Bill Belichick just won’t stop spending.
The Patriots have completely reversed course from their usual ways this offseason. Belichick has always been extremely frugal in free agency, often letting some of his studs walk in free agency only to watch them take often overpriced deals elsewhere. No more of that!
New England entered the free agency period with the second-most cap space ($69 million) of any team and have certainly put it to good use.
Over the last few days, the Patriots have dolled out over $200M in contracts to free agents, which is unheard of. They gave Jonnu Smith a four-year, $50 million deal, signed Hunter Henry for three-years, $37.5M, and are trying to shore up their WR depth chart by signing Nelson Agholor (two-years, $26M) and Kendrick Bourne (three-years, $22.5M).
Obviously, it helps that New England is at the bottom of the league in QB spending. Cam Newton’s new one-year deal worth up to $14M is heavily incentive-laden. Make no mistake: All of these moves signal that the Patriots are going to try everything within their power to upgrade at quarterback, either through a trade or the draft. The Athletic’s Jeff Howe reported that the Patriots have picked up the phone and asked about every QB that has hit the trade market a few weeks ago.
Belichick knows he has a massive shortage of talent at receiver and tight end and they are throwing money at the problem. (Their lack of talent is also the main reason Tom Brady is no longer a Patriot.)
For fantasy, it’s incredibly hard to see how Henry and Smith can both be top-12 fantasy tight ends simultaneously. While it’s fairly common for wideouts to finish as co-WR1s (top-12) as teammates — Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf did it in 2020 and Chris Godwin and Mike Evans did it in 2019 — it’s basically unheard of for two tight ends to co-exist as week in, week out starters in our game.
The most recent example of two tight ends from the same team finishing as co-TE1s together was Zach Ertz (TE4) and Dallas Goedert (TE10) in 2019. Goedert closed out that season on a tear, finishing top-12 at the position in eight of the Eagles final 12 games. And frankly, that only happened because the Eagles leading receiver behind those two was Miles Sanders.
Of course, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are the prime example of two tight ends putting up massive numbers together. The duo finished top six in fantasy points per game in back-to-back years (2011-12) and Belichick is trying to recreate that type of production now with Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry.
While I expect the Patriots to use Smith as the “move” tight end and Henry more as the in-line, on the line of scrimmage type player — both were used extensively as blockers on their previous teams, especially Smith. Per PFF, the Titans left Smith into pass or run block on 61% of his snaps over the last two seasons which is right in line with tight ends that we typically think of as “blocker-only” like Jesse James (63%). Meanwhile, the Chargers only used Henry as a blocker on 39% of his snaps which is closer to traditional receiving tight ends like T.J. Hockenson (38%) and Travis Kelce (35%).
All of this spells out that the Patriots will likely lead the league in 12-personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) in 2021 and beyond. Last year, New England simply did not have the talent to run 12 often despite using picks 91 overall on Devin Asiasi and 101 on Dalton Keene in the 2020 NFL Draft. In fact, the Patriots used 12-personnel on just 2% (22-of-970) of their offensive plays in 2020, which ranked last in the NFL.
Having an extra blocker on the field will greatly help the Patriots run game in particular. After he returned off of I.R. in Week 4,Damien Harris quietly ranked 11th in rushing yards per game (69.1) while handling 61% of the non-QB carries. While Harris should be back as the starter, Sony Michel, also quietly, looked the closest he looked to his college self last year. Harris averaged a strong 5.3 yards on his non-red zone carries while Michel averaged 6.1 YPC outside of the red zone.
The Patriots probably aren’t done adding receivers, but I’d imagine they’re signing Agholor as a “starter” and Bourne more of a rotational/depth piece. Julian Edelman is coming off of a major knee injury as will turn 35 in May while it appears N’Keal Harry is about to get traded.
The Raiders used Agholor as their version of DeSean Jackson last year, targeting him deep downfield on the majority of his routes. His average depth of target was 15.7 yards, which ranked sixth-highest among WRs. As a result, Agholor averaged 18.7 yards per catch, which was well above his career average prior to 2020 (11.2). Meanwhile, Bourne was mainly targeted on quick-cutting, intermediate routes in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, as 25 of his 49 receptions came on curl, out, and dig routes per SIS.
Cam Newton didn’t have a deep threat last season and signing Agholor should be seen as an attempt to fix that. Newton only threw deep (20+ yards) 8% of the time last season, which was the fourth-lowest rate ahead of only Jared Goff, Drew Brees, and Nick Mullens.
Still, with the Patriots shifting to a more 2-TE based offense it’ll be tough to draft any of their receivers as anything more than WR5s. As long as Cam is the starter, this will remain a run-first offense.