Twelve weeks into the NFL season, amidst a six game winning streak, first place position in the AFC East and currently standing as the number two seed in the conference, I’m sure Bill Belichick is pounding home the message to his troops that they haven’t won anything yet. That is true. There are no trophies for winning streaks nor for winning eight games while the season still features five more contests and a full postseason on the road ahead.
No banners, no parades, not yet…
There is, however, a win that Belichick should take credit for as the season turns to the business of December football; and that is, for building a team that belongs.
It’s a far and distant cry from 2020 and you can thank Belichick and his approach to the 2021 offseason for that. Make no mistake, the 2021 Patriots are purely Bill’s team. His vision, his footprint and his beating to take if all that spent money of Robert Kraft’s didn’t work out. To quote my pal Jon Meterparel – Bill, “Take a bow.”
While Belichick the coach always gained his rightful praise as the best to ever do it, Belichick the GM has taken his fair share of criticism, particularly for his drafts dating back as far as 2014. A lot of that criticism has been justified with too many early round misses on NFL short timers like Dominque Easley, Jordan Richards, Cyrus Jones, Derek Rivers and Duke Dawson. Coupled with questionable player judgements on guys like Sony Michel and N’Keal Harry when Pro Bowl caliber talent at those same positions or in positions of great need were readily available like Lamar Jackson, Nick Chubb, AJ Brown, Deebo Samuel and DK Metcalf. Swing and miss! Whiff after whiff. It’s well documented. Not having an appropriate succession plan in place for Rob Gronkowski’s eventual retirement/inevitable departure at tight end reflected equally as badly and was frankly downright negligent.
In terms of player personnel acquisitions and team construction Belichick’s six-year resume from 2014-2019 was incomplete at best. The seeds of that incomplete construct finally took root once Brady left town and Gronk temporarily retired. This left a roster led by an aging and injured Julian Edelman and a supporting cast surrounded by holes across the roster. Little more than an aging and diminished core was left behind. The result? Limited cap space to invest, a diminished and washed Cam Newton at quarterback, a lost 2020 season and a worrisome future ahead.
Sometimes you need to hit the bottom to get back to the top.
The 2020 Patriots weren’t 1990 Rod Rust level bad but after experiencing the glory of the 19 years prior those distant nightmares of Patriots past weren’t even close to being a realistic bottom. Not with an ownership group used to winning or with Belichick the coach still at the controls. An overachieving 7-9 season (yes overachieving) would be bad enough. That roster was not good and had holes to repair up and down the roster, as I chronicled here exactly one year ago today: Breaking down this Patriots team’s strengths, weaknesses (audacy.com).
As the 2020 slog of a season finally came to an end, the page turned to 2021 at warp speed. Money found and money spent. The results of that divestment and reinvestment into 2021 created what you see today. The right pieces were kept, the wrong ones allowed to expire and those many aforementioned weaknesses from my column last year were quickly addressed.
Let’s break down the acquisitions that mattered:
- Trade for Trent Brown March 18th – Grade C
I think if Brown had been healthier this season that this could have been an A. My guess is that if he stays healthy for the stretch run and playoffs that this grade improves. I believe in the player; when healthy.
- Restricted Free Agent, Nick Folk – Grade A+
Folk is money and has been since he was plucked off the scrap heap in 2020. What a find.
- Restricted Free Agents, David Andrews, Justin Bethel, Lawrence Guy – Grade A
All three of these guys are not only top contributors to their units but helped form the core in each. Andrews is not only the center on the line, he’s the center of the line. Andrews is a key cog, literally at the core of every play that starts on offense.
Justin Bethel is a core contributor for one of the top performing units on the Patriots, special teams. If the Pats are getting it done in the kicking game, Bethel is usually in the middle of it.
Lawrence Guy. One of the few bright spots of the 2020 season, his familiarity of the Patriots defensive scheme and understanding of his role has enabled the playmakers around him to flourish. This was a sneaky big re-signing and again helped strengthen an eroding core.
- Restricted Free Agents, James White and Deatrich Wise – Grade B+
The James White injury in the first quarter of game three makes this hard to grade but his resigning was critically important to this teams’ development. The biggest issue I saw heading into 2021 is what I called ‘core erosion.’ Too many key core guys had faded away and off the roster for too many years. Coaches too. Resigning guys like James White, Andrews, Guy and Bethel above means so much to reconstructing a roster and turning it into a team. One of the unsung reasons the newly acquired players have been able to flourish is because Belichick was able to recognize the players he had that he could build a culture around. James White is absolutely one of those guys.
Though Chris Collinsworth was insanely hyperbolic on Sunday Night Football weeks ago declaring that “Deatrich Wise is the best player on this Patriots defense” he did spotlight a player who deserves it. Best player on defense? No. Important core holdover? Absolutely. Players like Guy and Wise allowed Belichick to add to this unit and turn it into a strength in one offseason.
- The fun stuff. The free agent additions:
- Matthew Judon – A+. No free agent has ever been better. Period.
- Ted Karras – A. I’ve said this on the Fantasy Football Hour several times; “I believe in bloodlines.” Karras has them and more importantly has been a plug and play guy every time the Patriots have needed him. A welcome return to New England.
- Hunter Henry – B+. After literally having no tight ends in 2020 and a pretty pathetic lot in 2019, Henry’s presence is felt LOUDLY. Nice to have a red zone target again and he’s more than that. Solid pick up all around.
- Kendrick Bourne – B+. As a fantasy football enthusiast I’ve always liked him. Good hands and reliable, I projected him as a perfect fit in the slot for the Patriots and he’s been far more than that. The playmaking ability has been a pleasant surprise. Didn’t see that aspect of his game drafting behind the shadows of George Kittle and Deebo Samuel in San Francisco. Savvy pick up by Belichick. His impact on the field is growing each week and his impact in the locker room is becoming obvious. Bourne is a glue guy.
- Nelson Agholor – C+. An over-pay? Yes. Agholor does serve a purpose though. He can stretch the field and gives them a threat. Statistically he’s achieved more than most probably think: 32 receptions, 416 yards and three touchdowns. For comparison sake another field stretcher, Mecole Hardman of Kansas City has 42 receptions, 424 yards and one touchdown. So while we expected more, Agholor is producing decently.
- Jonnu Smith – C-. I have a feeling this grade will creep up by years end but as of now a grade of C is probably nice. He’s a weapon to contend with, blocks well and has made some plays. This could go up or down by season’s end. I’m betting on a tick or two up.
- Davon Godchaux – A-. Taking the Tennessee game out, run defense has seen a major improvement year over year. The 2020 Patriots got shredded on the ground. When Belichick signed Godchaux and Henry Anderson in week one of free agency you knew stopping the run was on Belichick’s mind. Godchaux has helped and done his job.
- Kyle Van Noy – B+. The linebacker crew is markedly improved year over year. Van Noy is often right in the thick of it. Like Bourne, Van Noy’s resigning positively impacted the play on the field and the chemistry in the locker room. He’s a solid complement to Judon on the edge.
- Jalen Mills – B-. I’ve written this before; all defensive backs get burned. The green goblin had a slow start but is most certainly finding his way and finding the ball. I’m a believer. Mills’ play of late is starting to show now when it matters most. I sense a big play in a big spot brewing. He’s not great but he adds to the stew.
- Jamie Collins – C+. Low risk. Diet Van Noy. His signing only helps.
2020 had a lot of holes and Belichick filled them all. In fact, he filled so many holes I didn’t even mention his biggest find, their hope inspiring rookie quarterback Mac Jones. On draft night he played that one perfectly too and followed it with a very solid draft top to bottom as well.
Belichick the coach hasn’t won his biggest game of the season yet and he’s keeping the celebrations in check until all of their team goals are met. Belichick the GM however won his most important bet, the one he put on himself last winter. Now a year later, winter is coming again and the Belichick the coach is in position to compete like old times. Thanks to his GM.