The first days of NFL free agency have been a bit depressing for Patriots fans.
Tom Brady is leaving. The NFL’s No. 1 defense from last year is getting picked apart. The Patriots haven’t traded for a quarterback, and almost every elite receiver has come off the board.
The only moves the Patriots have made are re-signing Devin McCourty, Joe Thuney, and Matthew Slater, and signing bargain free agents Damiere Byrd, a receiver, and Beau Allen, a defensive tackle.
Get used to this, Patriots fans. Now that Brady is gone, the days of signing veteran free agents, punting on the draft, and loading up to win with the NFL’s oldest roster appear to be over with.
Bill Belichick doesn’t announce his plans to the world, but his plan for building the Patriots post-Brady seems clear. It can be viewed as a dirty word in the NFL. But it’s the smart course of action in Foxborough.
It starts with an “r” and ends with an “ebuild.”
This won’t be plastered on any billboards on Route 1, but expect the events of this week to be the new normal in Foxborough. Don’t get too attached to any of your favorite players. The Super Bowl era of 2014-18 is over with. The future begins now.
And based on conversations I am having with league sources, I am convinced it won’t be a one-year rebuild. Belichick knows you can’t build a sustainable winner overnight — not when the 2019 Patriots had the oldest roster in the NFL by a significant margin. Belichick is going to do this the right way.
When a team hires a new coach, it usually gives him a couple of years to get the program in shape. Year 3 is when it is all supposed to come together.
So to me, 2022 is the season to expect the Patriots to be an elite NFL team again. But getting there might be a little bumpy.
The 2020 season won’t be a total bloodletting in Foxborough. Belichick still wants to be competitive, and there are some players whose contracts will likely keep them in New England for another year. The Patriots also don’t have the best arsenal of draft picks this year, with just two of the top 96.
I suspect the days of the Patriots signing a Martellus Bennett for one year, or trading a second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu, or using draft picks to fill immediate holes (as with Sony Michel) are gone. Instead, the Patriots will spend the next few years finding the core players that will keep them competitive throughout the 2020s — the next Matthew Slaters, Julian Edelmans, Dont’a Hightowers, and Tom Bradys.
This start of free agency has shown us that the rebuild is under way. Belichick hasn’t shown much of an effort to keep that No. 1-ranked defense intact. Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts signed with Miami. Duron Harmon was traded to Detroit, while Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton signed there in free agency. Longtime special teams stalwart Nate Ebner left for the Giants.
And the Patriots aren’t signing anyone, unless you count Byrd (44 catches in four seasons) and Allen (117 tackles and 2½ sacks in six seasons).
The only significant players the Patriots have signed so far are Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty (picked up his option), Thuney (franchise tag), and Slater.
While the McCourtys and Slater are on the wrong side of 30, it was imperative for Belichick to bring back a few of the team leaders to help instill the culture for the next wave of players.
Thuney was important to bring back because, no matter who is playing quarterback, the Patriots will need an excellent offensive line (though I’m not totally convinced that they won’t try to trade Thuney and his $14.781 million contract).
You’ll notice the Patriots haven’t traded for a quarterback, either. Based on my conversations, I think they want to see what they have in Jarrett Stidham, last year’s fourth-round pick who is under contract for three more years at a total of just $2.5 million. I’m not nearly as confident anymore that they’re going to trade for an Andy Dalton or sign a Cam Newton, players who will cost money and aren’t part of the long-term plan.
A much more reasonable option is Brian Hoyer. The Colts now have Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, and Hoyer under contract, but Hoyer could be available. He has a guaranteed $2 million bonus due Sunday, plus a $2 million salary.
That’s an attractive contract for the Patriots, who could bring in Hoyer as Stidham’s backup and also as a locker room leader and surrogate coach. The Patriots love Hoyer and didn’t want to give him up last year. He can be the Slater of the offense.
And if Stidham doesn’t work out, then no harm, no foul. Stidham costs next to nothing, and the Patriots can draft a quarterback this year or next year.
More departures are probably coming this offseason, some that may make you shake your head. I bet Hightower and Marcus Cannon probably aren’t feeling very secure right now. Get used to the Patriots collecting draft picks for the future (they got four compensatory picks this year, and are well on their way to getting four for next year).
I wouldn’t blame Devin McCourty for being a little upset with the team’s direction. The Patriots certainly paid him handsomely — $23 million over the next two years — but I don’t think Belichick told him the team’s plans. A league source said McCourty chose the Patriots over offers from the Lions and Dolphins. Would he still make that choice after seeing his team get picked apart this offseason?
The Patriots aren’t going to “Tank for Trevor Lawrence” or whatever cute catchphrase will surface in 2020. Belichick abhors the idea of playing for draft positioning.
The Patriots will be competitive because they have a couple of the smartest coaches in the NFL in Belichick and Josh McDaniels.
But I don’t think the goal of the 2020 season will be to do whatever it takes to win Lombardi Trophy No. 7. It will be to start rebuilding the roster from the ground up, to make sure they are set up to win Lombardis No. 7, 8, and 9.