Arena: How the Patriots (already) won the offseason
Until Tom Brady retires, the New England Patriots will contend for championships. That is a given. However, Terrific Tom is 39 years old and although he would like to play until he is 45, the chances of that happening are slim.
Coming off the most dramatic comeback in Super Bowl history, the Patriots are pushing all their chips to the center of the table in an effort to dominate the league before father time closes their championship window.
This offseason, the New England Patriots have put aside their typical under-the-radar approach, making splashy moves that have fans buzzing. In arguably the most unexpected move of the offseason, the Patriots gave up their first and third round selections to receive Brandin Cooks and a fourth round pick from the New Orleans Saints.
In Cooks, the Pats now have their most explosive wide receiver since Randy Moss.
The 23-year-old is coming off back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons and has already amassed 21 total touchdowns in his short, three-year career. At 5’10” with lightning quickness, sure hands and an innate ability to create separation from defenders, Cooks is exactly the type of receiver that head coach Bill Belichick covets.
Not only does Cooks help the Patriots in the immediate future, he can also be a building block for this team and will eventually take over aging stud Julian Edelman’s role within the offense.
Perhaps the most aggressive move the Pats have made thus far, however, has been signing CB Stephon Gilmore to a 5-year $65M contract.
Contract talks with Malcolm Butler still in progress, the Pats decided to snatch Gilmore from their rival Buffalo Bills.
Gilmore is a ball-hawk with ideal size, strength and speed for the cornerback position. Players of his ilk come at a premium in free agency, especially because he is only 26 and should likely continue to get better as he harnesses his physical gifts.
Signing Gilmore also takes pressure off the Patriots, giving them room to stand firm in contract talks with Malcolm Butler. Since the Patriots slapped a first-round tender on him, opposing teams must pony up a first-round draft pick to sign him.
If they manage to sign Butler, the Pats will have two of the best bookend cornerbacks in the NFL. If they trade him, they will likely pull in a great haul to bolster their team.
The New England powerhouse came into this offseason with $60 million in cap space in part because they have traded away stars rather than paying them big-money deals.
Examples of that include trading away DE Chandler Jones for a second-round pick and trading ILB Jamie Collins mid-season for a third-round compensatory pick. Jones just signed a 5-year deal worth $82.5 million, while Collins signed a 4-year $50 million deal.
Meanwhile, Dont’a Hightower, Collins' former partner at inside linebacker, just re-signed with the Patriots at a discounted 4-year $43.5 million deal. The difference between Hightower’s contract and Collins’ does not seem big until you factor this in: Hightower is a vastly superior player.
The Patriots also managed to somehow keep their Super Bowl defense mostly intact by re-signing the multifaceted Duron Harmon, and DT Alan Branch to below-market deals.
That is not to say the Pats have not already suffered their fair share of personnel loses this offseason.
Defensive contributors Jabaal Sheard and Logan Ryan have found deals elsewhere and DE Chris Long has publicly stated that he will not return to the Patriots over issues with playing time. LeGarrette Blount, coming off an 18-touchdown season, is still on the market. Martellus Bennett, the best tight end on the market, signed a 3-year $21 million deal with the Green Bay Packers.
The Patriots have been active and aggressive in acquiring talent to offset hits to their personnel – perhaps more than ever. To kick the offseason off, they traded a fourth-round pick to the Colts for TE Dwayne Allen and a sixth-round pick.
At age 27, Allen is three years younger than the departed Bennett. He also may be a more complete player overall. While Bennett is a dynamic pass-catcher, Allen is an all-around talent who possesses great speed and blocking ability. As the second fiddle to Rob Gronkowski, Allen will mostly be needed for his ability to do the latter, however, when Gronkowski inevitably gets injured again, Allen could step into the spotlight much the same way Bennett did last season.
Another move that flew under the radar was trading their second-round pick to the Panthers in exchange for 25 year old Kony Ealy. This move was of tremendous value because it gave the Patriots a starting caliber defensive end, while they only had to move back a mere eight selections. Ealy thrives in the spotlight, evidenced by his two sacks, interception and forced fumble in Super Bowl 50. Ealy will easily assume a place in the defensive line rotation, filling in for the departed Sheard and Long.
Though most of these out-of-character trades and signings have been all over ESPN, the Patriots still continue to make in-character, under-the-radar moves. Signing defensive end Lawrence Guy to a four-year $20 million deal went largely unnoticed by fans, but Guy is exactly the kind of run-stopper the Patriots need to keep their defense balanced.
Getting RB Rex Burkhead on a one-year deal may prove to be one of the best signings of the offseason. Burkhead did not get much playing time last year, stuck as a third-string behind Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard. However, when the ball was in his hands he outplayed them both.
A nifty back with a similar game to former Pats RB Danny Woodhead, Burkhead excels as a pass-catcher and pass protector, who also runs between the tackles much better than the traditional third-down back. If the Patriots don’t sign another running back this offseason, do not be surprised if Burkhead gets the lion’s share of carries next season.
New England has been on a rampage so far this offseason, and it has only just begun. More moves will surely be made. Will Malcolm Butler be traded? How about backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo? What sort of New England witchcraft will Bill Belichick conjure next?
The NFL offseason will not be over until August. However, two weeks in, the Patriots are already the clear winner.