The New England Patriots may have looked on the verge of another losing season in early October, but they now sit in the driver’s seat in the competitive AFC. With a 9-4 record and a two-game lead over the stumbling Buffalo Bills, the six-time Super Bowl champions look fully capable of winning the Lombardi Trophy.
Of course, Bill Belichick helped himself out by making a number of personnel moves during the offseason to fortify a talent-depleted roster. Not only did he spend an unprecedented amount of Robert Kraft’s money in free agency, but he also utilized the draft to add young, instant-impact players at positions of need.
Obviously, some moves have paid off more than others. But out of all the success stories, which one has proven the most important to New England’s rapid turnaround? Based on production and long-term value, here are Belichick’s five best offseason moves.
5. Signing Hunter Henry to a three-year, $37.5 million contract
The tight end position turned into a wasteland once Rob Gronkowski retired. New England went from having an all-time great headlining the depth chart to having practice-squad types playing significant snaps. Luckily for Mac Jones, Belichick attacked an obvious weakness by signing the top two tight ends to deals averaging $12.5 million annually. And while Jonnu Smith remains a work in progress, there’s no doubt the Patriots hit big by securing Hunter Henry’s services.
Although he doesn’t bring nearly the same explosion as elite players at the position like George Kittle and Darren Waller, Henry has provided his new quarterback with a reliable target in critical moments. Tipping the scales at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, the former Los Angeles Charger has utilized his size and frame to box out defenders in the red zone—a missing ingredient from the Patriots’ offense since 2018.
With a team-high seven receiving touchdowns, Henry deserves praise for becoming a key member of the offense in little time. If he suffers an injury—a possibility given he’s missed time in each of his first five NFL seasons—New England will be in serious trouble on offense.
4. Stealing Christian Barmore in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft
Belichick bolstered the defensive line in free agency by signing Davon Godchaux to a two-year, $15 million contract. The ex-Miami Dolphin overcame a rocky start and has grown into a solid role player over the last few weeks. However, one of the primary reasons the Patriots rank No. 1 in points allowed stems from Belichick’s decision to trade up in the second round of the 2021 draft to end Christian Barmore’s slide. And if the promising rookie’s first 13 games as a pro are a sign of things to come, defensive coordinators around the league better have sound game plans to stop the emerging star.
A physical, explosive interior lineman who won defensive MVP honors in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship, Barmore fell out of the first round due to concerns about his work ethic and character. Clearly, though, Nick Saban gave the defensive tackle his stamp of approval, and Belichick has reaped the rewards. Statistics don’t back up Barmore’s impact, but the game film certainly does.
Capable of defeating double teams, he’s completely changed the way offensive lines have to handle New England’s front seven. His ability to push the pocket, rip through blockers, and get pressure on the quarterback gives Belichick something he’s been searching for for a while: a star defensive tackle with All-Pro ability.
3. Betting on Rhamondre Stevenson’s upside in the fourth round
Think running backs don’t matter? Don’t tell that to William Stephen Belichick. In 2018, he drafted Sony Michel with the penultimate pick of the first round. A year later, he used a third-rounder on Damien Harris. After passing on the position in 2020, he plucked Rhamondre Stevenson out of Oklahoma in the fourth round.
And it’s fair to say swinging for the fences on a back who flashed star potential in just two collegiate seasons has paid off brilliantly for Belichick and his scouting staff. Stevenson’s combination of strength, agility, and balance has allowed him to overpower and outmaneuver defenders, and he’s only gotten better as the season’s gone along. Not only has he provided an excellent counterpunch to Harris, but he’s arguably been even better than his veteran teammate.
Ultimately, Belichick landed a franchise running back at a discount rate–an important factor considering Harris will become a free agent after the 2022 season. For a team that’s predicated on pounding the rock and playing stout defense, getting a back like Stevenson on the third day of the draft has to be viewed as a season- and franchise-altering move.
2. Securing a franchise quarterback without surrendering any extra assets
Of course, the most important member of the 2021 draft class plays the most important position in sports. And when we’re talking about the most important moves Belichick made this offseason, it’s hard not to put landing Mac Jones with the 15th overall pick at No. 1.
On one hand, it’s impossible to ignore the stark difference between the Patriots’ 2020 offense led by Cam Newton and the 2021 version led by the rookie out of Alabama. Jones has played with the poise and command of a veteran. He’s taken a number of brutal hits and refused to let that knock him off his game. And he’s shown impressive leadership and maturity for someone who turned 23 in September.
Belichick undoubtedly won the 2021 draft by landing the picture-perfect signal-caller to lead the offense by doing absolutely nothing except waiting his turn in line. Jones should fill the void left by Tom Brady and serve as the face of the franchise for years to come.
However, it’s also fair to point out that the first-year quarterback entered an advantageous situation designed to make him succeed. With a stout offensive line, improved weapons, a dynamic running back tandem, and an elite defense on his side, Jones simply hasn’t needed to do a ton to get the Patriots back into the No. 1 seed.
On the other hand, Belichick wouldn’t be the favorite for Coach of the Year without the help of his most expensive free-agent signing.
1. Breaking the bank to convince Matthew Judon to leave Baltimore behind
Sometimes, you have to deviate from the norm to get new results. And after largely passing on paying top-level pass rushers over the years, the Patriots finally bit the bullet this spring. Thankfully for Belichick, giving Matthew Judon a four-year, $56 million deal already looks like one of the best decisions of his entire NFL career.
After all, when your marquee offseason addition has 12.5 sacks and 25 quarterback hits through 13 games, you know things are going well. Besides wreaking havoc on quarterbacks every week, Judon has instantly earned respect in the locker room for his leadership and business-like approach to his craft. After totaling a mere 24 sacks as a team in 2020, the Patriots have already racked up 32. Having an elite edge rusher who dictates attention on a snap-by-snap basis has made it easier for the secondary to cover and make plays on the ball (New England ranks second in the league with 19 interceptions).
Simply put: The downgrade from Judon to Chase Winovich or Josh Uche would be massive. Belichick went rogue by giving the two-time Pro Bowler a top-of-the-market contract, but that boldness brought a premier player to a New England defense that’s relied on aging stars like Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower for years.
Ultimately, the Patriots have a chance to add a seventh Lombardi Trophy to their collection thanks to the brilliance of Bill Belichick the coach and Bill Belichick the GM. And whether you put Judon above Jones or not, it’s clear both have proven instrumental to transforming a 7-9 squad into the most complete team in the AFC.