Tom Brady says he can play well into his 40s. The New England Patriots are planning like he won’t.
Brady will turn 40 this season, an age at which most star quarterbacks have transitioned into the broadcasting phase of their careers. The five-time Super Bowl champion hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down, either; he set an NFL record for touchdown-to-interception ratio last fall with a sterling 28:2 mark. Only Matt Ryan’s breakthrough year prevented him from landing his third league MVP award.
Brady has always been the kind of player who elevates his teammates around him, but 2017 may be the opposite. Head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots have been proactive in adding talent the past two seasons, giving the surefire Hall of Famer arguably his deepest and strongest supporting cast ever.
How the Patriots made a big effort to improve a Super Bowl winning roster
Just look at the moves the team has made in the past two seasons. New England traded its first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft for New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks, a player with more than 2,300 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns his last two seasons.
The franchise signed Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore to an uncharacteristic $65 million deal, nearly driving off homegrown All-Pro Malcolm Butler in the process. The Patriots turned draft picks — the lifeblood of Belichick’s process — into veteran players like Dwayne Allen, Mike Gillislee, and Kony Ealy.
Those moves, along with the re-signing of Dont’a Hightower and the retention of expensive players like Nate Solder, signify a shift. The Patriots are targeting known value despite the costs that come with it to field the most purely talented roster in team history.
The franchise hasn’t quite mortgaged its future to cater to its present. Jimmy Garoppolo’s continued presence on the roster, at a time when the draft’s top three quarterbacks all required significant trade-up costs, is proof. So is the team’s preference toward high-ceiling developmental prospects like Antonio Garcia and Derek Rivers in the draft. Even so, this win-now shift is certainly a new identity for Belichick’s team.
The Patriots of the past were the ones trading dynamic young wide receivers for first-round draft picks (see Deion Branch in 2006). Now they’re the ones shipping the 32nd overall pick for one of the game’s most explosive wideouts. This was the team that forced its all-galaxy quarterback to drag starting receivers like Jabar Gaffney, David Patten, Bethel Johnson, and Brian Tyms to Super Bowl appearances.
Now they’ve got one of the league’s deepest and most dynamic receiving corps. The Patriots can burn secondaries downfield with Cooks and Chris Hogan or up the seam with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Rising young prospect Malcolm Mitchell and Super Bowl hero Danny Amendola provide game-changing depth.
This is a big change for the Patriots, but it comes at a cost
2017 is showing that Belichick is learning from his mistakes, even 18 years into the most successful NFL coaching job of all time. The best receiver he’d dug up at the draft was Edelman, a seventh-round MAC quarterback. Instead of rolling the dice again, he’s trading picks for more established players.
However, those moves came at a cost. Adding Cooks instead of a low-cost rookie both eats up cap space and leaves the Patriots in danger of losing the accomplished wideout when he hits free agency in 2019.
Signing Gillislee, last season’s top runner in terms of yards per carry, away from the Bills was another shrewd investment. The deal handed to Gilmore signals a willingness to be more active in free agency than ever before.
The Patriots have doled out big-money contracts to expensive hired guns before, but not often. They signed Rosevelt Colvin to a seven-year, $30 million deal in 2003 and watched as he failed to live up to the standard he’d set with the Chicago Bears. Four years later, Adalius Thomas came to town with the largest cap hit in the NFL. He lasted only three seasons with the team, never reclaiming his All-Pro status.
A big class of new additions cost the team some important draft capital. The Patriots ended up with only four total picks in this year’s draft, none in the first two rounds. But this offseason also made the reigning Super Bowl champions even better — on paper, at least.
For most quarterbacks, this kind of buy-in would suggest one last chance to power through a narrowing window of opportunity. For Brady, who could well have five seasons left in him thanks to his well-documented and slightly insane fitness regimen, it may have just been a case of the team finally devoting its resources to surrounding him with the talent he deserves. The last time the Patriots came close was 2007, and while that historic season may have ended in heartbreak in the Super Bowl, it started with 18 straight wins.
A similar result may not be in store for 2017, but these Patriots have sold off shares of their future this offseason to ensure they’ll have the best possible chance to defend their Super Bowl crown in the present.