The Patriots were plenty busy during the first week of NFL free agency. They signed 15 players and said goodbye to five, including their leading receiver from last year (Jakobi Meyers) and one of their top cornerbacks (Jalen Mills).
Let’s take a deeper look at the biggest moves.
1. Not only is JuJu Smith-Schuster better than Meyers, he also signed a team-friendlier contract.
There is risk in Smith-Schuster not picking up the offense quickly enough, but in a vacuum, he is the superior receiver. He is better after the catch, has a 1,400-yard season on his résumé, and is 15 pounds heavier and a more physical receiver.
The Patriots also got Smith-Schuster on friendlier terms than the Raiders got Meyers. Both technically signed three-year deals worth a maximum of $33 million, but the details are much different.
Most reports have stated that Meyers’s contract has only one year and $10.5 million fully guaranteed, and the Raiders can get out of it for no penalty after one year. But those reports are missing a significant detail: Meyers also has a $5.5 million roster bonus due next March that is fully guaranteed at signing, giving him a true $16 million guarantee over two seasons.
Meyers’s contract is strong from a player perspective, with only $255,000 in roster bonuses ($15,000 per game) each season, and no incentives. All he has to do is show up for offseason training and Week 1, and he makes $10.745 million for the season. Then with half of his 2024 compensation already guaranteed, the Raiders just have to consider Meyers’s $5 million salary when deciding whether to keep him. Only the final year of his contract, at $11 million, is totally nonguaranteed.
Smith-Schuster, meanwhile, has to earn his contract. He has $1 million in roster bonuses each year ($58,824 per game), plus $7.5 million in receiving yards incentives ($1.5 million in 2023, $3 million each in 2024 and 2025).
If Smith-Schuster and Meyers don’t play a single game or catch a single pass over the next two years, Meyers will collect $21.5 million and Smith-Schuster $16 million. Smith-Schuster has to be healthy and productive to match Meyers’s compensation.
Meyers tweeted “cold world” when reports emerged that he and Smith-Schuster signed identical contracts, but Meyers would much rather have the deal he signed. And Patriots fans should be pleased with the upgrade in talent.
NFL Players Association records show that the Falcons picked up Smith’s entire contract in the trade — an $11 million salary this year, with $6.25 million fully guaranteed — and it’s a miracle that the Patriots convinced the Falcons to take it all. Smith does leave behind $12.81 million in dead cap space, but that’s a lot better than the $17 million he was on the books for.
And the Patriots got a solid bargain in Gesicki, whose market never materialized after his production was cut in half in Mike McDaniel’s Miami offense. The Gesicki contract was originally reported as one year and $9 million, but it has a base value of just $4.5 million ($3.55 million guaranteed), with $4.5 million in performance incentives.
There is little risk for the Patriots, and Gesicki is a clear upgrade from Smith as a receiving tight end and should be a nice weapon in the red zone.
3. Riley Reiff is the new starting right tackle.
His one-year deal has a base value of $5 million with $4.15 million fully guaranteed, plus $4 million in playing-time incentives for a maximum of $9 million. That’s starter money.
Reiff, who played at Iowa for close Bill Belichick confidant Kirk Ferentz, began his career as a left tackle in 2012 and played on that side for eight seasons (111 starts), but played right tackle in 2016, 2021, and 2022 (38 starts), including 10 starts last year for the Bears. The Patriots just need him to stay healthy and provide adequate blocking on the right side.
Calvin Anderson, who started 12 games in three years with the Broncos, is likely the Patriots’ top backup tackle after getting a two-year, $7 million deal with $4 million fully guaranteed. The Patriots also have Conor McDermott ($700,000 guaranteed) and Yodny Cajuste ($0 guaranteed).
There’s also a slight possibility that the Patriots view Anderson as the starting left tackle. Anderson has started only 12 games in three years, but Trent Brown’s $12.25 million cap number is an albatross.
4. Cornerback Jonathan Jones is a terrific signing.
He was the Patriots’ best cornerback by a mile last year, and the Patriots got him back at a hometown discount of $19 million over two years, plus $1 million in incentives. Jones got $13 million fully guaranteed, meaning he’ll be around for the life of the contract. It’s the best money the Patriots have spent this offseason.
5. Running back James Robinson is a curious one.
Robinson, coming back from a torn Achilles’ tendon suffered in December of 2021, bombed out after being acquired in a midseason trade by the Jets. He averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in four games; the Jets made him a healthy scratch in six of the final seven weeks, then didn’t offer him a restricted free agent contract this month.
While initially reported as a two-year, $8 million deal, the Patriots really signed Robinson to a base deal of $4.5 million, with only $1.25 million guaranteed and $3.5 million in incentives. Those numbers suggest his roster spot isn’t secured.
6. No one pays top dollar for special teams like the Patriots.
They gave Joe Cardona a record contract for a long snapper, a four-year, maximum $6.7 million deal with a record $1 million signing bonus and $2.6 million fully guaranteed. The Patriots also signed former Lions linebacker Chris Board to a two-year, maximum $6.7 million deal with $2.6 million guaranteed.
Board has averaged 344 special teams snaps per year in a five-year career with Baltimore and Detroit, and at 6 feet 3 inches and 230 pounds, has a size/speed combination that is rare for special teams. Last year, Belichick called Board “the best special teams player we’ll play against all year.”
The investments in special teams are almost eye-rolling given how poorly the offense has played the last few years. But after allowing three kickoff-return touchdowns and a blocked punt in 2022, the Patriots certainly need to reinforce the special teams.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.