When ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast crew asked Bill Belichick about the New England Patriots’ speedy ascent from also-rans in 2020 to Super Bowl contenders in 2021, he gave a simple explanation: “Better players.”
The Patriots’ extravagant offseason spending spree — the type of approach that often fails in the NFL — certainly has paid off thus far, with many of their free agent additions playing vital roles for the No. 1 team in the AFC.
As New England heads into its bye week, let’s take a closer look at how each of these veteran newcomers has performed so far this season:
Matthew Judon, outside linebacker
Judon belongs on his own tier. He’s been the best player on the NFL’s best defense and should receive Defensive Player of the Year consideration, though he’s unlikely to win. He’s already tied the Belichick-era Patriots single-season record for sacks with 12 1/2 and could threaten Andre Tippett’s franchise mark of 18 1/2 with a strong finish.
Kendrick Bourne, wide receiver
A relative afterthought in a talented class of free-agent receivers, Bourne has been the best of the bunch thus far. He leads the Patriots in receiving yards (623) and ranks at or near the top of the league in yards per target (11.2) and catch rate (79.2). Likened to both the Energizer Bunny and a labrador retriever for his bubbly enthusiasm, Bourne also has contributed as both a rusher (seven carries, 81 yards) and a passer (one touchdown pass).
Kyle Van Noy, linebacker
After a slow start to his second Patriots stint, Van Noy has been a playmaking force in the Patriots’ front seven. During New England’s current seven-game win streak, he has three sacks, four quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, one interception (a pick-six) and nine passes defended. Van Noy has gotten his hand on at least one pass in six of the last seven games.
Hunter Henry, tight end
Henry’s torrid touchdown pace has cooled of late (none in his last three games after hauling in seven in his previous seven), but he’s been the true red-zone weapon the Patriots sorely lacked last season. He’s also been one of Mac Jones’ favorite targets on third down.
Ted Karras, guard
Karras deserves a lot of credit for helping steady the Patriots’ offensive line. That unit was a mess early in the season. Ever since he entered the starting lineup in Week 5, it’s looked much more cohesive. There’s a reason the coaching staff ultimately chose to keep Karras at left guard and move the talented Mike Onwenu to the bench. He’s earned his starting spot and then some.
Trent Brown, offensive tackle (added via trade)
Brown only is this far down because he missed half the season with a calf injury. When healthy, he’s been a beast, and the Patriots’ entire offensive line has flourished.
Jalen Mills, cornerback
The dropoff from peak Stephon Gilmore to Mills will always be significant. Although he’s not an elite-level man-coverage player, Mills has brought surprising stability to New England’s secondary, starting all but one game in Gilmore’s old outside cornerback spot. Over the last five, he has nearly as many pass breakups (five) as catches allowed (four), per Pro Football Focus.
Davon Godchaux, defensive tackle
There’s been some unevenness from Godchaux this season, but he’s been an important piece in the Patriots’ run defense as a true nose tackle who also can play multiple other spots along the D-line. He was one of the best players on the field in Monday night’s win over the Buffalo Bills.
Nelson Agholor, wide receiver
Agholor’s production this season hasn’t matched his $11 million price tag. He’s contributed, and his deep-threat ability has opened up space for players like Bourne and Jakobi Meyers, but he ranks tied for 95th in the NFL in catches (32) and 73rd in receiving yards (416).
Jonnu Smith, tight end
We’re still waiting for the true Smith breakout. His best game to date was a three-catch, 49-yard effort against the Tennessee Titans, and he has just one touchdown all season. The Patriots have chosen to use him more in a run-blocking role, with Henry receiving the majority of pass-catching opportunities.
Henry Anderson, defensive lineman
Anderson can’t be blamed for the injury that ended his season in Week 4, but he was seeing minimal playing time even before that. Of all the veteran newcomers who made the initial 53-man roster, he’s been the least impactful.