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The Future of the New England Patriots After Bill Belichick’s Departure

Cam looks at how the Patriots can rebuild themselves back to a Playoff contending team.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 11: Owner Robert Kraft (L) shakes hands with head coach Bill Belichick (R) of the New England Patriots during a press conference at Gillette Stadium on January 11, 2024 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Belichick announced he is stepping down as head coach after 24 seasons with the team. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

We are entering “Super” Wildcard Weekend, and the New England Patriots are nowhere to be found, yet they are still dominating the NFL news cycle. Maybe its because I’m from New England and live in the Patriots backyard, in Foxboro Ma., but to me the biggest story this week isn’t whether or not the Eagles can turn it around in Tampa Bay or if Cleveland can get to the divisional round.

No, the biggest story in the NFL is what happened at Gillette Stadium on Thursday…the termination of Bill Belichick after 24 years roaming the sidelines in Foxboro for owner Robert Kraft. Although they split amicably and “mutually agreed” to part ways, make no mistake about this, Belichick was fired.

Kraft wanted an “elegant solution” and he managed to choreograph an ending as elegant as he could. He was expecting to get a draft pick for his former head coach, but Belichick wouldn’t give an inch. In his year-end press conference on Monday, Belichick said something he never had in 24 years…he let it be known he was still under contract. He NEVER discussed his contract. It was a salvo to Kraft to let him know, if he wanted him gone, he’d have to fire him.

After three days it finally happened. It may have been a few weeks, a few months, or even a few years too late…but it is now over. This has been a divorce long overdue, with a rift that is over a decade old. 

It began in earnest when the former coach began to suggest to the owner that their star QB, Tom Brady, should be traded. He put together charts and reports about how QBs begin to fall off the table in their mid 30s. From 2010 the owner had to step in to negotiate and put together Brady’s contracts. And by 2013, Belichick was in a full court press to trade Brady away. Afterall, he was 36 years old at the time. In the 2014 draft, Belichick drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round, making it clear, this was his succession plan. 

All Brady did over the next handful of years was win three more Super Bowls for New England, in 2015, 2017 and 2019. Belichick couldn’t, in his right mind, get rid of him…yet he still wanted to. And for such a great historian and tactician of the game, he couldn’t see what his own eyes were telling him. Tom Brady wasn’t like any other player. By this time the QB was 42 years old and already well past Belichick’s mythical mid 30s cutoff point. 

Brady merely wanted to play until he was 45, three more seasons. Belichick wouldn’t give it to him, and this time, the owner relented. Both men, owner and coach, made their beds…and both men had to lay in it for the last four seasons. Those four seasons didn’t produce a playoff win, only one appearance and three losing years, culminating in this season’s 4-13 abysmal record. The best thing Belichick left the Patriots this season was the third overall pick.

But I’m here to say, this team isn’t that far off. They are extremely solid on the defensive side of the ball, and really only have to focus on offense. They are nearly $80 million under the cap, and have that no.3 pick. If Belichick were still the coach, no doubt that pick would be traded away 10 times over and turn into 15 picks over the next three years…but he’s gone and it remains to be seen if they’ll just take a QB in that spot, (most likely Jayden Daniels), or the top WR prospect, Marvin Harrison Jr.

I like to fashion myself an armchair GM in all sports, so here are a handful of moves to get the Patriots back in the “high life, again”…as Steve Winwood sang.

The Patriots have the no.3, no.34, and no.68 picks in the first three rounds, which should all produce valuable pieces. To be clear, they need a complete overhaul on offense.

The first move is to decide which free agents on the team should be kept, if any. WR Kendrick Bourne has talent, and has shown flashes, as well as an apparent desire to return. Other than Pop Douglas, the rest of the WRs are garbage, but unfortunately under contract for the next couple of seasons. Tyquan Thornton and DeVante Parker could be traded for very late round draft picks, but it is doubtful they’ll be any takers for JuJu Smith-Schuster. If an extra fifth and sixth round pick can be grabbed, I’d take it.

Mike Gesicki has been an under achiever but showed he has abilities from time to time, especially with Bailey Zappe getting him the ball. It is a lousy free agency class for TEs and Gesicki wouldn’t cost too much. Fellow TE Pharaoh Brown may have shown the most out of New England’s TEs this season and won’t cost much either.

RB Rhamondre Stevenson is coming off an injury and is in the last year of his rookie contract, only making a million dollars…he’ll be back. The Ezekiel Elliott experiment wasn’t a complete failure, he had an average season and filled in nicely when Stevenson went down. But he is a free agent and won’t be worth whatever he’ll be looking for.

As far as their QBs, both will need to be replaced. Mac Jones, the no.15 pick three seasons ago, is most likely only worth a fourth or fifth round pick. There was a ton of chatter that Kyle Shanahan wanted him instead of Trey Lance, but GM John Lynch won the debate. They traded away Lance to the Cowboys for a fourth round pick. If they trade for Mac Jones with a fifth round pick, he gets his man and gets a pick, in essence, gaining a round. Zappe has shown enough where he too should get a late round pick.

Regardless of whether the Pats take a QB with no.3, they should sign a veteran free agent. There are two mid-range QBs that won’t cost too much…Gardner Minshew or Baker Mayfield. The longer Mayfield stays in the playoffs the higher his price tag goes, and the more likely he is to stay in Tampa Bay. Minshew won’t cost as much and is a very serviceable QB who nearly took the Colts to the playoffs this year.

As far as RBs to supplement Stevenson, there are three who won’t break the bank. Any of these three will help help the offense on the ground, and all of them do a decent job catching the ball out of the backfield. Zack Moss, AJ Dillon or D’Andre Swift. Swift is the youngest and most desirable. He rushed for over 1,000 yards and had 214 receiving yards. A Stevenson/Swift tandem is a solid pair of RBs.

The Pats need WRs…plural. There are two that the Pats should try to snag: Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman Jr. The 6’4 Higgins is only 24 years old and is coming off his worst NFL season. In 2021 and 2022, he had back to back 74 catch, 1,000+ yard seasons. Last year he only managed 12 games with 656 yards. Where Higgins had his worst year in the league, Pittman had his best, with over 100 receptions and 1,100 receiving yards. Both of these receivers are big and speedy targets with fantastic route running skills.

The Patriots can also use help on special teams. They are in need of a kicker. There are four free agent kickers they can look at: Greg Zuerlein, Chase McLaughlin, Cameron Dicker and old friend Nick Folk. Any one of them is serviceable, far more than current kicker Chad Ryland who must be cut.

The Patriots should also bring back kick returner/WR Braxton Berrios. He’s one of the best punt returners in the league and could be a spot, slot receiver.

This accounts for free agent signings:

The additions would be:

QB: Gardner Minshew or Baker Mayfield

RB: D’Andre Swift, AJ Dillon or Zack Moss

WR: Michael Pittman Jr. or Tee Higgins

Returner/Slot Receiver: Braxton Berrios

K: Greg Zuerlein, Chase McLaughlin, Cameron Dicker or Nick Folk

This is a solid start, but now to the draft. The trades of Jones, Zappe, Thornton and Parker should gain a couple of fifth and sixth round picks. 

Assuming Caleb Williams and Drake Maye go no.1, no.2, I’m not in love with the Pats taking the no.3 QB on the board with the third pick. Marvin Harrison Jr is the smart pick here, unless they can work a deal to trade down to ensure getting Georgia’s All-World TE Brock Bowers. The problem is most mock drafts have Bowers not getting past the Chargers with their fifth pick. 

The Cardinals have the no.4 pick and have said they are keeping Kyler Murray, and desperately want Harrison. I would consider trading down from no.3 to no.4 with them, allowing them to snag Harrison, and stealing Bowers from the Chargers. 

To move up one spot the draft trade chart says there is a 400 point differential. The Cardinals have 11 picks in this year’s draft, and a ton of draft capital. They have the no.35 pick which is worth 550 pts. It’s a bit of an overpay, but to get a projected generational WR, it will be worth it for Cardinals. This move gives the Pats Bowers and the no.35 pick, to go along with their own 34th pick. 

Foregoing one of the top three QBs early means they have to snag a QB later, and out of that next tier of Michael Penix, Bo Nix and JJ McCarthy, I like Nix the best. He has decent size at 6’3″ and 220lbs. And his final season at Oregon was absolutely phenomenal. He threw for over 4,500 yards with a 77.4% completion percentage. And he had 45 TDs with only three interceptions. He is projected to be a late first round, early second round pick, right in the Patriots no.34 and no.35 wheelhouse.

With the other pick, they still need to focus on offense by taking a WR. After Harrison, Malik Nabors, and Rome Odunze, their is a gap to that second tier. Of that group of Keon Coleman, Brian Thomas, Troy Franklin and Adonai Mitchell, I like Franklin. He is a fellow Duck along with Nix. The notion of drafting a young QB/WR combo from the same team is appealing…similar to Joe Burrow and Ja’ Marr Chase.

With a new TE/QB/WR under wraps, my next targets would be to bolster the O-line and a RB. The RB I love is Michigan’s Blake Corum. He is a diminutive 5’8″ but he is a powerful runner who smells the endzone. In his college career, he scored 58 rushing TDs, with 45 in the last two seasons alone. He’s rushed for over 2,700 yards the last two seasons with a career 5.5 ypr. He is projected to go in the third round at no.83. With the no.68 pick, taking Corum isn’t too much of a stretch, but trading down to gain more picks would be an option. 

One thing is certain, trading down is a viable option as long as they get the players they want/need.

In this scenario, here is what the Patriots would look like:

QB: Gardner Minshew or Baker Mayfield w/Bo Nix waiting in the wings.

WR: Michael Pittman or Tee Higgins w/Troy Franklin, and Kendrick Bourne back. Along with Pop Douglas, and Braxton Berrios.

RB: D’Andre Swift, Zack Moss or AJ Dillon w/Rhamondre Stevenson back. Along with Blake Corum in the draft.

TE: Mike Gesicki and Pharaoh Brown, with the next Gronk, Brock Bowers with the no.4 pick.

With the remaining picks, at no.103, 135, 181 and 228, along with the handful of picks acquired through trades, the O-line should be bolstered, along with other offensive prospects. 

Any of these O-linemen will be valuable additions:

Pittsburgh: Matt Goncalves

Missouri: Javon Foster

Washington: Roger Rosengarten

Illinois: Julian Pearl

Texas: Christian Jones

TCU: Andrew Coker

Miami: Zion Nelson

And any of these offensive skill positions in the later rounds are worthy flyers:

Florida St: QB, Jordan Travis

Oregon: WR, Tez Johnson

Michigan: RB, Donovan Edwards

Washington: RB, Dillon Johnson

Kansas St: TE, Ben Sinnott

One thing is certain, the Patriots have a ton of work to do, but as former HC Belichick always said, “No Days Off”. 

It’s time to get to work.