FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Well, that was fun. The New England Patriots went on a free-agent splurge unlike any other in NFL history, dominating headlines with their bold, free-spending moves.
The Patriots’ $159.6 million in guaranteed money spent on free agents signed after the start of the 2021 league year on March 17 sets an NFL record, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Now, with the benefit of time and speaking and listening to those connected to the process — including those from inside the organization, players and agents — a clearer picture of how they did it has formed.
Let’s start with the Patriots’ belief this was a unique opportunity to be aggressive in free agency. The NFL salary cap was going down for the first time in a decade, shrinking 8% to $182.5 million, which meant more in-their-prime players were available, with less competition to sign them. All during an offseason when New England had ample cap space while also factoring in a rising cap in future years due to the NFL’s changing media deals.
They were ready to pounce.
Back in October, coach Bill Belichick tipped off the spending splurge that was coming when he said of 2020: “This is kind of the year that we’ve taken to, I would say, adjust our cap from the spending that we’ve had in accumulation of prior years. We just haven’t been able to have the kind of depth on our roster that we’ve had in some other years.”
No way was he going to let that happen again.
The first domino was agreeing to a trade for Las Vegas Raiders offensive tackle Trent Brown, which was finalized March 9. That was important because it required reworking Brown’s contract — slashing one year and reducing Brown’s pay. Brown could have earned up to $29.5 million over the next two seasons in Las Vegas, and now has a chance to earn up to $11 million in 2021 before becoming a free agent.
Agent Drew Rosenhaus dealt directly with Belichick on the contract. The Rosenhaus-Belichick connection, and their 30-year history of deal-making going back to Belichick’s tenure as Cleveland Browns coach in the early 1990s, would show up in a big way once negotiations could officially begin six days later on March 15.
But before that, the Patriots had other internal pieces of business to square away.
After assessing potential free-agent quarterback options, they decided bringing back Cam Newton on a one-year deal with $3.5 million guaranteed, was their best choice. A perk — the deal provided a clearer picture to present to free-agent tight ends and wide receivers. They also quickly found common ground with Justin Bethel, bringing the core special-teamer back on a three-year deal. Those deals were finalized on Friday, March 12.
After a quiet weekend, it was time for a free-agent barrage unlike any other. Belichick, recently promoted personnel man Dave Ziegler, fellow personnel exec Eliot Wolf and special assistant Matt Patricia essentially formed a four-man blitz, talking with agents and players to split up negotiating, sales pitches and contract responsibilities.
Unlike the 2020 NFL draft, when everyone was working remotely, personnel execs and coaches were present at Gillette Stadium. A daily full-staff meeting, usually starting in the 7 o’clock hour, set the tone for what was to come.
A league source could not confirm one important detail: Did Belichick’s dog, Nike, take part?
Monday, March 15
The Patriots’ roller coaster of news kicks off early on a sunny but cool afternoon in Foxborough:
12:59 p.m. ET: Surrounded by his family, tight end Jonnu Smith agrees to a four-year, $50 million deal with $31.25 million guaranteed. The Tennessee Titans and New York Jets were among his suitors, according to ESPN reporter Jeremy Fowler. “I consider myself a spiritual man. I just dug deeper and kind of connected with the man upstairs and he led me to my decision,” Smith said. “One of the greatest days of my life. I cried all I could.”
Stephen A. Smith reacts to the Patriots’ agreement with tight end Hunter Henry among a multitude of other free-agency moves.
1:06 p.m.: Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux agrees to a two-year, $16 million contract with $9 million guaranteed. “Coach Belichick reached out to my agent, Drew Rosenhaus, and he just said how impressed he was with me. It was shocking seeing the Patriots call,” Godchaux said. “Kind of like draft day all over again.”
Still focused on defense, news of the Patriots’ biggest deal on that Monday gets out:
3:01 p.m.: Outside linebacker Matthew Judon agrees to a four-year, $56 million deal, with $32 million guaranteed. “I was in Orlando at Disney with my daughter for her spring break, sitting in the front seat of the car in the parking lot,” Judon said. “It moved fast, calls back and forth from my agent [Jim Ivler and Brian Mackler], saying we were fielding offers. Within three hours, we had a deal. Life-changing decisions. You have to do them fast, swiftly.”
Three deals down and $72.25 million has been agreed upon in guaranteed money.
3:04 p.m.: Defensive back Jalen Mills, another client of Rosenhaus, agrees to a four-year, $24 million deal with $9 million guaranteed. “I got a call from [Drew] telling me the teams that wanted me, how they may use me, what their coaching staff is saying. It happened so fast. He said ‘J, it’s on you, whatever decision you make. These are the best options, I think, but this is your future.’ I stepped forward and said I wanted to go play for the Patriots.”
Adam Schefter and Louis Riddick react to the Patriots adding former Eagles DB Jalen Mills.
At that point, the connection to Rosenhaus was crystalizing as a notable storyline.
3:11 p.m.: “I’ve known coach Belichick for 30 years and that was beneficial to getting these deals done,” Rosenhaus tells ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Later, Rosenhaus said on the “Peter King Podcast” that the Patriots “had the money out there and they were hungry.”
4:09 p.m.: After five years with the Patriots, standout left guard Joe Thuney agrees to a five-year, $80 million deal with the Chiefs, with his agent, Mike McCartney, breaking the news on Twitter. While the Patriots had reopened discussions to retain Thuney, it was always a long-shot scenario. “New England will forever hold a special place in my heart, and I will always be a Patriot,” Thuney later said on Instagram.
4:40 p.m.: Defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. agrees to re-sign with the Patriots — a four-year deal with a maximum value of $30 million, with $10 million guaranteed. The terms suggest agents Scott Casterline and Chris Turnage were negotiating with multiple teams. “Let’s Gooooooooooooooooo,” Wise tweeted.
5:06 p.m.: Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne commits to a three-year deal with a maximum value of $22.5 million, and $5.25 million guaranteed. “My agents [Henry Organ and Vince Taylor] called and were telling me ‘They like you, had some good things to say about you.’ I was like, ‘What? New England?’ I honestly didn’t even know the Patriots were that interested in me,” Bourne said. “I almost didn’t have a decision. It was the best decision on the table.”
At this point, the Patriots have re-signed three players (Newton, Bethel, Wise), acquired a familiar face in a trade (Brown) and welcomed four new players (Smith, Godchaux, Judon, Mills). Smith is ranked sixth among ESPN’s top 100 free agents and Judon is 25th. Godchaux and Mills didn’t crack the list.
6:26 p.m.: Wide receiver Nelson Agholor agrees to a two-year deal with a maximum value of $26 million and $15 million guaranteed. “My agency [Independent Sports & Entertainment] and I got on the phone with the Patriots, I spoke with my family and loved ones, and it was something I felt we were all comfortable with,” Agholor said. “A special day.”
6:41 p.m.: The Patriots announce the re-signing of run-stuffing defensive tackle Carl Davis. It’s a modest one-year, $1.07 million deal with no guaranteed money, reflective of a depth player who ended last season on injured reserve because of a concussion.
8:10 p.m.: Defensive lineman Henry Anderson, who had been released by the Jets on March 2, agrees to a two-year, $7 million deal. “That was the first time in my career that I’ve been released. Not a great feeling. My agent [Tom Condon and Jarrett Gonser] would check in periodically,” Anderson said. “I was glad the Patriots were interested and we could get a deal done pretty quickly.”
The Patriots capped the day having guaranteed $100.775 million to players. ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Louis Riddick, who had predicted an aggressive approach, said: “As far as team building is concerned, this is a clinic of how to run free agency. It’s an absolute clinic!”
Tuesday, March 16
Including the pre-free-agency deals, the Patriots have locked up 12 players at this point. But Belichick is still thinking aggressively, envisioning the possibility of a revamped “Detroit” personnel package featuring two tight ends, like he had with Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson in the early-to-mid-2000s, and later with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
10:04 a.m.: After a busy first day, the Patriots shockingly make more waves by agreeing to a three-year, $37.5 million deal with tight end Hunter Henry that includes $25 million in guarantees. “It was a little stressful at the beginning,” Henry said. “When I saw [Jonnu] go to the Patriots right out of the gates, I was like, ‘Wow!’ I was really happy for him, but I just didn’t know if it was going to happen for me, too. Then obviously we started talking again, and I was fired up to join.”
Henry was ESPN’s No. 2-rated free agent.
Wednesday, March 17
12:03 p.m.: Defensive tackle Adam Butler, who developed into a valuable sub-package rusher over his four years with the Patriots, agrees to a two-year, $7 million deal with the Dolphins. “I am very blessed to be able to say that I was a part of such a great dynasty,” Butler said on Instagram. “A new chapter in my life will now begin.”
12:04 p.m.: Center/guard Ted Karras, who had been with the Patriots from 2016 to 2019 before playing for Miami in 2020, agrees to a one-year, $4 million deal with $3 million guaranteed. With starting center David Andrews still a free agent, Karras provides insurance. “You’re pacing around looking at your phone, hoping your phone [rings],” Karras said. “In the year we’ve had, it’s been pretty crazy and it definitely affected the cap, and affected a lot of people’s livelihoods. To get a job in this league is precious.”
1:52 p.m.: The Patriots place a second-round tender of $3.38 million on restricted free-agent J.C. Jackson.
3:16 p.m.: Core special-teamer Cody Davis (two years, $4.3 million) posts on Twitter he is returning to the Patriots. It’s a creative video of his young son, Kane, dressed in a Patriots uniform and saying, “Breaking news! A Patriot for two more years.”
Not everyone is sold on the Patriots’ free-spending ways, especially when considering pillars in the locker room such as Andrews, running back James White and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy remain free agents. ESPN staff writer Bill Barnwell rates the deals for Smith and Agholor as two of the worst in the NFL. Of Agholor, he says, “It’s clear they misread the market.”
9:18 p.m.: Outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who was surprisingly released by the Dolphins on March 4, tweets his return to New England: “We backkkk!!!” and includes “#personal” in his message. “A couple teams started right away to do their due diligence. As the days got closer to the start of free agency, a little more movement came, and the rest is history,” said Van Noy (two years, $13.2 million with $6 million guaranteed). “I’m happy to be back with my brothers.”
On “The Peter King Podcast,” Rosenhaus shares his dealings with the Patriots and says, “From my standpoint, they took advantage of an edge that they had. I think we all agree that Belichick is very good at taking advantage of opportunities. He did this year. He knew there were a lot of teams that didn’t have cap room.”
Thursday, March 18
6:02 a.m.: The Patriots release defensive tackle Beau Allen (spent 2020 on injured reserve after signing a two-year, $7 million deal) and wide receiver Marqise Lee (opted out of 2020 because of family considerations).
1:30 p.m.: Fourth-year tight end Ryan Izzo is traded to the Texans for a 2022 seventh-round pick.
The Patriots are pleased with how things have unfolded, but there is some concern they might lose too much leadership from recent years. They have spent $136.855 million in guaranteed money at this point.
3:56 p.m.: Packers defensive tackle Montravius Adams agrees to a one-year deal worth up to $2.5 million.
5:11 p.m.: Veteran kicker Nick Folk agrees to a one-year deal worth up to $2.5 million.
10:12 p.m.: Andrews, the starting center and four-time captain, agrees to a four-year, $21 million deal to return to New England. Playing off a “Wolf of Wall Street” theme, he later posts on Instagram: “I’m not leavin’.” And later in an interview with the “Patriots All-Access” television show, Andrew says, “This is our home. Our heart’s here.”
Friday, March 19
The Patriots have most of their new free agents at Gillette Stadium for initial introductions. Physical examinations are completed and contracts officially signed.
1:26 p.m.: Linebacker Raekwon McMillan, formerly of the Dolphins and Raiders, agrees to a one-year, $1.15 million deal. “It was a pretty quick process. They let me know pretty early on that I was on their radar,” McMillan said. “I had opportunities to go [to other teams] after the Patriots’ visit, about two, three other teams that were pushing real hard to get me on their squad, but I felt like this opportunity couldn’t be passed up.”
With contracts finalized, the Patriots issue a news release for 10 of their signings, and it includes a changeup from the norm: a statement from Belichick. He hasn’t held an official media availability since the end of the season, so his remarks are his first on the record since Jan. 4.
2:05 p.m.: “We are excited about the additions to our roster so far this year,” Belichick said. “Whether by trade, free agency or re-signings, the group brings a good mix of offense, defense and special teams. It was great to see them in the building, including some familiar faces, and we all are looking forward to continue building toward the upcoming season.”
Tuesday, March 23
4:54 p.m.: Place-kicker Justin Rohrwasser and linebackers Cassh Maluia and Michael Pinckney are waived, a result of the wave of signings. Rohrwasser, a 2020 fifth-round pick who never appeared in a regular-season game for the team, is most notable given the headlines that accompanied his arrival.
Things have slowed down, with New England’s budget crunched. Patriots team owner Robert Kraft tells King, “I’ve never had to come up with so much capital before.” Meanwhile, some veteran players are finding the market leaguewide isn’t as rich as they hoped.
Wednesday, March 24
9:59 a.m.: White agrees to a one-year deal with $2.75 million guaranteed to return. The beloved team captain tweeted an “I love you” emoji to fellow running back Brandon Bolden to sum up his thoughts.
Mel Kiper explains why he has the Patriots selecting Mac Jones with the No. 15 pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
3:58 p.m.: Guy, who had taken a free-agent visit to Miami, agrees to a four-year, $24 million deal with $3.075 million guaranteed to return. Retaining Guy, on the same day as White, is a reminder the Patriots were working hard to keep some of their key players from recent years.
5:33 p.m.: The Patriots announce the signing of veteran linebacker and core special-teamer LaRoy Reynolds, with the 30-year-old Reynolds having previously posted a picture of himself on Instagram to tip it off. It’s the team’s 23rd personnel addition since acquiring Brown, capping off a memorable stretch.
The Patriots still need to find their quarterback of the future, a question that hovers over them as they look ahead to the 2021 NFL draft. But their dramatic reshaping of the roster through free agency captured the attention of the NFL and sparked cautious optimism at the highest levels of the organization.
As Kraft told Sports Illustrated: “I just want to compliment our staff, our organization, Bill, all the scouting and personnel people, for a real team effort. Look, we’re not going to know ’til the fall. We always used to make fun of the people who won the headlines in March, but here, I believe we really improved our team.”