If you were to believe most pundits and pundits’ predictions, the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl last year with a stingy, if not necessarily dominant, defense. Few would’ve guessed that the Patriots would finish with the NFL’s best scoring defense (18.5 points per game) and that linebacker Stephon Gilmore would lead the team’s defensive efforts with four sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery.
The Patriots and their fans were thrilled when, after months of speculation and rumor, New England finally landed pass rusher and Super Bowl MVP Matthew Judon. But, while signing the former Ravens standout was, quite possibly, Bill Belichick’s biggest offseason move, it came at a steep cost: New England’s big-ticket free agent deals with LeGarrette Blount and Adrian Clayborn (who signed a two-year, $12 million contract) were both revealed not to be long-term deals, and both players will be unrestricted free agents after the upcoming season.
Why did the Patriots add Matthew Judon in free agency? That’s a question I’m sure plenty of Patriots fans have pondered in the months since the team signed the 28-year-old outside linebacker to a three-year, $18 million contract. Personally, I’m just incredibly thankful that in free agency, and in all of football, we can put a price tag on a player and it is just that: a price. However, in the Patriots case, it didn’t cost Bill Belichick a dime—not a penny, not a nickel, not a dime—and was actually one of his most cost effective off-season moves yet.
Bill Belichick abandoned his long-held financial beliefs to improve a talent-depleted team after a 7-9 season in which his defense was severely exposed. Rather of settling for B-level players on low-paying contracts, the architect of the NFL’s most successful dynasty went the other way and offered market-level salaries during the early days of free agency. And by adopting this strategy, Belichick has placed the New England Patriots in a position to swiftly recover from their first losing season in two decades.
Of all the players who chose to take their skills to Foxborough this spring, Pro Bowl linebacker Matthew Judon earned the most guaranteed money. While the former Baltimore Ravens star seems poised for greatness in New England, Belichick’s most important defensive acquisition this offseason came at no cost to him.
The Patriots paid a high price to bolster their rebuilt front seven with a true Pro Bowler.
The Patriots’ board of directors…
• NT (Northern Territory) Davon Godchaux: $26 million over two years. • Matthew Judon, OLB: $56 million over four years. • D.B. Jalen Mills: $44 million over four years. • TE Jonnu Smith: $50 million over four years.
Smith and Judon are currently the team’s highest-paid talent and defensive players.
March 15, 2021 — Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer)
In 2020, the Patriots struggled to get after Tom Brady. That shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise, considering their personnel issues.
After seeing New England’s sack total drop from 47 to 24, Belichick decided to put a lot of money into the front seven. Most significantly, he landed a commitment from Matthew Judon, one of the league’s best outside linebackers.
In 2016, the 29-year-old was drafted in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. Judon, who weighed in at 6-foot-3 and 261 pounds, was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his last two seasons with the Ravens. He received a significant increase by signing a four-year, $56 million deal with $32 million guaranteed. He is an explosive, versatile edge defender with 34.5 sacks and 103 quarterback hits on his résumé.
Judon is under a great lot of pressure to explain his expensive free-agent contract. However, given Belichick’s fondness for large, quick, muscular outside linebackers, he should thrive as a tone-setting, every-down defender capable of rushing the passer, dropping into coverage, and stopping the run.
Fortunately for the Patriots, they have a potential to be exceptional this season on that side of the ball. And, as important as the Judon acquisition is for New England’s re-entry into the top 10, Belichick’s most important defensive addition came at a far lower cost.
Despite spending a lot of money on Matthew Judon, Bill Belichick’s best defensive acquisition this summer was free.
Bill Belichick spent a lot of money on Matthew Judon, but the Patriots’ most important offseason acquisition was free. | Getty Images/By Barry Chin/The Boston Globe
It’s no secret that in recent years, Belichick has struggled to identify long-term building stones via the draft. He hasn’t made the best use of his resources, from squandering second-round selections on Cyrus Jones (2016) and Duke Dawson (2018) to wasting first-round picks on Sony Michel (2018) and N’Keal Harry (2019). In fact, it was because of his draft problems that the Patriots were forced to spend so much money in free agency this spring to fill key roster gaps.
Belichick’s greatest defensive acquisition didn’t cost him a cent this summer, despite signing Judon to a $56 million deal.
Josh Uche hopes to have a breakthrough year after just playing 178 plays as a rookie. Although he doesn’t have the perfect build for an exceptional edge rusher (6-foot-1, 245 pounds), the 2020 second-round selection does bring top explosiveness and agility to the table. Uche had the opportunity to hone his technique and broaden his knowledge at Von Miller’s pass-rushing summit, and it’s obvious he’s ready to go on to the next level.
The 22-year-improved old’s performance has gotten him a lot of attention during spring and summer. During the Patriots’ three preseason games, Uche’s fast first step and closing burst stood out, particularly against the New York Giants on Sunday.
It’s almost difficult to keep the dynamic second-year linebacker off the field at this point. Despite the seniority of Judon, Dont’a Hightower, and Kyle Van Noy, Belichick must embrace the young movement and let the former University of Michigan quarterback to go quarterback hunting.
Don’t be shocked if Uche outperforms some of his higher-paid colleagues if he remains healthy. With a base salary of $854,970 this season, he may position himself for a contract extension by establishing himself as a consistent force for a Patriots defense that will undoubtedly lose many key veterans sooner rather than later.
Josh Uche leads a group of young Patriots players who seem to be on the verge of a breakthrough season.
It’s difficult not to be optimistic about Uche’s prospects in Foxborough. But he’s not the only young Patriots player who seems like he’ll have a big year in 2021.
On the defensive side of the ball, Kyle Dugger, a fellow second-year player, too seems to be a potential star. The physically imposing safety, who stands 6-foot-1, 217 pounds and boasts a 4.49 speed, has all of the skills necessary to make the Pro Bowl.
Christian Barmore, a rookie defensive lineman, feels the same way. He, like Uche and Dugger, was drafted in the second round by the Patriots. Because the former University of Alabama standout can control the line of scrimmage and make opposition quarterbacks’ lives difficult, he should be given chances to play right away.
It all starts with Mac Jones on offense. Even if he doesn’t start Week 1, there’s a good chance he’ll eventually take over for Cam Newton. Needless to say, Patriots supporters should be optimistic about the quarterback position’s future.
Furthermore, the running back group seems to be loaded with youthful, high-potential guys. Damien Harris has a chance to make the Pro Bowl this season. Fourth-round rookie Rhamondre Stevenson and second-year pro J.J. Taylor, meanwhile, seem to be capable of making an impact.
Don’t overlook the brilliance in the trenches of New England. Michael Onwenu, a 2020 sixth-round selection, possesses the height, strength, and power to be a perennial All-Pro guard. The Patriots may have a dominating left side of the offensive line if 2018 first-round selection Isaiah Wynn can finally put his injury problems behind him.
Oh, and despite the fact that N’Keal Harry is unquestionably a failure, Bill Belichick discovered a hidden treasure in quarterback-turned-receiver Jakobi Meyers following the 2019 draft.
The rest of the league should be wary if the Patriots start hitting on their selections again.
Pro Football Reference provided all statistics. Spotrac provided all contract information.
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