The New England Patriots had more than $60 million in salary-cap space burning a hole in their pocket and they weren't afraid to spend it. Bill Belichick rolled up to Day 1 of the legal tampering period and the head coach might as well have been driving a Brinks truck by how he was throwing dough around to various free agents. New England has been far and away the most active team during this unofficial start to free agency and is being extremely aggressive in improving upon a club that went 7-9 in 2020 and failed to reach the playoffs.
Not only were the Patriots quick to spend top of the market money on both sides of the ball out of the gate, but they continued opening up their wallets on Day 2 by signing free-agent Hunter Henry to pair alongside fellow tight end Jonnu Smith, who was signed on Monday. All of these moves have the Patriots on the doorstep of clawing back to relevancy in the AFC. That said, it doesn't appear like they're quite finished adding to this roster.
As we wait to see what other moves Belichick may have up his sleeve, let's take a look at the players he's already brought in via free agency and decipher what each may bring to Foxborough in 2021 and beyond. We'll also grade each move.
Contract: Four years, $50 million ($31.25 million guaranteed)
Smith was the first big splash for New England and when you start to dig a bit deeper into his game it really comes as no surprise to see why the Patriots like him. The 25-year-old has been a key weapon in the Titans offense dating back to his breakout campaign in 2019. What makes him an intriguing addition is his speed and ability to use it to pile up yards after the catch. According to Next Gen Stats, Smith is the third-fastest tight end in the league, only looking up to Darren Waller and Evan Engram. That speed has allowed Smith to lead all tight ends in average YAC +/- at +2.5 dating back to 2019. Last season, over 50% of Smith's 448 yards came after the catch. What does this mean for the Patriots? Well, expect Josh McDaniels to get the ball in Smith's hands whichever way he can, possibly setting him up for a role similar to what Aaron Hernandez had within New England's offense.
Contract: Three years, $37.5 million ($25 million guaranteed)
While Smith may be moved around a bit more like a chess piece in Bill Belichick's offense, Henry is another elite tight end that they'll use plenty. With the Chargers last season, Henry was used largely as a Y-receiver and could be a more traditional piece at the position, filling the shoes of what Rob Gronkowski left behind a few years ago. Henry is a sound blocker and has solid hands in the passing game. Of his 93 targets in 2020, Henry had just two pure drops. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, he's also a noticeable presence in the red zone. Of his six red-zone catches, four have gone for touchdowns.
With Smith and Henry in the fold, New England's offense will go back to its 12-personnel roots, which is something they've gotten away from over the last few years due to lack of depth at tight end. The only thing that keeps this addition from getting into the A bracket is questions around Henry's durability. The 26-year-old has never played a full 16-game season in his career.
Contract: Four years, $56 million ($32 million guaranteed)
Judon's arrival was arguably the most surprising of New England's spending spree on Monday. Given that the club has Josh Uche, Chase Winovich, and Dont'a Hightower returning to man the edge, this wasn't looked at as an obvious need. That said, the club has elected to double down at this spot and bring in a well-balanced player like Judon, who can not only get after the quarterback but drop back in coverage as well. While Judon did have six sacks in 2020, he's not a natural pass-rusher and the coaching staff will likely need to scheme up situations for the 6-foot-3 linebacker to have a line at the quarterback. Luckily for Judon, that's what the Patriots do best, which makes this an ideal fit for both sides. Look for him to be moved around in a similar fashion to Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins during their tenures in Foxborough. Dating back to 2016, no team dropped edge defenders back into coverage more than New England.
Contract: Four years, $24 million ($9 million guaranteed)
Mills was another intriguing addition, as his role is not abundantly clear currently. With the Eagles, the 26-year-old played both corner and safety, which does give him some versatility within New England's secondary. On the surface, Mills looks primed to replace current free agent Jason McCourty, who played a similar role with the unit in 2020. That said, if the Patriots view Mills as more of a corner, that could be tipping their hand of what's to come with Stephon Gilmore (signed through 2021) or J.C. Jackson (restricted free agent). When targeted last season, opposing quarterbacks had an 82 pass rating against Mills and completed just 57.6% of their throws. This is a strong signing to what is currently a deep secondary, but where he slots in still bears watching.
Contract: Two years, $26 million
The heavy hitters at the pass-catching spots for the Patriots have come at tight end, but they were busy adding to the wide receiver unit as well. Agholor was the first domino to drop in that regard, with the club signing the former Raider to a two-year deal that will pay him $13 million from an AAV standpoint. That's a bit pricy for a receiver who really has just one strong season on his résumé, but it is clear why New England was attractive to him. The Patriots have been drastically missing a receiver who can stretch the field vertically and Agholor brings that ability to Foxborough. He averaged 18.7 yards per reception during his lone season in Las Vegas, and 666 of his 896 yards receiving came before the catch, meaning he was halfway down the field before the ball even got to him. No one on New England's roster currently brings that threat, which is why Agholor was in their crosshairs. That said, the one-hit-wonder nature of Agholor in 2020 and the cost does make one a bit wary of what the Patriots are actually getting.
Contract: Three years, $22.5 million
Bourne is another receiver that won't jump off the page when you hear about the Patriots acquiring him. While he is looking at more than $22 million, a large chunk of those figures appear to be incentive-based, which is good for New England, considering the 25-year-old doesn't exactly have the track record of dismantling opposing secondaries. That said, Bourne could be looked at as an ascending player, as he's improved throughout his career and caught nearly 67% of his targets over the past two seasons. He's also a strong route-runner and has a solid knack at getting open on third down, an area where the Patriots struggled in 2020. As things stand, Bourne should be looked at as a high upside piece that could rival to be a No. 2 or No. 3 option or possibly line up in the slot.
Contract: Two years, $16 million
The Patriots drastically needed help at stopping the run and seemed to be intent on addressing that by signing Godchaux very early in the free agent process on Monday. The former Dolphin should have little problem coming to New England, as Brian Floes' defensive scheme is largely the same as what Bill Belichick runs in Foxborough, setting up a smooth transition for the former fifth-round pick out of LSU. The nose tackle was limited to just five games due to a biceps injury in 2020, but enjoyed the most productive season of his career in 2019, totaling 75 tackles and two sacks. It's possible the Patriots view him as someone who is still ascending and last season was just a speed bump due to injury.
Contract: Two years, $7 million
As we noted with Godchaux, the Patriots were bad against the run last season and the addition of Anderson is the latest attempt for the club to fix that deficiency in 2021. The 6-foot-6, 301 pounder is strong against the run and has shown the potential to even get after the quarterback, notching seven sacks back in 2018. Anderson's arrival, however, does bring with it questions about whether or not Lawrence Guy -- a proven commodity on the interior-- will be back with the club or not. Given what Guy has given the club, if they did chose Anderson over him, that's a bit a roll of the dice. In a vacuum, however, this fills a key need.