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Tara Sullivan

Who said no one would want to play for the Patriots? Bill Belichick still makes it a free-agent destination

Many of the NFL free agents the Patriots signed pointed to the opportunity to play for Bill Belichick as one of the primary reasons they found Foxborough a desirable destination.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

No Tom Brady? No problem.

Turns out Bill Belichick is reason enough to come to New England.

Contrary to popular belief, Brady’s departure for sunnier skies in Tampa Bay did not stem the flow of free agents to the snow-covered Boston streets he left behind. As the dust of a manic opening to free agency finally began to settle, this much was clear: The Patriots remain a premier NFL destination.

The theory making the rounds this past season, when the Patriots struggled to a 7-9 record and missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 years while Brady was busy winning another Super Bowl, took all of 48 hours to be roundly debunked.


Belichick and Co. quickly emerged as the biggest players on the open market, wheeling and dealing with their cap room and their scouting reports. With free agent additions made seemingly by the hour, the Pats quickly rebuilt a roster that was clearly deficient a season ago. The list of players is as long as it is impressive, studded with star power and targeted at team needs.

Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Matt Judon, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jalen Mills, Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson, Kyle Van Noy, Ted Karras, Raekwon McMillan, Montravius Adams — all of them outside free agents. Cam Newton, David Andrews, James White, Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise, Nick Folk, Justin Bethel, Cody Davis — all in-house free agents who chose to stay.

Go back to an initial addition via trade, when veteran tackle Trent Brown reworked his contract to make a return trip, and it’s obvious that any fear of New England being ignored was grossly overplayed.

As Smith said during his introductory Webex call with reporters: “This is a historical franchise.”

Led by a historical coach, whose six Super Bowls as a head coach and two more as a defensive coordinator have earned him everlasting respect around the league, respect that is undimmed by one bad 2020 season or even by his advancing age (he’s 68).


“It’s a winning mentality here when you walk in the building,” Smith said. “I’m just glad for the opportunity. The culture around here is different. It’s not like anything I’ve been around.”

Jonnu Smith is excited about the chance to play for Bill Belichick.Terrance Williams

His thoughts were echoed by many. For Agholor, the New England mystique was obvious from the moment he arrived at Gillette.

“It’s in your face,” he said in an interview posted to the team’s website. “You get to see the history on the walls, see some of the special players that have played here, see all the championships. It’s a pretty cool feeling.

“I know that Coach Belichick and this staff and this organization had a plan in free agency. To be a part of that means the world.”

As bizarre as it was to see Belichick so active, the steady stream of acquisitions spoke as much to what players think about him and what he has built over two dominant decades in New England as it did about what he thought of them.

When they realized he wanted them, they could barely wait to sign on the dotted line.

This was Mills when asked about the chance to play for Belichick: “It was huge. We’re talking about just his defensive mind and how he’s able to put guys in the best position to make plays for the team. You can’t ask for anything more.


“You want a coach who knows exactly what to do best, puts you in positions to do that and helps you win football games. It was definitely a major key to be able to be coached by that guy for sure.”

Jalen Mills had quite a first meeting with the Patriots' coach.Jennifer Stewart

Smith, now part of a new one-two Patriot punch at tight end alongside Henry, admitted it was emotional to sign the new deal, which for him meant $50 million over the next four years, but also meant joining a premier franchise.

“I cried all I could,” he said.

In recalling that moment with reporters, Smith also admitted, “I don’t want to start tearing up.

“It was one of the greatest days of my life, one of the most exciting days of my life, one of the most thrilling days of my life,” he said. “To be able to start a new chapter, fresh start, new journey, I’m ecstatic, man. I just couldn’t pass on the opportunity. I believe that this franchise has everything it needs, all the right stuff, and I’m just honored and blessed to be a part of that.”

Of course the spending spree was unusual, and of course it was borne of desperation. And embarrassment. And of course it was made easier by the copious amounts of cash the suddenly flush Pats could dangle where other teams couldn’t.

Even owner Robert Kraft recognized how uncharacteristic it was, telling NBC’s Peter King, “I do remember we always made fun of the teams that spent a lot in the offseason. So we know nothing is guaranteed, and I’m very cognizant of that.”


But that critical analysis has a more optimistic flip side. The Patriots had a plan, and we are only now seeing it come to fruition. With Belichick still aiming at the all-time win record held by the late Don Shula, the one-year reset is over, and no one is happier about it than the players on the open market.

“It was just awesome to get a call from a place like that,” new wide receiver Kendrick Bourne said. “I know it was the best decision for me, organization-wise. They’re going to win again. That [7-9 record] was just a one-year thing, I feel like, so I knew I wanted to be a part of the new era, whatever you want to call it.”

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.