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Curran: Sorry Patriots fans, you had your free-agent fun last year

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If you’re around my age and grew up in the '70s/early '80s, you remember those families that used to go to Disney World every year.

You? You got Paragon Park, Whalom Park or King’s Castle Land. Canobie Lake maybe if you played your cards right. And you really didn’t care because you didn’t know what you were missing anyway.

Until one year, your parents said, "We’re going to Disney World!"

So you went. And it was everything you imagined it would be. Which meant Paragon Park was never really going to be enough again.

When it comes to free agency, the Patriots have not been a Disney World family for much of Bill Belichick’s reign. They’re thrifty. Sensible. They’ll let the other families in town blow the budget on a week in Orlando, sweating in lines and paying through the nose. The Patriots would be buying a new water heater.  

Then last year the Patriots splurged. We all got to go to free agent Disneyland and STAY INSIDE THE PARK! This year? Back to normal. And there’s a whole lot of, "WHAT ARE THEY EVEN DOOOOOOIIINNGGGGG???" going on.

If you didn’t know this was how it would go, you haven’t been paying attention. The Patriots don’t have the dough to shop like they did last year. They can barely afford to go through the door.

 

Which is why, with a roster that needs cornerbacks, wide receivers, linebackers and maybe another defensive end and offensive tackle, the Patriots have done little but re-sign wily and valuable veterans (Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, Nick Folk).

They lost J.C. Jackson to the Chargers. Everyone knew that would happen. But people are still jarred by a depth chart of Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, Joejuan Williams, Myles Bryant and Shaun Wade.

The receivers who might have helped -- D.J. Chark, Christian Kirk, Braxton Berrios, Isaiah McKenzie, Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson -- are gone to the seventh power. Guys like Juju Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling may be out of the Patriots' spending sweet spot since all the wideouts are getting large deals.

Curran: Which free agents make the most sense for Patriots?

You’d like to say the Patriots are treading water, but when you look at some of the folks they’ve said goodbye to since the end of last season (Josh McDaniels and Kyle Van Noy atop the list), look at what they’ve brought in (linebacker Mack Wilson in a trade for Chase Winovich) and consider this is a team that went 1-4 in its last five games and couldn’t force the Buffalo Bills to punt even once in 120 minutes of late-season football, they aren’t treading water.

Are they sinking? I wouldn’t go that far. Honestly, the offseason is more than the first 36 hours of the legal tampering period. There’s second-wave free agency, a draft and possible trades still to come.

Most important: All the stuff they bought last year? They still get to try and figure out how to use it. Which means Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor -- despite both being underwhelming in 2021 -- will certainly be better in 2022. (That’s presuming the offense and Mac Jones don’t take a step back with OC TBD running the show. But let’s not be catastrophize yet.)

The bottom line is this: A confluence of factors fed the Patriots 2021 spree. They took their financial lumps in 2020 to ready themselves to spend. They went 7-9 while Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl with Tom Brady, adding to the urgency.

That was a one-shot deal, kids. You knew it. I knew it. So don’t be moping around just because you see the other kids walking around town with Mickey Mouse ears on.

Tom E. Curran on the Patriots' 2021 spending spree

The pandemic caused the salary 2021 salary cap to drop, squeezing other teams out of the market. And -- as much as he didn’t love it -- owner Robert Kraft understood that Belichick needed to buy the competent players he failed to draft.

 

It's worth revisiting Kraft’s comments on free agency from late March of last year.

"I think if there was ever a year to do it this would be the year," Kraft said. "Because we moved quickly and instead of having 10 or 12 teams compete against us for free agents, there were only two or three. …

"If you want to have a good, consistent, winning football team, you can’t do it in free agency. You have to do it through the draft. Because that’s when you’re able to get people of great talent, whether it’s Willie McGinest or Tom Brady, you get them at a price where you can build a team and be competitive. Once they get to their first contract, if they’re superstars, you can only balance so many of them. …

"Really the teams who draft well are the ones who will be consistently good," Kraft said. "I don’t feel we’ve done the greatest job the last few years and I really hope -- and I believe I’ve seen a different approach this year."

That was a one-shot deal, kids. You knew it. I knew it. So don’t be moping around just because you see the other kids walking around town with Mickey Mouse ears on.