A 7-9 campaign in largely empty stadiums and with virtual training sessions did not allow the New England Patriots to stick to the script that had been written to rave reviews for two decades.
So instead of winning a championship, the Patriots found themselves in the unusual position of competing to win the offseason, which started with a record-setting spending spree in free agency.
“We’ve never been in a position where we have spent the kind of money in free agency that we did this year,” Kraft, whose team handed out almost $160 million in guaranteed money in free agency, noted. “I think if there was ever a year to do it, this would be the year because we’d move quickly and instead of having 10 or 12 teams compete against us for free agents, there were only two or three. I think our personnel department did an outstanding job in setting the priorities. We moved quickly and we also had the advantage of being in a unique position of having [the second- or third-most] cap space.”
In a year where the league lost $4 billion in revenue and lowered the cap, Kraft and the Patriots were buying left and right. They upgraded their wide receiver and tight end depth in a major way, and added defensive difference-makers.
“What happened here last year was not something to our liking,” Kraft admitted. “We had to make the corrections. In all businesses we’re involved in, we try to take advantage of inefficiencies in the market.”
Some of those corrections, Kraft admitted, came back to recent misses in the NFL Draft.
“We missed, to a certain extent in the Draft, so [free agency] was our best opportunity,” Kraft said. “I don’t ever think the market over the next decade will be like [this] unless, God forbid, there’s another pandemic. We just happened to be in a unique situation. This was about what’s doing right for our team.”
Looking at where the money was spent, it’s not hard to see where Kraft was pointing when mentioning recent draft picks.
After having league-worst production from the tight end position in 2019, the Patriots went out and drafted Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. But the Patriots once again had dreadful production from the tight end position, and the rookie duo combined for just five catches and 55 yards in 2020. So the team went out and spent a combined $87.5 million (56.25 million in guaranteed money) on Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. The Patriots essentially went from hoping to get one of the market’s top tight ends to getting both, setting New England up to have its most effective one-two punch at tight end since the days of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
At the wideout position, the Patriots invested a combined $48.5 million (and just over $20 million in guaranteed money) in Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor. This, of course, is after 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry continued to struggle to become a game-breaker like his ’19 classmates, with a 33-catch, 309-yard sophomore season, and with some recent trade rumors beginning to create doubt as to Harry’s future in New England. But Harry isn’t the only offender, with the Patriots drafting eight wideouts over their previous nine drafts and just one (Malcolm Mitchell) truly making an impact.
The Patriots also restocked their linebacker depth a year after taking three in the 2020 NFL Draft, and spent $24 million on defensive back Jalen Mills despite taking three defensive backs with Top-56 picks over the previous three drafts.
Kraft by all means spent to not only take advantage of a market that was flipped upside down by a global pandemic, but to also prevent a potential repeat of what he considered a ‘horrible’ 2020 season by the Patriots’ standards.
And while there’s no banner to be raised for winning an offseason, as the Patriots know better than most, the franchise’s 79-year-old owner knows that there’s something to be said for looking at the opportunity opposed to the risk.
“When you’re in business, you have an opportunity to do something,” Kraft said. “It’s like I had an opportunity to buy the Patriots at a time when people would have advised me against it. People advised me not to hire Bill Belichick because of what happened in Cleveland. People would say exactly what you’re saying now. ‘Look at what’s happened with other teams.’ But you have to look at the customized part of what’s going on and I think we collectively made a decision that this is a unique time and now we’ll see how good our people were in evaluating talent and the chemistry.
“That hasn’t been the style we’ve used, but conditions have changed and we were in a unique space. And I hope and pray it works the way our plan was.”