When it comes to covering the Patriots entering Phase 2 of their Dynasty, it's completely understandable that Mac Jones' ascendancy to the throne has gotten all the attention these last few weeks. Leaving some of the other huge stories from early in the year leaning against the wall of the school gym with their arms folded, with nobody asking them to dance. I'm not accusing anyone of goldfish-memorying the fact Bill Belichick spent a record 160 million KraftBucks assembling a team of Earth's mightiest free agent heroes. It's just that it's not every day you bring in a rookie and he immediately takes over as the face of your franchise. And impresses everybody's balls off with the veteran-like way he goes about his business.
It's just that, with three days to go before kickoff, it's worth revisiting this record-setting free agent class of 2021 to rank how good they've looked in camp and preseason games and what kind of an impact we can expect them to have.
Just to subvert expectations and do this the opposite of the way these lists are typically done, I'm going with most to least:
1. Matt Judon
This frigging guy. All Judon has done since he got here is impress everybody. Devin McCourty has talked about how he takes his running drills with the "skill" guys instead of with his linebacking unit. And he keeps up with the DBs, despite being 6-3, 261 lbs. In practice reps, he's brought an unmistakable, enthusiastic, Big Dong Energy. In Fauxball games, he looked every bit the Pro Bowler who played last year under the Franchise tag in Baltimore, with 54 QB hits and 15.5 sacks in the last two seasons. More to the point, he's looked for all the world like a system fit here, not a pass rush specialist. He plays both sides of the formation, sets an edge against the run and drops into coverage when he's not in the opposition's backfield. His Pro Football Focus grade was 94.2, the third highest among all edge defenders and the highest by anyone with more than 34 snaps. The best comparison you can make is one of Belichick's most successful free agent signings: Roosevelt Colvin. Except Judon is better.
2. Jonnu Smith
Smith was the consensus No. 2 tight end on the market, but was the first one Belichick threw into his cart on his wild Supermarket Sweep trip through the legal tampering period. And while he saw limited action in the preseason, with just two targets in two games, in practice he's looked like Mac Jones' second best offensive weapon, in a photo finish with Jakobi Meyers. He runs quality routes, gets open, and shown good hands. Plus I think we're going to see him utilized as a "move" H-back type tight end in the backfield like they used to with old Whatshisname from U. of Florida. He's still going to be part of a two-tight end Joker offense, so I wouldn't spend a lot of Fantasy draft capital on him. But he is going to be Jones' primary target, heed my words.
3. (Tie) Trent Brown and Kyle Van Noy
It just feels right to lump these guys together, even if they're on opposite sides of the ball. Both didn't hit their career strides until they came to New England. Both got PAID thanks to the success they had here. Both were summarily dismissed by the teams that signed them to come bring all their winningishness to lesser franchises. Both are back with a ton to prove and revenge on their minds. And are each perfect system fits who represent significant upgrades to units that were in desperate need of them last year.
4. Hunter Henry
Obviously a rank this high represents what I think Henry will do for this team, not what he's done so far because he missed so much time with a shoulder injury. And for much of camp, he was in a red shirt and only put on the contact colors toward the last few workouts. And needless to say, health has been problem over his career, as he's seen the field in underneath his cleats in just 55 of a possible 80 games, including missing all of the 2018 season. When he was in, he looked like the guy Belichick has been giving teh bedroom eyes to from across the field all three times he's faced New England. I still say more of the offense will go through Smith. But the promise Henry shows is what made him the top TE in free agency. And anything close to the career-high 60 catches and 600+ yards he had last year in LA will practically equal what the whole tight end depth chart gave us the last two seasons combined.
5. Jalen Mills
Don't get me wrong on Mills. I loved him as one of those classic Belichick signings. A second-tier free agent who can be so valuable here because they prize versatility like his. In Week 1 last year in Philly, Mills played over 20 snaps in the box, at slot corner and at free safety, with three more snaps at wide corner. Four weeks later, it was 59 snaps at wide corner, with five at slot, six in the box and three on the defensive line. That's the Wikipedia definition of a Belichickian, gameplan-specific, movable chess piece. My only issue is that, due to injuries and whatever Stephon Gilmore's situation is, Mills has primarily been the outside corner opposite JC Jackson. Which is like having a Swiss Army Knife but you're only able to use the tweezers. I don't know if he's best suited to the role. He's on the injury report as "limited" though I think it's not expected to be a big deal. Anyway, I'd feel a lot better about him if they'd get to use him in all his capacities instead of locking him in as strictly a boundary defender. Stay tuned.
6. Davon Godchaux
7. Kendrick Bourne
I've talked to other people who are higher on Bourne than I am. He came out of the Kyle Shanahan system and played with Jimmy Garoppolo, so there should be some overlap to what they did in San Francisco versus what he's seeing here. And yet deep into camp you'd see him still have to be directed to the spot where he's supposed to line up by Meyers or Gunner Olszewski or whomever. Then there was this perfectly thrown ball in the end zone from Jones that bounced off his facemask. I mean, I've seen him interacting with teammates and he seems like a guy who puts in the work while making the drudgery of the job fun. And like with Henry, his 49 receptions for 667 yards and two TDs last season would've put him light years ahead of anyone else on the roster except Meyers. I'm just not sold on him yet. But I look forward to. That said, I'm asking my fellow Patriots writers and broadcasters to join me in taking the No Bourne Identity Puns Challenge. We have to be better than that low-hanging fruit.8. Henry Anderson
Anderson's signing seemed like a nice complement to Godchaux's. Another big D-line body (6-6, 301) you could throw in at tackle to help plug gaps. With the size and reach to disrupt passing lanes. Like a very low-cal, gluten free, zero sugar, sip of Richard Seymour Lite. Plus he's a Core-4 special teamer. He just hasn't shown out a hell of a lot. And was in with the future cuts deep into the Giants game. My guess is he'll be a part time, situational, rotational guy and occasionally not dress in a given week. I hope I'm wrong about that.9. Nelson Agholor
Maybe given recent history, I'm just gun shy about new receivers. But so far I'm just not feeling it with Agholor. He too has been in and out of practices with various injuries. In two preseason games he caught one ball for four yards. And the drops that have plagued his career have plagued him here. And too often when he is catching them, he's catching them up against his chest instead of with his hands, which is rarely a good sign. Some guys just don't have great hands. As my old high school's coach used to call them, Pizza Paddles. I guess since the team shelled out so much money to get us a nice new shiny object who led the league with 18.7 yards per reception in 2020 - more than double what he had the year before in Philly - I want to be excited. But I'm just not feeling it yet. But if all of a sudden he and Jones are torturing safeties with Go routes and deep slants, I'll be ecstatic to talk about how I misjudged his talents. Stay tuned.
All in all, there's a reason to believe Mr. Kraft is getting the tremendous upgrade he paid for. Sunday can't come soon enough. Until then, let's get back to gushing over Mac Jones.