FOXBOROUGH — Patriots owner Robert Kraft has spent his life making sound investments, and he has done pretty well for himself.
But Kraft must be wondering why he spent a record $175 million fully guaranteed in free agency in the offseason. His Patriots are 1-2 following Sunday’s 28-13 beatdown from the Saints, and through three games, the ROI on the Patriots’ free agents has been disappointing.
The Patriots’ offense was supposed to be more dynamic with the additions of tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, and receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. The offensive line was supposed to be the backbone of the team with the addition of right tackle Trent Brown and the return of four starters. The defense was supposed to be dominant with the additions of Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy and Davon Godchaux.
Instead, the Patriots are discovering how difficult it is to build a team in free agency and have it all come together in the season.
“It’s a lot of new guys, but there’s no excuse for that,” Henry said. “We’re pros. We’ve got to handle our business.”
Not every new addition has struggled. Judon had 2.5 sacks Sunday and now has 3.5 for the season. Bourne had 96 yards receiving and his first touchdown with the Patriots, and looks like he’s settling into a groove with rookie QB Mac Jones.
But the Patriots’ offense, especially, is struggling to come together. The Patriots scored just one touchdown, and now only have four in three games. The tight ends aren’t making plays, the offensive line is poor in Brown’s absence (the Saints officially knocked down Jones 11 times), and every drive is like pulling teeth. The one time the Patriots were able to drive the field against an admittedly tough Saints defense, they had to settle for a field goal after milking more than nine minutes off the clock.
The offense is having the same problems it did last year under Cam Newton, when everyone said the Patriots didn’t have enough talent. Now they have talent on paper, but it’s not translating on the field.
“We’ve got to just come together,” center David Andrews said. “It’s a long season, but we’re definitely not good enough right now and not playing good enough.”
The two new tight ends have been the biggest disappointment. All offseason, all we heard was how the Patriots were getting back to their roots with the two tight-end offense, and how Smith and Henry would be the Patriots’ most dynamic duo since they had Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez a decade ago.
But the Patriots paid more for potential than proven production — Smith’s career high in yards is 448, and Henry’s is 652 — and so far neither player is coming close to reaching that potential.
Henry had a quiet five catches for 36 yards against the Saints. On a crucial fourth-and-1 play before halftime, with the Patriots needing a touchdown to get back into the game, Henry botched the snap count and fired out of his stance several beats too soon. The false start penalty moved the Patriots back 5 yards, and they were forced to settle for a 14-3 deficit instead of 14-7.
“I wasn’t locked in enough to the cadence and what we were trying to do,” Henry said. “We had a chance to score a touchdown going into the half. It could’ve been big for us. That’s just bad ball by me.”
And Smith, who was not made available to the media by the Patriots, was brutal. He had just one catch for 4 yards, with five incompletions. Smith had several tough drops, and gave the Saints free points when he bobbled a catch and batted it up for safety Malcolm Jenkins, who snagged it out of the air and returned it for a pick-6. Smith also was flagged for holding on a 17-yard run by J.J. Taylor, but the penalty was negated because David Andrews was also flagged for holding.
Jones defended Smith in his postgame press conference.
“I think Jonnu has done everything right,” Jones said. “I think it’s more about just getting that connection in practice and the timing. That comes with reps. We’ve kind of been together for a few weeks now, and we’ve just got to keep growing and turn the page on some of the bad things we did but also learn from them.”
Henry said he isn’t frustrated by the lack of production. Henry has 109 receiving yards through three games, Smith has just 74, and neither has caught a touchdown. The Patriots surely thought they were getting more than that when they spent $56.25 million fully guaranteed on both players this offseason.
“If the ball comes, the ball comes,” Henry said. “We got punched in the mouth a little bit today. We got to keep our head up, learn from this fast because there’s a lot of football ahead of us.”
Team captain Devin McCourty said he doesn’t think the Patriots are struggling to gel because of all the new faces. Of the Patriots’ 22 starters on Sunday, nine weren’t with the team last year.
“It’s not like we would be doing well if it wasn’t for the new guys,” McCourty said. “Obviously building a team and coming together, it’s not always easy to do, especially adding new guys. But I wouldn’t say, like, that’s our issue. Some of those guys have played good football for us. But it’s collectively, us as a whole.”
Despite dropping to 1-2 for just the fourth time under Belichick (2001, 2012, 2018), the Patriots say they aren’t panicking.
“We’re way better than that, and we know we are,” running back Brandon Bolden said. “I mean, this is a good team. We just got to get everything in order.”
Kraft surely hopes so. Through three games, his free agent spending spree has not been money well spent.
More Patriots-Saints coverage
▪ Saints 28, Patriots 13: On Julian Edelman day, Patriots’ magic merely a historic footnote in humbling loss to Saints
▪ Chad Finn | Unconventional Review: Patriots loss to Saints was a rare debacle for Bill Belichick era, and other things we learned
▪ Patriots notebook: Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne has a career day in loss to Saints
▪ Ben Volin | Instant Analysis: Patriots are a disjointed mess in dispirited loss to the Saints. And now Tom Brady is coming to town