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Bill Belichick hits free-agent market in a bid to win again

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during a game

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during a game against the Jets at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 3, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.  Credit: TNS/Adam Glanzman

He experienced his first losing season in two decades. Then he watched the quarterback who had helped him produce the greatest dynasty in NFL history win the Super Bowl without him.

Bill Belichick certainly isn’t wasting time trying to get over the hurt.

After going 7-9 — his first losing season since 2000, the year he arrived in New England — Belichick went on an unprecedented free-agency spending spree this past week in hopes of making life after Tom Brady better in 2021 than it was in 2020.

Belichick addressed just about every need imaginable — with one notable, and perhaps ruinous, exception.

Start with receiver. His team was a shell of its former self in the passing game last year, with the usually reliable Julian Edelman playing in only six games because of knee problems and no one able to adequately step into his role. Belichick signed two highly regarded (albeit somewhat flawed) receivers on the open market in Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.

Agholor didn’t live up to expectations as a first-round pick in Philadelphia, but he is coming off his best season with 896 yards and six touchdowns with the Raiders. Bourne isn’t a game-breaking receiver, but he did a nice job in San Francisco last year with a career-high 49 catches for 667 yards and two touchdowns.

The more impactful additions in the passing game were at tight end, as Belichick signed the top two free-agent prospects: Tennessee’s Jonnu Smith, who agreed to a four-year, $50 million deal during the negotiating window at the beginning of the week. Not content to stop there, Belichick pried Hunter Henry away from the Chargers, where he’d considered staying with promising quarterback Justin Herbert.

The Patriots once dominated at the position with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and Belichick clearly sees a better path forward with a significant upgrade.

"I’ve seen the success that they’ve had with two-tight end sets years ago," Smith said this past week on NFL Network. "It shows how creative they can be. I’m a competitor, and I’m sure [Henry is] a hell of a competitor as well. So just being able to go in there, just going to try to outwork each other, it’s only going to make us better. I’m looking forward to it."

Belichick addressed the offensive line in a major way, reacquiring tackle Trent Brown in a trade with the Raiders after trading Marcus Cannon to the Texans. Belichick is set at guard with Shaq Mason and second-year man Michael Onwenu, and he found a way to keep center David Andrews after it appeared he’d be heading elsewhere. Edelman even wrote a farewell to Andrews on social media before the center reached an agreement to remain.

The Patriots also retained center Ted Karras on a one-year deal. He also can play guard, providing added depth at the position.

The whirlwind week continued with linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who only last year signed a free-agent deal with the Dolphins before returning to New England after his surprise release by Miami. That’s a major deal for the Patriots, who were battered at the position last year in the absence of Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower, who was a COVID-19 opt-out.

Linebacker Matt Judon was another major addition for Belichick, who now has one of the league’s most effective pass rushers during his time with the Ravens. The Patriots beat out several teams to get Judon, who also was high on the Jets’ list.

Belichick also added depth in the secondary with the signings of defensive backs Cody Davis and Jalen Mills.

What a week.

"We are excited about the additions to our roster so far this year," Belichick said in a statement Friday. "Whether by trade, free agency or re-signings, the group brings a good mix of offense, defense and special teams. It was great to see them in the building, including some familiar faces, and we are all looking forward to continue building toward the upcoming season."

It was by far Belichick’s most aggressive offseason gambit, and it ran counter to his philosophy of building mostly through the draft and supplementing his team with the occasional big-time free-agent acquisition or trade — see: Randy Moss, Corey Dillon, Stephone Gilmore.

But the one position he didn’t address, at least not in a meaningful way, is the one that ultimately may doom the spending splurge: quarterback.

Yes, Belichick re-signed Cam Newton to a one-year deal. And Newton, who struggled through much of last season at least in part because of a dearth of talent around him, no doubt will benefit from the roster improvement, especially at tight end and receiver.

But he no longer is a championship-caliber player, and with the possibility of acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo from the 49ers appearing less likely, Belichick again might be forced to go with Newton as his starter. In a division that already features a Super Bowl contender in Buffalo and a vastly improved Miami team, the Patriots still could be on the outside looking in next season.

And if that’s the case, that means not even Belichick can disprove the timeworn theory about teams that use a similar roster-building approach: In the NFL, you simply can’t buy a championship.

Not even the most accomplished coach in pro football history.

New York Sports