Bill Belichick wears two hats in New England – head coach and general manager. For a long time, it seemed like what Belichick had touched as GM turned to gold (often with the help of Tom Brady). However, there has been a lot less gold lately.
Instead, the Patriots (6-8) are in the midst of their worst season in decades. Brady is gone. New England have nothing to play in the final two weeks of the season, and they don’t have much in the closet when it comes to promising young players. The decision-making is of course more than Belichick, but as a collective the Patriots’ management of their quarterback future, along with draft and free agent decisions, has been less than stellar.
The NFL rosters change a lot from year to year, so this isn’t a breakdown of all the little moves but rather the big ones that have New England looking at a few years that won’t seem too familiar to modern Patriots fans.
- September 2, 2017: Patriots trade Jacoby Brissett at Colts for receiver Phillip Dorsett
- October 30, 2017: Patriots trade Jimmy Garoppolo to 49ers for 2018 second-round pick
- April 27, 2019: Patriots draft Jarrett Stidham in fourth round at Auburn
- March 20, 2020: Tom Brady signs with Buccaneers
- March 24, 2020: The Patriots sign Brian Hoyer
- July 8, 2020: Patriots officially sign Cam Newton
The easy contrast here is the Patriots with Brady and the Patriots without Brady. And yes, that’s the cause of much of the wrestling New England endured in 2020. Brady has covered a lot of trouble by being the biggest to do so.
But the New England quarterback’s downfall began years before Brady left town. As of August 2017, the Patriots had two legitimate quarterbacks, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. In November of that year, they had neither.
Maybe the reports at the time about Brady wanting Jimmy G to leave town are true, and maybe they aren’t. But whatever the exact reason, Belichick and the Pats traded two potential futures in less than two months.
New England have tried to find a potential replacement for Brady in the 2019 fourth round with Stidham, but he has so far been disappointed on occasional occasions.
Finally, Brady left. Whether the Patriots are really prepared or not, it put them in a tough spot. Philip Rivers agreed to sign with the Colts around the same time. Teddy Bridgewater was close to a multi-year deal with the Panthers. There was no obvious and easy replacement.
Cam Newton’s signing was expected to create competition with Stidham, but Newton took and held the starting position quite easily. New England could have signed a different salvage plan at Jameis Winston, but it’s unclear if that would have gone better with limited reception weapons. Instead of having the GOAT to improve everyone around him, the Patriots were stuck with a declining QB without enough help around him.
The Patriots did not choose in the first or second round in 2017. These are their 2018-20 first and second round selections, with the overall number of picks shown in parentheses.
- 2018: T Isaiah Wynn (23); RB Sony Michel (31 years old); CB Duke Dawson (56)
- 2019: WR N’Keal Harry (32); CB Joejuan Williams (45 years)
- 2020: S Kyle Dugger (37)
In a league where running backs are a dime a dozen and receivers are bigger than ever, Belichick picked up a running back in the first round and appears to have sniffed his only wide selection early in the round. He also went with Dugger in 2020 as a versatile small-school defender rather than taking on a potentially more impactful player like Jalen Hurts.
The Patriots didn’t make up for the difficulties of the early rounds by finding plenty of end-of-round gems. Damien Harris, a 2019 third-round pick, could prove to be a better running back than Michel. Stidham should at least hang around as a backup QB. And it’s probably unfair to make too many judgments about the 2020 selections.
What is clear is that the Patriots sometimes traded high draft picks for more immediate help, but didn’t make up for the lack of early-round picks with impact picks later. New England’s poor record in 2020 will cause it to reach as high a level as it has been a long time ago, so maybe that will help.
The Patriots have both their first and second-round picks in 2021, and Belichick will likely have to hit both to get the ship back in the right direction.
Free agent signatures
The Patriots haven’t made huge strides in free will in recent years. Many of their signings have been out of the bargain mold, although it’s fair to say not a ton hit. Picking up the two McCourty brothers certainly boosted New England’s high school alongside Stephon Gilmore, signing big in 2017.
Gilmore and the McCourts are the latest big hits. In 2018, the Patriots wanted an extra passing run with Adrian Clayborn, but he recorded just 2.5 sacks in a year with the Pats. Antonio Brown was a low risk, high reward signing in 2019 that didn’t work out. Newton has been generally bad in 2020.
Much of New England’s money in recent years has been used to keep players from successful teams, a strategy that makes sense. But with Brady’s contract gone and a number of contracts expiring after the 2020 season, 2021 free agency could be crucial for Belichick. If he can strike signatures from Patriots like Gilmore and the McCourty brothers, that could go a long way.