FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — If recent history holds true to form, the free-spending 2021 New England Patriots should receive a bump from their seven victories earned last season. The bigger challenge will be sustaining that beyond this year.

Consider that from 2016 to 2020, the team that spent the most guaranteed money in NFL free agency improved by an average of 5.4 wins that season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The issue was the following season, as teams that spent the most guaranteed money in free agency from 2016 to 2019 had an average decline of 5.5 wins in Year 2.

Now coach Bill Belichick’s Patriots join the mix, having smashed the NFL record set by the 2020 Miami Dolphins ($147.2 million). The Patriots guaranteed $163 million in unrestricted free agency, which owner Robert Kraft has acknowledged is risky business.

It is an approach usually reserved for more desperate teams. The Patriots haven’t qualified.

But coming off an uncharacteristic 7-9 season, albeit in a COVID-19 year, Belichick backed up the Brinks truck, and in turn, the short-term picture — starting with Sunday’s season opener against the visiting Dolphins (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS) — looks much better.

“It was different. You know, it was definitely different,” said Cris Collinsworth, the analyst for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” who will be in town for a highly anticipated Week 4 matchup when Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit the Patriots.

“I thought they played on the minus side of the ledger a season ago because of all their COVID opt-outs and various things that happened, having to change their offense to accommodate Cam [Newton]. I thought there was a feeling of ‘let’s get back to Patriot football.'”

The Patriots had a league-high eight opt-outs last season, led by returning linebacker Dont’a Hightower. And to Collinsworth’s point, Belichick had said the Patriots didn’t have the depth they had been accustomed to in 2020, in part because of a tight salary cap after having “sold out and won three Super Bowls, played in a fourth, and played in an AFC Championship Game” from 2014 to 2019.

After last year’s reset, New England attacked free agency relentlessly, in part because of a point Kraft highlighted: Recent drafts haven’t been as fruitful as desired. One example of this was reflected in how punter Jake Bailey became their first home-grown Pro Bowler last season since linebacker Jamie Collins in 2015.

Most notable to Collinsworth is the intention to return to a multiple-tight-end offense, a staple of Belichick teams that disappeared in 2020 after it helped produce six Super Bowl championships. So the Patriots paid big for arguably the top two available tight ends — Jonnu Smith of the Tennessee Titans (four years, $50 million, $31.25 million guaranteed) and Hunter Henry of the Los Angeles Chargers (three years, $37.5 million, $24 million guaranteed). Henry, who injured his shoulder in training camp, said this week he expects to play Sunday.

Ideally, the Patriots would have had tight ends they drafted and developed to form a one-two combination, similar to the early-to-mid 2000s when they had first-round draft picks Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson, and the early 2010s with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

But while free agency often comes with a “buyer beware” warning, the Patriots also viewed it as a more unique opportunity this year — a result, in part, of the NFL’s declining salary cap (the limit of $182.5 million per team for 2021 was a long-anticipated 8% decrease from last season) — that curbed competition from other teams.

The Patriots were operating with a surplus after going lean in 2020, and Kraft cited it as an example of the team trying to “take advantage of inefficiencies in the market.”

So the owner who paid $172 million to buy the team in 1994 almost matched that total in free-agent spending this offseason.

In addition to tight ends Smith and Henry, the other big-ticket signings were outside linebacker Matt Judon (four years, $54.5 million, with $30 million guaranteed); defensive back Jalen Mills (four years, $24 million, with $9 million guaranteed); defensive tackle Davon Godchaux (two years, $15 million, with $9 million guaranteed); linebacker Kyle Van Noy (two years, $12 million, with $6 million guaranteed) and receivers Nelson Agholor (two years, $22 million, with $16 million guaranteed) and Kendrick Bourne (three years, $15 million, with $5 million guaranteed).

“Free agency can help you or hurt you,” said longtime Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019. “A guy can get fat on free agency, and he doesn’t play the same way he played when he was looking for more money.

“But I still think that [Belichick] can build a team through draft choices and free agency. Now, it’s a lot harder to build it through draft choices when you’re picking 27th, 26th, 28th, 30th — way down there, like he had been. So it that can lead you to concentrate on free agents.”

Risky approach

The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles are the team often mentioned when it comes to the dangers of building a team through free agency.



Harry Douglas and Max Kellerman outline what they expect from the Patriots and rookie QB Mac Jones in 2021.

They were NFC East champions the year before, finishing 10-6 with Michael Vick under center and losing to the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs. Philadelphia then loaded up with the likes of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (five years, $60 million, with $25 million guaranteed), defensive end Jason Babin (five years, $28 million), cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (acquired in a trade from Arizona), defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (five years, $25 million) and quarterback Vince Young (one year, up to $5.5 million), among others.

Young, of course, had referred to them as the “Dream Team” — which hovered over the Eagles all season as they crashed and burned after a 1-4 start, needing to win their final four games to pull out an 8-8 finish.

But more recently, teams that have taken an aggressive approach in free agency have often experienced a notable immediate improvement.

The 2016 New York Giants, who had guaranteed a league-high $107 million in free agency the prior offseason with top targets Olivier Vernon (pass-rusher), Janoris Jenkins (cornerback) and Damon Harrison (defensive tackle), improved to 11-5 from 6-10 the season before. Ben McAdoo was in his first year as coach, taking over for Tom Coughlin.

Ditto for the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars. They changed coaches, with Doug Marrone taking over for Gus Bradley, and spent a league-leading $71.6 million guaranteed in free agency, headlined by defensive lineman Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Barry Church. They jumped to 10-6 from a 3-13 season.