The last piece of the Patriots’ free agency puzzle has fallen into place

Free agency is not over yet, but from the New England Patriots’ perspective it might as well be.

First, there were big splashes. After acquiring offensive tackle Trent Brown through a trade and bringing back starting quarterback Cam Newton in a profitable one-year deal, New England entered free agency week ready to jump.

During the period of legal manipulation and into the league’s new year, the Patriots aggressively bolstered a roster that stumbled to a 7-9 record in 2020 and had holes across the board.

Equipped with one of the largest salary cap spaces in the NFL, the team rebuilt its tight end group, inside defensive line and edge positions. Starting caliber players were also added as a wide receiver and in the secondary, while overall talent levels along the offensive line and as a linebacker also improved.

Then New England brought back some key members of its own free agent class. While guard Joe Thuney and defensive tackle Adam Butler will play in Kansas City and Miami going forward, the Patriots retained centerpieces in all three phases: from center David Andrews and running back James White to defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. , and the special. team members Nick Folk, Justin Bethel and Cody Davis.

The latest member of this group is officially returning soon: As first reported Wednesday afternoon, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy will return to the Patriots with a new four-year contract.

Guy was one of the biggest names on New England’s free agent roster to begin with, but he stayed missing for the longest time. While he visited the Miami Dolphins on Monday, he did not sign a deal with the club. Instead, the Patriots were able to bring their team captain and oldest defensive lineman back into the fold a few days later.

With the 30-year-old staying in place, the last big piece of the Patriots’ free agency puzzle has now fallen into place.

Sure, some major contributors from years past remain on the open market, most notably running back Rex Burkhead, linebacker John Simon and cornerback Jason McCourty, but they all lack the same combination of positional need, high level of play, and importance of leadership. Guy brought all those things to the table and now he will become the last organizational pillar to return.

The Patriots, it seems, have recognized that keeping a strong leadership group intact in light of significant turnover will be key in 2021. With 14 players from outside the organization added via free agency trade in the last two weeks, and with a franchise-altering draft possibly taking place next month, the strong voices in the locker room that can lead the way will be more important than ever.

While some like Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower and Matthew Slater were expected to return in 2021 anyway, others were not: Newton, Andrews, White and Guy could have all left through free agency.

New England made sure they didn’t, partly because of their quality on the field, but also because of the respect they enjoy and the transformative power they possess. If a loosely defined concept like the “Patriot Way” really exists, these are the players who best embody it and are best equipped to hand over the keys to the next generation.

The Patriots will continue to make additional transactions between now and the draft, but from a general perspective, they have now made all of their big moves.

Lawrence Guy was the last missing piece, at least until Wednesday.

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