Fire the cannons.
It stands as the rallying cry and celebratory shout for the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who ran roughshod over the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV in February.
But those loud booms off the bay may also have served as the final wakeup call for Brady’s former team in the Bay State, which has loaded up this offseason in the hopes of quickly erasing the memories of a 7–9 season.
New England fired a shot across the NFL bow almost as soon as the free agency bell rang, addressing myriad holes on the roster and fortifying its offense, defense and special teams by handing out an NFL-record $165 million in guaranteed money to football faces both fresh and familiar.
It was a clear sign — or, more accurately, signings — that nobody who calls One Patriot Place home was happy about missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Watching Brady toss Super Bowl touchdown passes to Rob Gronkowski on the Florida Gulf Coast was just a little extra saltwater in the wounds.
To the victor go the spoils, and Brady basked in the sunshine and soaked in the glory after winning his seventh title. The footage of the tipsy field general tossing the Lombardi Trophy from one boat to another felt like a Monday morning hangover in New England, where Brady had been better known for eating avocado ice cream than guzzling agave tequila.
As Brady enjoyed a well-deserved victory tour in Tampa and on social media, the wheels of a quick turnaround already were in motion in Foxborough.
Armed with a plan, ample salary cap space and not a ton of competition for the elite players on the market, Bill Belichick went on an unprecedented spending spree — a departure from the way the franchise normally operates, which is to build through the draft while adding budget-friendly veterans to fill in the gaps and build depth.
Team owner Robert Kraft, who acknowledges that he was among those who scoffed when teams would jump full force into the free agency frenzy, can explain why it made sense to adopt that strategy this year.
“I think this is a unique time. We’ve never been in a position where we have spent the kind of money in free agency that we did this year,” Kraft says. “I think if there was ever a year to do it, this would be the year because we’d move quickly, and instead of having 10 or 12 teams compete against us for free agents, there were only two or three. I think our personnel department did an outstanding job in setting the priorities. We moved quickly, and we also had the advantage of being in a unique position of having [the second- or third-most] cap space. I really hope it makes a difference. I’m really excited about this upcoming season.”
Whether or not the signings have an immediate impact on the win column, the Patriots are likely to return to their longstanding philosophy of grooming their own players. It’s important to note that among the checks that were cut, three of the most important ones were paid to the order of home-grown talents David Andrews and James White as well as Lawrence Guy, who came into his own in New England. All three are well-respected team captains. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy returned as well.
“In the end, if you want to have a good, consistent winning football team, you can’t do it in free agency,” Kraft says. “You have to do it through the draft because that’s when you’re able to get people of great talent, whether it’s Willie McGinest or Tom Brady, you get them at a price where you can build the team and be competitive. Once they get to their [second] contract, if they’re superstars, you can only balance so many of them."
Kraft also acknowledges that the team has missed on some recent draft picks, but he feels that changes in this year’s preparations were beneficial. The Patriots ended up with eight selections, including the first quarterback Belichick ever drafted in the first round, Alabama’s Mac Jones. (They forfeited a third-round pick due to a sideline taping incident with the Bengals in 2019.)
“Really, the teams who draft well are the ones who will be consistently good,” Kraft says. “I don’t feel like we’ve done the greatest job the last few years, and I really hope and believe I’ve seen a different approach this year. In the end, it all comes down to what happens on the field and how people execute, and you really don’t know how good a draft is for at least two years.”
Some of the free agent signings can be connected directly to those lean draft years. Consider the big splash signings at tight end (Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry) and receiver (Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne), two positions that have been noticeably thin over the past two seasons.
The lack of pass-catching weapons was one of the factors in Cam Newton’s ineffectiveness during stretches of his first season running the New England offense. His July 2020 signing, followed by a truncated training camp and a bout with COVID-19, made the former MVP’s struggles fairly understandable.
Newton, who was coming off major shoulder and foot injuries when he came to New England, should be better in 2021. With a full offseason in the Patriots program, a full training camp with exhibition games and a fuller grasp of the nuances of Josh McDaniels’ offense, Newton should settle in nicely during Year Two.
While 12 will be the key number in Tampa Bay again this season, the same can be now be said once again in New England, which likely will rely heavily on 12 personnel packages.
The two-tight-end scheme has been a Patriots staple going back to the days of Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson and was taken to a new level during the Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez years. Lately, however, the lack of a consistent threat at the position has been obvious. With Smith and Hunter in the fold and on the field, the Patriots will employ multiple 12 looks, one of the most difficult groupings for defenses to combat.
Though Hunter is considered a traditional in-line tight end and Smith is more of a move tight end, both have flashed the skills to be all-around players and can be used in multiple roles to fuel both the passing game and running game.
By adding Agholor, the Patriots have their first true deep threat since Brandin Cooks in 2014. Bourne is a versatile receiver who can operate outside the numbers and also on the inside, where Julian Edelman’s production needs to be replaced following his retirement this offseason.
The offensive line has also been upgraded despite losing stalwart guard Joe Thuney to the Chiefs. Retaining Andrews at center was the key. The club has above-average tackles in Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn and solid guards Shaq Mason and Mike Onwenu. All of them can play multiple positions.
The Patriots had trouble stopping the run for large chunks of time in 2020, and they have addressed that problem by overhauling the front seven. Newcomers Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson and Montravius Adams will join a rotation anchored by Guy, Deatrich Wise Jr. and budding star Chase Winovich.
The Patriots are also welcoming back some of their league-high eight opt-outs, including linebacker Dont’a Hightower, the leader of their defensive front seven. Hightower’s return signals the renaissance of a linebacking corps thinned in 2020 first by free agency and opt-outs and then by injury. The grouping figures to be a strength in 2021 with the return of Kyle Van Noy after a one-year hiatus in South Florida with Miami and the signings of Matt Judon and Raekwon McMillan. All have the traits and skill sets Belichick covets and this defense demands: the abilities to morph from inside to outside linebacker from play to play to keep subpackage substitutions to a minimum.
The secondary, which is loaded with versatile defenders, added hybrid safety Jalen Mills, who should help offset the loss of the retired Patrick Chung, once called one of the best players in the league by Belichick.
It also should come as no surprise that Belichick’s bounce-back plan also includes reinforcements to an already stellar group of special teamers. Justin Bethel was re-signed, giving the club the best gunner tandem in NFL history with Matthew Slater. Nick Folk also re-upped after the ageless wonder finished the 2020 season by converting his final 26 field-goal attempts.
Meanwhile, Brady’s Bucs essentially stood pat and will field the same 22 starters who took them to the title last year, including the man behind center. With few needs, they drafted for depth.
The most anticipated matchup of the NFL season will be Brady’s return to New England. Though he’ll likely receive an overwhelmingly warm greeting from the fans he entertained for two decades, he’ll also likely receive something from the man with whom he worked side by side through 20 seasons and nine trips to the Super Bowl: his toughest assignment yet.