Wow, look at Bill Belichick. Within hours of the “legal tampering” period that opened on Monday, no team came out firing quite like the New England Patriots.
Of course, they needed this after suffering through the franchise’s first losing season (7-9) in two decades …which just happened to coincide with the departure of Tom Brady. Check that. Fresh Super Bowl champ Tom Brady.
Belichick answered in true March Madness fashion (NFL version) by striking deals to unload piles of Robert Kraft’s cash on several free agents, who can be signed officially on Wednesday, that addressed some key needs.
Check out the haul:
- Matthew Judon, the ex-Ravens pass-rusher they sorely needed: Four years, $56 million.
- Jonnu Smith, the former Titans tight end who can provide the over-the-middle threat they’ve missed since Gronk’s service: Four years, $50 million.
- Jalen Mills, an ex-Eagle for an already talented secondary, proving you can never have enough over guys: Four years, $24 million.
- Davon Goldchaux, a nose tackle via Miami to help shore up a run D that had skipped a beat: Two years, $16 million.
- Nelson Agholor, bringing presence as a deep threat while bolting from the Raiders: Two years, $26 million.
What a splash. This is what happens when you head into the NFL’s New Year with more than $70 million available under the $182.5 million salary cap — such an unusual category for the Patriots to rank among the league leaders. And you just know that Belichick had to be miffed on one level to miss the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, only to see TB12 in the Super Bowl 55 winner’s circle.
Message: The competitive juices are still flowing hot. Belichick has something to prove. Like always.
Now pump the brakes. Better, yes. And when added to the projected return of several players who opted out in 2020, most notably linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and a reunion with recently acquired tackle Trent Brown, they are trending in the right direction with more pieces for the NFL’s most resourceful coach to work with. But this isn’t the time to declare that Belichick is destined for another Super Bowl run. Caution is in the fine print of these contracts, which according to ESPN, included more than $81 million in guaranteed money.
Belichick, and even Nike, his adorable prop dog, would undoubtedly agree that championships are hardly won in March.
Ask Dan Snyder, the embattled Washington Football Team owner who won his fair share of championships on paper in the spring … yet never won anything in January.
As much as the Patriots have delivered a blast of optimism, you can start the major questions in the wind with this: Can they win big with Cam Newton?
New England re-signed Newton to a one-year, $5 million deal last week (which could improve to $14 million with incentives) that demonstrated Belichick’s belief that as bad as Newton was at times — and after all those years of watching Brady pull out the W’s at the finish — he saw enough to try it again with Newton.
New England’s plummet last season was hardly all on Newton (eight TD passes, 10 picks), who didn’t join the team until last summer, just weeks before training camp opened, and at least gave them a much better shot at winning than the unproven “projected” starter, Jarrett Stidham. Now the former NFL MVP will have a full offseason of some sort with Belichick and O-coordinator Josh McDaniel. They are challenged to better tailor the offense around the quarterback who doesn’t possess Brady’s accuracy but brings that special element as a multi-dimensional threat.
We’ll see how much better Newton flows in 2021. Especially if he stays healthy. Yet the caution includes the need to provide Newton with support that Brady didn’t always have during his final years in New England — playmaking receivers and solid O-line protection.
That’s why signing Smith, who caught eight TDs last season in his best year with the Titans (41 catches, 448 yards), looms as a potential coup. Belichick may have just bought Newton a security blanket. And with cap money still in hand, Agholor probably won’t be the only addition from a deep pool of receivers.
Then again, while the Patriots have scored some major hits in acquiring impact veterans over the years, — current star corner Stephone Gilmore joins a historical lineup that includes Rodney Harrison, Darrelle Revis, Corey Dillon and Junior Seau — they’ve also had their high-profile misses. Remember Adalius Thomas? They never got the intended impact, either, from the likes of Albert Haynesworth, Roosevelt Colvin and Chad Brown. And when it comes to receivers, which is what they need now, the busts are best represented by Ocho Cinco. And we’re not talking Hall of Fame busts.
There are no guarantees. Well, except for the guaranteed dollars. Paying top-of-the-market value for free agents is often such a crap shoot … or recipe for disaster.
Unless, of course, you’re coming off a fresh Super Bowl victory like the Bucs, who spent big to keep linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David off the market while franchise-tagging star wideout Chris Godwin. Keeping the band together, as Brady put it, to make another run looks to be money better-spent because the proven talent is already incorporated into the flow.
In New England’s case, the money spent reflects the urgency — or desperation — to become a contender all over again in a new era.