For the first time in quite a long time, the New England Patriots headlined nearly every major transaction on the first unofficial day of NFL free agency. Monday at noon marked the start of the tampering period, when teams and players could come to agreements but nothing can be made official until Wednesday. Despite that, it's usually the day where most of the biggest free agents come off the board as franchises across the league speed-dial agents across the country to get their guys.
Bill Belichick was a busy man yesterday. The Patriots came to terms with six free agents in the span of about seven hours, handing out more guaranteed money in one day of free agency than they had in the previous 10 years combined on the open market. The first came in the form of a four-year, $51 million agreement with tight end Jonnu Smith with $31 million guaranteed. It was a lot of money for a relatively unproven player, but it filled a massive hole in the roster that had been present for several years. After that, though... things got confusing.
The second wave of news brought New England's signing of Dolphins defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, a two-year $16 million pact with $9 million guaranteed. Even if most fans haven't heard of the guy, the intention was obvious. Belichick loves having a big, space-eating defensive tackle in the middle of the line. Ted Washington first held that role for the early years of the Patriots' dynasty, followed by a decade of dominance from Vince Wilfork.
Even after Wilfork retired, Belichick tried to fill the spot by spending a first-round pick on Malcolm Brown and trading for Danny Shelton, two players who played big parts in two of the three Super Bowl wins that came in the 2010s. Such a player was sorely missed within the Patriots' run defense last season. New England was 25th in the league in total rush yards allowed, which presumably offended Belichick's defensive sensibilities. Godchaux is exactly the type of guy Belichick likes, the money wasn't huge, and he also has a sick name. So that signing lined up.
But then the Patriots signed a top-of-the-market edge rusher in Matthew Judon, something Belichick has never done before during his reign in Foxborough. It was a similar deal to Smith's, a four-year agreement worth $56 million with $32 million guaranteed over the first two seasons. Judon is a versatile defender who doesn't put up gaudy stats (6 sacks, 21 QB hits, and 11 hurries in 2020) but can set the edge and even drop into coverage if need be. That kind of multifaceted play is what Belichick likes in his defenders, but Judon's overall profile is exactly the type of guy Belichick hates to sign; Judon had an outstanding contract year in 2019 with a career-high 9.5 sacks, got franchise-tagged, then regressed to the mean in 2020. The Patriots let other teams overpay for such players in the past, yet here they are, giving Judon the bag.
The signing of Jalen Mills to a four-year, $24 million deal with $9 million guaranteed (he'll make $9 million over the first two seasons) was the next domino to fall, perhaps the most confusing move of them all. Mills' greatest strength, like Judon, is his versatility. He can line up everywhere in the secondary and even took seven percent of his snaps in 2020 on the defensive line, somehow. But if there were any position group that didn't need any reinforcement in New England, it was the secondary. They have arguably the best corner grouping in the league with Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and Jonathon Jones. Even if the rumblings of a potential Gilmore trade comes to fruition, the Pats have 2019 second-round pick JoeJuan Williams as a reserve, and Belichick has shown the ability to grow quality corners on trees lately. Signing depth is never the worst idea, but for that money? It doesn't make a lot of sense.
But Belichick is a defense guy. Doubt his ability to put players in the best position to succeed at your own risk on that side of the ball. Even if it seems like a lot of dough for Mills and Judon, New England did have $68 million to work with when the day began. There was money to burn. The offense, however, needed more work than the defense, especially in the form of players who could catch the ball.
I outlined how valuable the Smith signing will be for Cam Newton yesterday, especially given how abjectly awful the tight end group was last year. The Patriots' first move on Tuesday was to sign Hunter Henry, the other top tight end available, to a three-year deal worth $37.5 million with $25 million guaranteed. It seems that Beilchick's solve to the pass-catching problem is to lean heavily on tight ends, which could work. It did for the early part of the last decade, and quite well at that. But Smith's career year last year saw him catch 41 passes for 448 yards. Henry is more of a pure receiving TE, recording 60 catches for 613 yards and four touchdowns. But he hasn't played a full season in the NFL in his five-year career and is perpetually banged-up. It's a risky endeavor.
It's especially risky when considering the receiver position was in equally dire straits entering Monday. Julian Edelman will be 34-years-old and coming off a season-ending knee injury. His best years are behind him. The two leading receivers for the team last year, Damiere Byrd and Jakobi Meyers, are best used as No. 3 options. The Pats needed a desperate influx of talent.
To do that, they signed... Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Bourne, who inked a three-year deal worth $22.5 million, had 49 catches for 667 yards last year and is very similar to Meyers in playstyle, a shifty wideout who can find the open holes in the zone and create just enough separation to get open, but isn't blowing anyone away in any manner imaginable. Agholor, signed to a two-year, $26 million deal with $9 million guaranteed, certainly has a rep for a man plagued with the dropsies after a tough start to his career in Philadelphia, but was a huge part of the Raiders' offense in 2020 by catching 48 balls for 896 yards and eight touchdowns.
Bourne feels like a classic Patriots signing from their dynasty run, an under-appreciated guy getting paid by Belichick because he sees something everyone else doesn't. But Agholor? Agholor is like Judon. He's coming off the best year of his career, a contract year, in line for a big payday for some team that believes his days of completely ineffectual play are behind him. The Patriots are never that team. Except this time, they are.
The Henry signing clarified the Bourne and Agholor agreements a bit. Belichick apparently doesn't believe in the top of this free agent class for receiver and it's not a terribly deep group. He's going all-in on tight ends, hoping Smith and Henry can combine to be Newton's No. 1 option while anything they get from the wideouts is just gravy. That is definitely a strategy. It might work. But that's a lot of money to give out to a group of players without substantial track records of success. Belichick is usually the smartest guy in the room. But most of these signings are uncharacteristic and more than a little confusing.