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An early look at New England’s offseason

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Trades, signings look promising for Patriots fans

We’re not used to this.

We’re not used to the New England Patriots making big moves in the early part of the offseason. This is a team that build quietly, through reclamation projects and the draft. This is not a team that makes a big splash in March. We’re not used to Bill Belichick and company rampaging into “win-now” mode.

But that seems to be where we are.

While there’s no telling what might happen going forward, it’s safe to say that fans of the Patriots haven’t seen this kind of offseason action in some time – especially when you consider that they were hoisting the Lombardi Trophy just a few weeks ago.

Let’s take a quick look at some key additions (and one MAJOR re-signing).

Brandin Cooks

New England traded their first-round pick (32) and their third-rounder (103) to get Cooks, as well as the fourth-round pick (118) from the Saints.

Cooks will be entering his fourth NFL season. Last year saw him catch 78 passes for nearly 1,200 yards and eight TDs, averaging 15 yards per catch along the way.

It has been a long time – maybe since the days of Randy Moss – since Tom Brady has had a receiving weapon like Cooks. He can stretch the field vertically in a way that the possession-oriented receiving corps simply hasn’t been able to manage in recent years. He’s a legitimate deep threat, one that could potentially open up the passing attack in completely different ways.

No guarantees, obviously – not everyone is cut out for the New England way of doing things – but this is a promising addition at a reasonable price.

Stephon Gilmore

This might be the biggest surprise of the bunch. It’s relatively rare to see New England spend big dollars in free agency, so the signing of Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal – with roughly $40 million guaranteed - was certainly unexpected.

It’s tough to argue that Gilmore doesn’t have the goods. He’s coming from Buffalo, where Belichick and company have had plenty of opportunity to see him at work. He picked off five passes last year with 12 passes defensed and was generally considered one of the best cover corners out there.

And while the spending itself might be a bit of a surprise, the fact that money was spent on a defensive back shouldn’t be. Getting Gilmore helps keep the pass defense from falling off even if some of the more prominent figures in the defensive backfield wind up going elsewhere.

Kony Ealy

This deal has the potential to be the best of the bunch, as the Patriots acquired a high-upside defensive lineman for almost nothing. New England sent their second-round pick (64) to the Panthers for Ealy and Carolina’s third-round pick (72).

Essentially, the Pats picked up a talented defensive lineman who has shown flashes of excellence for nothing more than moving back eight spots in the draft. If they get anything – literally ANYTHING – out of Ealy this season, this is a great trade.

Ealy’s 2016 stat line isn’t spectacular, but he did manage five sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception while playing in every game. If he matches that production – or comes close – for the Patriots, he’ll play a significant role. A great, low-risk move for the Pats.

Dwayne Allen

Somebody had to come in and fill that non-Gronk tight end role with Martellus Bennett’s departure. That somebody appears to be Allen, acquired from the Colts in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick (137). New England also got a sixth-round pick (200) from Indianapolis.

Allen might not be quite the force that Bennett was, but he’s plenty good in his own right. He had a solid 2016, catching 35 balls in 14 games and scoring six TDs. He does a fair job in terms of blocking, both in terms of the rush and pass protection.

It’s not a game-changing pickup, but don’t be surprised if Dwayne Allen plays a significant role in the New England offense in the upcoming season.

Dont’a Hightower

Re-signing Hightower is huge. He’s one of a relatively small number of legitimate three-down linebackers out there, guys who can play the run or drop into coverage or get after the quarterback. And the deal – four years, $43.5 million, $19 million guaranteed – feels like a win for everybody.

It says a lot that Belichick was willing to open up the checkbook to bring Hightower back. We’ve seen in the past that he’s more than happy to wave goodbye to strong defensive players (Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones, Richard Seymour, Lawyer Milloy, Mike Vrabel, Ty Law – the list is endless) rather than pony up the dough.

Instead, Hightower got one of the richest linebacker contracts in the NFL. He’ll be holding down the middle of the field in New England for some time to come. It’s a move that seems likely to pay dividends – particularly when you take schematic continuity into account.

Yes, he has injury issues, but the truth is that when he’s on the field, there are few better.

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There have been some other, less splashy moves as well (including the signing of former UMaine Black Bear Trevor Bates); to be honest, it’s possible that the best acquisition of the bunch will turn out to be one of these under the radar deals.

And lest we forget, it isn’t all good news. The Patriots have seen some significant contributors move on this offseason. The departures of guys like Bennett, defensive back Logan Ryan and defensive lineman Chris Long make for some pretty big losses. And as of press time, the team might still bid farewell to major players like Malcolm Butler and Danny Amendola – not to mention the potential trade of highly-coveted quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

All in all, though, it seems like the Patriots are going full speed ahead toward yet another championship.

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