With the Addition of Mike Gesicki, Belichick's Free Agency Strategy Starts to Make Sense
I've said this before and there has never been a more perfect time to say it again. So I will.
Following Bill Belichick's during NFL free agency is like watching The Joy of Painting. You can't expect Bob Ross (RIP, sweet soul) to have a fully formed masterpiece in the first five minutes. By the end of the first half of the episode, the canvas will be all dark lines and grey smudges and black triangles, and the whole project looks irredeemably bad. So what you have to do is trust his inspiration will reveal itself in the last few minutes. That's when he'll add those touches of bright colors and turn those abstract shapes into skies, clouds, mountains and trees that jump right off the screen at you:
Every, single time.
And so it is with the Patriots this time of year. Sure, there are occasional outlier years. Most notably 2021, where GM Bill took a Jackson Pollack approach and just started splattering paint (read: money) all over the studio the entire time. And it worked to a certain extent. Along with a good draft and a stellar rookie quarterback, they got back the playoffs and he won himself another Executive of the Year Award. So it was reasonable to assume he'd take a similar approach in 2023, because he has the cap room to spend. I certainly did.
So the first few days of free agency were a tall, frosted glass full of confusion and frustration cocktail, with a dash of bewilderment, as we watched the best available players in areas of need sign elsewhere. And in no way am I saying it hasn't been a crushing disappointment. What I am doing is coming to grips with what the plan is, and explaining it as best I can. Beginning with Belichick's latest move:
Signing Mike Gesicki, after signing Juju Smith-Schuster the other day, and adding solid-but-not-spectacular names like James Robinson, Riley Reiff, and Calvin Anderson, is all you need to know about the Patriots approach this year. And it should feel familiar. Because it's the same approach they've used since that glorious day in 2000 when Belichick stepped out of the ship from his homeworld and told us the key to turning the Patriots into contenders was managing the salary cap wisely.
Now, nobody wanted to hear it then. I certainly didn't. And for a while thought he was certifiably insane to be talking about improving the depth on a team that been winning fewer games than the year before for four straight seasons. But the results quickly spoke for themselves. And kept talking for two more decades. The moves this year are a return to this approach.
All we can conclude is the Patriots as an organization decided 2021 didn't work. Mr. Kraft sounded skeptical with his public comments even as they did it, admitting they had built an empire doing the opposite of overspending for veterans, and laughing at teams that tried it year in and year out. Clearly they've done some self-scouting and decided it failed. Nelson Agholor's contract was a disaster. Jonnu Smith's was threatening to ziptie their financial hands for years to come, but they were able to trade that problem to Atlanta by accepting a valueless pick in return:
And now they've replace Smith with Gesicki, on their favorite kind of contract: A high upside, zero downside, one-year "Prove It" deal. I didn't see this happening. I thought he'd be too expensive, which is why I didn't include him on my Free Agency Shopping List, and instead went for bargain basement options like Jordan Akins or Foster Moreau. But the Smith trade made it possible.
Gesicki previously played under the Franchise tag, for $10.9 million guaranteed, only to see himself lose most of his targets to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle after topping 700 yards each of the two previous years. He'll turn 28 in the middle of the season, thereby having every incentive in the world to play his 6-foot-6, 247 pound ass off and get PAAAID.
Moreover, he gives Bill O'Brien a viable second tight end option as he tries to return the Joker offense he perfect in his first tour of duty in New England. And gives the franchise another year to draft and develop someone. Which as history has taught us, you need to at the tight end spot in New England. Let's not forget that Rob Gronkowski didn't become a one-syllable household name until his second season.
Smith-Schuster is a similar case. We were all understandable baffled by the Pats not keeping Jakobi Meyers at $11 million per year. Then dumbfounded when it sounded like they gave the same money to Juju instead. Not the case, however:
Smith-Schuster is more affordable than even Meyers. He's also younger, has been more productive (if less consistent), been a true WR1 before, and has more experience. After all, I love Meyers as much as the next guy, but has he ever drawn a defensive holding call to win a Super Bowl?
I think not.
The point to all this is that GM Bill is, in fact, shopping. And not just in the clearance racks at the Family Dollar. But he's looking for financial deals only. It's not sexy by any means. No one ever got a date to go from "Won't" to "Will" by pulling out a "Buy one meal, get one of lesser or equal value 50%" coupon when the check comes. But the Patriots woke up with a hangover, looked at all they drunk-purchased online, and decided that was not the lifestyle for them.
They've got just under $20 million to spend, and I have no doubt in my mind they're not pocketing it. They've always spent close to the cap and that will never change. But the purchases they make will be sound ones. Hopefully including a true game changer like DeAndre Hopkins or Jerry Jeudy. But they're not going to suddenly go nuts spending on just a few guys after not doing that for the better part of 23 years. They tried that, and it was not to their liking. So get used to this approach. Again.
PS. It's more a historic footnote than a factor in the decision to sign Gesicki, but his touchdown to beat the Pats in Tom Brady's final regular season game and cost them a bye week in the playoffs will forever haunt our dreams. It's good to have him on the right side of history now.