New England

Patriots Start Training Camp After Monumental Off-Season Moves

Trophies aren’t handed out for off-season moves, but on the heels of their Super Bowl LI victory a strong case could be made that the Patriots were the biggest winners of the NFL off-season.

Brandin Cooks, Dwayne Allen, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead have joined the Pats to bolster an offense which finished fourth in yards and third in points scored last season, while Stephon Gilmore, Kony Ealy and David Harris have come aboard a defense which gave up the eighth fewest yards in the league last season and allowed the fewest points.

Additionally, Bill Belichick retained several key players on each side of the ball for New England, either by re-signing them or restructuring their contracts.

New England’s buildup over the last several months is reminiscent to a similar splurge prior to the 2007 season, which resulted in a perfect regular season for the Patriots before being stunned by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

When the Pats went all-in for 2007 by bringing in Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte’ Stallworth to catch passes from Tom Brady, Belichick was addressing a clear need on the offensive side of the ball. The need wasn’t nearly as pressing this time around, but with Brady set to turn 40 on Aug. 3, Belichick decided a few more weapons couldn’t exactly hurt, either.

In 2007, Adalius Thomas was the lone big ticket acquisition on the defensive side of the ball for New England. Again, the defense wasn’t exactly begging for an overhaul, but Belichick went out and shored it up anyways.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the newcomers, as well as those brought back, who will be counted on to play significant roles for the Patriots on their quest for a sixth Super Bowl title.

Stephon Gilmore

Position: Cornerback

Age: 26

Former team: Buffalo Bills

Acquired via: Free agency (five years, $65 million; $40 million guaranteed) 

Gilmore will earn just shy of $23 million in cash this season for New England, making him the highest paid player on the team (his salary cap hit of $8,568,750 is the fourth-highest on the Patriots). His contract is far and away the richest given to a free agent from outside the organization on the defensive side of the ball in team history, dwarfing the Adalius Thomas contract (five years, $35 million) from 2007. Gilmore had a career-high five interceptions last season, so he should fit in seamlessly with a New England secondary that was ranked third by Pro Football Focus in 2016.

Brandin Cooks

Position: Wide Receiver

Age: 23

Former team: New Orleans Saints

Acquired via: Trade

Cooks reeled in 78 passes from Drew Brees last season while averaging 15.0 yards per catch. That number was 14th-best in the NFL, but only two players ahead of him on the list had more total receptions than Cooks (Julio Jones, 83 and T.Y. Hilton, 91). No Patriot has caught at least 78 passes and averaged more than 15 yards per catch since Randy Moss in 2009. You can see why New England owner Robert Kraft compared Cooks to Moss earlier this offseason, saying of Cooks that since he’s owned the team, “the only player that could make an impact like that at wide receiver was Randy Moss.”

Kony Ealy

Position: Defensive end

Age: 25

Former team: Carolina Panthers

Acquired via: Trade

Ealy likely would have won Super Bowl 50 MVP honors had Carolina done anything on the offensive side of the ball. Ealy sacked Peyton Manning three times – tying a single-game Super Bowl record – recovered a fumble and added an interception return for 19 yards for good measure. He started just six games last season for the Panthers, recording five sacks for a team which dealt with a massive Super Bowl-loser hangover. The change of scenery can only benefit Ealy, who was originally drafted by Carolina in the second round in 2014.

Dwayne Allen

Position: Tight end

Age: 27

Former team: Indianapolis Colts

Acquired via: Trade

It’s been a bit of a revolving door at No. 2 tight end for New England since 2013, a role which has at times been more of a No. 1 tight end due to Rob Gronkowski’s string of injuries. Allen had a strong rookie year for the Colts in 2012, catching 45 passes for 521 yards, numbers he hasn’t eclipsed since. Allen is under contract through 2019, but this is the final year of the deal with guaranteed money, so the Patriots could move on from Allen next off-season without any dead money on the salary cap if he under-performs.

Mike Gillislee

Position: Running back

Age: 26

Former team: Buffalo Bills

Acquired via: Free agency (two years, $6.4 million; $1.5 million guaranteed)

For the second time in as many off-seasons, the Patriots plucked a restricted free agent from Buffalo on the offensive side of the ball. Chris Hogan had those honors last year. Gillislee averaged 5.7 yards per carry last season, the best mark in the NFL – albeit on just 101 carries. But in New England’s offense, Gillislee likely won’t need to carry the ball much more than that. Overexposure shouldn’t be an issue for the former fifth round pick of the Miami Dolphins.

Rex Burkhead

Position: Running back

Age: 27

Former team: Cincinnati Bengals

Acquired via: Free agency (one year, $3.15 million; $1.1 million guaranteed)

Burkhead had career highs in carries (74), rushing yards (344), receptions (17) and receiving yards (145) last season for the Bengals. Those aren’t exactly eye-popping numbers, but as such, Burkhead comes with very little wear and tear for a running back entering his late 20's. Clearly, Bill Belichick believes he can get more out of Burkhead’s skill set, even if he may not be as big a name as the last running back to join the Patriots via the Bengals: Corey Dillon.

David Harris

Position: Linebacker

Age: 33

Former team: New York Jets

Acquired via: Free agency (two years, $5 million; $1.25 million guaranteed)

The longtime Jet is currently the second-oldest player on New England’s roster after Tom Brady. Harris, who spent the first 10 years of his career with Gang Green, had 62 solo tackles last season – his lowest total since 2008, when he had 52. Still, he’ll be a valuable piece for the Patriots in their base 4-3 defense, where he’s currently projected to start at middle linebacker.

Free Agents Retained by New England

Malcolm Butler

Position: Cornerback

Age: 27

Re-signed for: one year, $3.91 million

The financial terms of the Gilmore signing were stunning enough, but it also signaled that the Patriots may had reached an impasse on their negotiations with Butler, who was a restricted free agent. Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed and Butler is back on a one-year deal significantly under his market value. Such is life as a restricted free agent, as Butler visited the New Orleans Saints in hopes of landing an offer sheet before the organization decided it didn’t want to part with a first round pick. Knowing the kind of dough he could reel in as an unrestricted free agent next offseason, expect a hyper-focused Butler to raise his game to even greater heights this season.

Dont’a Hightower

Position: Linebacker

Age: 27

Re-signed for: four years, $35.5 million ($19 million guaranteed)

Priority No. 1 this offseason was re-signing Hightower all along, which the Patriots accomplished after somewhat surprisingly letting the 2012 first round pick test free agency. Hightower’s fingerprints are all over each of the last two Super Bowl victories for New England, including his tackle of Marshawn Lynch on the 1-yard line to set up Malcolm Butler’s interception in Super Bowl XLIX and his strip sack of Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter last February. The Patriots could never afford to lose Hightower, not after trading Chandler Jones last spring and Jamie Collins in the middle of the 2016 season.

Alan Branch

Position: Defensive tackle

Age: 32

Re-signed for: two years, $8.45 million ($3 million guaranteed)

Branch has had a career renaissance since originally signing with the team in the middle of the 2014 season. 2016 was in many ways a career year for the 2007 second round pick of the Arizona Cardinals, as he had a personal-best 49 combined tackles (26 solo, 23 assisted). Of course, his biggest moment came during New England’s comeback in the Super Bowl, when he fell on the ball initially pried loose by Dont’a Hightower with 8:31 to go in the fourth quarter and the Patriots still down by 16 to the Falcons.

Brandon Bolden

Position: Running back/special teams

Age: 27

Re-signed for: one year, $855,000 ($50,000 guaranteed)

Despite his value as a core special teamer, Bolden is far from a lock to make the roster with a dead money cap hit of just $50,000. He carried the ball just once last season after averaging 50.5 carries per season his first four years in the league. With Gillislee and Burkhead added to the stable in the backfield, Bolden’s carries certainly don’t seem likely to increase again. He’s a key player to watch as training camp gets underway.

Danny Amendola

Position: Wide receiver

Age: 31

Restructured contract for: one year, $1.7 million ($1.35 million guaranteed)

When he originally signed in New England prior to the 2013 season, Amendola was seen as the de facto replacement for Wes Welker. The emergence of Julian Edelman reduced Amendola’s role significantly after his first season, but when the lights shine brightest, Amendola seems to play his best. He’s caught a touchdown in each of the last two Super Bowls for the Patriots and had a career playoff-high eight catches vs. the Falcons – a figure which doesn’t include his catch on the game-tying two-point conversion with 57 seconds left in regulation to help New England force overtime and complete the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history.

Rob Gronkowski

Position: Tight end

Age: 28

Restructured contract for: upwards of $10.75 million this season; under contract for 2018 at an $11 million cap hit and 2019 at $12 million cap hit.

Gronkowski’s restructure is largely performance-based. He’s set to earn a minimum of $5.25 million this season, but can earn the $10.75 million figure – and become the highest paid tight end in the NFL in the process – by playing 90 percent of New England’s snaps on offense, recording 80 catches, amassing 1,200 yards receiving, or earning All-Pro recognition. Gronkowski can reach other financial figures based on lesser milestones, all of which should be easily attainable for the 2010 second round pick to reach if he stays healthy – which is a big if, seeing as how Gronkowski missed eight regular season games for the Pats last season, including the final five regular season games plus the playoffs. New England came back from a 28-3 deficit vs. Atlanta sans Gronk, which just goes to show you how much this offense will be capable of with No. 87 back in the lineup.

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