It was yet another game in which the Patriots were able to cruise from start to finish, as they racked up their 13th win and moved one step closer to acquiring the #1 seed in the AFC. A 14-2 record and the #1 seed appears very likely, which is an incredible achievement for any team, yet the accomplishment probably won’t elicit more than a casual shrug of approval out of the majority of Patriot Nation, along with some snide remark about how they really should have been 15-1. We have been blessed as Patriot fans to witness the greatest run of any team in the history of the NFL, yet it is still important to appreciate just how they are able to reach the level of play we have seen this year. With that being said, let’s take a look back at the (masterful) 2016 offseason and how it managed to rebuild and retool the Patriots, setting them up for the success they are currently achieving.
Belichick the GM was nearly perfect on his moves this offseason, with his first acquisition being the signing of Chris Hogan away from the Buffalo Bills on a front-loaded 3 year, 12 million dollar offer sheet that the Bills were simply unable to match. Hogan, who never had more than 450 yards in this first three seasons in the NFL, has racked up 653 yards on 34 catches to go along with a league-leading 19.2 yards per catch in 2016. Hogan has brought a viable, consistent deep threat to a Patriot offense that had lacked one since the day Randy Moss last put on a Patriot uniform. That is not to say Hogan in anyway resembles Moss and his capabilities, but what Hogan is able to do for the offense by stretching the field and not allowing the opposing secondary to key on the underneath crossing routes fills a role the Patriots have not had since the Moss days.
Belichick’s second move was rather controversial at the time, trading a fan favorite and the teams best pass rusher, Chandler Jones, to the Arizona Cardinals for Jonathan Cooper and a 2016 second round pick. Cooper did not even set foot on the field for the Patriots, and was cut in early October, however, the Patriots were able to convert the second round pick acquired from Arizona into a third and a fourth courtesy of the Saints. These picks ended up netting the team Joe Thuney and Malcolm Mitchell, both whom have enjoyed success in their rookie seasons in New England. Thuney has started every game at left guard and has been influential in solidifying the offensive line and has played a key role in its resurgence. He leads the Patriots in possible snaps played, showing the trust Dante Scarnecchia and Belichick have in the first-year lineman out of North Carolina State. Thuney figures to be a stalwart in the Patriots interior offense line for years to come.
Mitchell, on the other hand, did not make much of an impact in the early part of the season, hauling in just seven catches for 95 yards and no touchdowns in the first 10 games of the season. However, Mitchell has come on strong down the stretch as the rapport between Brady and him grows. In the past six games, Mitchell has 25 catches for 306 yards and four touchdowns, and is enjoying a level of success that we have yet to see a rookie wide receiver have in New England in the Brady era. In the offseason, receiver was a position that that top-heavy and lacked depth, but the acquisitions of both Hogan and Mitchell have given the Patriots a multitude of options at the wide receiver position.
While they did end getting great return for Jones, a player on the final year of his contract with a price tag in free agency that appeared far too high for the Patriots to match, they still were out their best pass rusher and needed to find a replacement or two to fill the void left by Jones. In came Chris Long, who was signed to a 1 year, 2.4 million dollar deal in the hopes that he could provide veteran experience and leadership to the defensive end rotation. He wasn’t expected to play a ton, but he has ended up playing more snaps than any other defensive end, and while he has only registered four sacks, he leads the Patriots in pressures and has been key in re-establishing the Patriots pass rush without the presence of Jones.
On the same day as signing Long, Belichick went out and signed Shea McClellin, a former first round pick from the Bears who had yet to live up to the pre-draft hype placed upon him. Belichick recognized a talented player in a system that didn’t allow him to utilize his strengths, so he signed him to a 3 year contract worth 9.1 million dollars. While some balked at the price tag for a player who hadn’t achieved any real semblance of success in the NFL yet, the signing has turned out to be key in the overhaul of the Patriots defense, particularly the linebacker position. When he struggled in the early part of the season, he has emerged as a solid player in the past few weeks as his role has become more and more solidified, and has been crucial in the defensive makeover, helping to replace the production lost when Jamie Collins after he was dealt to Cleveland.
Opposed to the Chandler Jones trade, Belichick’s next move was universally heralded as a incredible acquisition. Belichick was able to get Martellus Bennett from the Bears for just a fourth round pick due to fraying relationship between Bennett and the Bears front office and roster. While he did come with some locker room concerns, he has been nothing short of excellent in his time in New England, and is as important as ever with Rob Gronkowski sidelined for the season. The only tight end on the roster after Bennett is Matt Lengel, who, while was able to haul in a touchdown against the Jets, is not something who you want to have to rely on to replace a player of Gronkowski’s caliber. Bennett is currently 7th in receiving yards for tight ends and the Patriots offense has not missed a beat since losing Gronkowski, and a large part of that is due to having a tight end like Bennett available when Gronkowski went down.
Belichick then went out and re-signed LeGarrette Blount to a one year, 1 million dollar deal, a signing that went without much hoopla but has paid off tenfold. While it is hard to imagine this team without Blount, it was not as if his return to New England was certain in the offseason; it seemed very much up in the air whether or not he would find his way back to Patriot Place. But Belichick brought him back and he is currently having the best season of his career, rushing 285 times for 1,110 yards and 17 touchdowns, which set the single-season rushing touchdown record for the Patriots. Blount ranks 8th in the league in rushing yards, ahead of guys like Lamar Miller, who was given 26 million dollars in the offseason, with 14 million of that guaranteed, and several other big-name backs, including Devonta Freeman, Todd Gurley, and Matt Forte, who nearly came to New England in the offseason but chose to sign with the Jets instead for 12 million dollars, with 9 million of that coming guaranteed.
That was essentially it for moves in the offseason, but Belichick did not stop wheeling and dealing just because the season was nearing. In late August, Belichick traded a 2017 fifth round pick to Cleveland for Barkevious Mingo, a freak athlete that had yet to translate his natural skills to NFL success. Mingo has only played 39 snaps on defense, with his last defensive snap coming in the Week 11 win in San Francisco, so this could be considered the one acquisition in which Belichick and the Patriots did not get much in return. But if you consider what they gave up to get him (just a fifth round pick), it is not like his lack of presence on the defensive side of the ball makes this trade a poor decision by Belichick; low-risk, high-reward trades like this don’t always work out, and Mingo has also been another standout player on special teams.
Belichick’s penultimate move was acquiring Eric Rowe from Philadelphia for a 2018 fourth round pick. Rowe was yet another guy who was drafted high but had yet to live up to his billing (he was selected in the second round of the 2015 draft). The Patriots snatched him up in the days leading up to the first game of the season, yet he was unable to see the field until Week 6 against Cincinnati due to a lingering leg injury. He has alternated between second and third on the Patriots cornerback depth chart, yet struggled so much in his first three games that he was made a healthy inactive for the Week 10 matchup against Seattle. However, since the benching, he has been incredible. In the three games prior to the benching, Rowe allowed 9 of 16 passes thrown his way for 101 yards, a completion percentage of 56%, one TD allowed, 2 PBU’s, and 3 flags. In the seven games since the benching, Rowe has allowed only 8 of 23 passes thrown his way for 105 yards, a completion percentage of just 35%, one INT, no TD’s allowed, 3 PBU’s, and no flags. In the seven post-benching games, Rowe has allowed fewer catches, fewer touchdowns, and fewer flags than the three games prior to his benching, along with more interceptions and pass breakups, and nearly identical yardage totals despite the disparity of amount of games between the two time periods. Rowe’s presence is very important because prior to his arrival, the only corner’s behind the starting duo of Butler and Ryan were Justin Coleman and Jonathan Jones, both undrafted free agents, so Rowe has provided depth for a position in need while playing at a very high level since getting his feet under him in New England, and has transformed into a very important piece in the Patriots secondary.
Belichick’s final in-season move was trading away a sixth round pick to the Lions for Kyle Van Noy and a seventh round pick. Essentially, the Patriots moved back about 20 spots or so at the tail end of the draft to get Van Noy, who was drafted in the second round of the 2014 draft, but much like McClellin, Mingo, and Rowe, Van Noy had been poorly utilized and failed to reach his lofty expectations in Detroit. He has played an important role in filling the void left by Jamie Collins in recent weeks, having played over 80% of the snaps the past two games, and even was the signal caller in the defensive huddle this past week with Dont’a Hightower sidelined with injury. Along with McClellin, he has been huge in adding additional depth to the linebacker position, one of the weaker positions depth-wise on the roster coming into the season. Think about last season: if Hightower was sidelined, it forced the likes of Jonathan Freeny and Jon Bostic into playing major snaps, who both were weak spots in the Patriots defense who made mistakes nearly every time they were on the field. Belichick was able to exchange late-round picks in order to get Van Noy, yet another tremendous move that ended up paying huge dividends when considering the amount given up.
Looking back at the 2016 offseason and the moves Belichick was able to make during this season, it seems like he only missed on one acquisition, that being the Barkevious Mingo trade that, once again, did not hurt the Patriots much at all because the only cost to get Mingo was a fifth round pick. It is clear to see the job Belichick the GM has done over the past year to create a team that lacks any clear weakness and is poised to make a run for the team’s fifth Lombardi trophy. The 2016 Patriots are deep, talented, and well-stocked for a long playoff run, in large part due to the magnificent moves made by Belichick in the past year alone.