Entering the spring free agency window, the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick found themselves in an unfamiliar spot, to say the least. Coming off their first sub-.500 finish in two decades, it was gut-check time in Foxborough for a franchise without its cornerstone and questions aplenty on both sides of the football. And while all good things come to an end, the Patriots’ roster when looked at from a bird’s eye view was a group in desperate need of starting pop and high-quality depth pieces... and boy did Belichick enjoy a spending spree.
As the acquisition window officially opened on March 17, the signings out of New England came in fast, furious, and with loads of cash trailing behind each signee. While the “Patriot Way” looked to be thrown out the window at least for the time being, the contracts didn’t stop, as seemingly every headlining name agreed to play under Belichick. While the long-time Patriots bench-boss has enjoyed his questionable transactions in the past with Albert Haynesworth, Antonio Brown, and Chad Ochocinco—moves that were looked at as career-reviving acquisitions in which Belichick believed he could cure all—his 2021 spring free-agent frenzy was focused toward immediate impact starters.
Nearing the midway point of the season, we now have enough meat on the bone to go back and look at just how impactful, or not, his class has been. With headlining names on both sides of the ball, let’s dissect the production from a few of Belichick’s highest-paid first-year Patriots.
Matthew Judon, EDGE (4 years, $64M)
Coming off two consecutive Pro Bowl seasons for the Baltimore Ravens, Judon has been worth every penny, totaling seven sacks in six games played. Couple his 12 QB hits and 8 TFLs, and Judon has been arguably one of football's elite edge rushers through six weeks. With the addition of Jamie Collins Sr. from Detroit opposite him, opposing offenses have had an awfully tough time attempting to counter the two edge threats. A defense littered with veterans at every level, Judon has quickly asserted himself as the alpha-dog.
Jonnu Smith, TE (4 years, $50M) & Hunter Henry, TE (3 years, $37.4M)
As two of football’s most coveted in-line talents, a scenario prior to free agency where both would land in the hands of Belichick seemed more of a folly than reality, but here we are. Two TE1 talents from their prior stops (Smith for Tennessee, Henry for the Los Angeles Chargers), I would have paid good money to have listened in on the recruiting pitch from Belichick.
Through six weeks, while the numbers don’t drastically outweigh the other, it’s been Henry who’s taken on a larger role for the Patriots’ Mac Jones-led offense. Appearing in 13% more of the offensive snaps compared to Smith, Henry has tripled his in-line partner’s touchdown total, has over 100 more yards receiving, and for now, looked to become the clear TE1 target for New England’s rookie signal-caller.
Coming off a breakout season for the Titans last fall, Smith’s decision to sign with the Patriots in a shared role came as a shock. A talent who thrives in a featured role, his current stance in the passenger seat to Henry couldn’t be where Belichick hoped his $50M man would be six games in. An offense that has historically thrived using 12-personnel (two TEs), the onus to get Smith going will remain paramount in the continued development of Jones.
Nelson Agholor, WR (2 years, $24M)
Currently WR3 on the Patriots’ depth chart, it’s not that Agholor has been bad, he just hasn’t been that good. He’s healthy, he’s on the field, he’s running routes, but Jones has opted to look elsewhere through six weeks despite Agholor representing the highest-paid wideout the Patriots have on their payroll. Jakobi Meyers has more than doubled Agholor’s number of catches, and despite totaling seven more targets than Kendrick Bourne, he’s doubled Agholor’s number of touchdowns scored with just one more reception (18) than Agholor has (17).
With four catches combined over the last two weeks, an increased role for him moving forward doesn’t look to be in the cards under a head coach that operates his organization behind a “what have you done for me lately” mantra. Agholor is on his third franchise in as many seasons following his final year as a Philadelphia Eagle and quick pit-stop in Las Vegas with the Raiders. Agholor’s cash flow is the only thing keeping him afloat from a drop on Belichick’s depth chart.
Jalen Mills, S/CB (4 years, $24M)
The Patriots opted to switch Mills to cornerback this fall in the absence of Stephon Gilmore, and so far, it’s been ugly. Working opposite J.C. Jackson, Mills has been targeted early and often through five games played, allowing completions on 15-of-24 attempts for 190 yards and two touchdowns. A massive transition where traits translate to success at the cornerback position compared to an apex safety role where you’re allowed to dissect and play downhill on the football, Mills’ substandard performance was put under a national spotlight last Sunday as Dallas Cowboys wideout CeeDee Lamb dominated Mills from the opening whistle—a night that saw Mills targeted nine times in coverage allowing seven completions for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Although he’s been placed in a tough predicament, Mills has been everything but the secondary defender the Patriots thought he would be.