After seemingly every national writer spent the past few weeks intent on explaining how depressed the market will be once free agency opens for real March 17, the so-called "legal tampering period" began with plenty of money tossed around, especially by the Patriots.
Bill Belichick was aggressive in his approach, reportedly agreeing to seven deals with free agents, two of which were for big money while all filled needs. Matt Judon and Jonnu Smith brought home the big dough despite the lack of cap dollars available around the league, a factor Belichick no doubt used to his advantage.
There was some concern that the Patriots would have trouble luring free agents coming off a 7-9 season with no long-term quarterback in place, so Belichick wisely countered that by being aggressive and paid the market rate. Judon is the kind of versatile edge player who has succeeded in Foxborough in years past with the ability to play end or linebacker and having success both against the run and the pass. He's not considered a ferocious pass rusher with just 34.5 sacks in his five seasons in Baltimore, but he can set the edge against the run while providing some heat.
Smith is similarly versatile with a reputation as a good blocker and receiver, especially in the red zone. He notched a career high eight touchdowns for the Titans a year ago and immediately provides a No. 1 tight end the team has lacked since Rob Gronkowski's departure after the 2018 season.
Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson and Jalen Mills reportedly agreed to more modest deals but also should help the defense. Godchaux and Anderson are good fits to help a run defense that struggled in 2020. Godchaux played two seasons under Brian Flores so he should have some familiarity with the Patriots scheme. Mills projects to add some depth to the secondary with experience at both safety and corner.
It also could allow the team to use Stephon Gilmore as a valuable trading chip come draft time. Gilmore is entering the final year of his deal and various reports indicate he will not play for the $7-plus million he's due in 2021. Therefore, a trade is likely on the horizon and Belichick could use the veteran corner to help work his way around the board come April – perhaps even to move up to grab a quarterback.
Receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne also reportedly will be added to the mix, bolstering a dormant wide receiver corps that previously consisted of a banged up Julian Edelman and little else. That's another position that could still be addressed in the draft, where the class is considered deep and talented.
There will also be more moves in the coming days, but all in all it was quite a start for the Patriots.
On the other hand
In the aftermath of the Marcus Cannon trade, there was some speculation that perhaps the money saved in the deal could help lure Joe Thuney back to the fold. That turned out to be wishful thinking as Thuney reportedly agreed to terms with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Thuney's durability and versatility will be tough to replace but the offensive line could still be a team strength, assuming the Patriots are able to retain center David Andrews. Second-year player Michael Onwenu will likely fill Thuney's spot at left guard while fellow second-year man Justin Herron projects as the top backup. But retaining Andrews is no guarantee, and free agency is just getting started.
One more round
The Patriots decision to run it back with Cam Newton was expected in some circles but still came as quite a shock to most. The one-year deal, first reported by the Boston Globe's Jim McBride, is another incentive-laden package that could be worth up to $14 million but in actuality will be for much less.
But the parameters of the contract are less important than its implications. Belichick's decision to bring Newton back means he was either unable or unwilling to pull the trigger on any deals involving veteran quarterbacks. Either the prices were too steep to acquire Jimmy Garoppolo, Marcus Mariota or any other veteran, or those quarterbacks were simply unavailable.
Otherwise it's hard to substantiate bringing back statistically one of the worst passers in football in 2020 – regardless of the price tag.
The timing of the news can't be understated. The new league year begins March 17, with a two-day legal tampering period immediately preceding it. Putting a veteran like Newton in place ostensibly tells free agents that the Patriots have a quarterback, and they wasted little time adding pieces to the roster.
So now Belichick talked with wideouts and tight ends with the knowledge that Newton, a very popular figure among players, was back in the fold. Whether that impacted any decisions or not the idea was to be able to eliminate some uncertainty around the position. My feeling is if the Patriots want to attract offensive talent they should be prepared to pay handsomely for it, as they did with Smith, Agholor and Bourne.
It would certainly seem likely that Belichick plans to draft a quarterback next month, most likely at some point in Day 2 as it would be tough to imagine a desirable option falling to 15 in the first round. Barring a trade to move up, a prospect such as Kellen Mond, Jamie Newman, Davis Mills or Kyle Trask might be brought in to develop. But that would be behind Newton, who looks like the starter once again.