In retrospect, the Patriots' first major moves revealed everything.
Hours out from the unofficial opening of free agency two weeks ago, safety Devin McCourty announced he had re-signed with the team. The timing of the deal was unusual and the money significant, direct reflections of McCourty's worth to the Pats and their commitment to keeping him.
Then, minutes before free agency started, the Patriots beat the buzzer by placing their franchise tag on Joe Thuney. As one of the NFL's premier pass protectors, Thuney was expected to seek and land the largest free-agent contract ever for an offensive guard. Instead, he stayed home.
Combined, the two moves cost the Pats almost $38 million and soaked up most of their cap space; a silent sign their other high-profile free agents would not return.
Sure enough, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins took off later that night, and the next day, Tom Brady announced he was leaving New England. So where does that leave the Pats now?
Right on schedule.
While not every free agency pursuit went as planned last week, the Patriots stand firmly on the new ground they've broken without Brady. For better or worse, this is where they have chosen to be; ready to kneel out free agency with pocket change for cap space, most roster holes filled and a few still to address, likely via the draft.
The Pats' plan for their franchise-defining offseason, developed over several months, is finally coming into focus.
One month ago at the NFL Combine, sources indicated the Patriots had yet to approach most of their upcoming free agents about striking a deal. Those same sources expressed confidence that the Pats, coming off their earliest playoff exit in a decade, had put their extra month of offseason preparation to good use. Meaning the team's silence, whether smart, self-defeating or somewhere in between, was at the very least purposeful.
However, there was an exception: McCourty. By then, the Patriots had begun to engage his representatives in negotiations. Soon enough, McCourty signed, and Thuney's tag followed.
Now, given the substantial investments made to retain them and the enormous accompanying opportunity cost they incurred (losing the ability to sign at least two of Brady, Van Noy or any other top free agents) the Pats must have seen more than two high-quality players in McCourty and Thuney. They were paid a premium to stay put, while the greatest player who ever lived was shown the door. Why?
Upon first glance, it's easy to assume the Patriots, now without a quarterback or cap space, must have chosen to enter a rebuild. Truthfully, the motivation behind these moves is no different than any others made at 1 Patriot Place.
Because in Foxborough, one reason drives everything; every signing, release, trade, draft selection, practice drill, pass, tackle, run and rep.
In 2019, McCourty and Thuney represented the strengths of a Super Bowl contender that faded down the stretch due to injured weapons and waning quarterback play. The Pats boasted the NFL's sharpest secondary all year. In the second half of the season, their top-10 offensive line, with left tackle Isaiah Wynn finally back in the fold, reached its peak. Six of the O-line's seven best pass-protecting performances occurred after Nov. 1, according to Pro Football Focus.
On these strengths, the Patriots have chosen to double down in 2020, rather than paper over their obvious weaknesses with a couple overpriced, replacement-level weapons via free agency. This is their plan.
They didn't have the money to splurge on top-tier wide receivers or tight ends. So they invested in defending them, understanding that after elite quarterback play, a shutdown secondary ranks as the most valuable commodity in the NFL. Without McCourty, repeating as the league's No. 1 pass defense in 2020 would have been impossible.
(Signing former Chargers All-Pro safety Adrian Phillips wasn't a bad idea, either.)
Even coming off his age-32 season, McCourty still ranks among the best safeties in football. He coordinates coverages pre-snap, allowing the Pats to flex in and out of various looks to confuse quarterbacks. He expertly patrols the deep middle and can handle himself in man coverage. He leads the defensive huddle and reinforces a winning culture.
Basically, he's a perfect Patriot. Just ask Bill Belichick.
"Instinctively, (McCourty) does a lot of things right," Belichick said last October. "He's a very good communicator. ... He's fast, he's a good athlete, he's tough, a strong tackler. He's out there every day, he practices and continues to get better. Players that are smart, that work hard and improve and help your team -- he certainly falls into that category."
Thuney does, too. Keeping him ensures the Pats can protect Jarrett Stidham at a high level, a vital task they face in 2020. Last year, Thuney's pressure rate allowed of 2.5% trailed only Marshal Yanda and Richie Incognito among guards who took at least 250 pass-blocking snaps, per PFF. Since he was drafted in 2016, Thuney has elevated his pass protection every year and played more offensive snaps than anyone in the NFL.
Stopping interior pressure is paramount in the modern game, particularly for offenses led by young quarterbacks. Edge rushers can generally be schemed away; via chipping, cut blocking, double teams, rushing at them, running play-action passes away from them or by going no-huddle. The Patriots have neutralized them for years.
Elite defensive tackles, on the other hand, are more difficult to counteract. As the Patriots learned against future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald and the Rams in Super Bowl LIII, competing with a Pro Bowl-caliber roster helps best.
Enter Thuney, center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason, all top-10 players at their respective positions.
Provided Andrews returns -- and reports are positive -- the Patriots could own the best pass-blocking interior line in the league. That will be worth their combined 918 pounds of body weight in gold. And it all starts with Thuney's tag.
His return creates a ripple effect across the offensive line and, consequently, the offense. Same with McCourty, for the secondary and defense.
The Patriots not tanking. They are not rebuilding. Every offseason, the front office lights a path to contention for players and coaches to take. Now that the free agency fog and cloud of Brady uncertainty have cleared, this year is no different.
The path is clear.