FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If recent history holds true to form, the free-spending 2021 New England Patriots should receive a bump from their seven victories earned last season. The bigger challenge will be sustaining that beyond this year.
Consider that from 2016 to 2020, the team that spent the most guaranteed money in NFL free agency improved by an average of 5.4 wins that season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The issue was the following season, as teams that spent the most guaranteed money in free agency from 2016 to 2019 had an average decline of 5.5 wins in Year 2.
Now coach Bill Belichick's Patriots join the mix, having smashed the NFL record set by the 2020 Miami Dolphins ($147.2 million). The Patriots guaranteed $163 million in unrestricted free agency, which owner Robert Kraft has acknowledged is risky business.
It is an approach usually reserved for more desperate teams. The Patriots haven't qualified.
But coming off an uncharacteristic 7-9 season, albeit in a COVID-19 year, Belichick backed up the Brinks truck, and in turn, the short-term picture -- starting with Sunday's season opener against the visiting Dolphins (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS) -- looks much better.
"It was different. You know, it was definitely different," said Cris Collinsworth, the analyst for NBC's "Sunday Night Football" who will be in town for a highly anticipated Week 4 matchup when Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit the Patriots.
"I thought they played on the minus side of the ledger a season ago because of all their COVID opt-outs and various things that happened, having to change their offense to accommodate Cam [Newton]. I thought there was a feeling of 'let's get back to Patriot football.'"
The Patriots had a league-high eight opt-outs last season, led by returning linebacker Dont'a Hightower. And to Collinsworth's point, Belichick had said the Patriots didn't have the depth they had been accustomed to in 2020, in part because of a tight salary cap after having "sold out and won three Super Bowls, played in a fourth, and played in an AFC Championship Game" from 2014 to 2019.
After last year's reset, New England attacked free agency relentlessly, in part because of a point Kraft highlighted: Recent drafts haven't been as fruitful as desired. One example of this was reflected in how punter Jake Bailey became their first home-grown Pro Bowler last season since linebacker Jamie Collins in 2015.
Most notable to Collinsworth is the intention to return to a multiple-tight-end offense, a staple of Belichick teams that disappeared in 2020 after it helped produce six Super Bowl championships. So the Patriots paid big for arguably the top two available tight ends -- Jonnu Smith of the Tennessee Titans (four years, $50 million, $31.25 million guaranteed) and Hunter Henry of the Los Angeles Chargers (three years, $37.5 million, $24 million guaranteed). Henry, who injured his shoulder in training camp, said this week he expects to play Sunday.
Ideally, the Patriots would have had tight ends they drafted and developed to form a one-two combination, similar to the early-to-mid 2000s when they had first-round draft picks Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson, and the early 2010s with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
But while free agency often comes with a "buyer beware" warning, the Patriots also viewed it as a more unique opportunity this year -- a result, in part, of the NFL's declining salary cap (the limit of $182.5 million per team for 2021 was a long-anticipated 8% decrease from last season) -- that curbed competition from other teams.
The Patriots were operating with a surplus after going lean in 2020, and Kraft cited it as an example of the team trying to "take advantage of inefficiencies in the market."
So the owner who paid $172 million to buy the team in 1994 almost matched that total in free-agent spending this offseason.
In addition to tight ends Smith and Henry, the other big-ticket signings were outside linebacker Matt Judon (four years, $54.5 million, with $30 million guaranteed); defensive back Jalen Mills (four years, $24 million, with $9 million guaranteed); defensive tackle Davon Godchaux (two years, $15 million, with $9 million guaranteed); linebacker Kyle Van Noy (two years, $12 million, with $6 million guaranteed) and receivers Nelson Agholor (two years, $22 million, with $16 million guaranteed) and Kendrick Bourne (three years, $15 million, with $5 million guaranteed).
"Free agency can help you or hurt you," said longtime Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019. "A guy can get fat on free agency, and he doesn't play the same way he played when he was looking for more money.
"But I still think that [Belichick] can build a team through draft choices and free agency. Now, it's a lot harder to build it through draft choices when you're picking 27th, 26th, 28th, 30th -- way down there, like he had been. So it that can lead you to concentrate on free agents."
The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles are the team often mentioned when it comes to the dangers of building a team through free agency.
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They were NFC East champions the year before, finishing 10-6 with Michael Vick under center and losing to the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs. Philadelphia then loaded up with the likes of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (five years, $60 million, with $25 million guaranteed), defensive end Jason Babin (five years, $28 million), cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (acquired in a trade from Arizona), defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (five years, $25 million) and quarterback Vince Young (one year, up to $5.5 million), among others.
Young, of course, had referred to them as the "Dream Team" -- which hovered over the Eagles all season as they crashed and burned after a 1-4 start, needing to win their final four games to pull out an 8-8 finish.
But more recently, teams that have taken an aggressive approach in free agency have often experienced a notable immediate improvement.
The 2016 New York Giants, who had guaranteed a league-high $107 million in free agency the prior offseason with top targets Olivier Vernon (pass-rusher), Janoris Jenkins (cornerback) and Damon Harrison (defensive tackle), improved to 11-5 from 6-10 the season before. Ben McAdoo was in his first year as coach, taking over for Tom Coughlin.
Ditto for the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars. They changed coaches, with Doug Marrone taking over for Gus Bradley, and spent a league-leading $71.6 million guaranteed in free agency, headlined by defensive lineman Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Barry Church. They jumped to 10-6 from a 3-13 season.
The '18 Bears guaranteed $102 million in free agency -- headlined by wide receiver Allen Robinson II -- and went 12-4 after a 5-11 season. That was also the year Matt Nagy took over for John Fox as coach.
The '19 Jets spent $131 million guaranteed -- not all of it wisely -- but still jumped to 7-9 after a 4-12 season. Similar to those before them, they were transitioning with Adam Gase taking over for Todd Bowles as coach.
And last season's Dolphins, having spent $147 million guaranteed, leapt from 5-11 to 10-6 in Brian Flores' second season as coach.
While the big money provided a quick fix for those teams, it didn't have staying power.
With the fate of the Dolphins to be determined, the other teams didn't sustain success into the second year.
The 2016 Giants went from 11-5 to 3-13
The 2017 Jaguars dipped from 10-6 to 5-11
The 2018 Bears slipped from 12-4 to 8-8
The 2019 Jets went from 7-9 to 2-14
Those four teams have combined to play 10 seasons since the year they led the league in guaranteed money spent in free agency, and those 10 seasons produced one playoff appearance and a 48-112 combined record.
The 2014 Denver Broncos are one of the last teams to see their free-agent binge result in Year 2 success. They signed pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and safety T.J. Ward that year. All were named to at least one Pro Bowl after arriving in Denver, and in their second season there, the Broncos won Super Bowl 50.
What might help the Patriots be more like those Broncos than other recent high-spending teams?
"It's Belichick. He reminds me so much of [Tom] Landry. I think they're both geniuses," said Brandt of the longtime Cowboys coach.
"Here's the thing: You got to have a feel, and he has a feel for the players he drafted, and what he needs. A good example is Stephon Gilmore [the cornerback signing as a free agent in 2016 for five years, $65 million, with $31 million guaranteed]. He must have had a really good feeling for the guy, and that he had the traits that don't let him ease up on his play. In the end, he has good information."
Also potentially helping the cause is a promising 2021 draft class that includes first-round pick Mac Jones, who beat out Newton (who was subsequently released) to earn the starting quarterback job.
Meshing new parts
Belichick has been pleased with the Patriots' free-agent class to date.
"They've done a good job. Most of them were here in the offseason. The couple that weren't had been strong participants once they came to veteran minicamp and training camp," he said.
That was a point Kraft had made; how the lack of a traditional offseason hurt the development of younger players last season. With things getting closer to normal this year, even with COVID-19 protocols in place, it has allowed those younger players -- and big free-agent signings -- to have a smoother transition and develop in offseason programs, organized team activities and mandatory minicamps.
One notable example is with Judon, who arrived in New England after five years with the Baltimore Ravens and was arguably the team's most disruptive defender in the preseason. He said at the annual Patriots Premiere event that everyone on the team has accepted him, allowing him to be himself.
More time is needed to see how all the pieces fit, but positive momentum has been built heading into Sunday's opener. True to form, Belichick isn't making any predictions.
"We have a lot of things that need to come together, from players that weren't on the team last year for whatever reason -- whether they were opt-outs or rookies, or came from other NFL teams -- to combine with the players that were here last year," he said.
"There are a lot of moving parts as we start the season relative to where we were at the end of the year last season."
And a lot of guaranteed money spent. More than ever before.
So now comes the hard part -- marrying the expected short-term bump with longer-range success.