What in the world is going on in Foxboro?
This offseason the Patriots took a new approach in comparison to their patient small-changes offseason we’ve come to expect each year. Usually, a big name splash is rare for the Patriots, and accumulating draft picks seems like the right idea. So what the hell is going on in the mind of Bill Belichick?
With 60 million to spend starting the offseason and plenty of players hitting free agency, here’s what has happened thus far in free agency.
1. The Patriots re-signed smaller name marquee players Alan Branch, James Develin and Duron Harmon to smaller deals.
These moves are actually huge. The impact both have on defense don’t always show up on the stat chart, but it shows in-game. Alan Branch has been monumental in the trenches, stopping the run with his big body allowing linebackers to press other holes easily and mentoring the youngsters on a very fresh defensive line has been huge. Coined as Uncle Phil, Branch signed a two-year deal and will likely finish his career with the Patriots continuing to be an important piece to the defensive puzzle.
Harmon is equally as important on defense. Aside from late-game interceptions to seal big games, Harmon’s role has to be one of Belichick and Matt Patricia’s most important pieces. His uncanny ability to cover the deep threat helps alleviate the cornerbacks and most importantly lets Safety Devin McCourty play whatever and wherever he needs to on the field. Harmon is a huge asset to the multi-purposed McCourty. He signed a four year deal with the Patriots.
James Develin is a non stat-sheet guy who needs no introduction. His presence is felt when in-game from pass and run protection. He is easily one of the best fullbacks in the game, and re-signing him to a multi-year deal on a small cost is a no-brainer for Bill Belichick.
2. The Patriots traded for Tight End Dwayne Allen (Colts) and Defensive End Kony Ealy (Panthers).
These are again smaller moves that will turn out to be huge. Getting Dwayne Allen will help replace the star Martellus Bennett, which is certainly a down-grade but is still a very safe move. Having Allen is a great source for a number 2 Tight end in double TE sets, something the Patriots love, and having a number 2 TE who is probably greater than half of the starting TE’s in the league. He is a huge asset in the blocking game, which is great for Old Man Brady’s protection (along with a re-vamped offensive line and FB James Devellin).
When Rob Gronkowski inevitably gets hurt during the season, we have a solid option at Tight End. The only year guaranteed on his contract is 2017, so if Allen turns out to be terrible, we can re-start the “safe #2 TE” option all over again.
Kony Ealy I know little about. He’s 25, played DE for the Panthers, and from what I know is a big-bodied lineman who is good at stopping the run. This is a great asset, especially pairing with the youngster Trey Flowers who is also a big bodied run-stopper at Defensive End. One thing that has caused us trouble in the past was outside running by opposing teams (see Falcons RBs in the SuperBowl; Le’veon Bell when healthy). If the interior run defense remains stellar, there’s little a team can do against us in the run (a statement we haven’t heard in a LONG time).
3. Patriots sign defensive lineman Lawrence Guy and Pro-Bowl cornerback Stephon Gillmore.
I’ll get the shorter statement out of the way first – Lawrence Guy is a big-bodied interior lineman with the ability to stuff run-gaps and has versatility to play anywhere on the line. In short, Lawrence is just a Guy. Expect him to be a rotational big-man, and with a four year 20 million dollar contract, he may be ushered in as a starter along Malcolm Brown come Alan Branch’s retirement in two years.
Stephon Gillmore is a situation that both excites me and scares me, the kind that has me chewing my nails down a little too much. Okay that was gross, but seriously, this is perplexing. Bill Belichick gave 40 million guaranteed to the Bills ex-cornerback who is a CB #1 in the league, but is coming off his worst year with tons of physicality penalties and streakiness. This is stranger when you recall that absolute star cornerback and New England favorite Malcolm Butler is due for a big payday – around the same amount they payed Gillmore.
My interpretation is this: Gillmore will be a great #2 corner this year (think of Talib & Chris Harris in Denver type situation) with Butler. If Butler sadly cannot reach a deal with the Patriots, which seems incoming as the situation is now reminiscent of Jaime Collins last year, Gillmore will be a solid #1 cornerback as well. Gillmore has played in the league longer than Butler, so he seems older, but in reality they’re both 26. Maybe his streakiness last year can be attested to lost motivation in a Rex Ryan dumpster-fire season.
4. The Patriots trade draft picks for star wideout Brandin Cooks.
There isn’t much I can say here without feeling like I’m just hyping up the Patriots. This is huge. This trade is monumental for the legacy of the Patriots. Cooks got frustrated playing on the Saints as a decoy every game while rookie Michael Thomas ate up yards and catches on the other end of the field. He wanted out plain & simple.
Cooks isn’t chump change my friends. He’s one of three players to record 75+ catches, 1000+ receiving yards, and at least 8 touchdowns in both last year and the year before that. The other guys? Oh, just Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. No big deal. Cooks has the potential to turn into a top 5 receiver in the league unquestionably as a Patriots player.
He’s on a three year deal, costing only one million this year and bumping up to 8 and 9 million respectively the last two years. We’re getting a star for the cost of much less to usher out the greatest quarterback ever. Alongside Edelman, Hogan, Gronkowski, Dion Lewis, Malcolm Mitchell, Dwayne Allen, James White, and Danny Amendola – this has the potential to be one of the most explosive offensives ever.
There are question marks though. Cooks will have to share targets just like he did in the Saints organization. The difference? The Patriots are a winning team with a culture of putting egos and selfishness down to reach a common goal. Plenty of players who were deemed locker room poison far worse than Cooks was in NO have bought into the system and came out on top. I think this could happen here.
5. The Patriots re-sign defense’s centerpiece Dont’a Hightower to a 4 year extension
This one is huge! All of the moves made above simply wouldn’t matter nearly as much if we were without Dont’a Hightower. Hightower signed late in free agency, as he wanted to test his market value before making a commitment. There was no real worry that Hightower would go to a different team, he loves New England too much. Other teams were just a bargaining chip move. Hightower is the perfect piece that makes Belichick’s defense work so well. The problem for him is that his size, injury history, and unique skillset make it tough for him to fit in other defensive schemes, which lowered his value.
Still, Hightower is the MVP for our defense. His size can help to rotate him to many positions on the field wherever Belichick needs him, in whatever scheme we chose to run on any given day. 4-3 Middle Linebacker? Sure. 4-3 Outside backer? No problem. 3-4 Pass-rusher? He’s up for it. 4-3 Defensive end? The list goes on… By the time Hightower’s new contract is up he will be 31. He will be the last great front 7 star in the history of Bill Belichick – a GREAT list to be a part of.
There’s no disputing what is going on here. Bill Belichick sees the window of success is closing. There’s not a lot of time left with Tom Brady, now 40 years old, on the roster. Only two years before Peyton Manning’s embarrassing ride off into the sunset, he put up his best numbers ever. Father time can catch up unexpectedly. Similarly, there’s little time left for Belichick to coach in his age. Once those two leave, the dynasty is over. Plain and simple.
Spending now increases the chances of getting another ring – perhaps two. We’ve done a lot more with a lot less on the field. It’s clear that both Bill and Brady have more to put on the field. With a re-vamped defense AND a better and younger defense – expect the Super Bowl winners to be favorites yet again.