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The Patriots Have Opened Their Free Agent Checkbooks. But Will It Help Them Win?

In what has been perhaps the biggest surprise of NFL free agency this offseason, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots became buyers. One year removed from Tom Brady’s departure, and his subsequent Super Bowl championship in Tampa Bay, New England engaged in the NFL equivalent of retail therapy and embarked on an historic shopping spree. But will it be enough?

The Patriots’ list of new contracts numbers 15 so far, second in the league behind the Houston Texans. Heading up the list is edge rusher and former Baltimore Ravens fifth-round pick Matt Judon, who scored a deal worth $13.6 million per year over four seasons. Belichick also added the two most versatile and highly sought after tight ends in this year’s free agent class — Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry — giving each $12.5 million per year. Cam Newton was brought back at $5.1 million for just one season, and Kyle Van Noy was reunited with the Patriots after a year in Miami.1

What Jonnu about Judon?

Free agents signed in the 2021 offseason to the New England Patriots by average contract value per year

Player Position Years Avg Per Year
Matt Judon EDGE 4 $13,625,000
Jonnu Smith TE 4 $12,500,000
Hunter Henry TE 3 $12,500,000
Nelson Agholor WR 2 $11,000,000
Davon Godchaux DT 2 $7,500,000
Jalen Mills S 4 $6,000,000
Kyle Van Noy OLB 2 $6,000,000
Deatrich Wise DE 4 $5,500,000
Cam Newton QB 1 $5,100,000
Kendrick Bourne WR 3 $5,000,000
David Andrews C 4 $4,750,000
Henry Anderson DT 2 $3,500,000
Cody Davis S 2 $2,150,000
Nick Folk PK 1 $1,225,000
Carl Davis DT 1 $1,077,500

Source: overthecap

Even though the signing season isn’t over yet, the Patriots have spent more in free agency than any team since at least 2014, according to data provided by Jason Fitgerald at Over the Cap. The Patriots of old — teams that had the benefit of the best quarterback in NFL history on the roster — were typically frugal spenders in free agency. From 2014 through 2020, the Patriots spent less than the average NFL team2 in free agency in six of those seven years.3

The last time New England was relatively profligate was back in 2014, when they added Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to their defensive backfield. But they blew well past that mark this season, more than doubling their free agency spending in annual contract value.

But the big question that looms over One Patriot Place after a disappointing 7-9 season is: Will it matter? Does spending big in free agency lead to actual on-field wins?

To try and get an idea, we looked at Over the Cap data from 2015 through 2020 and found a moderate correlation between cap-adjusted spending and win improvement compared to the previous season.4 Where things get interesting is if we look at the teams that spent 50 million or more in free agency — which represents roughly the top 10 percent of team spending since 2015 in annual contract value5 — and calculate the average change in wins from one season to the next, we again find that those 21 teams saw an improvement of 3.2 wins.

Does big spending lead to more wins?

The top 10 percent of NFL teams in cap-adjusted* free agency spending, sorted by total spending, 2015-20

team season Wins Win diff. pythag diff free agency
Dolphins 2020 10 5 5.8 $73.5m
Bills 2019 10 4 4.8 67.2
Bears 2017 5 2 1.4 67.0
Browns 2018 7 7 3.9 65.4
Panthers 2020 5 0 1.6 62.3
Chiefs 2019 12 0 0.7 62.2
Jets 2018 4 -1 -0.3 61.9
Jets 2015 10 6 5.0 60.1
Raiders 2015 7 4 3.8 59.3
Raiders 2019 7 3 1.4 58.8
Jaguars 2016 3 -2 -0.5 58.8
Jets 2019 7 3 0.2 56.7
Raiders 2020 8 1 1.8 55.3
Jaguars 2017 10 7 5.9 55.1
Giants 2016 11 5 1.3 54.9
Bills 2020 13 3 0.8 52.9
Texans 2016 9 0 -2.3 52.2
Packers 2019 13 7 2.3 51.6
49ers 2017 6 4 2.4 51.4
Lions 2020 5 2 -0.9 51.2
Bears 2018 12 7 5.3 50.0

*In 2020 salary cap-adjusted dollars.

Source: overthecap

If we adjust for some of the luck by using Pythagorean win expectation, the increase drops to 2.1 wins on average, which is less exciting, to be sure. But at least it’s still positive. 

And while this is a classic case of cherry-picking the data, desperate times may call for desperate measures in New England. Watching Brady win it all while his former team had its first losing season since 2000 can’t feel great for a competitor like Belichick. So perhaps it helps in a small way to explain why the Patriots felt emboldened to open their wallet this year. Besides, a spending spree is fun — especially on the company credit card.

Footnotes

  1. The Patriots received a fourth-round compensatory pick when Van Noy left in free agency in 2020 but got him right back on their roster a year later.

  2. In 2020 salary cap-adjusted dollars. As an example, in 2014 the cap was 133 million. We took team free agency spending from that year in millions, multiplied it by the 2020 cap (198.2 million) and then divided the product by 133 million to normalize the spending.

  3. Among players who were veterans who switched teams and signed contracts in March, April or May of each year.

  4. r = 0.35. The correlation between free agency spending and Pythagorean win expectation is marginally lower at r = 0.33

  5. In 2020 cap dollars.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

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