FOXBOROUGH — If there’s a lesson in the Patriots’ personnel decisions over the past year, it’s that rosters aren’t necessarily built in the immediate weeks following the start of free agency.
The Patriots never made a splash, just ripples, in signing new players this past March, and waited until September to make their biggest move. Reevaluating New England’s player acquisitions now, we found that the team plucked a few good players via trade, had hits and misses in free agency, and got away with one midseason coup teams around the NFL have to be regretting they let happen.
The Patriots’ free agent class was small, with defensive end Adrian Clayborn, running back Jeremy Hill, and wide receiver Jordan Matthews making up the biggest names.
Clayborn was the highest-profile signing and earned a two-year deal worth up to $12.5 million with $5.5 million guaranteed. He’s also the only player of those three still on the active roster.
His signing has worked out pretty well. Clayborn is tied for third on the team with 2.5 sacks, and he’s third outright with 11 quarterback hits (behind Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise).
He’s been working on his tendency to run past the quarterback, but his issues with containment have led the Patriots to give him fewer snaps in games against mobile quarterbacks. Clayborn still made a big impact, half a sack, a forced fumble, and two quarterback hits in just 17 snaps, against the Packers in Week 9.
“He’s a guy that is willing to do any and everything that is asked of him,” defensive line coach Brendan Daly said of Clayborn. “He’s provided us with some good plays out there. I’d say, as with all of us, coaches and players, there’s some things that he needs to improve on and a level of consistency, I would say, that we need to gain there, but he’s certainly not the only person in that category.”
Hill is one of the bigger what-ifs of the Patriots season. He was signed for one year and $1.5 million, then tore his ACL in the season opener. The Patriots had been high on him, and a sudden lack of running back depth hurt New England midseason, but it’s not Hill’s fault he got hurt.
Matthews is the clear whiff of the free agent class. He was expected to be a significant addition but never played a down because of an injured hamstring. He got healthy and is now contributing for the Eagles. Matthews cost the Patriots just $300,000, but if this had worked out his abilities in the slot could have been helpful during Julian Edelman’s suspension.
Most of the Patriots’ newcomers were acquired via trade, where the phone lines between New England and Cleveland remain open. Both the best and worst trades, in hindsight, were for former Browns.
The trade that, so far, has been the biggest disappointment was for defensive tackle Danny Shelton, who cost the Patriots a third-round draft pick (New England got a fifth-round pick back along with the player).
Shelton has been a healthy scratch two weeks in a row and has started only one game this season after starting 45 of 46 during his time in Cleveland. Notably, the Patriots chose to activate just three defensive tackles last Sunday in the Miami heat, and Shelton wasn’t one of them.
“The competitor in me is always going to feel that little frustration, but at the same time I believe in my guys,” Shelton said. “I believe they can get the job done. It’s just a minor setback.”
New England’s run defense ranks 27th in the league in yards per carry, allowing 4.9 per run. That’s a group issue but Shelton, a run-stuffer by nature, hasn’t been able to win playing time despite the poor performance against the run of other teammates. The Patriots declined the fifth-year option on the 2015 first-rounder this spring, which now seems like a good call that keeps this from being an expensive mistake.
Two Browns trades worked out well. Cornerback Jason McCourty cost a sixth-for-seventh-round-pick swap, makes a $1.6 million base salary, and has been a solid starter opposite Stephon Gilmore.
He had a down game against the Dolphins, getting benched in two-cornerback sets for J.C. Jackson after giving up four catches on four targets for 81 yards to Kenny Stills in the first half, but entered that game as Pro Football Focus’s No. 7 overall cornerback.
“He plays multiple spots on the defense, so he really has moved around probably more than any other player in the secondary,” coach Bill Belichick said. “But even at corner, he’s played inside. He’s played outside, unlike really any other player we have. He played safety. He’s a smart guy. He’s a versatile player.”
If McCourty was a steal, Josh Gordon was an epic heist. He cost a fifth-round pick and, since Week 4, leads the NFL with 18 yards per catch. Gordon’s troubles off the field and a history of limited success for new receivers in New England made this seem like a shot in the dark, but it’s turned out to be a bull’s-eye plenty of teams must be regretting they allowed to happen.
Don’t forget that the Browns wanted Gordon in the NFC, but couldn’t get any other teams to match the Patriots’ offer, and that Gordon will be a restricted free agent this year, meaning that the Patriots can keep him at non-exorbitant cost.
“He’s hard to cover. You can be right there and he’ll make big catches. He’s got great size, you can’t teach that,” said Gilmore, who often covers Gordon in practice.
The other impressive feat via trade the Patriots pulled off was seamlessly replacing Nate Solder at left tackle with Trent Brown. Brown cost the Patriots a third-round pick via trade with San Francisco (they also got a fifth-rounder in return) and has started every game.
Right now, the Patriots are getting great value at $1.9 million in Brown’s contract year, while Solder became the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league for the Giants. Brown has kept his weight under control and shown tremendous athleticism in run blocking while holding up well in the passing game.
Finally, the Patriots swapped late-round picks with the Raiders for wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, a.k.a. “The Experiment.” Patterson is second in the league with 30.7 yards per kickoff return, filled in at running back when Sony Michel was injured, and has started to run a few bona fide wide receiver routes of late (his 37-yard touchdown against Miami and 29-yard reception against Minnesota come to mind). The Patriots have not magically turned him into the player the Vikings thought they drafted in the first round in 2013, but as Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said, “They’re using him way better than we did.” And at good value.
Value is the word that comes up most often on this list. If there’s a major qualm, it’s that New England didn’t do much in terms of building for the future since most of these players are only under the Patriots’ control for one or two years. But there are more hits than misses and, in Gordon, New England got away with highway robbery.
Nora Princiotti can be reached at email@example.com.