Bill Belichick’s early offseason Patriots moves send mixed messages

Andy Hart
March 19, 2020 - 7:45 am
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Bill Belichick is never going to reveal his plans to the outside world.

Listen to your team news NOW.

Not for games. Not for team-building. Not even for dinner.

So we’re left to simply piece together the mosaic of his maniacal maneuverings and analyze his actions.

To this very early point this offseason, Belichick’s moves for Robert Kraft’s franchise have sent pretty mixed messages as to what the coach and personnel man is actually trying to accomplish with the 2020 Patriots.

Certainly Tom Brady’s decision to depart New England for a curiously more palatable future in Tampa Bay with the Bucs – obviously the way TB12 was treated by Belichick on and off the field in recent years helped push the G.O.A.T. out the door – has been the biggest story not only in Patriot Nation but all of the coronavirus-suspended world of sports.

But it’s all the other comparatively far more minor moves that Belichick has made outside of the Brady shocker that seemingly leave the Patriots in a strange state of a very uncertain and almost uncharted future.

Before Brady’s decision to head south for his football games, Belichick gave key veteran leaders, captains and aging playmakers Devin McCourty (the 32-year-old got a two-year, $23 million deal that was a raise from a year ago) and Matthew Slater contract extensions. On the surface they appeared to be the type of transactions that might signal keeping the band together for one more run, even if they did eat up cap space that might have been valuable in the forthcoming Brady negotiations.

Then came the decision to use the franchise tag – and $14.7 million in cap space – to keep second-team All-Pro left guard Joe Thuney from truly experiencing the freedom of free agency.

Sure that move could be explained as simply trying to recoup some value from an asset via a trade that’s yet to come, but it also locked down a massive amount of cap space for a team with little financial room to work with at a time when fiscal flexibility would have seemed a far more productive alternative.

Still, veteran leaders and retaining high-end offensive line talent might make sense in a world where Belichick was planning to retain the aging-but-ageless Brady, but that wasn’t in the cards and given the reports of low-ball offers to the quarterback the coach had to know he might not have a lead singer for the band he appeared to be keeping together.

Maybe the strangest move of all was Belichick shipping former team captain and third safety Duron Harmon to the Lions in a trade of reported-late round draft picks that saves New England a little money. Of course it also very much undercuts the depth and versatility in the back end of the defense – strength of the team last year.

Oh, and for good measure, Belichick sat back while key cogs from the NFL’s No. 1 defense last fall that keyed so many wins moved on to greener pastures. Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts, Danny Shelton took the money to run off to play in Patriots schemes for different teams with either Matt Patricia’s Lions or Brian Flores’ Dolphins.

But let’s not pretend Belichick hasn’t added to his team. He did reportedly sign a 5-9 receiver named Damiere Byrd who once ran a 4.28 40 and a defensive tackle from the Bucs named Beau Allen.

SARCASM FONT -- Tampa Bay got Brady. New England gets Allen. Sounds like a fair exchange.

So, what exactly is Belichick doing? What is his plan?

Are the Patriots still actually trying to compete in the AFC East where, for now, the Bills have to be the favorite to win the division, especially after aggressively trading for star receiver Stefon Diggs?

SARCASM FONT – Don’t worry Patriots fans, reports indicate that Belichick “checked in” on Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins before watching the two star playmakers get shipped to Buffalo and Arizona, respectively.

Is Belichick going to slow-play the quarterback free agent and trade market and hope some veteran option is going to fall into his value-greedy lap?

Is he truly turning over the team to second-year former fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham?

Is this some kind of a bridge year at Gillette Stadium, resetting the accounting and the roster in Red Sox-like fashion?

Were McCourty and Slater kept around as team captains, locker room leaders and team spokesmen to serve as a veteran presence during a rebuild in this strange post-Brady era?

Is the almost unthinkable idea of “Tanking for Trevor” or “Failing for Fields” – intentionally losing games in 2020 to lock down a high draft pick next spring with an eye on securing a franchise passer such as Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields – a possibility for a Hall of Fame coach chasing Don Shula’s all-time win’s record?

These are all questions – some more legitimate than others – facing Belichick and the Patriots.

Of course Belichick won’t be answering questions any time soon, and even if he does he won’t be answering these questions with any direct, honest responses.

So we’re left to simply assess his curious actions to open the new league year, free agency and arguably the most important team-building offseason in his two decades leading the Patriots.

So far, the moves, the results and messages they send are very much mixed.

Right now the Patriots have no obvious starting quarterback. No cap room. No new offensive weapons. No core of Boogeymen linebackers to lead the defense.

And, if we’re being honest, seemingly no plan.

Sure, Belichick’s offseason work, early free agency bargain-hunting and Patriots talent departures have been questioned almost annually in the past, questioned in years that led to lots of winning and even Super Bowl rings. But that was back in a different world, a world where Tom Brady was the Patriots quarterback.

This offseason, this time of questioning Belichick’s plan and actions, comes with Brady’s departure as part of the many layers of uncertainty in Patriot Nation.

As each day goes by, the “In Bill We Trust” slogan becomes an increasingly greater test of faith.

As Belichick himself would probably say if he did answer questions about his offseason plans, “it is what it is.”

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Related: Patriots free agent tracker: Keeping track of all the moves last few days