Tom Brady, Bill Belichick
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Tom Brady quickly moved from enemy to ally in the New York Jets’ free-agent world that sees Bill Belichick carelessly spend.

Robby Sabo

Bill Belichick is officially on fire. Imagine the mysterious NBA Jam play-by-play man calling a two-on-two game with Belichick hitting all the marks. Often a conservative free-agent strategist, the New England Patriots football boss has sold his soul to the open-market devil.

Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Ted Karras, Matthew Judon, Justin Bethel, Jalen Mills, Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise Jr., Carl Davis, Kyle Van Noy, Montravious Adams, Henry Anderson, Cody Davis, Nick Folk and even Cam Newton … the Pats have already spent $249.025 million with $139.825 million in guarantees.

Ranking second in guaranteed money dished out are the Jacksonville Jaguars ($80.7 million). Guess whose $63.5 million currently ranks third?


With an assist from the legendary Vince Lombardi, “What the hell’s going on out here?”

Could it be age? After all, Belichick recently shaved his head for charity, much to Rich Eisen’s delight (and probably much to New York Jets fan Larry David’s dismay). Perhaps Belichick’s rebellious nature has intensified with age.

Maybe he’s found a newfound professional football strategy smart general managers have yet to discover. Could it be as simple as free agency’s underrated nature in today’s hard salary cap league?

Probably not—to both explanations. When following Occam’s razor, the answer lies in the most simplistic of terms.

Belichick and the New England Patriots are feeling the heat. Tom Brady’s immediate Super Bowl success has pushed the evil empire to the brink of desperation. It’s the only answer that makes sense at the moment.

Perhaps watching No. 12 capture his seventh Super Bowl down in Tampa was enough for Belichick to kick it up several notches. After all, it’s not as though Belichick owns a lavished spending-spree history.

Patriots’ free-agent total spending rankings since 2011:

  • 2011: 24th
  • 2012: 15th
  • 2013: 8th
  • 2014: 15th
  • 2015: 24th
  • 2016: 23rd
  • 2017: 14th
  • 2018: 24th
  • 2019: 14th
  • 2020: 27th

Patriots’ free-agent total guaranteed spending since 2011:

  • 2011: Tied for 32nd
  • 2012: 17th
  • 2013: 5th
  • 2014: 16th
  • 2015: 24th
  • 2016: 22nd
  • 2017: 8th
  • 2018: 25th
  • 2019: 13th
  • 2020: 30th

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New England has never cracked the top seven in total free agent spending since the rookie wage scale was introduced in 2011. The highest the organization finished in total spending came in 2013 when it ranked eighth with $87.115 million spent on the open market.

The team’s next closest ranking was a 14-spot that materialized in both 2017 and 2019. The story doesn’t change much when guaranteed money—the critical part of the equation—is viewed.

Belichick’s highest finish in total guaranteed money spent came in 2013 when he dished out $33.210 million. Other than an eighth-place finish in 2017, the Pats’ guaranteed dough has also remained on the conservative side.

Obviously, New England’s $249.025 million spent thus far with $139.825 million in guarantees should be good enough to place it at the top of the list this offseason.

While it’s a drastic change in temperature most objective onlookers can identify, not everybody’s singing the same tune. Former Pats’ general manager Scott Pioli recently hopped on The Herd with Colin Cowherd to discuss Belichick’s moneybags.

In 2001, a total of 22 free agents were brought in that offseason. It helped catapult a five-win franchise to an unlikely Super Bowl.

Other than the idea that Pioli is completely ignoring recent history, not even those veteran free agents signed in a Bill Parcells’ hired-gun-like nature amounted to serious dough. Besides, that was two decades ago. Things have drastically changed, most notably due to the rookie wage scale.

It’s never a noble cause to run with one specific narrative in the face of overwhelming evidence. Yet, oftentimes, a larger-than-life football icon such as Belichick receives the benefit of the doubt—even in the face of reality.

The teams that overspend on the open market are those that never seem destined to put it all together. It’s a simple philosophical idea, really: The reason cap space is abundant is usually due to bad drafting that doesn’t allow for in-house multi-year deals to come to fruition. But when forced into the abundant cap-space corner, the smart front offices stay away from the quick-fix mindset.

Take the Jets as exhibit A. Since 2011, they have twice led the league in total free-agent spending. The first instance occurred in 2015 with Mike Maccagnan’s now-infamous “aggressive rebuild.” Though it seemed to work that season—lifting the team to a 10-6 mark with FitzMagic leading the way—it was merely a mirage. A cupcake schedule and no infrastructure left the team flailing in the wind ever since.

The second instance came in 2019 when Mikey Mac inked a veteran running back and inside linebacker to mega deals. If you’re one who labels a 7-9 record a “success,” kudos to your optimistic nature.

The Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars have led the league in guaranteed free-agent spending since 2016. Guess which two teams have sported the worst two records since that time?

Without Joe Thuney, Corey Linsley or a bigger wide receiver name, Joe Douglas is already starting to take predictable heat from the fanbase. Admittedly, Jets fans are in a tough spot.

Owning the worst record over the last five seasons equals a miserable in-season experience. Only the offseason can deliver that rush needed to make it to the next fandom checkpoint. It’s why free agency, the NFL draft and even new uniforms make so much noise on Jets Twitter.

Only the level-headed analytical mind happens to sift through the garbage that is offseason hype. Yet, adding key free-agent pieces goes a long way. It’s how and when those pieces are added that decides open-market spending for the worthwhile professional football general manager.

Each front office intentionally or unintentionally decides on a future ceiling in how it attacks problems. Spending big in the offseason often cuts down on that ceiling. It can help in the short-term, but things get sticky down the road in terms of puzzle pieces.

Instead of opting for a quick fix that might yield a 5 of 10-type ceiling, Douglas is obviously targeting the whole shebang—a 10 of 10-type masterpiece that lasts as long as possible. Draft well en route to creating an infrastructure that deserves second contracts, while only spending big to close the gap on remaining holes that show face after the infrastructure is already present.

Going big in free agency only to be forced into a positional-needy corner during the draft is a quick way to limit an organization’s future ceiling.

Granted, the 10 of 10-type approach is a longer, much more painful road—something fans want to magically wave away. Douglas, on the other hand, has no magic free-agent wand (similar to every NFL general manager). He simply has one shot to get this right in the league that plays for pay, and he’s going to approach it with the highest possible ceiling in mind, one that aspires to emulate New England’s incredible two-decade run.

For years, No. 12 has covered up the Patriots’ poor drafting. For years, Belichick and his other-worldly staff covered up depth-chart holes with good-old-fashioned football coaching.

Not anymore. Twelve is in Tampa and most of Belichick’s staff is elsewhere. While the media and fans fawn over Bill Belichick’s bold aggression, Joe Douglas and the Jets bide their time.

They understand the data and realize the task is long-term and cost-effective in nature. “Let ’em spend,” has to be the motto of the day. For it’s the emotionally-charged motive that never prevails in this analytical league.

So yeah, Tom Brady, whether he realizes it or not, is now a New York Jets ally. The New England Patriots should certainly improve in 2021, but nothing special ever begins with this level of free-agent spending.

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