- John Turner
Six Vince Lombardi Trophies later Bill Belichick finds himself in an awkward position. In year two of life after Tom Brady the New England Patriots are staring down the barrel of a whole new era. I’ve read that from year to year nearly 1/3 of an NFL roster experiences turnover. We know that the NFL averages a “core” of six players per team that make up 5% each or more of the salary cap in a given year. We know that for every succesful season or run a team may have, coaches and front office members from the staff will be sought after and poached. With the success the Patriots have experienced these last two decades, it’s almost surprising ex members of the team don’t make up 50% of the league’s general managers, head coaches, and coordinators. The team has in fact had influence on the yearly NFL coaching carousel though, as well as churned out quite a few members of personnel to other front offices.
Another thing they’ve been pretty good at putting out there, is high dollar free agents. There’s a theory that winning is contagious and that it breeds winning. Teams are quick to pay the high price of a free agent coming from a winning organization. They assume he comes from a pedigree of leadership and good work ethic and they’re buying the hope that it’ll rub off on their own players. Year after year the Patriots have been filling the free agency list with “winners” that rarely maintain stardom once they leave the nest, however. I wouldn’t necessarily call them busts as free agents, but I also wouldn’t go out of my way to say any of them have become a household name after leaving Foxboro either. Whether they move on from a player via trade or expiring contract, the team under Bill Belichick has just seemed to have the upper hand in knowing when they’ve gotten the best out of player’s career for the most part. He’s also damn near perfect at getting a player to maximize at what he does best and using him sparingly otherwise.
As of now, there is one player remaining from the 2017 draft class in Deatrich Wise Jr, who the team resigned yesterday to a four year, $30 million deal. From the 2018 class four players remain in tight end and special teamer Ryan Izzo, outside linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, running back Sony Michel, and offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn. All four of the just mentioned players have been key contributors to the team. 2019 made way for a new punter in Jake Bailey, Byron Cowart from the University of Maryland, Fear The Turtle, quarterback Jarrett Stidham, Danish offensive gaurd Hjalte Froholdt, running back Damien Harris, edge rusher Chase Winovich, cornerback Joejuan Williams, and N’Keal Harry. One could argue some of those names haven’t exactly lit the world on fire, however most have either found their way into the rotation and or have become starters at this point. Last year they drafted linebacker Cassh Maluia, offensive tackle Justin Herron from Silver Spring, Maryland, guard Michael Onwenu, kicker Justin Rohwasser, a pair of tight ends in Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi, back to back linebacker selections in Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche, and safety Kyle Dugger. They’d get a total of 37 starts from their selections last season with Onwenu starting all 16.
In all since the 2017 season the Patriots through the draft as of today boast four starters on offense, five starters on defense, and their punter, who made the Pro Bowl this past year. Fullback Jakob Johnson, former Maryland Terrapin J.C. Jackson, and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers were brought in as undrafted free agents and all have found their way on the field making an impact. Jackson is a restricted free agent this offseason and has been tendered. After a nine interception season in 2020, it’s hard to see the Patriots not matching a deal offered to him at this stage in his career with all the cap room they have… oh wait. New England came into free agency with approximately $70 million in cap room and have all but ran through it like shit through a goose. After bringing in Cam Newton last year, a move that raised many eyebrows, and a mixed bag of results, many assumed that marriage to be already over, leaving the Patriots to hit the reset button at the position. WRONG! Not only has Newton been brought back on a one year deal, but the team went out and had a spending spree to the liking Patriot fans haven’t seen since before the 2007 season.
There’s no better friend to a quarterback trying to find the right footing in an offense than a strong tight end position. A year after they drafted back to back tight ends they signed the top two tight ends on the market in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. Henry has missed games throughout his career due to injuries, including all of the 2018 season, but in each year he’s played, he’s caught no less than 35 passes for 475 yards and four touch downs. Smith has been slightly more reliable health wise and almost identicle stat wise with him catching 41 passes for 448 yards and eight touch downs. It’s hard to imagine a team going with five active tight ends on a roster but if there’s a team that can get away with it, it’s the Patriots. Belichick is no stranger to carrying a bunch of tight ends and linebackers over the years and when he has a plethora of each, his teams are pretty productive to say the least. During the 2016, 2017, and 2018 campaigns which resulted in three Super Bowl appearances, the team had no less than 50 receptions from the tight end position. It’s also notable that the team was 3rd, 2nd, and 4th in total offense those seasons. In 2019 they did not have the same level of production at tight end or Rob Gronkowski for that matter, and they were bounced in the Wild Card Round by the Titans. Offensively rank wise they dropped from 4th to 7th. 2020 was worse as they went from 36 catches at the position to 26. No, it doesn’t help when you lose arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play the game and you add one that hadn’t had a real offseason with the team, and then catches Covid-19 after a decent 2-1 start. Yes, there’s going to growing pains that comes with being put into an offense with an average age of 24 between the backs, receivers, and tight ends, and you only get the primary veteran receiver, Julian Edelman for a few games all year.
Never mind the tight end position. They went in to last year missing Pro Bowl starting middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower, starting strong safety Patrick Chung, and starting right tackle Marcus Cannon due to opt out among others. No problem. They trade Cannon and his $9.6 million cap number to the Texans in exchange for the rights to move up about 10 spots in the draft in the 4th, 5th, and 6th rounds. 32 year old Cannon out, 27 year old Trent Brown in. Brown played only five games in 2020 but was a Pro Bowler the year before. Short on receivers? No problem. Enter Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Both men are coming off career years and are hitting their prime. Marqise Lee who had a career year in Jacksonville 2017 signed a substantial four year extension with the team following the season, however got injured in the preseason and missed all of 2018. Inactive for the majority of 2019 and not yet fully recovered, he’d play very minimally catching a total of three passes before being sent to season ending IR. Picked up on a one year deal by New England last season, but opted out so his contract now rolls over to this season. If he has recovered from his devestating injury along with Edelman, who missed the majority of the year with injuries as well, the Patriots have themselves a pu pu platter of arial assault weaponry. Lose some pressure on the quarterback with the exodus of Kyle Van Not and Jamie Collins? No problem. Enter Matt Judon, Henry Anderson, and Davon Godchaux. Oh, and Jalen Mills wasn’t a bad pick up either. Not a bad haul.
Matt Patricia is back as assistant head coach after a three year tour in Detroit. They sent a hit squad down to Houston to dismantle a conference rival in the Texans in Jack Easterby and newly hired general manager Nick Caserio. Between the friendly trade involving Cannon and the “therapeutic similarities” between discruntled quarterback Deshaun Watson and Pats owner Robert Kraft, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a second friendly deal that brings number four east. Although that move would indeed turn the football media world on its axis. For the first time in what feels like forever they were swept by the Bills. They split with a young Dolphins team led by Brian Flores, who is on the rise. Flores of course was on the defensive side of the coaching staff in New England before taking the job in Miami. The Jets who have been the red headed step child in the division for a while, have also hired a young defensive minded coach in Robert Saleh. If they can figure out a way to slow down Buffalo’s offense and use all these new weapons to pick apart Miami and New York’s defense, they’ll be right back in the hunt for the AFC East title once again.
After bringing back both center Ted Karras and Cam Newton, I’d imagine they’ll focus on the secondary and in the draft with the unit getting up there in age. Devin McCourty, brother Jason McCourty, and Patrick Chung all will be turning 34 before the season. Stephon Gilmore and Dont’a Hightower will be 31. Micah Parsons, Gregory Rousseau, or Zaven Collins seem like Belichickian players. Patrick Surtain II would make sense but Asante Samuel Jr would make even more sense, since his father was drafted by and played for Bill Belichick not 14 years ago. They’ve got options that’s for sure and if history tells us anything, it’s that New England has drafted a guy in the secondary and or a pass rusher within the first 3 rounds for the last six years straight. So indeed Belichick has a type. Whatever he decides to do, I know one thing. There’s no better reach coach/general manager I’d rather have than him, especially if I’m in a rebuild mode. I think he’s planning for the future and the now simultaneously, and he’s been doing just that for years. Some say he can’t do it without Brady. I say he’s the dead last guy I’d ever bet against.
But who the hell really knows what Bill Belichick wants to do? It’s A Football World, we’re all just passing through.
feature photo credit: TMZ