By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots usually prefer wins that mean they get a shiny new trophy to show off at Patriots Place.
Stats are for losers, games aren’t played on paper and all those other cliches that essentially say all that matters is what happens between the lines on Sundays (or in a few instances, Thursday evenings). But even Bill Belichick would make a nod of approval if Rex Ryan were to declare the Patriots the winners of the 2017 NFL offseason.
With Dont’a Hightower agreeing to a new four-year deal that will keep him in New England, there is little question which team has owned the transaction wire while we await the return of actual football. Retaining Hightower is just the latest move by the Patriots that will ensure the defending Super Bowl champs will be playing football well into next January, and very likely into February as well. And the odds are good that Hightower will make a big play or two should the Patriots find their way to Minneapolis next winter.
FOLLOW: NFL Free Agency Tracker
Re-signing their Pro Bowl linebacker may be their most important move of the offseason, solidifying their run defense and keeping one of their defensive leaders from joining a rival, but it’s not the only big move they’ve made that will give their rivals nightmares leading up to opening night. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was given a boatload of cash to go against some of the league’s most dynamic receivers next season (that is, should the Patriots deal away Malcolm Butler, but more on that shortly). Belichick gave up New England’s first-round pick for receiver Brandin Cooks, adding more talent to Tom Brady’s arsenal while also making their receiving corps younger. And though they’ve been somewhat glossed over amid the flurry of moves, retaining the services of Alan Branch (a giant in the run defense) and safety Duron Harmon were important moves to keep continuity on the defense.
The Patriots have had their share of subtractions from the roster, but all those were expected departures. Both Martellus Bennett and Logan Ryan got their big paydays, and Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long will be chasing quarterbacks elsewhere. But those players weren’t expected to be in the mix come 2017, whether it was because the new contracts they sought were too rich for the Patriots (Bennett and Ryan), or they simply weren’t good fits for the system (Sheard and Long). They’ve all been replaced by Belichick along the way.
Dwayne Allen, three years younger than Bennett, was picked up for a pair of draft picks to slide behind Rob Gronkowski at the tight end depth chart. Defensive end Kony Ealy, a boom or bust player his first three years in the league, was acquired from Carolina to harass opposing quarterbacks. On a smaller scale, Belichick added defensive tackle Lawrence Guy for more depth along the line, and a somewhat hefty contract for running back Rex Burkhead leads us to believe that Belichick has some big plans for him, and not just on special teams.
The one blemish on New England’s offseason so far is the muddy situation surrounding corner Malcolm Butler. If anyone has truly earned a raise, it’s the restricted free agent. But he’s reportedly trying to work out a trade in hopes of someone giving him that big contract, miffed that the Pats gave that money to an outsider in Gilmore. Should Butler be shipped out of town (a move that will help replenish the first-round pick in April’s draft that the Patriots no longer own), it’s not just a blow to their secondary but one that sends a bad message to current players on the roster working their tails off. It’ll be an all-around bummer, because Butler is so liked and pretty darn good. It will make the spotlight brighter on Gilmore, who will be lining up across the field from someone like Eric Rowe rather than an All Pro in Butler.
But even if the Patriots lose a gamer (and fan favorite) like Butler, it’s impossible to say they’ve done anything but loaded up this offseason, with their crosshairs aimed at a sixth Lombardi Trophy next season. The way Belichick has been firing this offseason, you’d think he’s erased that epic Super Bowl LI comeback from his memory.
The scary part is they may not even be done just yet. There will be other dominoes to fall should Butler depart, and the Jimmy Garoppolo situation is one to monitor all the way up until draft night. But so far, the Patriots have dominated this offseason. Even if they don’t celebrate those kinds of things in Foxboro, that should have them brimming with even more confidence for when the real games begin.