Column: The arrival of Big Money Belichick and the reloaded 2021 Patriots

By Brendan Beauregard, Assistant Sports Editor

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In the classic TV show Breaking Bad, there’s a scene when Saul Goodman’s bodyguard, Huell Babineaux, is put in charge of moving Walter White’s millions of dollars. Upon gazing at the large stacks of cash, Huell blurts out to his fellow Goodman associate Patrick Kuby, “I gotta do it, man,” and lays down on the money in peace.

I imagine that’s how New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick acted before NFL free agency began, with New England wielding over $60 million in cap space. But as a Patriots fan myself, I didn’t expect the outrageous volume of signings Belichick and the Patriots made.

New England overhauled key areas of offense and defense. Offensively, the Patriots redid almost the entirety of their passing offense by signing arguably the best available tight ends in Jonnu Smith (four years, $50 million contract, per and Hunter Henry (three years, $37.5 million, per Bleacher Report). The Patriots also inked complementary pieces in the wide receiver position in Nelson Agholor (two years, $22 million, according to NBC Sports) and Kendrick Bourne (three years, $15 million, per 98.5 The Sports Hub).

The 2020 Patriots passing offense, for a lack of a better term, downright stank, ranking an ugly 30th in passing yardage in the NFL, per ESPN.  Adding those four players should make it substantially better in 2021, especially with the potential impact of the Patriots’ two new tight ends. 

Smith and Henry will immediately step into the roles of New England’s top pass-catching options and should help revive the tight end position. The Patriots’ 2020 tight ends contributed only 18 catches, 254 yards, and one touchdown, per ESPN. If you combine Smith’s and Henry’s 2020 output, they produced 101 receptions, 1,061 yards, and 12 touchdowns in 2020. How’s that for an upgrade?

There’s still the question of who is going to throw the ball to these new Patriots targets. Right now, Cam Newton is slotted again as the starting QB—hoping to redeem himself after an underwhelming 2020. But don’t be surprised if New England decides to make a move in the NFL draft to snag a quarterback prospect like Ohio State’s Justin Fields or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, both of whom the team would likely have to trade up to acquire. 

On defense, Belichick set a course on improving New England’s front seven, primarily focusing on run defense and pass rushing. New England ranked a low 26th in run defense and an even worse 27th in sacks, according to ESPN. 

How does Belichick look to elevate performance in those areas? Enter the likes of linebacker Matthew Judon (four years, $54.5 million), defensive lineman Davon Godchaux (two years, $16 million), and former Patriot linebacker Kyle Van Noy (two years, $13.2 million).

Godchaux may have only played five games during the 2020 season, but the fourth-year player from Louisiana State University should provide assistance in the middle of the defensive line. The 2021 New England run defense remains to be seen, but Godchaux could certainly help stuff the running lanes against opposing running backs.

While Godchaux brings support to the defensive line, Judon and Van Noy can support the Patriots linebackers and pass-rushing attack. Judon recorded six sacks and 60 tackles in 2020 for the Baltimore Ravens and has averaged almost seven sacks per season in his career, per Pro Football Reference

Van Noy registered 69 tackles and six sacks last season, according to Pro Football Reference—a stat line Patriots fans aren’t surprised to see, given Van Noy’s previous four-year stint in New England. Adding Judon, Van Noy, and the return of star linebacker Dont’a Hightower after he opted out of last season is huge for the front seven. They’ll replenish the weak 2020 linebacking group for the Patriots and hopefully turn it back into a strength.

Patriots fans knew Belichick was going to make changes after the 2020 NFL season was over. After all, the team finished below .500 and missed the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, but the way Belichick has aggressively addressed New England’s needs hasn’t been seen in a long time. 

Sure, Belichick isn’t new to throwing a big contract at a player; just look at the time he signed star cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year $65 million deal in 2017. But spending over $200 million on multiple players during the opening hours of free agency? That’s incredibly rare for such a Scrooge McDuck-like person in Belichick.

The only other New England offseason that could match the absurdity of this one is 2007, when Belichick revamped the offense, acquiring players like receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donté Stallworth. I’m confident Patriots fans remember just how good the 2007 squad was—until a miraculous catch involving a helmet happened. 

Am I saying the 2021 Patriots are going to go 16-0 like the 2007 Patriots? Not a chance. However, Belichick and New England always strive to win, and they definitely will now as they come off such a disappointing 2020 season. Making the moves the front office has so far, it would not surprise me one bit if the Patriots are right back in the discussion of being one of the AFC’s top teams in 2021.