Martellus Bennett loves playing for the Patriots.
If it wasn’t clear before, it certainly is now after Sunday’s performance in which he caught six passes for 67 yards and three scores that the Patriots love having Bennett play for them.
Yes, it was the Browns, but the ease of operation watching Tom Brady work an offense with both Bennett and Rob Gronkowski brought to mind two words. Not fair.
The Patriots are now in possession of the best tight end in the league and -- quite possibly -- the second best tight end in the league. The Legend of Gronk is established and Sunday’s rumbling jaunts through the Browns showed he’s not about to do a slow fade.
But what we’re seeing from Bennett exceeds expectations. He’s a devastating blocker and -- just as important -- hasn’t even intimated that he doesn’t enjoy it. In the open field, he’s elusive and imaginative. He is a finisher. There aren’t any receptions which stand out as ones on which he could have gotten more yards if he worked harder.
Bennett is on pace for 67 catches, 1,004 yards and 13 touchdowns.
All this means that the soon-to-be free agent is ratcheting up his value. The per-year average of the top eight tight end deals ranges from $10 million (Jimmy Graham) down to $7.5 million (Greg Olsen and Jordan Cameron).
Bennett’s in the final year of a four-year, $20 million deal. He’ll be 30 next season. We knew coming into the year that Bennett might wind up on the list of valued free agents-to-be with Donta Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jabaal Sheard, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon and restricted free agent Malcolm Butler.
But now he’s not a “maybe” on that list of players the Patriots would miss if he were to leave, Bennett is rising up the list.
Fast-forwarding to the offseason and looming personnel business is antithetical to the Patriots on-field approach of looking no further than the upcoming Sunday.
But we ain’t them.
So -- as we discuss freely whether this is a top-five defense and whether or not this is the best complement of offensive talent around Brady (and Dion Lewis isn’t even back in the mix yet) -- we also have to point out how fleeting this will probably all be.
There will be no head coaching candidate more sought for interviews than offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia might get some more sniffs as well.
The routinely spectacular plays Collins makes have already likely landed him on the “must-have” lists of rival GMs. Butler is a prime candidate to get handed a massive offer sheet as a restricted free agent by some team that knows the Patriots’ can’t sign ‘em all and takes advantage of that by giving Butler an offer New England can’t match.
Harmon and Ryan are the kind of second-tier free agents that smart teams target in the second wave of free agency. And then there’s the matter of Hightower and Sheard, two players I think the team has to prioritize (along with Butler), but who both cause uneasiness when trying to project durability.
Now mix in Bennett. And, for the hell of it, forecast the 2017 quarterback landscape where the Patriots -- if they don’t deal Jimmy Garoppolo this offseason -- would need to franchise him after next year in order to get trade compensation for him. Will the team leave some cap room post-2017 so they can handle that? Can they with all these players they need to re-sign?
Bennett went into the 2015 season with the Bears unhappy about his contract after a 90-catch, 916-yard season. He had a down year as the Bears descended into dysfunction and was dealt. He hasn’t made a peep about his contract since being here, but it’s dubious to think that he’d be any less interested in making more than, say, Dwayne Allen, Jordan Cameron or Jimmy Graham if he continues to rip it up with the Patriots.
Which then leads to the chicken-egg conversation about whether Bennett is flourishing in New England because he’s in New England or whether he’s simply liberated in this offense. It’s probably a little of both.
Would Bennett entertain a hometown discount for a town that’s barely been his home?
All these things swirl. You can point out that the team is just five games into the season. In reality, it’s at the midway point. Camp opened July 28, the final regular-season game is January 1. That’s 2.5 months down, 2.5 to go.
The team’s played nine of their scheduled 20 games including the preseason. It’s later than you think.
Despite that, don’t expect personnel poobah Nick Caserio’s hands to start shaking as he holds his cards.
Two weeks ago, Bill Belichick told me, “I don’t think you can be afraid of free agency. It’s not like if a guy gets to free agency you can’t re-sign him. You’re in a competitive market but, you know, you’re in a competitive market anyway.”
The Patriots are going to be patient. Whether the fleet of valued free agents – of which Bennett is now one – can afford to be as well is doubtful.
Which is why it’s best to enjoying how the 2016 Patriots look right now. They may not look near the same in 2017.