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So much for the traditional New England "slow and steady wins the race," approach to free agency, eh?
On Monday, the Patriots broke down the doors of NFL free agency's tampering period, signing six players and shoring up their roster immeasurably in the process. Here's what may have been driving the moves.
5) On D, it's all about stopping the run. The Patriots defense remained steely against passing offenses in 2020, finishing the season ranked eighth in Defensive Passer Rating despite facing the league's toughest schedule. That wasn't the case against the run, where the Patriots were 25th league wide. That marked a precipitous drop from the Pats' fourth-place finish in the same stat in 2019, and No. 1 final spot in Defensive Passer Rating.
To shore up the team's defensive front, Bill Belichick made two major moves, one splashier than the other. Davin Godchaux should fill the traditional Vince Wilfork/Ted Washington role in the teeth of the Patriots defensive line. Yes, as with all Patriots moves, there's more versatility there than meets the eye, but Godchaux will first and foremost be asked to be a run stuffer and front line destroyer, as he primarily was in Miami. Matthew Judon may be an edge rusher by acclaim, but he will be asked to step up and two-gap in some schemes. Ditto Henry Anderson, whose sack numbers in New York were down but whose versatility could prove a major asset on the defensive line. Even new safety Jalen Smith has lined up at linebacker in certain run-stop defenses in Philadelphia and will surely be asked to do so in New England.
The point? New England just paid through the nose to stop opposing rushing offenses. It better work. If it does, it could make the Patriots defense as complete as any in the NFL in the 2021 season.
4) Are they really better off with Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne than a single No. 1 receiver? It's a question that has to be asked: After fans openly pined for Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller or Curtis Samuel, the Patriots instead moved quickly to lock up former Eagles punch line Nelson Agholor and onetime undrafted rookie Kendrick Bourne. Sure, Agholor is coming off a very strong resurrection season with the Raiders, but he lacks the consistency or high-end push of a Golladay or Fuller. Bourne is a high potential signing who appears to be a strong fit for the Patriots' system (check his 3-cone-drill time, for starters). Still, is that pair truly more valuable than Juju Smith-Schuster or Golladay? It's a hard call, and based in no small part on what system the Pats plan to run. If they're going to employ a yard-after-catch focus that minimizes the risk on quarterback Cam Newton's downfield throwing, this pair provides both an ideal systemic fit and depth. If Newton is more of a holding point en route to a younger starting quarterback? The quality of a Smith-Schuster or Golladay might have been more beneficial. Either way, the new receivers mark a significant upgrade in depth, even if they may spell the end of former first round pick N'Keal Harry's time in Foxborough.
3) Did Belichick move for Jonnu Smith because of his versatility? Smith was one of two blue-ribbon tight ends on the market, along with Hunter Henry. Rather than wait on other potential fits like Kyle Rudolph or Zack Ertz, Belichick made an aggressive move for Smith, locking up a player who had as many touchdown catches in 2020 as Newton had touchdown passes. Then he added Henry, perhaps in a more traditional tight end role a day later, marking one of the more remarkable free agent grabs in Patriots history.
In addition to providing a clear top red zone target, Smith brings a level of versatility that is rare for a tight end; in the past two seasons, Smith has lined up at both wide receiver and fullback, even taking an end around more than 50 yards. A physical freak, Smith has shown rapidly improving blocking skills, which should make him the versatile piece New England has been missing at the position. Particularly after the addition of Henry, it's unlikely the entire roster of tight ends makes it through training camp (Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo, we're looking at you), but with Smith, Henry and second-year players Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene continuing to improve, the Patriots tight ends could actually emerge as a huge strength.
2) How much will the loss of Joe Thuney and Marcus Cannon hurt the offensive line? Thuney's departure to the Chiefs leave a hole along the Patriots offensive line, so of course it'll hurt (Mason sat out 2020, so the team has essentially already adjusted for his departure, but he's also a clear loss). Still, New England actually may be better positioned to fill the role than most imagine ... provided they can find a way to bring back David Andrews to lead the unit from center. The pre-free agency acquisition of offensive tackle Trent Brown back from Las Vegas should allow the Patriots to keep Michael Onwenu inside at guard, alongside Shaq Mason, while Isaiah Wynn and Brown lock down the tackle positions. Without Andrews, the line might look like this: Wynn-Mason-Marcus Martin-Ownwenu-Brown. If Andrews re-signs, that would place him in the Marcus Martin role and deliver one of the better offensive lines (on paper) in the division, if not the conference and league altogether.
1) Is another quarterback the final missing piece? Yes, the Patriots signed Newton last week. Fans have refused to believe he alone is the team's designated solution at quarterback following a fairly disastrous season under center in 2020. Given the moves made Monday, there is still room for New England to accommodate a potential Jimmy Garoppolo deal alongside a few other moves. For instance, if the Patriots do trade former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, they'd save just less than $7 million against the cap. Combined with that and the team's remaining cap space and another potential departure in a trade, the Pats could convert a chunk of Garoppolo's remaining deal to signing bonus, minimizing his cap hit and still place a first round tender on restricted free agent cornerback J.C. Jackson.
Will this happen? Who knows. New England likely wouldn't part with its first round pick for Garoppolo, and a second rounder might feel steep, particularly considering that's what they got for him from San Francisco to begin with. Still, the team's recent pick swaps with the Texans in exchange for Cannon means that they have a third round pick that comes just after the end of the second round, positioning them with three more valuable assets than they previously held. It's certainly worth keeping an eye on, particularly as we near the NFL Draft and the Jets consider drafting a new quarterback, which would potentially create a market for Sam Darnold in San Francisco, and a reason for the 49ers to actually entertain the kind of deal that New England might make to bring back Jimmy G.