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christopher l. gasper

In this view, Matthew Judon is the best free agent signing of the Bill Belichick Patriot era

Matthew Judon leads the NFL with 11½ sacks in nine games.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Any time we venture into “Best of Belichick” territory, it’s bound to inflame passions. With so many brilliant decisions and shrewd moves to chronicle in his oeuvre, anointing the best anything of Bill Belichick’s tenure is sure to inspire debate and disagreement.

The Best of Belichick is in the eye of the beholder. In my view, outside linebacker Matthew Judon is the best free agent signing Belichick has made with the Patriots. When you take into account impact, production, his premium position, and the Patriots Holy Grail of value, Judon tops the list of Belichick free agent forays for my money — and the Krafts’.


How can you put Judon ahead of players who won Super Bowl rings? Simple. You can’t penalize him for having the misfortune of playing for the post-Tom Brady Patriots and for not enjoying the good fortune of playing on the loaded Patriots defenses from the early 2000s.

More on the early-aughts Patriots defense later, because the contenders for this crown include staples from that unit Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison.

There are currently 24 edge players with higher average annual values than Judon’s $13.625 million, according to Over the Cap. But no one has more sacks.

Signed to a four-year, $54.5 million contract with $32 million guaranteed in 2021, Judon leads the NFL in sacks with 11½.

He’s the one true game-changer on a team with a lot of solid NFL performers.

Pro Football Reference lists Judon as the NFL leader in pressures with 32. According to Stats Inc., he ranks second in quarterback knockdowns with 19.5, trailing only Nick Bosa of the San Francisco 49ers, who has 25.5.

There’s no way the Patriots are 5-4 heading into Sunday’s game with the New York Jets without Judon. He’s a bellwether on and off the field.


Judon’s vibrant personality and outfits are a welcome breath of fresh air in Fort Foxborough. His press conferences are must-watch both for his commentary and his couture. He’s proof that you can Do Your Job without getting the dreaded Patriots personality lobotomy.

No. 9 is coming off a career-high-tying three-sack performance against the Indianapolis Colts. He set a team record with 6½ sacks in the first five games of this season and became the first Patriot to register sacks in each of the first five games of a season.

By any measure, Judon has been a monster, a red-sleeved reaper killing plays in the pocket. Still, he doesn’t get his name mentioned with the league’s elite pass rushers or as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.

The Patriots signed safety Rodney Harrison before the 2003 season.Davis, Jim Globe Staff

“Which is wild, I don’t understand why they don’t talk about him,” said Patriots safety Adrian Phillips.

“But he ain’t really worried about all that. He just goes out there, and he lets the tape talk for itself. When opponents see that tape, and they see they got to block No. 9 with the red sleeves every play, they’re thinking about that before they close their eyes at night.”

Sacking isn’t easy in a Belichick defense, another reason Judon deserves this honor.

Judon gets more leeway as a pass rusher than most have, but the Patriots aren’t a team that just lets pass rushers tee off. It’s a sin in Belichick’s mind to lose contain or overrun the quarterback. Stay in your rush lane, he preaches.


There have been eight double-digit sack seasons by Patriots since Belichick took over in 2000. Judon has a quarter of them.

No Patriot under Belichick has recorded more than 12½ sacks in a season, a total matched by Judon last season, tying him with Chandler Jones and Vrabel.

Judon would’ve broken that mark last season if he didn’t go sack-free in his final four games while dealing with illness and injury.

Barring a similar swoon, Judon appears destined to obliterate the Belichick-era Patriots sacks record and could challenge Andre Tippett’s franchise record of 18½ set in 1984.

The historical competition for the best Belichick free agent signing is admittedly stiff, making this a subjective exercise.

Mike Vrabel won three Super Bowls with the Patriots.Boston Globe

It’s hard to argue with Vrabel, signed away from the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2001, for pure bang for the buck. The versatile Vrabel became a pillar of the Patriot Way, starring on defense and as a touchdown-catching tight end. He earned three Super Bowl rings.

However, he was never recognized as the best player on a defense that featured two Hall of Famers in Ty Law and Richard Seymour.

Harrison was signed by the Patriots in 2003 after being a Chargers salary-cap casualty. The hard-hitting safety was a perfect chess piece, earning first-team All-Pro honors in 2003 as the Patriots won the first of back-to-back Super Bowls. He provided New England the nasty it needed to cement a dynasty.

But he walked on to a stacked defense that had already won a Super Bowl with a similar safety in Lawyer Milloy.


A candidate of more recent vintage is Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

In 2017, there was rampant second-guessing when Belichick handed Gilmore a five-year, $65 million contract ($40 million guaranteed), electing to back up the Brink’s truck for him, not Malcolm Butler.

Stephon Gilmore was named Defensive Player of the Year after the 2019 season.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Gilmore was arguably the best corner in the league for two seasons (2018 and 2019), silencing receivers. He helped seal the sixth Super Bowl title with a goal-line interception.

But unlike Judon, Gilmore wasn’t an instant success. He got off to a rocky start, drawing penalties and contributing to blown coverages in the first half of his first season. In 2017, Gilmore finished tied for 64th in regular-season passer rating allowed, according to Pro Football Focus.

What about Wes Welker, the Patriots’ all-time leader in receptions (672)? Well, Welker would be the winner of best Belichick free agent signing, but he’s not eligible.

The Patriots prepared to make a restricted free agent offer sheet to Welker in 2007 with a provision that would’ve made it difficult for Miami to match. To avoid acrimony, the teams worked out a trade, with the Patriots sending a second-round pick and a seventh-rounder for Welker.

My FA vote goes to Judon in a run-off with Harrison.

If you can make a case that you’re the best of anything Belichick, then you’re doing something right.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him @cgasper and on Instagram @cgaspersports.