Bill Belichick may have won six Super Bowls as a head coach and could finish with all of the records one day, but the past year was rough for him from a public relations standpoint.
Tom Brady winning the Super Bowl, while the Patriots sputtered to 7-9, put Belichick under the microscope. You couldn’t turn on local radio or read the Globe last winter without hearing about Belichick’s questionable general manager decisions, poor drafting, or spotty record without Brady. A 1-3 start to the 2021 season only intensified the heat.
So it’s only fair to point out that Belichick has had a pretty impressive run in 2021 as both coach and GM. His Patriots now sit at 6-4, a half-game behind Buffalo for first place in the AFC East. They are riding a four-game win streak entering Thursday’s game at Atlanta, with an average score of 38-13.
And Belichick’s offseason scorecard is filled with W’s. Most of his free agent signings have panned out, or at least have contributed. The Patriots’ 2021 draft class is also their best in nearly a decade. And the decision to start Mac Jones over Cam Newton has worked out well, with Jones showing significant improvement throughout the season and the Patriots looking like real contenders in the AFC.
Belichick wouldn’t take the cheese Monday when asked if it is gratifying to see most of his offseason moves paying off.
“We’ll see,” he said. “I think that’s probably a later conversation. Right now, what would be gratifying is to play well and beat Atlanta. And that’s really what we need to do.”
The Patriots spent more than $375 million on 22 free agents last spring, with nearly $175 million fully guaranteed. So far, the hit rate is solid.
Linebacker Matthew Judon has been a home run. He is fourth in the NFL with 9.5 sacks, and fifth with 45 knockdowns and hurries. Judon hasn’t missed a game yet, and has contributed 69 snaps on special teams.
Hunter Henry’s 353 receiving yards rank only 12th among tight ends, but his seven touchdowns lead his position and are one off his career high. He gets a first down on 67.7 percent of his catches, fifth-best among tight ends. And Henry, who has battled injuries throughout his six seasons, is on pace to play 16 (and 17) games for the first time.
Receiver Kendrick Bourne leads the Patriots with 520 receiving yards, his 15.8-yard average ranks 10th among 80 qualifying receivers, and he has been electric with the ball, averaging 7.1 yards after the catch, which ranks eighth out of 80. Bourne also has five carries for 71 yards, and threw a 25-yard TD pass.
Not every free agent has been a smash, but the Patriots hit a lot of singles, too. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy has been solid with two sacks, a forced fumble, and 77 percent of snaps. Cornerback Jalen Mills doesn’t have many big stats, but he has played in nine of 10 games and has capably held down the No. 2 spot. Ted Karras has helped solidify the offensive line, starting the last six games at left guard. Center David Andrews has been the one steady presence on the line.
Defensive end Deatrich Wise has been their second-most disruptive pass rusher. Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux has helped shore up their 14th-ranked run D. Linebacker Jamie Collins has made several impact plays in his short time back. Kicker Nick Folk leads the NFL with 22 field goals and is 22 of 24 for the season, including no misses from closer than 50 yards.
Currently sitting in the AFC’s No. 6 seed, the Patriots are defying the NFL maxim that you can’t build a team in free agency.
Belichick didn’t bat 1.000, of course. Tight end Jonnu Smith, who got the biggest guarantee of any Patriots free agent ($31.25 million), has been disappointing. His 193 receiving yards rank 28th among tight ends, his 9.2 yards per catch are his lowest since his rookie year of 2017, and he has become a part-time player, getting about 53 percent of snaps. Now he’s battling a shoulder injury that kept him out of Sunday’s win.
Receiver Nelson Agholor is only third among Patriots receivers with 356 receiving yards, his catch rate of 52.2 percent is the lowest on the team, and his stats are down across the board from last year. He hasn’t been terrible, but hasn’t lived up to the price tag ($16 million over two years).
Right tackle Trent Brown has been disappointing because he lasted just seven snaps in the season opener before a calf injury knocked him out for eight games. His absence threw the offensive line into flux for several games, but he returned in Sunday’s 45-7 win over the Browns, and was mowing down defenders left and right. Hopefully it was a sign of things to come.
The Stephon Gilmore trade also still doesn’t taste right. The Patriots should have found a way to smooth things over and keep him, or gotten a better return.
But in addition to the strong free agent class, the Patriots have gotten outstanding contributions from their draft class, after several years of poor marks.
It’s unclear whether the Patriots deserve credit for being patient and knowing that Jones would fall to them with the 15th pick, or whether they took him only because he was still there. But they certainly deserve credit for picking Jones over Newton and quickly developing Jones into a winning NFL quarterback.
The Patriots are seventh in the NFL in points scored by the offense (26 per game). Jones is fourth in the NFL in completion percentage (69.0), and his stats have improved across the board from September to November. Plus, the Patriots get a $1.5 million cash refund and a $1.5 million salary-cap credit for 2022, now that Newton has signed with the Panthers.
Second-round defensive tackle Christian Barmore has played in all 10 games, his 57.9 percent of snaps lead Patriots defensive linemen, and he has been a disruptive force. Barmore is second on the team with five QB hits, and his 19 knockdowns and hurries rank 19th among 132 defensive tackles.
Fourth-round running back Rhamondre Stevenson also has been a hit. He was inactive for three early games, but in the last two weeks he has 30 carries for 162 yards (5.4-yard average) and two touchdowns. Stevenson has broken 5.6 percent of tackles, which ranks ninth out of 108 ball carriers.
The only top rookie who hasn’t contributed is third-round linebacker Ronnie Perkins, who has been buried by a numbers crunch. Otherwise, this is probably the Patriots’ best draft since 2013 (Collins, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon), 2012 (Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower), or 2010 (Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski).
The Patriots have seven games left, and boasting about offseason moves now feels like spiking the ball on the 5-yard line. But Belichick and his brain trust have done an impressive job in rebuilding the team on the fly.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.