NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2021 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 17, meaning free-agent signings could be made official after that. The first round of the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29 on ESPN.
Ever imagine what it would be like to be handed a credit card, with no limits, and told that you can go spend, spend, spend? That sums up the New England Patriots’ unprecedented free-agent approach. They broke the NFL record for most guaranteed money spent in free agency, targeting major areas of need as a result of some shaky drafting in recent years: tight end, wide receiver and defensive front seven. History says that big spenders in free agency usually regret it in time. But the Patriots, believing they found a market inefficiency in an offseason the salary cap went down but they had ample space and money to spend, hope to be the outlier.
Here's a breakdown of every 2021 NFL free-agent signing by the Patriots, and how each will impact the upcoming season:
Hunter Henry, TE
The Patriots have signed the former Los Angeles Chargers tight end.
It's a three-year, $37.5 million deal, including $25 million guaranteed, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter.
What it means: With a decisive double-dip at tight end in free agency, pairing Henry with Jonnu Smith, coach Bill Belichick is going back to the two-tight-end package that had notable success -- first with the Daniel Graham/Benjamin Watson combo and then Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez.
Henry and Smith were widely viewed as the top tight ends available, and in a year when the NFL's salary cap went down, the Patriots viewed it as a rare opportunity that both would be available and they'd be in financial position to pull off landing both.
What's the risk: Henry's injury history, which goes back to his time at Arkansas.
He's never played a 16-game season in his first five years in the NFL.
Matthew Judon, LB
What it means: Judon (6-foot-3, 261 pounds) is a physical edge player who also brings it with the pass rush (34.5 career sacks). Pair him with veteran linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who returns as an off-the-line linebacker after opting out of the 2020 season, and it's a combo of two of the hardest hitting 'backers in the NFL. This is an attitude-type signing, sparking memories of the early years of coach Bill Belichick's Patriots tenure when he imported veteran Bryan Cox, whose toughness permeated throughout the team.
What's the risk: Why did the Ravens, who had assigned Judon the franchise tag in 2020, not bring him back? The Ravens have a solid track record of drafting and developing, but when they let that talent go, it sparks a question as to why. The last time the Patriots invested big in a Ravens linebacker, it was Adalius Thomas in 2007, and after a productive first season, he fizzled out.
Kyle Van Noy, LB
The linebacker, who spent last season with the Miami Dolphins, has signed with the Patriots, his former team. According to sources, it's a two-year deal with a maximum value of $13.2 million.
What it means: Van Noy was a key part of two Patriots Super Bowl championship teams (2016, 2018), having played a variety of roles in his four years with the team -- dime linebacker, early-down inside linebacker, edge-setting outside linebacker and hard-to-block pass-rusher. His return, along with the addition of Matthew Judon, potentially gives the Patriots two high-end players on the end of the line of scrimmage. Van Noy left for a big-money deal in Miami last offseason and surprisingly lasted one season. He says this time it's personal, so he's motivated.
What's the risk: Young linebackers Chase Winovich (2019 third round), Josh Uche (2020 second round) and Anfernee Jennings (2020 third round) could see their path for development -- and playing time -- blocked.
James White, RB
The veteran running back has agreed to a one-year deal to remain with the Patriots, a league source told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. The Patriots are giving White a $2.5 million, fully guaranteed deal, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter.
What it means: A reliable pass-catching running back who has been a three-time captain, White is one of the most respected players in recent franchise history. His return means the Patriots have their "passing back" position locked in, giving them the luxury of drafting a player and having him learn behind the scenes, like White did in his rookie season (2014). While the Patriots have been aggressive adding players from outside the organization this offseason, they maintain important locker-room continuity with White.
What's the risk: Not much. White is about as steady as they come. He isn't as elusive as some others who specialize in the passing game, so perhaps that's the primary risk -- limiting dynamic playmaking ability in the role.
Nelson Agholor, WR
What it means: Once the Patriots decided to bring back Newton at quarterback, it was a reflection that they were committed to getting more weapons around him. Enter Agholor, who averaged 18.7 yards per catch last season in a breakout season for the Raiders. He is fast and explosive, and while he has been plagued by drops at times, he immediately becomes a top-3 option in New England.
What's the risk: This is a lot of money for Agholor, who had 48 receptions for 896 yards and eight touchdowns last season. For a team that usually waits out the market, the Patriots are paying a premium price.
Lawrence Guy, DT
The Patriots are working on a four-year deal to keep the defensive tackle in New England, a source told ESPN.
What it means:The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Guy has been one of the Patriots' most consistent players over the past four seasons, as well as one of their most durable (missing just two games). He has been one of their best run defenders, as well as a captain. So in an offseason in which the Patriots devoted significant contracts to players from outside the organization, keeping a culture-based pillar like Guy seems critical.
What's the risk: Guy just turned 31, so the Patriots are banking on him continuing to excel into the latter years of his career.
Jonnu Smith, TE
The Patriots have signed Smith. It's a four-year, $50 million deal with $31.25 million guaranteed, agent Drew Rosenhaus told Schefter.
What it means: The Patriots have had the NFL's lowest pass-catching production from tight ends over the past two seasons, and Smith should decisively address that. Along with Hunter Henry, he was considered the top tight end on the market, so this is a big splash at a position where there has been a big void since Rob Gronkowski departed. According to front-office personnel around the NFL, Smith was viewed as the better all-around tight end compared to Henry, with Henry the more prolific pass-catcher (196 catches vs. 114 for Smith).
What's the risk: The contract is a significant investment that makes Smith one of the highest-paid tight ends in the league. Smith's production doesn't warrant that contract. But his potential does, and it's always risky paying for potential.
Jonnu Smith agrees to terms with Patriots
Adam Schefter reports on former Titans tight end Jonnu Smith signing with the Patriots.
The Patriots and their starting center agreed to terms on a four-year deal for a maximum value of $21 million with 6.5 million guaranteed.
What it means: A two-time Super Bowl champion, Andrews, in many ways, represents what the Patriots' culture is all about. He wanted to be in New England and that counts for something. Retaining him represents a big win for the Patriots in an offseason when they are spending big on a larger volume of players from outside the organization than the norm. A multiple-year captain, he joins the likes of Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater and Dont'a Hightower as foundation-type players that set a tone in the locker room. His return also solidifies the offensive line as a strength of the team.
What's the risk: Andrews missed the 2019 season because of blood clots in his lungs, but that wasn't an issue in 2020.
Montravius Adams, DT
Rosenhaus told ESPN the Patriots reached agreement with the former Green Bay Packers defensive lineman on a one-year deal worth a maximum value of $2.5 million.
What it means: The Patriots must have liked Adams coming out of Auburn in 2017, as this deal is the type that bets on a change of scenery bringing out the best in a player who hasn't met draft-pick expectations. Adams (6-4, 305) was a third-round pick of the Packers, but despite high hopes for him, he played only 595 total snaps and had limited production over four regular seasons (in part because of injuries). Maybe it will look different in the Patriots' scheme.
What's the risk: There is minimal risk given the modest contract. It's a classic low-risk, high-upside signing if Adams flashes the potential that made him a third-round pick in 2017.
Nick Folk, K
The Patriots re-signed the veteran kicker. According to a source, it's a one-year deal with a maximum value of $2.5 million. He gets a $125,000 signing bonus and his $1.1 million base salary is guaranteed.
What it means: Folk was excellent in 2020 in New England, going 30-of-33 on point-after attempts and 26-of-28 on field goals. His rapport with snapper Joe Cardona and holder Jake Bailey has grown, and now the trio is in position to build on it. The alternative would have been the Patriots breaking in a more unproven kicker, such as Roberto Aguayo, who remains on the roster.
What's the risk: Folk is 36, and battled through a bad back at times last season. In guaranteeing his $1.1 million base salary, the Patriots are banking on him staying healthy.
Jalen Mills, S
The Patriots have signed Mills. Rosenhaus told Schefter it's a four-year, $24 million deal with $9 million guaranteed.
What it means: Mills (6-foot-1, 191 pounds) moved from cornerback to safety last season, and that could indicate that he has the kind of position flexibility Belichick values. Along those lines, Patriots defensive backs meet as a group during the season, not split up between cornerbacks and safeties. Mills' defense of Julio Jones on the final play of a 2017 divisional round win against the Atlanta Falcons sparked the Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl championship run, so he has a clutch gene of sorts. With the Patriots' top safeties trending older -- Devin McCourty (33) and Adrian Phillips (28) -- the 26-year-old Mills adds some youth at that spot alongside 2020 top pick Kyle Dugger, and and should help fill the void created by Patrick Chung’s retirement.
What's the risk: Mills' lack of top end speed sparked some concern with the Eagles, which factored into his move to safety.
Jalen Mills marks latest addition in Pats' active free agency
Adam Schefter and Louis Riddick react to the Patriots adding former Eagles DB Jalen Mills.
Kendrick Bourne, WR
What it means: Bourne is a precise route-runner who plays multiple spots, and should help the Patriots on third down, where he has excelled by showing a knack for creating separation. The Patriots were 17th in the NFL on third down last season, converting 40.7% of the time. Bourne is also 25, so the Patriots are getting him in his prime years, similar to tight end Jonnu Smith (25). Bourne joins Agholor as a top-three receiver in New England.
What's the risk: Bourne rose from undrafted free agent in 2017 to a No. 3 receiver in San Francisco last season, with the 49ers benefiting from having him on a more affordable contract. The Patriots are buying high.
Davon Godchaux, DT
What it means: The Patriots' run defense ranked 26th in the NFL last season (131.4 yards per game) and 20th in opponent rushing average (4.5 yards per carry) as it often struggled to hold up at the heart of the line of scrimmage. With veteran Lawrence Guy a free agent and the status of 2020 free-agent signing Beau Allen a bit cloudy after he missed all of last season with an injury, Godchaux provides youth and upside at defensive tackle. The Patriots obviously know him well after competing against him the past four seasons, and Patriots offensive linemen spoke highly of him.
What's the risk: Godchaux was limited to five games last season because of a torn biceps. The Patriots are banking on a full recovery for the 26-year-old, who up to that point had missed just one game in his first three-plus seasons.
Wise, a fourth-round pick of the Patriots in 2017, has re-signed. It's a four-year deal with a maximum value of $30 million and $10 million guaranteed.
What it means: The 6-foot-5, 275-pounder has been a solid pro in his first four NFL seasons (62 regular-season games, 18 starts), and this provides a chance for him to keep growing in the system and as a leader in the locker room, where his infectious personality often uplifts teammates. While Wise probably fits best as a 4-3 defensive end, he has versatility to play in different spots for a defense that liberally changes its fronts.
What's the risk: Wise doesn't necessarily fit into the traditional box of a specific position, so it falls on a creative defensive coaching staff to put him in the best position to succeed.
Ted Karras, C
The veteran has agreed to terms on a one-year deal that could be worth up to $4 million, according to a source.
What it means: The Patriots know Karras well, having selected him in the sixth round of the 2016 draft. They attempted to sign him to a two-year deal last offseason, but Karras elected for a one-year deal in Miami where he had a more clear opportunity to start. Karras can play center and guard and gives the Patriots quality depth on the interior of the line.
What's the risk: Insurance in case the Patriots lost starting center David Andrews in free agency, Karras comes with little risk -- especially since Andrews agreed to return to New England.
Henry Anderson, DT
The Patriots have signed the former New York Jets defensive lineman. According to a source, it's a two-year deal worth $7 million.
What it means: The 6-foot-6, 301-pound Anderson is a powerful player against the run. His arrival, along with Godchaux, could mean that Guy won't return in free agency. Anderson, who played at Stanford, entered the NFL as a third-round pick of the Colts in 2015. He was traded to the Jets in 2018 and had a career-high 7 sacks that season, so there might be some pass-rush potential in certain situations.
What's the risk: Anderson, who has background in a 3-4 defense and coveted the chance to play for Belichick, appears to be one of the team's safest signings.
Cam Newton, QB
According to sources, the one-year deal is worth up to $13.6 million, with about $6 million tied to incentives.
What it means: The Patriots evaluated other free-agent options, weren't enamored with their choices, and determined that trying to build on their experience with Newton from 2020 was the best approach. The modest contract also provides flexibility should an unexpected QB opportunity present itself as more dominoes fall across the NFL, so the Patriots aren't necessarily done adding at the position this offseason.
What's the risk: They discover that even with better pass-catching options around him, Newton can't elevate a passing offense that was hard to watch at times in 2020. Other quarterback options, such as Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota (if released), possibly could have helped.
Carl Davis, DT
Davis, signed off the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad by the Patriots last season, has re-signed. It's a one-year deal worth $1.127 million.
What it means: Davis played three games for the Patriots last season, but he showed potential before a concussion landed him on IR. He has the type of size (6-foot-5, 320 pounds) that the team was lacking at times at the heart of the line of scrimmage. He is powerful and could be a solid part of a three-man rotation at a low cost.
What's the risk: This isn't a big money deal, so the primary risk is that Davis can return from the concussion issue that ended his 2020 season early.
Justin Bethel, CB
The veteran has agreed to a three-year, $6 million deal, according to a source.
What it means: Bethel led the Patriots with 14 special-teams tackles (13 solo) last season, playing a key role in helping earn a No. 1 overall ranking in Rick Gosselin's annual special-teams rankings that coach Bill Belichick sometimes references as an accurate measure of success. Bethel, 30, teams with Matthew Slater to form arguably the NFL's top 1-2 combination covering punts, and the contract keeps him around if Slater, 35, mulls retirement.
What's the risk: Age. Bethel is healthy and played 16 games last season, so there's nothing on the horizon that suggests trouble health-wise. But investing in a 30-year-old for a core special teams role closes one more door for a younger player to emerge.
Cody Davis, S
New England re-signs a core member of its coverage units.
What it means: Davis, 31, was part of a three-headed special-teams monster along with Slater and Bethel. He had nine tackles (four solo, five assisted) and his return highlights how Belichick places a heavy emphasis on special teams.
What's the risk: Davis' special-teams-only role, and spot on the 46-man roster, potentially means one fewer spot for a younger player with more upside who might possibly also contribute on offense or defense.
LaRoy Reynolds, LB
The former Atlanta Falcons linebacker has agreed to an undisclosed deal with the Patriots.
What it means: Reynolds, 30, is a core special teams player who will compete for a niche role. His addition highlights how Belichick places a high priority on special teams, similar to last year's signing of Brandon Copeland.
What's the risk: Committing salary and cap resources to a player who projects to help mainly on special teams, if he makes the team, could limit the possibility of a younger player breaking through.
Raekwon McMillan, LB
The former Las Vegas Raiders linebacker has agreed to a one-year deal with the Patriots.
What it means: McMillan joins a suddenly-stacked LB corps and will compete for a roster spot. A 2017 second-round pick of the Dolphins out of Ohio State, the 6-foot-2, 242-pound McMillan tore his ACL in his first preseason game, which got his pro career off to a tough start. The Dolphins traded him to the Raiders last season, and he played in all 16 games (four starts), finishing with 25 tackles. He hasn't had the type of early-career success that matched his draft-slot expectations. The hope is a fresh start in New England brings out the best in him.
What's the risk: Minimal. After spending big early in free agency, the Patriots are now operating in the low-cost, high-upside realm.