Apparently Bill Belichick wasn’t kidding.
“We’re five weeks behind the other teams for the 2017 season.”
The NFL collectively rolled its eyes at that half-joking (but really not) buzz-killing line from the New England Patriots coach, delivered less than 24 hours after seizing the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl ring. Only someone as pathologically goal-driven as Belichick could deliver a line like that and actually mean it. Five weeks later, there should be little doubt about whether Belichick was serious. Or moreover, whether the Patriots have the energy to shift back into gear this offseason.
They’ve already done it. Five weeks behind has already turned into light years ahead. Just like that, with a one page flip of the calendar, the Patriots have dominated the early portion of the offseason. Not only has the franchise come away from the opening salvo of free agency as the league’s big winner, Belichick has replenished the roster to the point that next season’s Patriots appear to be better than the edition that just won a Super Bowl.
Consider the internal mechanics of these big moves:
1. Seizing on a wide receiver market that quickly went soft in free agency, the Patriots basically stole wideout Brandin Cooks for the 32nd pick in the draft, with an additional light sweetener of swapping a third-round pick for the Saints’ fourth. Belichick has had a strong respect for Cooks for several years and knows he’s a player the Patriots can move inside and out in an effort to stretch defenses with his deep speed. All of which will only make the Patriots two athletic tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, even better – not to mention the versatile stable of pass-catching running backs the Patriots employ.
Here’s what makes this move even more lucrative for New England: It viewed the 32nd overall pick as a mid-second round value at best, anyway. Why? The Patriots “very rarely” assign a first-round grade to more than 15-20 players in the NFL draft, a league source told Yahoo Sports. In personnel terms, this means the second-round grades for New England typically begin in the late teens or early 20s for the franchise. So in theory, the 32nd pick would typically offer a player who has a grade similar to a player drafted as late as the 45th pick (or even later). In that way, the value at the end of the first round for the Patriots may be similar to the middle of the second or even later. From New England’s vantage point, the first-round pick surrendered for Cooks was no better than a second-round talent. And trading that kind of selection for a proven commodity like Cooks is a no-brainer. Particularly when you factor that he could widen the Super Bowl window for quarterback Tom Brady, and that the Patriots get Cooks for at least two seasons before having to consider a long-term contract.
2. They traded the 64th overall pick for Carolina Panthers pass rushing defensive end Kony Ealy and the 72nd pick, and then signed Baltimore Ravens defensive end Lawrence Guy. Think of these along the lines of last offseason’s Chris Long signing. After losing Long in free agency, a 25-year-old Ealy is younger and cheaper. He’s also very motivated heading into the final year of his contract, staring at ample opportunity to maximize both opportunity and value. That’s a good combination to have in a young pass rusher. While he doesn’t currently cut the figure of a top end edge rusher or playmaker, Ealy has shown some flashes of a higher ceiling. And Guy will add a solid run defender to the line, giving the Patriots a stout rotation.
It’s worth noting that neither of those players has the production, name recognition or “splash” of guys like Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins and Jabaal Sheard. But they also don’t come with the salary cap anchor that would have been incurred had the Patriots tried to keep that threesome. While the Patriots might be more talented up the middle or on the edges with those three players, the financial commitment to sign them elsewhere was a whopping $158 million with over $90 million in guaranteed money. As much as that trio brings to the table when motivated, their massive new deals take a lot of sting out of New England’s decision to move on and focus funds elsewhere.
3. Trading for the Indianapolis Colts’ Dwayne Allen – an oft-injured but undeniably talented player – fits perfectly with the double tight end mismatches the Patriots like to employ. A league source told Yahoo Sports that Belichick worked backchannels to put the Allen trade together when it became clear the price of his predecessor, Martellus Bennett, wasn’t where New England wanted it. And now there’s a solid argument that Allen may be, at worst, a comparable piece to Bennett in the offense. Not only is he three years younger, but the Patriots had to part with only a fourth-round pick in exchange for Allen and a sixth-rounder. Allen is also roughly $4 million cheaper than Bennett for the next three seasons on a contract that is extremely cuttable after 2017.
4. The Patriots dipped deep into their pockets to sign No. 1 free-agent cover cornerback Stephon Gilmore. A player who – if motivated to buy into the New England way – has the talent to be a perennial All-Pro. It’s scary playing the “if he’s motivated” game with a player who was earmarked $40 million in guaranteed money and will get an average of $13 million per season. But two things are worth noting. First, the Patriots have safeties who help them get the most out of their cornerbacks. And second, a league source said Belichick has gotten to know Gilmore inside the division for years and also leaned on wideout Chris Hogan for a lot of inside intelligence. A former Bills receiver, Hogan played with Gilmore for three seasons and had plenty of insight for Patriots coaches.
It’s safe to say New England is secure when it comes to squeezing the most out of Gimore. It’s also foolish to bet against the Patriots when they identify a guy as a “must” signing and then pay him near the top of his market. It also suggests that the Patriots are amping up the secondary to help cover for last season’s pass-rushing deficiencies. But with Gilmore and Malcolm Butler both true man-to-man cover corners, it will give plenty of opportunities to manufacture a pass rush through scheme. Or at the very least, get more aggressive with some of the play-calling. That could change if Butler attempts to force an exit.
And of course, there’s more. Like every offseason, the Patriots managed to keep a few guys with incentive-driven numbers they liked, like defensive tackle Alan Branch and defensive back Duron Harmon. And they may still get a few others like running back LeGarrette Blount and linebacker Dont’a Hightower back at prices that fit into the overall picture. Not that New England is taking a laid-back approach with either. The Patriots already have other low-priced running backs on their radar to replace Blount. And they’re keeping close tabs on Hightower, who a league source said is seeking a deal in the range of Jamie Collins’ (four years for $50 million and $26.4 million guaranteed). At the moment, it appears the guaranteed money is the most difficult barrier. But if Hightower was going to get Collins money, it would have happened by now. The likelier outcome is a return to New England at a middle-ground number.
Lest we forget in all of this, there is still the matter of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who despite all the reports of his high price will surely draw additional trade interest as the draft approaches. His trade value remains higher than ever before and that will keep the door open for added fireworks near the draft.
That’s a lot of action in what amounted to one furious first week of free agency. And there’s no doubt that the Patriots aren’t done yet. But five weeks after winning the Super Bowl and supposedly falling behind the rest of the league, one thing is clear: The Patriots are right back where they left off in Houston.
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