The stage was set for New England Coach Bill Belichick to splurge in free agency, and he did. It may have surprised some, but one agent says the Patriots “saw this opportunity coming from a mile away.” Elise Amendola/Associated Press

For a few days, it was the worst kept secret in the NFL.

The Patriots weren’t going to spend in free agency. They were going to splurge.

Front-office members told representatives of impending free agents they would flex their financial strength in a depressed market and to prepare accordingly. Reports had already trickled out of Foxborough that the activity would be uncharacteristic. But there’s uncharacteristic, and then there’s unprecedented.

What the Pats did was unprecedented, doling out a league-record $159.6 million in guarantees, per Over the Cap.

The Boston Herald spoke with several agents who negotiated with the Patriots, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. Most completed deals with the team, though not all. And every agent returned to the same adjectives when describing the Pats’ approach: urgent and aggressive.

“Have you seen the movie ‘The Big Short’? That’s how they treated this free agency,” said Henry Organ, who represents new Pats wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. “They saw this opportunity coming from a mile away.”

The Pats entered free agency armed with more cap space than essentially the rest of the league, which was busy confronting the reality of a reduced cap due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing the cap would soon rebound with the arrival of the league’s next TV deal worth billions, the Patriots used their 2021 space to elbow competitors off a temporarily uncrowded negotiating table – including among their division rivals.

In Bourne’s case, it was widely believed he could reunite with new Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, who coached him in San Francisco. The Jets were one of two teams to boast more cap room than the Patriots, making them a threat. Instead of a reunion, the Pats offered Bourne a runway into their starting lineup, and signed him; a projected scheme and culture fit whose Next Gen Stats last year resembled those of a Pro Bowler instead of a third option.

“Some people are afraid of the Patriots, but when you have guys who like to work, it doesn’t make a difference,” said Organ, who recently co-founded Disruptive Sports Agency, the first minority-owned and funded sports agency in the U.S. “And Kendrick’s a worker.”

According to multiple agents, the Pats’ opening offers cleared the NFLPA’s suggested contract floor for their clients by a healthy margin. To them, this indicated New England didn’t want to lose its top targets to factors it could control: time and money. Again, aggressive.

“Even if they were quote-unquote overpaying for some of these guys, in a normal year these are probably value deals. So in reality, if there was a year to do this, it was probably this year,” one agent said. “You’ve just got to hope you’ve got the right guys.”

No agent benefited more from this aggression than Drew Rosenhaus, who represents the first four players the Patriots signed in free agency. He later explained his 30-year history with Bill Belichick usually expedites negotiations – even if this offseason’s deliberations developed a little faster.

“They had the money out there, and they were hungry. I just got the sense that Coach Belichick was hungry,” Rosenhaus told NBC Sports’ Peter King. “I got the feeling that last year didn’t sit very well with them.”

While Rosenhaus dealt directly with Belichick, other agents kicked off their negotiations with personnel head Dave Ziegler and front-office consultant Eliot Wolf. Former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, back after being fired in Detroit, also finalized a few contracts on the team’s behalf. Though, every deal ended with Belichick’s stamp of approval.

After the Pats reloaded with outsiders – tight end Jonnu Smith, linebacker Matthew Judon and defensive back Jalen Mills among others – they circled back to their in-house free agents. Defensive lineman Deatrich Wise reached an agreement to return roughly four and half hours into free agency, with the Patriots edging out multiple suitors for one of their best pass-rushers. The Broncos put up the best fight.

The details on Wise’s contract – a four-year pact worth $22 million – quickly revealed he was a top priority for the front office. By comparison, the Patriots let defensive tackle Adam Butler, who saw similar playing time last season, walk for a 2-year, $7 million contract in Miami.

“(Wise) definitely wanted to come back, but at the same time it was his first time in free agency, so he wanted to work it,” said his agent, Chris Turnage of United Athlete Sports Agency.

As the contracts piled up, spending patterns developed: the Pats weren’t including statistical incentives for most players, a reflection of their team-first philosophy. High-end free agents were receiving $1 million in per-game roster bonuses. Most new contracts featured heavy 2022 cap hits, when the NFL’s new TV money could arrive and/or the team might plan to build around a rookie quarterback.

Barely 24 hours had passed in free agency, and the Patriots had already agreed to spend at least $137.5 million. The NFL was stunned – except those who had been tipped off ahead of time. They were merely surprised.

“Pretty much everything they told us the week leading up and during free agency was true. Which is surprising, right? It doesn’t normally happen that way,” one agent said. “Most teams want to (expletive) you.”

Debates over whether Belichick’s spending would prove fruitful or foolish ensued. Naturally, the agents were happy, even those who acknowledged the checkered past of those who once spent as the Patriots just had.

“I commend them,” the same agent said. “They know who they are. They’re a little arrogant about it, but they don’t care what you think. I like that.”

The league’s attention has since turned to what Belichick will do next at quarterback, where Cam Newton is poised to return as the starter. Certain agents believe the Patriots are positioned to draft a rookie this April, perhaps even trade up for one.

Though wisely none of them expect, after getting alerted to a franchise-altering week in free agency, a heads-up on Belichick’s plans this time around.


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