The Patriots are moving slowly into free agency, and if history is any guide, we won’t really know until late in 2018 whether their roster additions and subtractions were the right moves.
But we probably know of one person who isn’t happy with the way things are going right now:
The Patriots lost two of Brady’s favorite targets Wednesday when receiver Danny Amendola agreed to a deal with the Miami Dolphins, a league source confirmed, and Dion Lewis agreed to a deal with the Tennessee Titans, ESPN reported. The deals won’t become official until 4 p.m. on Wednesday.
The Patriots also may lose Brady’s blind-side protector. A league source said Tuesday that the Browns are hot on Nate Solder’s trail, and the Texans also are reportedly serious about adding him. He’s the best (and only) starting-caliber left tackle available in free agency, and both the Browns and Texans are swimming in salary-cap space ($70 million or so) and can outbid the Patriots.
Meanwhile, Brady’s star tight end grows grumpier by the day. Rob Gronkowski, due $19 million over the next two years, still wants a new contract. And now he sees unproven players such as Trey Burton, who has 629 yards and 6 touchdowns in four seasons, signing for $8 million per year ($32 million over four years) with the Bears in free agency.
Losing Amendola and Lewis, and playing hardball with Solder and Gronkowski might be good business for the front office, but certainly can’t make TB12 too happy. He doesn’t have many years left, as he made all-too-clear in the latest “Tom vs Time” documentary, and the prospect of entering the season without his All Pro tight end, blindside protector and clutch third-down receiver.
The Solder and Gronkowski situations are still tenable. The Patriots can always do with Solder what they did with Devin McCourty in 2015 — let him get to market, get a few offers from other teams, then strike at the last minute with their serious counteroffer. And with Gronkowski, he has only $4 million in dead money left on his contract, so ripping up his deal and signing him to a new one might make a lot of sense, both in keeping Gronk happy and in lowering his salary-cap hits.
Losing Lewis seemed inevitable, though he won’t be easy to replace. Lewis was the third-most important player on the offense last season, behind Brady and Gronk, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and leading the team with 10 total touchdowns in the regular season.
But the Amendola loss is surprising, and has to sting Brady, especially since Julian Edelman is returning from a torn ACL and might not be himself right away.
The NFL Network reported that Amendola signed a two-year deal with a maximum value of $12 million and $8.25 million guaranteed. If those numbers are accurate, it represents a significant pay increase for Amendola, 32, who made $1.7 million last year and $6 million over the last three years combined.
Amendola never put up big numbers in the regular season, but he was Mr. Clutch when Brady and the Patriots needed him the most: The 81 yards and two touchdowns he had in the 2015 playoff win over the Ravens; the touchdowns he caught in Super Bowl wins over Seattle and Atlanta; the game-tying 2-point conversion against the Falcons; the 27-yard catch on third and 18 last season against the Texans; the 21-yard catch on third and 18 in the AFC Championship win over the Jaguars.
And Amendola absolutely dominated the 2018 postseason, leading the Patriots with 26 catches for 348 yards in three games, while catching two touchdown passes. He had 11 catches for 112 yards against the Titans in the divisional round, carried the Patriots with two touchdown catches in the AFC Championship win while Gronk was out with a concussion, then had eight catches for 152 yards in the Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia.
His teammates and fans called him Danny “Playoff” Amendola, but he came through pretty much in any clutch situation. He had 18 catches and 15 conversions on third down, second-most on the team. He was 2 for 2 on fourth down with two conversions.
“Dude, how does Danny get so good in the playoffs?” Gronkowski said rhetorically to Brady in a phone conversation after the Jaguars win on the latest “Tom vs Time.”
“That was unreal,” Brady said.
What’s also unreal is Amendola’s career arc with the Patriots, which has run the gamut from superstar to bust and back again.
He signed a five-year, $28.4 million contract in 2013 to replace Wes Welker and be Brady’s new 100-catch slot receiver. But Amendola was slow to learn the offense, had some durability issues, and was quickly overtaken by Edelman.
Amendola had just 633 yards and two touchdowns in his first season, followed by 200 yards and one touchdown in 2014. It was a rare misjudgment by the Patriots front office, and the only reason Amendola stuck around was because of his contract; cap- and cash-wise, the Patriots were better off keeping Amendola.
By Year 3, they gave him significant pay cuts. Amendola didn’t have many other options around the league, so he bit his lip and took it. That five-year, $31 million contract suddenly became five years and $17.9 million.
But boy, are the Patriots glad they kept Amendola around instead of cutting him. Amendola never had more than 65 catches, 666 yards, or 4 touchdowns in a season for the Patriots, but he became one of Brady’s most trusted receivers — and this year, a nice fill-in for Edelman.
Amendola came up with big play after big play, at a bargain rate.
And Amendola benefited from the relationship, too, becoming an off-the-field superstar and now a professional model with one of the biggest agencies (Tom Ford) thanks to his association with Brady and the big stages that the Patriots consistently put him on.
The Patriots probably should have gotten rid of Amendola three years ago, but kept him. Now, they probably should have kept him, but let him walk away to Miami.
It might be the right move to let a 32-year-old slot receiver with durability issues leave in free agency.
But for Brady, this loss has to sting.