Patriots’ Early Free Agency Approach Shows This Clear Priority

Offense, offense, offense


March 17

The 2022 Patriots were very good on defense and hopelessly broken on offense.

It makes sense, then, that every one of their offseason additions to date has been aimed at improving the latter.

It began with the coaching staff. Within a month of his team’s season-ending loss in Buffalo, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had hired a new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in Bill O’Brien and a new offensive line coach in Adrian Klemm. Unlike predecessors Joe Judge and Matt Patricia, both boast a wealth of experience in their respective roles, even if most of Klemm’s has come at the college level.

Then, as the Patriots began to retool their roster in the opening week of NFL free agency, Belichick made a concerted effort to beef up his offense with outside additions.

As of Friday morning, the Patriots had signed or agreed to terms with five external free agents, and all five were offensive players:

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
TE Mike Gesicki
RB James Robinson
OT Riley Reiff
OT Calvin Anderson

Smith-Schuster, Gesicki and Robinson project as replacements for Jakobi Meyers, Jonnu Smith and Damien Harris, respectively. Reiff and Anderson are veteran adds to the Patriots’ weakest position group, with the former now the favorite to start at either left or right tackle.

None of those players are elite-level game-changers, but each one filled a need. Belichick clearly surveyed his offensive personnel and saw multiple spots in need of upgrades. The Patriots had eight offensive players set to hit free agency, and as of Friday, just three had either re-signed (tackle Conor McDermott and center/guard James Ferentz) or been tendered (tackle Yodny Cajuste).

Between the coaching hires and early signings, New England’s Mac Jones-led offense is in better shape now than it was in 2022. How much better? That remains to be seen. The Patriots still could benefit from adding a top-flight receiver and starting-caliber tackle, be they veterans or high draft picks. But there’s at least been positive progress there.

Over on defense, it’s been all about continuity. Of the Patriots’ nine internal defensive free agents, seven are set to return in 2023.

New England retained Jonathan Jones, Jabrill Peppers and Myles Bryant (tendered) in the secondary; Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson at linebacker; and Carl Davis and Daniel Ekuale on the defensive line. The only free agent they lost was safety Devin McCourty, to retirement. The only one still unsigned as of Friday: cornerback Joejuan Williams, who didn’t play this season.

The Patriots also kept their defensive coaching staff intact, with highly regarded assistants Jerod Mayo and DeMarcus Covington staying put after garnering interest from other clubs. Given how well New England performed defensively for much of the 2022 season, with a third-place finish in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and an NFL-best seven defensive touchdowns, Belichick’s desire to run it back with largely the same group is logical.

That’s not to say the Patriots’ defense is flawless. McCourty is a significant loss, especially with no obvious internal replacement for him on the roster. They also could use more athleticism at linebacker and height and length at cornerback after opponents were able to exploit both this past season.

And additions surely are coming on that side of the ball. The Patriots hosted several defensive players for free agent visits this week, including safety Taylor Rapp, linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel and old friend Trey Flowers, and reportedly were in talks with Rapp on Friday about a potential contract.

But Belichick clearly believes that group only requires some minor tweaks. It’s the offense that needed an overhaul, and that’s exactly what it’s getting.

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Thumbnail photo via Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Images
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