Maybe the departure we’ve fixated on for the past 18 months or so -- and for a couple years before it even happened -- isn’t the one that truly propelled the Patriots into the 3.0 version of their dynasty.
Maybe it was the one that happened in January when Nick Caserio left to become GM of the Houston Texans.
With the Patriots on a tear propelled by the offseason haul of players acquired through trades, free agency and the draft, the reboot appears to be waaaayyyyy ahead of schedule.
Caserio was by no means an obstacle to the Patriots’ success. He was a major part of it all the way through the 10 Super Bowl appearances and six Lombardis. But the landscape he and Belichick operated in throughout the last decade was increasingly their domain and theirs alone. As Belichick explained in 2019 (and at other times as well), Caserio did literally everything. College scouting, pro personnel, free agency, contract negotiation, coaching.
The franchise faced unique circumstances because of its success. Semi-annual raids of their coaching and personnel departments. The care-and-feeding of a roster that needed to simultaneously maximize the autumn of Tom Brady’s time in New England while still building for the future. Finding players who could meet the well-documented demands of a program that’s really unlike anything else in the NFL. Caserio intimately understood all of it and Belichick leaned on him almost exclusively.
When Caserio left, the void couldn’t be filled by one person. Into the breach went newly elevated Director of Player Personnel Dave Ziegler, scouting consultant Eliot Wolf and Director of College Scouting Matt Groh. Sources told me the exchange of ideas and opinions was more free-flowing throughout the offseason. Albert Breer of MMQB reported the same and Patriots owner Robert Kraft, in discussing the Patriots recent draft misses back in March said, “I really hope, and I believe, I’ve seen a different approach this year.”
The Patriots draft haul includes what appears to be the long-term answer at quarterback, Mac Jones, a possibly dominant defensive lineman in Christian Barmore and a soft-handed, big-bodied, ball of violence in running back Rhamondre Stevenson.
Flush with money for free agency, the Patriots spent their faces off and are already seeing huge contributions from tight end Hunter Henry and wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. Matt Judon’s been their best defensive player. Cornerback Jalen Mills has been more than adequate.
Meanwhile, the re-additions of Kyle Van Noy (free agent), Trent Brown (trade) and Ted Karras fly under the radar because they were here before. But they count, too. And while they haven’t yet wowed anyone 10 games in, wide receiver Nelson Agholor and tight end Jonnu Smith are filling roles and will probably be heard from.
The Patriots also retained free agents Deatrich Wise and Lawrence Guy, who are both underrated contributors in a front-seven which has keyed the Patriots' defensive rise.
Tally that up and you have 14 players either added or retained who are making impacts. I’ll throw in one more. Cam Newton. If the Patriots hadn’t signed him before free agency began, it would have been real hard to convince Henry, Smith and Agholor to join a team with no established quarterback to point to. Newton, as it turned out, was just warming the seat for Jones but he played a role in the offseason haul.
We’ve all spent plenty of time pointing out the Patriots draft misses from the last decade. I have plenty of bylines on top of stories about how weak the planning at tight end and quarterback seemed to be. But coming off a 7-9 season, when the Patriots absolutely, positively had to get it right, Belichick and his personnel staff appear to have done exactly that.
Is that because of the more collaborative approach memorably illustrated by Belichick summoning Ziegler, Groh and Wolf together in the draft room to ensure they were OK with drafting Jones at 15?
Or is that just a coincidence? The collaborative approach spurred by Caserio’s departure mattering less than the fact the Patriots had more cap space than just about anybody and Jones fell all the way to 15?
There is, of course, no way of knowing. But it’s becoming more clear every week that the Patriots’ stay in the Motor Lodge of Mediocrity is going to be a brief one because of all the work they did in the offseason.