The Patriots’ remarkable 34-28 comeback win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI wasn’t even 24 hours old before Bill Belichick started thinking about next season.
A bleary-eyed Belichick, who presided over the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history when New England rallied from a 28-3 deficit, barely took time to bask in the afterglow of the win when he realized what awaited him in the offseason.
“As great as today is, in all honesty, we’re five weeks behind 30 teams in the league in preparing for the 2017 season,” he said the morning after the game at Tom Brady’s Super Bowl MVP news conference at George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. “If you don’t do a good job with your football team in February, March and April, you’re probably going to see that in November, December and January. We have some catching up to do.”
Belichick certainly has made up for lost time, orchestrating a series of roster moves at the outset of free agency to bolster an already terrific team and set the stage for what very well could be another Super Bowl run next season. And perhaps beyond that.
The Patriots will continue to go as far as Brady takes them, but as long as the 39-year-old quarterback (he will be 40 in August) stays at the top of his game, Belichick will continue to retool his team with an eye toward continued success. Look no further than what he did in the first 48 hours of the league year:
n He opted not to re-sign 30-year-old tight end Martellus Bennett, who was looking for a monster deal and wound up signing with the Packers, Belichick traded a fourth-round pick for Colts tight end Dwayne Allen, 27. The Patriots also got a sixth-round choice in return. Allen is a fine player and provides insurance in the event that oft-injured Rob Gronkowski has any setbacks from back surgery. (Interesting fact here: The Colts are the team that leveled the complaint in the AFC Championship Game in January 2015 that sparked the Deflategate controversy, but that was when Ryan Grigson was Indy’s general manager. He has since been replaced by Chris Ballard, and the Patriots were open again for business.)
n The Patriots then signed Bills free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65-million deal, thus making up for the loss of cornerback Logan Ryan. The Patriots also assigned a first-round tender to restricted free agent cornerback Malcolm Butler, the hero of Super Bowl XLIX with a game-saving interception, thus keeping him under contract for at least the next year. More on this in a minute.
n Belichick re-signed defensive back Duron Harmon to a four-year, $17-million deal to keep one of his most versatile defenders on the roster.
n Also re-signed was defensive tackle Alan Branch, who was given a two-year, $12-million deal. Branch last year anchored what had been a suspect run defense.
n On Friday, Belichick acquired Panthers pass rusher Kony Ealy and a third-round pick for New England’s second-round choice. Ealy, you may remember, had a spectacular game in Super Bowl 50, producing three sacks and a forced fumble. Had the Panthers found a way to win the game, Ealy might have been the game’s MVP. He now replaces Jabaal Sheard, who signed a free-agent deal with the Colts, and adds yet another vibrant element to an already terrific defense.
Belichick still wasn’t done.
There was speculation that he would deal Butler to the Saints for speedy receiver Brandin Cooks, a former first-round pick. The Patriots coveted Cooks’ breakaway speed on the outside, and the Saints are desperate for defensive help, particularly in the secondary. But Belichick kept Butler and still got Cooks in a deal that included New England’s first-round pick (32nd overall).
And don’t forget the Jimmy Garoppolo situation. Brady’s backup has one year remaining on his contract, and the Browns have expressed interest in dealing for the 25-year-old quarterback.
Cleveland owns two picks in the first round (the first and 12th), and although Belichick has sent out signals that he would prefer to keep Garoppolo, you know the coach has a price in mind. And if the Browns are willing to give up one of those early picks and another high-round choice, the Patriots might end up in even better position for next month’s draft.
If Belichick was worried about being behind in the offseason, he has more than made up for the late start. The smartest man in the NFL already has his team in terrific position to defend its Super Bowl title, and he is justified in thinking about winning a second consecutive championship next season.
And if Brady maintains his high level of play, he’s likely to continue one of the most remarkable runs in pro sports history.