fb-pixel Skip to main content

Patriots didn’t win enough in 2020, so in free agency, they’re buying a new team

Tight end Jonnu Smith (81) scored eight receiving touchdowns for the Titans last season.
Tight end Jonnu Smith (81) scored eight receiving touchdowns for the Titans last season.Mark Zaleski

Read more on the latest Patriots free-agent signings, including TE Hunter Henry, in our live updates

Who is this person running the Patriots, and what has he done with Bill Belichick?

Armed with nearly $70 million in salary cap space and a roster filled with holes, Belichick and the Patriots were uncharacteristically extravagant in NFL free agency Monday, essentially buying a new team for 2021.

The Patriots signed seven noteworthy free agents — two receivers, a tight end, two defensive tackles, an edge rusher, and a cornerback — awarding contracts with a maximum value close to $200 million, and nearly $100 million in guarantees. The signings won’t become official until 4 p.m. Wednesday, when the new league year begins.


Belichick doesn’t usually open his checkbook on the first day of free agency. He has made the occasional aggressive moves — signing Stephon Gilmore to a record contract in 2017; acquiring Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in 2014; and acquiring Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, and Adalius Thomas in 2007.

But most years, Belichick sits quietly on the first few days of free agency, letting the Jets, Dolphins, and Jaguars overpay for the top free agents. Belichick pounces on the less expensive players with better value; it often has ended with a Super Bowl in February.

This year, however, the Patriots have become the Jets. The Patriots are the ones setting the market and paying premium dollars for the top free agents in March because they didn’t win enough from September to December. The Patriots are now signing players away from the Titans and Dolphins, a street that used to only go one way.

Jonnu Smith represents an instant upgrade at tight end for New England.
Jonnu Smith represents an instant upgrade at tight end for New England.Terrance Williams

The Patriots splurged for former Tennessee tight end Jonnu Smith, giving him a four-year contract worth $50 million and $31 million guaranteed, a record for a tight end. They added a premier defensive end in Matthew Judon, formerly of the Ravens, giving him a four-year, $56 million deal with $32 million guaranteed.


They signed versatile defensive back Jalen Mills away from the Eagles with a four-year, $24 million deal with $9 million guaranteed. They signed ex-Dolphins defensive tackle Davon Godchaux to a two-year, $16 million deal with $9 million guaranteed, and former Jets defensive tackle Henry Anderson for an unknown amount. And they closed the day by signing two new receivers — Nelson Agholor of the Raiders and Kendrick Bourne of the 49ers, for a total maximum value of $48 million.

Monday’s frenzy capped a busy few days for Belichick. The Patriots also brought back quarterback Cam Newton, traded for offensive tackle Trent Brown, and re-signed defensive end Deatrich Wise.

The Patriots didn’t sign everyone, of course. They let left guard Joe Thuney sign a five-year, $80 million deal with the Chiefs on Monday. Of all of the Patriots’ needs, paying $16 million per year for a guard understandably wasn’t one of them.

The seven moves Monday all look great on paper and fit specific needs:

▪ The Patriots have had the worst receiving production out of their tight ends for two years running, and in Smith, have added a player who once lined up as a running back for the Titans, took a pitch right and rumbled 57 yards. Smith, who turns 26 in August, is the most athletic tight end the Patriots have had since Aaron Hernandez eight years ago.


▪ The Patriots had the worst receiver group in the NFL in 2020, so they brought in Agholor and Bourne for speed and big-play ability.

▪ The Patriots’ defense finished 26th in the NFL in sacks, so they bought a new edge rusher in Judon, who turns 29 in August and was named to the Pro Bowl the last two years for the Ravens. He’s a little light on sacks for a premier edge rusher — 15½5 over the last two seasons — but Judon is durable and brings much-needed athleticism to the front seven.

▪ Mills, who turns 27 in April, can play all three cornerback positions and both safety positions. The Patriots may lose Gilmore or J.C. Jackson, so having depth in the secondary is a must.

▪ Anderson, 29, and Godchaux, 26, could help strengthen a defense that finished 26th against the rush (131.4 per game) and 20th in average rushing yards allowed (4.5 yards per carry).

Davon Godchaux should provide a boost for the Patriots' run defense.
Davon Godchaux should provide a boost for the Patriots' run defense.Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

But the signings also exemplify three glaring negatives for the Patriots: How ill-constructed they were a year ago, how poorly they have drafted over the last half-decade, and how they have to overpay for free agents now that Tom Brady is no longer here.

Teams shouldn’t have to spend this much in free agency if they draft and develop properly. And the Patriots clearly overpaid for some players. They spent nearly $63 million in guaranteed money on a tight end (Smith) whose career highs are 41 catches for 448 yards, and a pass rusher (Judon) who has not cracked 10 sacks in a season.


Several signings had a common thread —– longtime agent Drew Rosenhaus. He represents Smith, Mills, Godchaux and Brown, who was acquired in a trade from the Raiders and previously played for the Patriots in 2018. Rosenhaus and Belichick have been negotiating contracts for close to 30 years, and more recently, worked together on several contracts for Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, among others. Clearly, Belichick trusts that Rosenhaus is shooting him straight when it comes to his players and his negotiations.

Monday was a fun day for Patriots fans as the team spent a wad of cash and brought new faces to Foxborough. The spending splurge brings hope that 2021 won’t be a reprise of 2020.

It also carries a whiff of desperation. Teams that win in March rarely win in February.

But Belichick had no choice. The 2020 Patriots weren’t up to standards and didn’t have the answers internally. So he went out and bought a new team.

Read more

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.