In less than 24 hours, the New England Patriots guaranteed over $127.5 million, placing them second in NFL history for most guaranteed money in a free-agent signing period … and free agency hasn’t even officially began yet (starts later today at 4pm ET). The Patriots are only about $10 million shy of last year’s Dolphins who spent $147.2 million. Needless to say, it’s been a historic past couple of days in Foxboro.
Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft had a plan all along. They alluded to it often over the last year. The New England Patriots made moves last year to maximize their availability for this year. They’ve been planning for this off-season for quite some time … and now it’s here. So let’s break down the moves.
THE BOSTON TE PARTY
Within 24 hours, the Patriots went from having arguably the worst tight end core in the AFC, to probably having the best with the signings of Jonnu Smith (4 Yr, $50 Million) from the Tennessee Titans and Hunter Henry (3 Yr, $37.5 Million) from the Los Angeles Chargers. Quite simply, the Patriots have had the NFL’s lowest pass catching production from the tight end position over the last two seasons … and so they went out and got the two best tight ends in free agency. While Henry is the more prolific pass-catcher (196 catches vs Smith’s 114), Smith’s ceiling is much higher as he is only 25 years old. Cam Newton relied heavily on Greg Olson in Carolina, and it seems as though the Patriots are trying to recreate that same TE connection here in New England.
Of all the signings within the last 48 hours, the Smith one has been perceived as the most controversial, mainly because, he has just become one of the league’s highest paid tight ends despite his numbers (41 catches, 448 yards, 8 TDs). In fact, it’s the most expensive per-year deal the Patriots have ever given to a pass-catcher, topping past contracts for legends such as Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski … which is hard to believe. And the recent drafting of N’Keal Harry (and ensuing disappointing production) has led some Patriot nay-sayers to question the organization’s ability to evaluate pass-catching talent.
Here, is where we need to pause … because if you look a bit more underneath the hood, I think most of Patriot nation might be a bit surprised.
His 6’3’’, 247 lb frame coupled with nearly a 40 inch vertical and 4.6 40 time, make him as athletic a tight end as there is in the league. He often lines up as tailback, a la Aaron Hernandez back in the Patriot glory years. Smith’s red zone stats since the ’19 season are remarkable, with 10 TD catches (4th among TE’s) coupled with an astonishing 0 drops. His production was lower than it should’ve been in a run-heavy Tennessee offense that featured the best running back perhaps of the last decade in Derrick Henry.
Before the 2020 AFC Wild Card game against the Titans, Belichick sang the highest praises of Smith, “He can do a lot of things: blocks well, runs well, is a good receiver. I mean, hell, they played him at tailback. He looked pretty good back there. So, he’s a very athletic player, hard to tackle, catches the ball well. He’s great after the catch — probably the best in the league. I mean, I can’t imagine anybody better than him after the catch.”
The duo of Henry and Smith has drawn early comparisons to the old dual TE Belichick offense that featured Gronk and Hernandez. Both come from run-heavy offenses, which figures to be the case again this year for the Patriots.
A #2 AND A #3 WR
In the recently acquired Raiders Nelson Agholar (2 yr, $26 million) and the 49ers, Kendrick Borne (3 yr, $22.5 million) the Patriots have just acquired their likely #2 and #3 wide receivers respectively. Agholar, the former 1st round pick from USC, ranked 29th in the league after having his best season last year with 896 yards on 48 catches and 8 TDs. Unlike Agholar, Borne went undrafted, but similar to Agholar is also coming off his best season last year with 667 yards on 49 catches and 2 TDs. While Agholar is one of the league’s best deep threats (think a poor man’s Tyreek Hill), Borne is one of the better third down receivers, which was a glaring weakness for the 2020 Patriots.
In regards to these WR signings, the Patriot pessimists are saying we don’t need a #2 and a #3, and that instead we really needed a #1. Additionally, similar to Smith, those same pessimists are saying we’re overpaying based on not enough documented success. In reality, Smith will likely be our #1 receiver now, unless somehow one of the ‘Bama studs in Waddle or Smith falls to us at #15 (or we trade up), which I believe to be highly unlikely. But when you take a step back and look at the additions of Agholar and Borne to a receiving core that gets Julian Edelman back, you all of a sudden have a very deep group that is rounded out with former 1st round pick N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Myers and Damiere Byrd.
From a personnel perspective, if you combine the return of the COVID holdouts (Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung) along with the signings of the Ravens LB/DE Matthew Judon (4 yr, $56 million), the Eagles S Jalen Mills (4 yr, $24 million) and the Dolphins DT Davon Godchaux (2 yr, $16 million), and then throw in the resigning of Deatrich Wise (4 yr, $30 million) you have the most improved defense, THUS FAR, this offseason.
The biggest name here is of course Judon, who should provide a huge lift in the pass rushing game. Over 80 games with the Ravens, he’s notched 35.5 sacks while proving to be incredibly durable (only missing 4 games). Judon will be the Pats #1 edge rusher, followed by Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, and Afernee Jennings. While Bentley and Hightower should hold down the Inside Linebacker starting spots.
Godchaux, from the Dolphins, shores up the nose for what was the 26th ranked run defense last year. Wise was a key keep for his position versatility in Belichick’s front. Anderson, Mills and Bethel are all Patriots’ types of rotational role players. Between all their defensive youngsters and veterans Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung returning from opt outs, there are lot of pieces on the board for Belichick to manipulate in his hybrid scheme.
With the return of Patrick Chung to compliment Kyle Dugger, Stephon Gillmore, J.C. Jackson, Devon and Jason Mccourty, Jalen Mills, Adrian Phillips and Jonathan Jones in an all-of-a-sudden over-crowded secondary, some are speculating that Gillmore (given he’s on the last year of his contract anyway) could become trade collateral to move up in the draft.
MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION – WHO IS QB?
Last year was an absolute disaster for Cam Newton who averaged an embarrassing 177 ypg and threw for a mere 8 TDs. But again, if you look a bit closer as to what played into that, you begin to understand why. Newton was signed extremely late in the off-season and didn’t really have the preferred ramp up time to learn a relatively complicated McDaniels’ offense. Combine that with COVID shutting him down for 2 weeks of the season and one of the historically worst receiving cores in recent NFL history, it does add up. For a former #1 overall pick and a former NFL MVP, the relatively small resigning cost should be seen as a win for the Patriots, who really had no other immediate option at the QB position as they headed into free agency.
Nonetheless, I think everyone is in agreement that there is going to have to be another QB brought in who isn’t named Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer who can properly challenge Cam Newton for the QB1 job. The most obvious place to look for that person is in what is a particularly strong top-end QB draft class this year with Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Mac Jones being the most talked about targets for the Pats. Each one of those guys is slightly different and does different things well. Lance and Fields are most like Cam as dual-threat guys who could likely learn really well under him; whereas Mac resembles more of the pocket-passer that TB12 was.
Another option is free agency. While Dak Prescott, Tyrod Taylor, Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton, Jacoby Brissett and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s names have already been taken off the board, Mitchell Trubisky is still unsigned and could certainly provide a potential QB battle if signed to compete with Cam.
The last option would be to trade for Jimmy G, which has been an ongoing rumors for the last year. While Jimmy knows McDaniels offensive schemes well, his durability has been a major concern over the last 2 years.
Needless to say it’s been an eventful off-season already for the Patriots. The Patriots need players, and they’ve gotten players. And if the aggression is any indication of what the Patriots might do on draft day, well buckle up your seatbelts.
There is a saying in New England, “In Bill We Trust” … and for good reason, the man is undeniably the best coach in the history of the sport. With that said, the last piece of puzzle is still unsolved at the moment. Depending on how that final piece is managed, that very well could largely decide the final chapter in Bill Belichick’s coaching legacy.
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