Belichick depends on second-year jump for Patriots’ 2021 free agent class
It’s the biggest lightning rod of the 2022 Patriots off-season so far: why did Bill Belichick sit out the arms race that ignited the AFC at the start of free agency?
The answer is simple: the Pats did their big 2022 spending in 2021. As Mike Reiss explained in a recent column at ESPN.com, Belichick “essentially did two years’ worth of free-agent shopping in 2021, hoping to capitalize on a depressed market.” So the Patriots’ then-record spending spree at the start of 2021 free agency (a record the Jaguars broke in 2022) makes more sense when viewed as two halves instead of a whole.
The Patriots’ biggest free agents from 2021 are in their mid-to-late-20s and enter 2022 fully healthy. Some key acquisitions signed for three seasons (Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne) or four (Matthew Judon, Jonnu Smith, Jalen Mills). Even with Smith and other free agents struggling to live up to the price tag, the infusion of fresh free-agent talent gave the 2021 Patriots an immediate boost. But this was never meant to be a one-year rush. They are not done building or developing those players.
Belichick ostensibly confirmed on Monday at the AFC coaches’ breakfast that he and the Patriots, instead of spending big for a second straight year, are looking to improve internally as last year’s additions take a step forward.
“Spent a lot of money last year. Those guys are all young, they’re under contract,” Belichick said. He later added: “I think some of the players that we have on the roster, hopefully, will take a step up. But we’ll see. We’ll have other players, there will be new players here. See what happens with them.”
The Patriots certainly aren’t done building their roster. They have 22 open spots, so even after the draft, there should be at least a few openings for free agents or potential trade acquisitions to fill out the 90.
But outside of a major, Davante Adams-esque move, the most likely road to improvement is ridden with the cars already in the garage.
Smith has the most room for improvement, and may very well be the key to the offense making a leap. That’s a scary proposition after the 26-year-old tight end made just 28 catches and was targeted only 45 times in 2021. He was credited with four drops, one of which resulted in a pick-six against the Saints. Quarterback Mac Jones had an abysmal 70.0 passer rating when targeting Smith.
However, when Smith did get the ball in his hands, he came as advertised in the YAC department. He posted 8.3 yards after catch per reception, which would’ve ranked him third among all qualifying receivers & tight ends. Also, the post-Josh McDaniels offense is likely to use more two-tight end formations, which was bizarrely rare after the team spent more than $56 million in guaranteed money on Smith and Henry. The Patriots played only 14 percent of their 2021 offensive snaps in “12” personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers). That figures to go up with Belichick playing a bigger role in offense in 2022.
At wide receiver, Nelson Agholor still projects as the “X” starter on the outside. Agholor caught just 37 passes in 15 games in the 2021 season, while posting his lowest yards per game since 2016. His offensive snaps fluctuated, and he received only two targets in the Patriots’ wild card loss to the Bills, despite playing 83 percent of snaps.
Unless the Patriots have a surprise trade up their sleeve, or draft a receiver high, they’re not likely to add one with appreciably more upside than the 28-year-old Agholor at this point.
Belichick wasn’t necessarily wrong about his assessment of the overall market, which particularly exploded for wide receivers and pass rushers. Adams and Tyreek Hill signed record-setting deals after moving in massive trade hauls, while Christian Kirk somehow got the Jaguars to commit $37 million guaranteed to him. The Chiefs signed Marquez Valdes-Scantling to an Agholor-esque deal worth $10 million annually. Ditto the Bucs and Russell Gage. Similarly, compare the $20 million AAV for 33-year-old Von Miller in Buffalo to the $14M they’re paying for Judon.
The question is whether the Patriots spent their money on the right players.
Belichick is banking on a year-two payoff for the 2021 free-agent class. That even applies to linebacker Judon, who signed a four-year deal at $14 million annually and looked like an All-Pro candidate before his production plummeted after the Pats’ bye week. Judon certainly qualifies as a cornerstone player for the life of his contract in New England, but he also could play better down the stretch.
The Patriots have notched up their free agency activity since the first wave, specifically on defense. They re-signed cornerback Malcolm Butler for a surprising second stint, and on Tuesday agreed to a one-year deal with safety Jabrill Peppers. The latter is exactly the type of free agent we should’ve expected in 2022: still young (Peppers is 26 years old), depressed asset (coming off an ACL injury), but big-time potential (former first-round pick).
But for the biggest leap in talent and production, the Patriots are going to have to look within. Based on Belichick’s comments, that is precisely the plan.
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