Patriots are the clear winners of the free agent battle from this summer

Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots
Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots / Kevin Sabitus/GettyImages

After what some felt was an unimpressive draft class earlier this year, the Patriots faced a lot of scrutiny for not going all in on top free agents to bolster their offense in particular. That criticism heightened after they failed in their pursuit of DeAndre Hopkins, who chose to sign with the Tennessee Titans instead of New England.

It was a blow to Bill Belichick, as he chose not to address the wide receiver position in the draft until the sixth round and only brought in JuJu Smith-Schuster in free agency. But then came the battle of the remaining top available running backs: Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott.

Although the Patriots backfield was in good hands with Rhamondre Stevenson leading the way, there wasn't much reliable depth at the position to back up the RB1 throughout the season. Damien Harris left in free agency, and James Robinson didn't fare well in his short stint, leaving just second-year backs Kevin Harris and Pierre Strong Jr.

Neither player had been given many opportunities on the field during their rookie season, but neither stood out during training camp this summer. It put Belichick in a difficult position to try and find solid depth behind Stevenson, which is why the Patriots were reportedly interested in Cook and Elliott.

They first met with Elliott in July, a visit that was said to have gone very well and ended with the running back being taken to dinner by Mac Jones and Stevenson. However, Cook never came in for a visit, and he had been rumored to land with the Jets for quite some time due to Aaron Rodgers' arrival.

Both running backs waited as long as they could to sign with a team, missing most of training camp and the start of preseason practices. And then, on the same day, news dropped that Elliott was signing with the Patriots and Cook was signing with the Jets, news that somehow made the media and fans criticize New England for the move.

Despite ensuring their team had the best running back duo in the division, if not in the league, the Patriots were criticized for the contract they gave Elliott for just one year. The biggest argument was about the money involved, with the Bills taking a victory lap for their cheap running back room in comparison.

But after what we witnessed in week one from the AFC East, the Patriots look like the real free agency winners this year.

Even though Elliott didn't play a significant role in the game against the Eagles, especially since he lost a fumble in the first quarter, he was still a contributor in the run and passing game. With starting linemen out and against a more than formidable defensive line, the running back was able to showcase exactly why he will be an asset this season, disproving the myth that he had no more gas in the tank.

Comparing Elliott's performance to those the Patriots missed out on, like Cook, proves they didn't lose in the free agent battle. Cook played well in his first game with the Jets, recording 13 more total yards than Elliott. But he took a backseat to second-year back Breece Hall, who totaled ten carries for 127 yards.

That may be the story for the entire 2023 season, something that won't be true of Elliott in New England. Based on how the first game was called, he and Stevenson will split reps from the backfield, and we will likely see Stevenson more in the passing game, too.

If that's the case, then paying Elliott up to $3 million this season seems like more of a bargain, right? It looks like another situation where the Patriots outsmarted the rest.