Free Agency

What’s going in New England?

Hot on the heels of Brandon Cooks being traded to the Rams, the question on everyone’s lips is; what the hell is going on in New England?  The Cooks trade is just the latest in a long list of events that have many a Patriot fan worried about the 2018 season.

This spiral of events all kicked off on the 1st November, not that we knew it then, but with the decision to trade Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers for a second-round pick.  We all wondered why it had been such a cheap move for the 49ers to pull off, especially as the Browns were apparently willing to give up much more.  Whilst much was written about Belichick admiring 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and the organisation he and general manager John Lynch was putting together, everyone thought it was more to stick one on Belichicks former employers in Cleveland, again.

The events were cast into further shadow earlier this year, before the playoffs really kicked off, Seth Wickersham from ESPN published an article casting aspersions on the relationship between Belichick, owner Robert Kraft and legendary quarterback Tom Brady.  Wickersham described a scene in which Belichick was forced by Kraft to trade Garoppolo and that there had never been any sort of relationship between Brady and his back up, “And Brady is famously unhelpful toward his backups — or, at least, a threat like Garoppolo. The two quarterbacks were friendly, but Brady — like Joe Montana to Steve Young and Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers — didn’t see it as his role to advise Garoppolo, even on matters as trivial as footwork, as nobody had helped him during his climb.”.  The Patriots released statements saying much of the article was false, but the seeds of doubt had been sown.

Whilst the Patriots made smooth progress to yet another Super Bowl there was further trouble on the horizon in the form of one-time star cornerback Malcolm Butler.  Butler had been the hero of Super Bowl 49 where a fourth quarter interception stopped a near certain winning drive from the Seahawks.  As the Super Bowl began it became apparent that Butler was not playing any snaps bar a few special team assignments.  Whilst 2017 hadn’t been a standout year for Butler, his talent and experience warranted a starting slot.  After the defeat to the Eagles, rumours began to swirl about Butler missing curfews or being ill were two such rumours and to date, we still don’t really know what happened and it seems, nor does Butler.  In recent interviews Butler has come out and said how ““There were times when I was on the sideline and I just wanted to go up to [Bill] Belichick or Matt Patricia and say, ‘This how we gonna end this?’” he said.” (Source: Boston.com) and so it seems he was as in the dark as the rest of us.

There have been other notable off-season roster movements which whilst on their own would not cause concern, when combined are.  Dion Lewis had three seasons at Foxborough and last season went on to be the Patriots No.1 running back offering Belichick and McDaniels a dual threat runner and pass catcher.  His skills were in high demand entering free agency and yet no notable attempt was made by New England to secure his services further.

Nate Solder had protected Brady’s blind side for seven years and aside from a season out only missed two regular season games when he was fit.  He too has left in free agency despite have significant ties to the area and the hospital following the tragic cancer diagnosis of his young son.

Danny Amendola went to Miami with a message from Rob Gronkowski to ‘be free, be happy’.  It’d be wrong to read too much into that, but does it mean players can be neither in New England?

Which brings me nicely on to the fate of star tight end, Rob Gronkowski.  Following the defeat to Philadelphia in February there were doubts coming from Gronks camp about whether he would return for the 2018 season or instead seek retirement from the game.  Despite his bravado both on and off the field, Gronkowski has been famously prudent with his money and has apparently never spent a dime of the money he’s earnt from playing football, living instead off the funds gained through commercial ventures.  In his time, Gronk has famously been banged up several times leading him to play with a club on his arm to protect his elbow.  He was knocked out of the AFC Championship game with a severe concussion and there were a few doubts he’d be fit for the Super Bowl.  With all this in mind, is it any wonder he was thinking about hanging up his cleats?  Then just last week came the bombshell that the Pats were thinking about trading him.  As we sit in a swirl of more rumours and discussions about the value of picks that the Patriots could get for him I again wonder, what is really going on with the Pats?

Now, Cooks is gone.  Bought in last year for a first round pick we all lauded the nous that Belichick had shown bringing in a good player.  Cooks had a good year, over 1,000 receiving yards and seven touchdowns was a good showing.  Now Belichick has flipped him to the Rams for more draft capital but in a year where the receiver talent in the draft is quite low and the top receivers from free agency have been snapped up. Couple that with Edelman coming back from a season ending ACL tear last year we’re left to wonder whether Brady will have much quality to throw to.

History tells us that no matter what happens during an off-season, the Patriots will close ranks and come back stronger in 2018 than ever before culminating in a Super Bowl win.  But I can’t help wondering if there genuinely is more to this series of events then meets the eye.  Is Belichick being phased out?

Why do I say that?  Well there was another odd movement during the off-season I’ve not touched upon.  And that’s Josh McDaniels turning down the Colts head coach appointment after apparently agreeing to it beforehand.  It was after a talk with Kraft and Belichick that he changed his mind and made the about turn that has led to him maintaining his role as offensive coordinator in New England.  Added to this, Belichick is apparently going to let him in to his inner circle, seemingly to teach him the ropes of being a head coach.  One would presume this is the succession plan that Belichick has oft been cited about.  Could it be that 2018 is the final year for Bill Belichick as the supremo in New England?

If this is the beginning of the end of Belichick, might it also be the final season for Tom Brady?  The extra first round pick that the Patriots now have could be spent on a backup quarterback with whom McDaniels can groom behind Brady for a year before taking the reins next year.

Now, this is just one writer thinking out loud.  But the more that happens along these lines, the more it might just be closer than we may have once thought to the end of an era.

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