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Patriots are standing pat in free agency, and their rivals are passing them by

Bill Belichick's team sprung some leaks during the second half of last season, and he hasn't done much to patch things up yet.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The Bills signed pass rusher Von Miller and tight end O.J. Howard this week. The Patriots let go of their No. 1 cornerback and traded one of their best offensive linemen.

The Chargers signed cornerback J.C. Jackson, gave a big deal to receiver Mike Williams, and traded for Khalil Mack. The Patriots signed Brian Hoyer and James White.

The Broncos traded for Russell Wilson and signed Randy Gregory. The Raiders signed Chandler Jones. The Bengals signed two offensive linemen. The Bucs traded for Shaq Mason.

The Patriots signed a cornerback (Terrance Mitchell) and traded for a linebacker (Mack Wilson) that most of us had never heard of until this week.

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The start to the Patriots’ offseason has been underwhelming, to say the least.

No one expected them to repeat the fireworks of 2021, when they set a record by spending more than $175 million guaranteed on a handful of top free agents. But surely they could have done more than this.

Their rivals are getting better, and the Patriots are acting as if they still have Tom Brady to cover up all their warts.

It’s not like the 2021 Patriots were a finished product. They went 2-5 down the stretch, had no elite playmakers on offense, and looked old and slow on defense. The 30-point playoff loss to Buffalo showed just how big of a gap existed between the Patriots and the top teams.

But the Patriots are acting as if everything is hunky-dory for 2022. They signed just nine players through the first four days of free agency. Six of them played for New England last year and five of those were really just administrative moves (Matthew Slater, White, Hoyer, Nick Folk, and James Ferentz). The three outside additions (Mitchell, Wilson, and running back Ty Montgomery) are just depth pieces who will need to make the roster in training camp. The only player to receive any real money was Devin McCourty, whose $8 million guarantee accounts for about half of the Patriots’ spending thus far.

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The context, of course, is that the Patriots spent a boatload of money last year, and didn’t get the best return on investment. Thanks to last year’s contracts, they ranked No. 12 in cash spending for 2022 as of Thursday, per the NFL Players Association. They still owe $36.5 million in fully guaranteed salaries to players who signed last year: Matthew Judon, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor (ugh), Jonnu Smith (double ugh), and Davon Godchaux.

It makes sense that the Patriots aren’t spending big this year. But they aren’t just standing pat — they’re creating more holes for themselves.

They need a starting cornerback after letting Jackson leave in free agency. They already needed to sign a right tackle with Trent Brown hitting free agency, and need to find a guard after trading Mason. A run defense that allowed 158 yards per game over the final five games of the season (as the Patriots went 1-4) needs three new linebackers and one or two new tackles.

It’s true that the Patriots don’t play a regular-season game for nearly six months, and there is plenty of time to build out the roster. But outside of Bill Belichick swinging for a few major trades, it’s hard to see how the Patriots can find the talent to close the gap between themselves and the AFC’s top contenders.

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They don’t have most of the answers on the roster already, because their drafting has been abysmal in recent years. The 2019 draft class, which should be the core of the team in 2022, will be almost entirely gone before the start of this season. Last year’s draft was a good start, but the Patriots don’t have obvious replacements for Jackson, Mason, or the defensive front seven.

Free agency isn’t going to be the answer, either. The market isn’t all that great this year. Outside of the quarterback carousel and a few big moves by the Chargers and Jaguars, free agency has been slow to develop, and there aren’t many buzz-worthy players available.

The Patriots still can sign a quality receiver such as Jarvis Landry, Jamison Crowder, or Marquez Valdes-Scantling, but the type of players available probably aren’t going to help them close the gap much on the Bills.

The Patriots are even passing on players who didn’t receive big paydays. It’s one thing to let Jackson sign a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Chargers that pays him $28 million in Year 1. But now the Patriots need a new fullback after Jakob Johnson left for the Raiders for a minimum salary and only $200,000 guaranteed.

The Patriots badly need a slot receiver, and it seems like they could have gotten in on Braxton Berrios, who got a reasonable two-year deal worth $12 million from the Jets. They also need an outside receiver, and could have had D.J. Chark, who got $10 million on a one-year deal from the Lions, but whose salary-cap number is just $4.02 million.

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The answers for the Patriots, then, have to come via the draft and trades. Last year’s class was a good start, but it will take a grand slam of a draft to close the gap with the Bills, Chiefs, and other contenders in 2022.

And hopefully Belichick can swing a couple of impactful trades. The Patriots maybe won’t add much new salary this year, but they can try to reallocate it by trading guys with guaranteed money such as Agholor and Godchaux. Belichick should get on the phone with the Seahawks, who probably are rebuilding in their first year without Wilson, to see what it would take to get Tyler Lockett or D.K. Metcalf in a trade.

It would be nice just to see the Patriots make a move — any move. While they’re sitting still, the rest of the NFL is passing them by.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.