National Football League

Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots' free agency feeding frenzy

March 19

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

For so many years, this particular week on the calendar has essentially passed Bill Belichick by. One time, when the National Football League’s frenzied free agency window opened, the New England Patriots head coach was chilling on a Barbados beach, seemingly oblivious to it all.

Other times, he would treat the period when juicy contracts are handed out by hungry teams chasing salvation with little more than a faintly amused air, mostly resting on the sideline, occasionally dipping his toe into the cash-laden waters for a couple of value pickups.

This time, Belichick is the hungry one. The Patriots are the sharks in the pool. And it’s feeding time.

The past few days, the Patriots have boosted their roster with breathtaking speed and boldness, a change in tack so complete that the numbers are staggering.

The previous 10 years, the team awarded just under $360 million combined to new players in free agency. The total free agency bill this time, including returning Patriots free agents, is likely to climb above $300 million by the time starting center David Andrews is retained.

In truth, it has been a little difficult to keep up as the fresh faces roll in.

Tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry were added, plus receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne and a stack of defensive players and linemen, the most expensive being outside linebacker Matthew Judon, brought over from the Baltimore Ravens on a four-year, $54.5 million contract.

This is Belichick we are talking about, and he knows what makes a good player, so none of the choices seems rash, especially risky or excessively expensive. But when you pile them all together … wow.

"Collectively … it is a stunning turn of events," The Ringer’s Nora Princiotti wrote. "The Patriots almost never open the checkbook at the start of free agency."

Why now? Well, without speaking for Belichick, we can pretty safely assume that a guy who has won six Super Bowls and 125 games the previous 10 years wasn’t too fond of going 7-9 while his former quarterback soaked up Floridian sunshine and collected another Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Action was needed to get the Patriots back on track, but it would be a mistake to portray this as a panicked response to adversity. Instead, think of it like the seizing of a rare opening in the NFL’s eternal struggle for marginal – or not so marginal – gains.

The salary cap has been squeezed, but New England still had a ton of room beneath it, creating the ability to go out and flex the free-agent muscles in a way few other teams could.

"Belichick is very good at taking advantage of opportunities," agent Drew Rosenhaus told the Peter King Podcast. "He knew there were a lot of teams that didn’t have cap room … and he did the exact opposite."

The upgrades are notable. Tight-end play has been a staple of the Belichick regime, but there was little value coming from that department last season. Now, the depth chart is stacked.

Smith’s deal confers the largest guarantee ($31.25 million) ever given to a tight end, and Henry was handed just as much annually, with both players set to make $12.5 million per year.

Yet perhaps the most notable development is that the defense, just two years removed from being a rampaging force before it was torn apart by COVID opt-outs for 2020, also received a serious boost.

Judon came in, as did safety Jalen Mills, plus linemen Henry Anderson and Davon Godchaux. The team’s own free agent Deatrich Wise Jr. was retained. Patrick Chung formally retired, but the Pats are well covered.

"Belichick has built his team, making it clear what his plan is," wrote Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel. "Get [Cam] Newton enough help that he can produce a serviceable offense. Then go old-school on defense and flip the script on these young, high-powered offenses. What’s old is new again in Foxborough."

Newton is the favorite to be under center when the campaign begins. Although there is still time for the Patriots to potentially finagle a move for a quarterback with a higher present status, it doesn’t look like they want to do that.

While everyone else is fighting to give QBs as much money as possible, Belichick is focusing a lot of his efforts on getting elite support and protection for the one he has while turbo-charging the defense to ensure the number of points needed to win is manageable.

It should be noted that not everyone is convinced. FOX Bet gives the Patriots a +3500 shot to win the Super Bowl, placing them as 17th-favorites.

Any time something so out of character happens after a season such as the one New England just had, some will question whether it is out of desperation.

Belichick is a lot of things, but does he really seem like an impulsive, desperate guy to you?

"When you look at free agency, it is about making your team better and putting yourself in a position to be able to compete at a higher level," former All-Pro Brandon Marshall said on FS1’s "First Things First." "Belichick and the Patriots did that. Now you are going to see coaching on full display.

"When you look at how they are set up, I think they are going to be in position to compete."

As the rest of the league kept quiet, the Patriots did not hold back. Belichick dove into the free-agent waters and did exactly what he wanted to do – make a splash.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.


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