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The New England Patriots kicked off the legal tampering period of free agency with a spending spree the likes of which we’ve never seen from them.
Is it possible they follow that up with a draft strategy that’s also very un-Patriots-like?
Say what you will about Bill Belichick’s track record in both areas, but the mastermind is always adapting. For years we wrote that the Patriots have never been big spenders in free agency, but that’s not exactly true.
In the 2001 offseason, after Belichick’s initial season as coach, they signed 20 free agents. Granted most of them were bottom-barrel signings, along with a few mid-level additions. It ended up being the core of the team’s first championship roster.
Along the way, they’ve been selectively active. Rodney Harrison and Rosevelt Colvin both arrived the same week for big dollars. They went hard after top corners such as Darrelle Revis and Stephon Gilmore. You can also throw Adalius Thomas and Antonio Brown onto the list.
They’re aggressive when they need to be. And after a 7-9 season — Belichick’s first losing record since that maiden campaign — they certainly felt the need.
In a week’s time, they’ve agreed to a flurry of deals to land, offensive tackle Trent Brown, tight end Jonnu Smith, pass rusher Matt Judon, nose tackle Davon Godchaux, defensive back Jalen Mills, and wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.
More might be coming.
How does this affect the 2021 NFL draft. Could the signs be pointing toward more aggression in April?
A fuller, deeper roster
The Patriots were hit the hardest by COVID-19, as they had a league-high eight players opt out. (Cam Newton also wasn’t the same player after he went on the COVID reserve list.)
The vast majority of those opt-outs are expected back, including linebacker Dont'a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, running back Brandon Bolden, wide receiver Marqise Lee and fullback/H-back Dan Vitale.
That helps. Combine that with a nine-man draft class from a year ago, the majority of which figure to be back in the fold, along with a few undrafted free agents, and you can see how the roster is starting to fill up.
Sure, the Patriots have some free agents of their own, and they’ve already watched Joe Thuney take a deal with the Kansas City Chiefs. A few more might be headed out, although center David Andrews and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy figure to be priorities to keep if they can make all the money work.
That’s a lot of veterans. The Patriots currently have nine draft picks. Would they take another nine-man draft class? A lot of needs are already checked off. If they were to stick with the picks they currently have, maybe the Patriots land two or three part-time contributors as rookies.
So all of this maneuvering leads me to one big thought — and one very out-of-character move based on Belichick’s history.
Signs point toward a draft QB
Many know that Belichick has never drafted a quarterback in Round 1. Not in New England, nor in Cleveland in the 1990s. His highest-drafted QB? Jimmy Garoppolo, back in 2014, at No. 62 overall.
That has led some to believe that the Patriots will find help at the position with a veteran, giving Newton competition. What if the real plans are to move up from No. 15 in Round 1 and target one of the Big Five QBs in 2021?
The Patriots have traded down in — and often out of — the first round. They did that last year, in fact. They have moved up in Round 1 before, but it’s rare. Daniel Graham required an 11-slot move in 2002, and Ty Warren was a one-spot hop the next year. The Patriots also did it twice in 2021, moving up for Chandler Jones and Hightower in 2012.
The gaping void in 2012 was on defense. The Patriots lost in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants the season before, and frankly New England was lucky to get there with a defense that ranked in the bottom five (and in some cases, the bottom two) in several major categories.
This time around, there’s one position that stands above the rest as far as major needs go. Oh, sure, that defense wasn’t very good last season, and it’s no guarantee that Judon, Godchaux and Mills make it an elite unit tomorrow.
But you know where we’re leaning here …
Newton might be in a far better position to succeed this season, having recovered from COVID, having spent a year in the system and having better people around him. But he’s going to be a somewhat oldish 32 in May, having suffered from major foot and shoulder injuries in the past five seasons and taking a decade’s worth of beatings as a run-heavy QB.
Even if Newton is in position to succeed this season, the long-term stability of the position is uncertain to say the least.
Jarrett Stidham hasn’t shown much. Brian Hoyer, as we know, isn’t the answer. And while there might be a fervent Jacob Dolegala fan club out there somewhere, he’s little more than an obscure project at this point.
In his first year, Belichick drafted Tom Brady to protect against a declining Drew Bledsoe. And even after Brady turned into a superstar, Belichick wasn’t done drafting quarterbacks — 10 of them, in fact — from 2002 (Rohan Davey) to 2019 (Stidham).
So while most of those picks came in the later rounds, the Patriots don’t have the luxury of knowing Brady was going to be their rock for years. They have to supplement the position in a major way, and sticking at No. 15 likely won’t allow them to do that.
Which QB could the Patriots target?
Trevor Lawrence is going first overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s been chalk since December. The rival New York Jets, picking second, are likely to go QB as well. Let’s pencil them BYU’s Zach Wilson for a hoot.
So that leaves 12 spots ahead of the Patriots' pick where perhaps three quarterbacks could hear their names called: Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones.
For months, we’ve seen Jones’ name plastered on countless mock drafts to New England at 15, and we get why. Heck, even Jones’ former Bama teammate, Tua Tagovaloa, told Yahoo Sports he sees the parallels between Jones and Brady.
But Jones isn’t the QB New England will end up with. For all of his acumen and instincts and, yeah, Brady-ish traits, we just don’t see anywhere near as high a ceiling for him as the other two.
And for all of Newton’s struggles last season, Belichick couldn’t help but take notice of the potential of what different dimensions a healthy and fully supported Newton could have added to New England’s offense. It just didn’t work out.
That said, adding a talent with some crossover skills to what Newton brings to the table certainly would make some sense.
Lance is damned intriguing. In time, he could rival Lawrence for the best QB in this entire class. Or, if things go sideways in his development, Lance could end up a bust. Landing in the right spot, with the right coaching staff and the right succession plan, is huge for his forecast. After a mere 17 FCS starts, it’s a lot of guesswork — and a lot of people are going to look foolish in retrospect on his evaluation, whether they end up being too high or too low on him now.
While Lance makes sense, Fields makes more from this vantage point. One potential reason is price.
The buzz right now suggests that Lance could be taken higher than Fields. It wouldn’t be shocking. If that were to happen, the cost for the Patriots to move up from 15 would be cheaper, even if it was to a spot one or two picks after Lance was taken.
Fields is a quiet assassin, the kind of player we could see Belchick falling for. Sure, he’s not a perfect prospect — turn on the tapes of the Indiana, Michigan State or Northwestern games from last season for evidence of that. But there’s a high level of talent, toughness and an undeniable confidence in Fields, and the major strides he has taken since he was a run-first QB at Georgia are undeniable. He has followed a bit of a Dak Prescott-like ascension the past few seasons, if not an even steeper climb than the Dallas Cowboys’ $40 million QB enjoyed through his senior season in college.
Plus, Belichick can lean on his Ohio State sources for intel on Fields that he might not be able to with Lance. Heck, he might as well even get his buddy Urban Meyer’s advice on the matter. If Urbs isn’t going to take Fields first, he might as well be honest with Belichick over why he isn’t planning to — and why Fields might be smart for New England.
In fact, Fields and Newton are already quite close, connected by their position, by their play styles (one scout told Yahoo Sports this year that Fields reminded him of Newton) and by geography, having both been raised in Georgia.
It feels like it could be a mentor-understudy relationship that could pay huge dividends, under the watchful eye of Belichick and Josh McDaniels.
How the Patriots can move up
We absolutely can picture Belichick calling Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and offering a swap of firsts. The Eagles have plenty of needs. Maybe they’ll even take a 2022 draft pick to make it happen.
Two recent comps give a ballpark idea of what it might cost to get from No. 15 to 6.
In 2016, the Cleveland Browns shipped the eighth overall pick to the Titans (and Belichick disciple Jon Robinson) for the 15th and 76th overall picks that year, plus a 2017 second-rounder. Two years later, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sent the seventh pick to the Buffalo Bills for Nos. 12, 53 and 56 overall in 2018 in the deal that landed them Josh Allen.
Figure it costs New England a shade more than either of those deals. They currently have one pick in each of the first three rounds (Nos. 15, 46 and 97 overall), two each in the fourth and sixth rounds and one each in the remaining rounds. The Patriots also have all their 2022 picks in Rounds 1 through 5.
They have plenty of ammo to make a play for Fields, or perhaps for Lance — whichever one can be had at the right spot for the right price. Just because Belichick has never done such a thing before doesn't make it impossible. Look at Monday's free-agent free for all as proof not to assume to know his line of thinking.
And considering where the Patriots currently are, having watched Brady lead a Super Bowl run in Tampa while their own team struggled to throw the ball, no price is too high to solve their most glaring void.
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