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Bill Belichick Goes All-In in 2021 Free Agency in Patriots Rebuild

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMarch 16, 2021

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick shouts instructions from the sideline in the second half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Elise Amendola/Associated Press

For most of the past two decades, the New England Patriots haven't been major players in free agency. This isn't to say that there wasn't the occasional high-dollar signing (like cornerback Stephon Gilmore in 2017), but a Patriots team that won the AFC East every year and were more likely than not coming off a deep playoff run usually took a measured approach to adding outside players.

This year, it has been a much different story. After watching Tom Brady lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to victory in Super Bowl LV while the Patriots won just seven games and missed the postseason for the first time since 2008, Bill Belichick went full snow globe on New England's roster.

Monday's flurry of (reported) signings won't guarantee that the Pats will return to their long-held perch atop the AFC East. Or even that New England will be a legitimate challenger to the Buffalo Bills.

But at the very least, New England's spending spree ensured that the Patriots team to take the field next September in the 2021 season opener will look a lot different to the squad that finished the 2020 season against the New York Jets. 

The Patriots came into free agency sitting on the third-most cap space in the league, according to Vic Tafur of the Athletic$57.5 million. It didn't take long at all for New England to start burning through that cash.

The Patriots started things off by addressing a pass rush that tallied just 24 sacks in 2020. Per ESPN's Adam Schefter, New England agreed to terms on a four-year, $56 million pact with two-time Pro Bowl edge-rusher Matthew Judon.

Judon had a relatively modest six sacks a year ago while playing under the franchise tag with the Baltimore Ravens. But the 28-year-old was one of only three outside linebackers in the league last year (along with T.J. Watt of the Steelers and Za'Darius Smith of the Packers) who amassed 50 or more tackles, five or more sacks and 20 or more quarterback hits.

New England was only getting started upgrading their 15th-ranked defense from a season ago. As Mike Garafalo of NFL.com tweeted, the Pats also added veteran defensive back Jalen Mills on a four-year deal.

Mike Garafolo @MikeGarafolo

Another move for the #Patriots. They’re adding DB Jalen Mills on a four-year, $24 million deal, source says. The former #Eagles corner and safety will take his versatility to Foxboro.

The 26-year-old isn't an elite player in coverage—per Pro Football Reference in his last season at cornerback (2019), Mills had a passer rating against of 107.8. But the five-year veteran played all over the secondary in Philadelphia, and that kind of versatility can come in handy in today's age of hybrid defenses and sub-packages.

The Patriots also made a move to bolster the run defense. Michael David Smith reported for Pro Football Talk that the Patriots lured defensive tackle Davon Godchaux away from the division rival Miami Dolphins with a two-year pact. Godchaux played in just five games last year before suffering a season-ending arm injury, but in 2019 the 6'3", 311-pound lane-clogger piled up 75 total tackles and added two sacks.

Combined with reported contract extensions for defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. and cornerback Justin Bethel, and the potential return of linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung (who opted out of the 2020 season), the Patriots appear in substantially better shape defensively than they were a few weeks ago.

The offense got a major influx of talent, too—and one of the biggest impact signings of the first day of the legal-tampering period.

Agent Drew Rosenhaus told Schefter the Pats signed Jonnu Smith to a four-year, $50 million deal that includes $31.25 million in guarantees, thus addressing the team's gaping hole at tight end. It's the second-largest free-agent contract in terms of average annual salary the Patriots have given out over the past 10 years, trailing only Gilmore's pact in 2017.

Terrance Williams/Associated Press

Smith set career highs in catches (41), yardage (448) and touchdowns (eight) last year with the Tennessee Titans. But based on what Belichick had to say about Smith in January 2020, it's a safe bet that New England's longtime head coach believes Smith has only just scratched the surface of what he's capable of.

"He's just a really good tight end," Belichick said, via Doug Kyed of NESN. "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."

Given that New England's leading tight end (Ryan Izzo) had all of 13 catches for 199 yards last year, calling Smith an upgrade is an understatement and a half.

The Patriots also made some inroads in addressing what was quite possibly the weakest cadre of wide receivers in the league in 2020. After a career year in which he piled up 896 receiving yards, scored eight touchdowns and averaged 18.7 yards a reception with the Las Vegas Raiders, Nelson Agholor signed a two-year, $26 million deal to join New England according to Schefter. Per Myles Simmons of Pro Football Talk, after four seasons in San Francisco, Kendrick Bourne also joined the Patriots on a three-year, $22.5 million contract.

Agholor gives offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and quarterback Cam Newton (who recently re-signed with the team for 2021) a vertical threat that was sorely lacking last year. Bourne is a big-bodied target who would have been second on the Patriots in both catches and yards in 2020 despite starting just five games for the Niners. The team also reportedly acquired tackle Trent Brown in a trade with the Raiders last week—if he's healthy, Brown is a sizable improvement over the departed Marcus Cannon, who was traded to the Houston Texans, according to ESPN.

Darth Hoodie wasn't done overhauling the offense. The second day of the legal tampering period opened with another bombshell from Schefter:

Adam Schefter @AdamSchefter

And New England strikes again: The Patriots are signing former Chargers' TE Hunter Henry to a three-year, $37.5 million deal, including $25 million guaranteed, per source. Free agency's top two tight ends, Henry and Jonnu Smith, wind up in New England.

New England has gone from having no tight ends of note to landing the top two free agent prizes of 2021 at the position. Hunter Henry has battled injuries over his five-year career, but the 26-year-old has shown the potential to be a force over the middle. In each of the past two seasons, Henry has caught at least 55 passes and topped 600 receiving yards.

It doesn't take Carnac the Magnificent to foresee a lot of two-TE sets in New England's future. No sir.

This isn't to say that a couple of trades, a few re-ups and a flurry of signings have fixed everything that ailed the Patriots in 2020. Even after bringing in Agholor and Bourne, the wideout corps isn't great (although the return of veteran Julian Edelman in 2021 would help). The loss of guard Joe Thuney (and potential departure of center David Andrews) could create a problem along the interior of the offensive line.

Defensively, the Patriots have reportedly made no secret of the fact that Gilmore is available via trade. Veteran corner Jason McCourty is a free agent and appears unlikely to return. Ditto for defensive lineman Lawrence Guy.

There's also the matter of Newton, who struggled in his first year with the team. But in his defense, the lack of an offseason can't have assisted in his transition to New England. Belichick has been one of Newton's biggest supporters in the offseason, per Ben Volin of the Boston Globe.

Re-signing Newton doesn't preclude the Patriots from looking at a quarterback like Alabama's Mac Jones at pick No. 15. Signing Judon doesn't mean that an edge-rusher like Miami's Gregory Rousseau Jr. is off the table in Round 1. Bringing in Agholor and Bourne doesn't at all eliminate a wide receiver like Alabama's Jaylen Waddle from consideration.

But what all this activity does do (other than improving the Patriots on both sides of the ball and making some young menand their agentsincredibly happy) is to give the team options in the first round of the draft on April 29. By attacking needs aggressively in free agency, the Pats have opened things up over the remainder of the offseason.

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Holes still need to be filled. And there's no guarantee that this free-agent bonanza will pay off—just ask fans of the 2011 "Dream Team" Eagles (preferably from a safe distance). Big contracts do not equate to certainty in the NFL. And even if those deals do pan out, it doesn't necessarily thrust the Patriots past the Bills (or Dolphins) in the division.

What is certain after Monday's flurry of activity is that the Patriots aren't going the patient route where a return to prominence is concerned. There won't be any slow and steady rebuild in Beantown.

The Patriots want to get better now. And the franchise is willing to break the bank to do it.