Bill Belichick the coach has earned kudos early this season for game-planning around the losses of Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo. Bill Belichick the personnel boss deserves a huge assist for supplying new players flexible enough to execute his plans.
Tight end Martellus Bennett, defensive end Chris Long and receiver Chris Hogan were acquired by three different methods and represent three archetypes of a Belichick acquisition. Bennett, who was with the Bears from 2013 to '15, was another team's malcontent acquired in a low-cost trade, à la Randy Moss. Perhaps Bennett won't remain with the team past his 2016 contract push, although he fits the Patriots' offense like a corner piece. With Rob Gronkowski injured early this season, Bennett has done whatever he's asked to do, and he's done it well. In Week 1, he was a devastating blocker. In Week 2, he led the team in receiving yards. He even ran the ball in Week 3. Bennett has played 36 more snaps than any other skill-position player on the team, which says how Belichick views him.
Hogan is second on the Patriots among skill-position snaps after arriving as a restricted free agent pickup. His archetype: the forgotten player who wasn't properly valued by his previous team. Lazily compared by others to former Patriots receiver Wes Welker because of his RFA pedigree and skin pigment, Hogan gives the Patriots much-needed size and ability to play outside the hash marks. He's third on the team in receiving yards (122) and targets (13), behind only Julian Edelman (23 targets, 180 yards) and Bennett (14 targets, 138 yards).
Long represents the most common type of Patriots pickup: a grizzled veteran, often injury-prone and discounted, looking for a ring. Belichick loves these guys. After two lost seasons in St. Louis, Long appears to be having the time of his life lining up all over the field and getting after the quarterback in New England. He is playing more than expected because of the suspension of Rob Ninkovich and has quickly established himself as one of the Patriots' key defensive players, all for $2.375 million on one year. It wouldn't be a surprise if Long winds up cashing in elsewhere, leaving Belichick to start the process all over again by looking for a new set of archetypes.
The Patriots are hardly the only team whose pickups are making a big impact early this season. Below is our list of additions that are paying early dividends.
Eric Weddle, safety, Baltimore Ravens
The resurgence of the Ravens' defense in 2016 starts with a man the Chargerscouldn't wait to get rid of. After an ugly final season in San Diego, Weddle looks reborn. The endless coverage busts and poor communication we saw in Baltimore's secondary last season have been replaced by cohesion, with the 10th-year pro at the center.
Forget for a moment all the praise from teammates about Weddle's abilities as the "quarterback of the secondary" and just watch his play. He has set a tone with big hits, pass breakups and disruptive plays in the running game. Weddle has assisted in converted cornerback Lardarius Webb's transition to safety, with the duo helping to prevent the Jaguars from recording a single play over 20 yards in Sunday's win. It's almost like late-career Ed Reed has returned.
Marvin Jones, receiver, Detroit Lions
Losing Jones caught the Bengals flat-footed this offseason. He was their biggest priority in free agency, but he wanted the chance to prove he was a true No. 1 receiver, something that could never happen alongside A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert in Cincinnati. It only took three weeks with the Lions for Jones to prove his point.
The early league leader in receiving yards (408), Jones' uncommon game -- despite his common name -- has been apparent for a while. He has terrific hands, body control and the ability to make contested catches like his old teammate Green. Just as important, Jones has a quarterback in Detroit's Matthew Stafford who is looking to stay aggressive, throwing deep for 60 minutes each Sunday. With Golden Tate not quite himself this season and the Lions needing to score big to keep up with a banged-up defense, Jones has a legitimate chance to finish as a top-five receiver in yardage.
The targets of the Giants' defensive spending spree
Jerry Reese had one move left, so he played it. Confronted with a mandate to win now and empty holes all over his poorly constructed defensive roster, the longtime Giants general manager spent the Mara family's money in a manner that must have made former coach Tom Coughlin even more annoyed than when people would be "late" to meetings.
The returns are mostly encouraging. Former Jet Damon "Snacks" Harrison and holdover Johnathan Hankins forced the Giants' first twoopponents to completely give up running the ball in close games. Big-ticket cornerback Janoris Jenkins' competitive instincts have shown up. The highest-priced pickup, Olivier Vernon, has made plays in the running game, although the Giants will want him to improve when it comes to rushing the passer.
This is an article about the best additions, and that's what defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul feels like, despite his only ever having played for the Giants. He was a free agent in March and clearly wasn't himself in 2015 (one sack in eight games) as he adjusted to life without an index finger and parts of two other fingers. Back on a one-year "prove-it" deal, JPP has suited up for 206 of 209 defensive snaps this season. That's a nearly unheard of percentage in this era of specialization. While Pierre-Paul only has one sack and one forced fumble, he has been consistently putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Add up Reese's haul and mix in a handsome rookie class, and the GM has to be pleased. This Giants defense has an excellent chance at respectability after setting records for ineptitude. That's money well spent.
Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles
Everything Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman touched this offseason has turned into September gold. That starts with the hiring of coach Doug Pederson, who quickly brought in Schwartz, the former Lions head coach and Titans and Bills coordinator, to run his defense. The talent of Philadelphia's front seven was obvious last season even as it wore down. Defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham fit better in a four-man front, and Schwartz has worked magic with defenders brought in specifically for his system: safety Rodney McLeod, linebacker Nigel Bradham and low-cost cornerbacks Ron Brooks and Leodis McKelvin.
It doesn't hurt that the Eagles' defense has only been on the field for 158 plays, the fewest in football. That's a far cry from the Chip Kelly era (in each of Kelly's three seasons in Philly, the Eagles recorded the most or second-most defensive plays). Speaking of which ...
Sam Bradford, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings
It's easy to call the Eagles' trade of Bradford to the Vikings in early September a win-win now that both teams are 3-0, although we said as much at the time, too. Not only are the Eagles and Vikings both more watchable, Bradford is showing off traits he rarely displayed during his time in St. Louis. The former No. 1 overall pick is overcoming a terrible offensive line and showing a willingness to make tough throws into tight windows.
Bradford gives this Vikings team the ability to dream the impossible in this post-Teddy Bridgewater, post-Adrian Peterson world. He even gets to face rookie Carson Wentz and the rest of his former Eagles teammates in Philadelphia in Week 7. Who knows? They could face off one more time in a season where everything is coming up Roseman.
The LeGarrette Blount section for under-the-radar re-signings
The Patriots tried to quit LeGarrette Blount. The veteran running back sat on the free agent market for a month and only returned to New England for $1 million on a one-year deal (with another $1 million in incentives) after Belichick sniffed around other options. Fast-forward five months and Blount is leading the NFL in rushing.
The Packers waited four years for former first-round pick Nick Perry to break out, and it didn't happen until the final playoffs of his rookie contract, when he recorded 3.5 sacks in two games. Green Bay handed him $5 million on a one-year contract in March and has watched him develop into the best pass rusher on an improved defense early this season, with Perry netting 3.5 more sacks.
Maybe it's Charles Johnson's name, but one of the better pass rushers of his generation was roundly ignored in free agency despite a fantastic performance for Carolina in Super Bowl 50. Even the Panthers were cautious about bringing the 30-year-old back, only giving him $3 million for one season. He's been excellent as always to start this season, especially stuffing the run.
Every time I look up, Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward is making a play. The former Packer is second in the league with three interceptions and eight passes defensed, showing an ability to cover receivers inside and out. Until Jason Verrett's meltdown against the Coltsin Week 3, Hayward, Verrett and Brandon Flowers were playing better than any cornerback trio outside of Denver. Hayward is the type of free-agent signing that most often pays off: He's a young player who has shown he can play at a high level but is coming at a relative discount ($15.3 million over three years).
When guards like the Raiders' Kelechi Osemele sign for $58.5 million, us football analysts try to sound smart about what it all means, as if we can really break down why he's worth $19 million more than Brandon Brooks (who signed with Philadelphia). Still, you don't need to be Brian Baldinger or Shaun O'Hara to notice that Oakland's four-pronged running game is humming this year, especially when it goes to the left side -- Osemele's side.
Jets ball-carrier Matt Forte is a victim of the great running back devaluation of the 21st century. The NFL's leader in yards from scrimmage since 2008 didn't get the deal he wanted in Chicago and wound up with the Jets for roughly the same amount per year that backup quarterback Chad Henne stole from Jacksonville. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Forte is eighth in yards from scrimmage through three weeks, looking very much at home in offensive coordinator Chan Gailey's system. The Tulane product will go down as perhaps the best pass-catching back of his generation. He's another reminder that there is value in those murky free agent waters, if you know where to look.