Patriots Free Agency: What Can We Learn From New England’s Past Moves?

The last time the Patriots had this much cap space, they spent big

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NFL free agency has arrived. What can we expect from the New England Patriots?

With the legal tampering period set to open Monday at noon ET, here’s a look back at how the Patriots approached free agency — and how their moves panned out — in each of the last four offseasons:

2020
Last year’s free agency period was defined more by departures than additions. After bowing out in the wild-card round for the first time in a decade, the Patriots lost linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, defensive tackle Danny Shelton, center/guard Ted Karras and, of course, quarterback Tom Brady in free agency. They also traded away third safety Duron Harmon in a cap-clearing move while re-signing defensive backs Devin and Jason McCourty and special teamer Matthew Slater and placing the franchise tag on guard Joe Thuney.

With hardly any leftover salary cap space after absorbing Brady’s $13.5 million dead money charge, the Patriots’ incoming free agents all were low-to-mid-level veterans: defensive tackle Beau Allen, wide receivers Damiere Byrd and Marqise Lee, safety Adrian Phillips, linebacker Brandon Copeland, quarterback Brian Hoyer, special teamer Cody Davis, and fullback Danny Vitale.

Lee and Vitale opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. Allen suffered an injury in training camp and never played a snap. Hoyer was demoted to third string after Week 4. Copeland was lost for the year in October. Byrd posted career-best stats but was miscast as a No. 1 receiver. Phillips and Davis proved to be the most valuable additions.

2019
The Patriots were in relatively good shape cap-wise after winning Super Bowl LIII, but they waved goodbye to more impact veterans than they welcomed that offseason.

Defensive end Trey Flowers, offensive tackle Trent Brown, receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson, D-tackle Malcom Brown, cornerback Eric Rowe, tight end Dwayne Allen and receiver Chris Hogan all walked in free agency and were replaced on the roster by running back Brandon Bolden (back for his second stint in New England), tight end Matt LaCosse, safety Terrence Brooks, defensive tackle Mike Pennel and receivers Bruce Ellington and Maurice Harris. The Patriots went on to signed Collins (also a returnee), tight ends Ben Watson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and wideouts Dontrelle Inman and Demaryius Thomas in the ensuing months.

Hits were few and far between in this group. Collins revived his career, but Pennel, Ellington, Harris, Seferian-Jenkins, Inman and Thomas never appeared in a regular-season game for New England. The Patriots’ most notable offseason pickup was trade acquisition Michael Bennett, who proved to be a poor fit and was cut midseason.

2018
New England’s 2018 free agent class (Adrian Clayborn, Jeremy Hill, Luke Bowanko, Matt Tobin, Troy Niklas) wasn’t memorable, but the team nailed each of its three March trades, landing Shelton and cornerback Jason McCourty from Cleveland and Patterson from Oakland.

McCourty and Patterson were acquired for Day 3 pick swaps. The Patriots sent a 2019 third-round pick to the Browns for Shelton and a 2018 fifth. All three made key contributions to New England’s title run, though Shelton didn’t play his best football until the following season.

The 2018 offseason also featured a slew of notable departures: cornerback Malcolm Butler, receivers Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola, running back Dion Lewis and offensive tackle Nate Solder. Cooks left via trade, netting the Patriots a first-round pick from the Los Angeles Rams.

2017
The Patriots are set to enter the 2021 league year with more than $50 million in salary cap space. The last time they were that flush with cash heading into free agency, Bill Belichick went on a wild offseason spending spree.

In 2017, Belichick veered from his usual M.O. of targeting affordable, undervalued veterans by signing Stephon Gilmore — one of the top cornerbacks on the market — to a five-year, $65 million contract. Then he scooped up two less heralded free agents in D-tackle Lawrence Guy and running back Rex Burkhead. He also sent a first-round pick to New Orleans for Cooks, acquired defensive end Kony Ealy in a Day 2 pick swap and traded a fourth-round pick to Indianapolis for Dwayne Allen and a sixth.

Of those six additions, Ealy, who was cut in training camp, was the only true flop. Gilmore has been one of the NFL’s best corners for much of his Patriots tenure and was the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Guy and Burkhead were excellent pickups. Allen never made an impact in the passing game but was a valuable blocker. Cooks was a 1,000-yard receiver in his lone season in New England, then fetched a first-rounder when the Pats flipped him the following spring.

New England also retained Butler on a restricted free agent tender and re-signed linebacker Dont’a Hightower, their top internal free agent. Harmon and D-tackle Alan Branch also were retained. A month later, the Patriots poached RFA running back Mike Gillislee from Buffalo in a move that yielded underwhelming returns.

The current Patriots have significant roster needs at receiver, tight end and in the defensive front seven, among other areas of concern. With their wealth of cap space, are more big splashes forthcoming?

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick
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