BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The New England Patriots are back in the Super Bowl, but it’s not exactly the same team that was in Houston a year ago.
New England had an aggressive offseason, with big signings and surprising trades. Not every move worked out, but they’re in another Super Bowl. They must have done some things right.
“The personnel department has done a great job through the years of building a team,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “That comes in a lot of areas.”
Let’s look back and grade some of the Patriots’ biggest moves as they tweaked the roster to get right back to Super Bowl LII:
Brandin Cooks trade
The biggest move was probably the trade with the New Orleans Saints to land Cooks. The Patriots traded a first-round pick to the Saints, and that pick became starting offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk. That move worked out well for the Saints, too. Cooks posted a career-best 16.6 yards per reception and had his third straight 1,000-yard season. His biggest moment was probably a game-winning touchdown catch in the final seconds of a Week 3 game against the Houston Texans, though a 100-yard game in a comeback against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC championship game was huge, as well.
Cooks gave the Patriots an outside receiving threat and another dynamic playmaker to go with Rob Gronkowski, though there was no guarantee the transition would be easy. Many receivers struggle coming over to the Patriots’ offense. Cooks credited quarterback Tom Brady for working with him in the offseason.
“He did a great job in the offseason on catching me up, so I wasn’t left behind when the season came,” Cooks said.
Verdict: Worked out for the Patriots (and the Saints too)
Signing cornerback Stephon Gilmore
The Patriots don’t often give out big-money deals, so the five-year, $65 million deal to Gilmore was a surprise. Gilmore started a bit slow but came on strong, and he made one of the biggest plays of the Patriots’ AFC title game win when he knocked down a fourth-down pass by the Jaguars in the final minutes.
The Patriots offered him a ton of money, but there were other reasons for him to join the Patriots. Once again, the lure of joining a championship contender helped the Patriots land a key player.
“To be in this position, to be able to win a championship, that’s the reason I came here,” Gilmore said.
Verdict: Expensive but paid off handsomely
Not trading Malcolm Butler
The trade rumors with the Patriots shipping Butler to the Saints were so far along, the Saints and Butler actually agreed to the parameters of a contract. But the Saints reportedly backed out, which turned out to be a good thing for the Patriots. Butler is a good cornerback and the tandem of he and Gilmore was a reason the Patriots defense improved as the season went on. When asked at the Super Bowl if he was happy how things turned out, Butler replied “most definitely, 100 percent.” The Patriots were certainly a better team with him.
Butler can become an unrestricted free agent next offseason and it’ll be tough for the Patriots to re-sign him, although he said he wants to return. The Patriots are probably happy they ended up with at least this season with Butler before he hits free agency.
“It was something I never experienced before, and it wasn’t nothing I couldn’t handle,” Butler said. “The past is the past, and I’m just glad to be here playing for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.”
Verdict: Blessing in disguise
Signed running backs Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee
Gillislee seemed to be a priority, considering he was a restricted free agent and the Patriots had to give the Buffalo Bills a fifth-round pick when they signed him. Gillislee started out as a big part of the offense, but since Oct. 29 he has received carries in just one game, a six-carry game on Dec. 24 against Buffalo.
Burkhead ended up being a better fit on a one-year, $3.15 million deal. He had 518 yards and eight touchdowns, his versatility fitting well in the Patriots’ deep stable of running backs, before an injured left knee set him back. Burkhead had other offers, but like many others who choose the Patriots, Burkhead wanted a chance to win. It’s a huge edge for the Pats that players want to come to them for the chance to make a Super Bowl.
“I wanted to come to a team that had an atmosphere of winning, and a team mindset and understood what it took to be playing in this game,” Burkhead said. “Being here now is something I’ve always dreamed about.”
Verdict: Not great, though each had their moments
Patriots sign DL Lawrence Guy
In terms of the total amount of the contract, Guy got the second biggest deal among players the Patriots signed from other teams. He got a four-year, $13.4 million deal to leave the Ravens and did what the Patriots expected, starting 15 games and being a solid run stopping end in their rotation. It wasn’t as exciting as the Cooks or Gilmore additions, but one that helped.
Verdict: No regrets
Letting go some veterans (some of whom ended up with the Eagles)
You can’t keep everyone. The Patriots had to move on from some veterans. The three most notable departures in free agency were probably tight end Martellus Bennett, running back LeGarrette Blount and defensive end Chris Long. Bennett turned out to be a monumental mistake for the Packers (the Patriots brought him back after he was cut, but shortly after he landed on injured reserve). Long and Blount … what happened to those guys? Oh right, they’re playing against the Patriots in Super Bowl LII as members of the Philadelphia Eagles. Long and Blount have been solid contributors for Philadelphia.
Verdict: The Patriots found replacements for the vets who left
A quiet draft
The Patriots didn’t get much help from the draft. Their top pick was defensive end Derek Rivers in the third round, and he tore his ACL in August. Fourth-round pick Deatrich Wise was the only draftee to play more than three games, and he ended up being a nice find with five sacks. This draft doesn’t seem like it will be a boon in the future, but the Patriots usually bolster the roster with undrafted talent anyway (undrafted defensive tackle Adam Butler, with six starts, is a good example from this year’s class).
Verdict: Not too great yet, though Wise is a keeper
Two meh trades
Two trades that looked pretty good on paper didn’t work out. The Patriots moved a fourth-round pick to Indianapolis for tight end Dwayne Allen and a sixth-round pick. Allen had almost no impact, with 10 catches, 86 yards and a touchdown. The trade for defensive end Kony Ealy was worse. New England traded a second-round pick to Carolina for Ealy and a third-round pick. Ealy was cut in training camp. The Patriots moved down only eight spots in that deal, but it still wasn’t pretty.
Verdict: Can’t win them all
Phillip Dorsett for Jacoby Brissett, and Jimmy Garoppolo goes to the 49ers
Both of the Patriots’ backups through the preseason ended up being starters on other teams by the end of the season. Brissett for Dorsett might hurt down the road, especially if Tom Brady doesn’t play forever. Dorsett had just 201 yards on 13 touches during the regular season, though he had a big 31-yard catch in the AFC championship game. Garoppolo had to go before he hit free agency and did to San Francisco in midseason, a trade we’ll hear a lot more about as years go on. Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter if Brady plays until his mid-40s, as he claims he will.
Verdict: Not ideal, though it didn’t hurt this season
Other moves for depth
The Patriots hope for contributions from everyone, so no deal ends up being too minor. Defensive end Eric Lee was signed off Buffalo’s practice squad during the season and had 3.5 sacks in six games. Johnson Bademosi was signed from Detroit, and helped at cornerback and on special teams. David Harris was a veteran pickup after the New York Jets let him go, and he started six games. Late in the season the Patriots snapped up outside linebacker James Harrison after things went sour for him and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots have found contributions from many players, as usual.
Verdict: No home runs, but some solid additions
This is how successful offseasons look. Nobody bats 1.000, and that’s fine. The Patriots used draft picks in trades to add veterans, then took their cap space and made one big outside investment in Gilmore. They added a major piece on offense (Cooks) and defense (Gilmore) and used the rest of their resources to build players who fit specific roles. It helped to have a championship core in place, but the Patriots deserve an A for an offseason that helped them get back to another Super Bowl.
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