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What Did You Get for Your Money?

Now that the NFL has transitioned to the offseason, let’s have a look at the Patriots, and the money they spent.

Patriots Helmets by Brook Ward is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What Did You Get for Your Money?

Estimated Reading Time: 9 Minutes

Now that the book has been closed or, more accurately, slammed shut on the New England Patriots’ 2021 season, the offseason analysis can begin.

I wanted to start that second-guessing by looking at the value that the Patriots got from their extensive class of free agents. New England spent a gaudy $291 million on free agents this year, far and away the highest total of any NFL team. They spent about $211 million in the first two days of free agency alone, making splash after splash signing.

When the dust had settled, the Pats were one of only two teams to spend over $200 million, and the other, San Francisco, spent nearly $90 million less at $202 million.

Does Buying the Farm Bring Home the Bacon?

There is one school of thought that building your football team by spending big in free agency doesn’t work – that it’s desperate and foolhardy. The teams that make big splashes in the early days of free agency are often looking to reinvigorate a franchise after a down year and sell tickets for next season by signing a big name.

It’s been so far so good for the 49ers, who, like the Patriots, went 10-7 but then did what New England could not do – go on the road and win a playoff game (two road playoff wins, in fact!). Their big signings were center Alex Mack (3 years, $14.85 million), left tackle Trent Williams (6 years, $138 million), linebacker Samson Ebukam (2 years, $12 million), and then a whole bunch of guys making around $900,000 or just over a million.

Here’s how the last six teams to spend the most in free agency fared.

2020: Miami Dolphins ($239 million) – The Dolphins boosted their defense with cornerback Byron Jones and linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson. They went 10-6 and missed out on the playoffs by one game.

2019: New York Jets ($204.5 million) – New York spent $52 million on future bust Le’Veon Bell and $85 million on linebacker C.J. Mosley. They went 7-9 as part of their current streak of six straight years with a losing record.

2018: Chicago Bears ($233.5 million) – The Bears signed a whole bunch of nothing aside from wide receiver Allen Robinson and tight end Trey Burton, but finished the year 12-4, winning the NFL North by four games over Minnesota. They crashed out of the playoffs in the first round, losing at home to Philadelphia when Cody Parkey, one of the other free agent signings, had his game-winning field goal attempt hit the left upright and crossbar. The game would go into Chicago Bears infamy as the “Double Doink.”

2017: Jacksonville Jaguars ($178.8 million) – Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye signed for a combined $127 million dollars to stabilize the Jacksonville defense, and it worked to the tune of a 10-6 record and an AFC South title. The Jaguars won a Wild Card game at home against Buffalo, then upset Pittsburgh on the road to reach the AFC Championship game, where they nearly knocked off the Patriots, falling 24-20. While that free agent spending spree seemed to turn the fortunes of the Jags, 2017 was the only winning season in Jacksonville since 2008.  

2016: Jacksonville Jaguars ($230 million) – Jacksonville began their defensive rebuild a year before, signing defensive lineman Malik Jackson, safety Tashaun Gipson, and cornerback Prince Amukamara, not to mention drafting Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, and Yannick Ngakoue. They also brought in running back Chris Ivory and tight end Marcedes Lewis, but went just 3-13, second only to the one-win Browns in the AFC basement.

2015: New York Jets ($182.8 million) – It was the return of Revis, who signed a 5-year, $70 million contract. He would only end up spending three years in the NFL, two of them with the Jets. New York also signed Antonio Cromartie to a 4-year, $32 million deal and safety Marcus Gilchrist to a 4-year, $22 million contract. They finished the year at 10-6, missing out on a wild card spot by a tiebreaker to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Well, That Was Kind of Surprising

I expected more putrid seasons from teams that go out and spend big in free agency, but it turns out that most of the recent highest spenders have actually seen positive results. Along with the Patriots, five of the past seven teams ended up with winning seasons. Jacksonville’s rebuild had to be spread across two years’ worth of credit cards, but it ended with them in the AFC Championship game.

While a one-and-done in the playoffs was not ideal, and the beatdown in Buffalo was a down note to their season, we can say that the Patriots had a representative season after being the highest spenders in free agency.

But was it a cause and effect? Did their investments, totaling nearly $300 million, pay off in their first years in Foxboro? Let’s take a look at each of their eight new free agents individually.

Matt Judon, Defensive End

Contract: 4 years, $56 Million

2021 Regular Season: Judon played in all 17 games, starting 16 of them. He was 7th in the NFL with 7.5 sacks and led the Patriots with 14 tackles for loss and 25 quarterback hits. While the overall numbers look good, Judon was a shell of himself after the Patriots returned from their Week 14 bye. In the final four regular season games, which included losses to Indy, Buffalo, and Miami, Judon failed to record a sack or even a quarterback hit, and totaled just 11 tackles.

Playoff Impact: The downward trend continued sharply for Judon in the Patriots’ Wild Card beatdown, as he earned just 22 snaps and recorded one single tackle while New England’s defense was gouged by the Bills.

Value: While Judon was the most productive New England pass rusher on the season, he disappeared when the chips were on the table, and was arguably at his worst during the postseason. I’d say the Patriots got about 85% of what they bargained for, and that might be a tad generous.

Jonnu Smith, Tight End

Contract: 4 Years, $50 Million

2021 Regular Season: One touchdown. One game with more than five targets. Two games with more than three receptions (weeks 1 and 2, then he was a ghost). One game with more than 50 yards receiving (and it was 52 yards). Mostly a non-factor in the offensive game plan.

Playoff Impact: Was he there? Zero targets. Zero receptions. Played just 21 offensive snaps (33%).

Value: What a dud. After scoring eight touchdowns a year ago, he was a big target in free agency for a team that needed to upgrade at tight end. They should have just stuck with Hunter Henry. Maybe 10% of what they thought they were signing.

Nelson Agholor, Wide Receiver

Contract: 2 Years, Up to $24 Million ($16 Million Guaranteed)

2021 Regular Season: Agholor was underwhelming in the 14 regular season games he played. He caught five passes for 72 yards and a touchdown in the season opener, then never topped 60 yards the rest of the year. He caught five balls just once more, settling for an average of 2.5 receptions per game, with just three total touchdowns.

Playoff Impact: One catch on two targets for a total of 18 yards. It was 47-10 Buffalo when Agholor caught his only pass with 2:51 left in the fourth quarter.

Value: I would say Agholor provided about 50-60% of what he could have provided. He was at best the third option at wide receiver and I can’t remember anything significant he did this year.

Davon Godchaux, Defensive Tackle

Contract: 2 Years, $16 Million

2021 Regular Season: Godchaux played more than half of the defensive snaps in 15 of 18 games and recorded three plus tackles in 12 of them. He had a really strong stretch during New England’s Week 11-13 games, combining for 20 tackles, three quarterback hits, two tackles for a loss, and one sack.

Playoff Impact: On just under 60% of the defensive snaps, Godchaux made one tackle. Buffalo ran for 174 yards and two touchdowns.

Value: Godchaux could be relied on to post for most of the Patriots’ games, even playing snaps on special teams every week. Although he was a no-show in the playoffs, he gave them about 80% value on the year.

Kendrick Bourne, Wide Receiver

Contract: 3 Years, $15 Million

2021 Regular Season: Bourne showed flashes of real talent and sure hands, catching a career-high 78.6% of his targets. His 55 receptions and 800 yards were also career highs, and his five touchdowns tied his production from his 2019 season with the 49ers. Unfortunately, Bourne seemed to be muddled in a receiving corps that couldn’t figure out what it was, with the #1 receiver looks rotating between him, Agholor, and Jakobi Meyers.

Playoff Impact: Bourne was sublime, catching 7 of his 8 targets for 77 yards and two touchdowns. Unfortunately, the Patriots were down 33-3 when he found the end zone for the first time.

Value: Bourne was about 85% of what Patriots fans hoped they would get. He showed the ability to make plays in space, run solid routes, and offer sure hands, as long as the Pats can put him in positions to succeed.

Henry Anderson, Defensive End

Contract: 2 Years, $7 Million

2021 Regular Season: Anderson played in just four games before suffering a torn pec and missing the rest of the season. While he was active, he played just 35 snaps over the course of four games and recorded three tackles.

Playoff Impact: Not Active

Value: Obviously a season ending injury meant that Anderson was not able to contribute for most of the year, but he failed to make an impact or even get on the field in the games where he was active. Definitely returned less than 5% of his value in his first year of the contract.

Jalen Mills, Cornerback

Contract: 4 Years, $24 Million

2021 Regular Season: Mills played 75% or more of the defensive snaps in all but one game, but while he did take the field, he didn’t often make too much of an impact. He failed to record an interception and defended just seven passes without making any big memorable plays.

Playoff Impact: Mills was placed on the reserve/Covid-19 list and didn’t travel with the Pats to Buffalo for their Wild Card game.

Value: Mills didn’t warrant the early free agency money that the Patriots threw at him to secure his services. I’d give him about a 60% rating as a signing.

Hunter Henry, Tight End

Contract: 3 Years, $37.4 Million

2021 Regular Season: As expected, Henry was a red zone machine, scoring nine touchdowns, four of them during the Patriots’ seven-game win streak. He was one of the only receivers you could count on to show up most weeks, though outside of his red zone production and a few big plays, he was not a target monster. He only recorded more than two receptions in eight of the regular season games, averaging just under three catches a game and never topping 86 yards receiving (in fact, he only topped 50 yards on three occasions).

Playoff Impact: Henry made one catch for 30 yards on the Patriots’ first drive of the game and then might as well have caught an early flight back to Boston. He didn’t catch any of his three other targets.

Value: A useful signing for the Patriots, probably returning about 85% of his value, but nowhere near in the echelon of the top tight ends like Kelce and Kittle, and a definite overpayment, as is common in free agency.

Closing Thoughts

As you can probably tell by my analysis of each player, I wouldn’t say that the Patriots’ success(ish) this season had a lot to do with their offseason signings. They got decent value out of a few players, but even the better signings like Judon, Henry, and Bourne were inconsistent and disappointing in the most important weeks of the season.

New England wasn’t stupid for its spending spree. It was probably a necessary step for the first time in more than two decades. But did they restock the cupboard with the highest quality ingredients?

Not for how much cash they dropped at the market.

Craig has spent the last ten years as a sports information professional, working for several schools across New England at the Division 3 level. A native of Peabody, Mass., Craig is a life-long Boston sports fan. He is also an avid player of fantasy football and baseball, and commissioner of the AKA Family Fantasy Football League. Like most other Turf team members, Craig has a penchant for theater, spending his high school and college years as a set designer, sound designer and theater shop worker. He became a father shortly before the coronavirus pandemic, and as such, hasn't really left his home since last December.

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