The Patriots finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs last season.
The end of the Tom Brady-led dynasty created several questions around the Patriots franchise. Namely, how would they rebuild? Would free agents want to come to New England? With Brady gone, were the Patriots still a worthy destination for some of the best players in the league?
Then there was, in hindsight, a ridiculous notion that players wouldn’t want to play for Bill Belichick.
It took all of 48 hours to see that wasn’t true. As soon as NFL free agency started last week, the Patriots were the biggest players. They signed a dozen veterans to come in and help shape this franchise for the next chapter. After signing Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Matt Judon, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jalen Mills, Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson, Kyle Van Noy, Ted Karras, Raekwon McMillan and Montravius Adams, it became very clear that the Patriots were still a place where veterans wanted to be.
After hearing from most of those free-agent signings, it’s also clear that Belichick is one of the best draws and recruiters in the NFL. Many of those recently signed players talked about the Patriots coach being the X factor in their decision in New England.
“Oh, man, it was huge,” Mills said of Belichick. “We’re talking about just his defensive mind and how he’s able to put guys in the best position to make plays for the team. You can’t ask for anything more. … You want a coach who knows exactly what to do best, puts you in positions to do that and helps you win football games. It was definitely a major key to be able to be coached by that guy for sure.”
“I can play in any scheme,” Godchaux said, “but I felt this scheme best fit my skill set. And being able to be coached by arguably the greatest coach of all time — that was a no-brainer.”
Belichick’s accolades are widely known. We’re talking about a 68-year-old NFL lifer who has won six Super Bowl championships as a head coach and another two as a defensive coordinator. Belichick is the architect of one of the greatest dynasties in sports. Did anyone really believe it was going to be tough to recruit free agents to Foxboro? Especially when the Patriots had the third-most cap space?
There can be multiple truths to what transpired last week — the Pats offered players more money and players also wanted to be in New England. Of course, the Pats’ history didn’t hurt them. Even with Brady in Tampa Bay, players did not forget about the past.
“New England is a team that’s always going to have a chance to play for the ultimate goal,” Agholor said. “That’s a credit to the whole organization — ownership, coach Belichick and the players. Players in the past and some on the current roster. The work they put in and sacrificed. Outside looking in, it’s a special place.”
Belichick also made it a point to create personal connections with several free agents. When he met and spoke with some of these newcomers, he cracked jokes but also let them know how much he knew about them. He made it personal.
For example, with Mills, he explained how much he liked the defensive back’s versatility. In fact, he said he “loved” that Mills could play so many different positions. The veteran acknowledged that when he first spoke with Belichick, he got so excited that he screamed in the Patriots’ cafeteria.
It was a similar experience for McMillan. Belichick told the linebacker that the Patriots wanted to draft him in 2017 — he ended up going to Miami, who had selected ahead of the Pats.
“Coach Belichick told me something interesting that really jumped out at me. He told me he’s been watching my career,” McMillan said. “For a player, you’re talking to a Hall-of-Fame coach. For him to say he’s watching me play out of all these linebackers in the league — I know he watches a lot of ball but he said he’s paid attention to me in my career. Told me about my injury my rookie year. Of course, he played against me in Miami and told me about what happened to me last year with the Raiders.
“Everything he talked about, he talked about progress and moving forward and being the person he knows I can be. Hearing that from a Hall-of-Fame coach really inspired me.”
When Bourne entered Gillette Stadium for the first time, he had a completely different experience than he had imagined. The receiver thought the place would be “stuck up.” He heard the stories about players not having “fun.” A report also surfaced this offseason that Matthew Stafford wanted to play anywhere but New England.
When Bourne got into the building, however, his perception quickly changed.
“It was a whole misconception,” Bourne explained. “There’s laughing in there. I was tripping. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to be myself, but first day in the building, Bill was super cool, Robert Kraft super nice. I just had a whole different view of the Patriots in my head.”
For Henry, there was never a misconception about Belichick or the Patriots. He’s known the Patriots coach since he was in high school. Belichick has a relationship with his high school coach, Kevin Kelley, and his college coach, Bret Bielema.
“It’s a pretty unique connection. He actually became pretty good friends with my high school coach, so that kind of brought us together,” Henry said. “I have a ton of respect for Coach, the Patriots and I’m excited to be under him now and for him to be my coach. I’m excited to learn and become a better football player.”
As it turns out, he’s not the only one.