agent signings — to integrate and grow more smoothly in offseason programs, organized team activities, and required minicamps.
Judon, who came to New England after five years with the Baltimore Ravens and was probably the team’s most disruptive defense in the preseason, is one such example. At the Patriots Premiere event, he said that everyone on the team has embraced him and has allowed him to be himself.
Although more time is required to see how all of the parts fit together, there is good momentum going into Sunday’s game. Belichick, as expected, is not making any predictions.
“We have a lot of things that need to come together,” he added, “from guys who weren’t on the team last year for whatever reason — whether they were opt-outs or rookies, or came from other NFL clubs — to mix with the players who were here last year.”
“As we start the season, there are a lot of moving elements compared to where we were at the conclusion of last season.”
And a lot of money will undoubtedly be spent. More so than in the past.
So now comes the difficult part: combining the anticipated short-term boost with long-term success.
The Patriots are one of the NFL’s most prolific teams, having won two Super Bowls in the past four years, and have become one of the league’s most recognizable teams. So, with the team facing the prospect of being without one of its best players for the first time since 2005, is it enough to distract the team from its upcoming season?. Read more about patriots biggest free agent signings and let us know what you think.
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