The New England Patriots are entering free agency as the Super Bowl champions following their dramatic come-from-behind 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons. According to OvertheCap.com ,the Patriots currently have over $60,000,000 in salary cap space heading into free agency.
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While that much cap space is usually a blessing to an NFL team, New England has so much space in large part due to having so many expiring contracts. New England has three exclusive rights free agents, three restricted free agents and a whopping 13 unrestricted free agents.
The Patriots will supplement the current roster through the NFL Draft later in the offseason but the team is always looking for contributors in free agency. Last season, the Patriots brought in defensive end Chris Long and linebacker Shea McClellin to supplement the defense while wide receiver Chris Hogan was added to upgrade the offense.
Also last season, a trio of veteran free agents washed out as running back Donald Brown, wide receiver Nate Washington and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton all failed to make the team after being signed and having high expectations.
Add in the surprising trade of defensive end Chandler Jones, the surprising release of former first-round draft pick defensive tackle Dominique Easley, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and 2014 playoff contributor wide receiver Brandon LaFell and tight end Scott Chandler and the team appeared to have “lost” in free agency according to the “experts”.
CBS Sports gave the Patriots a “C” in free agency last year adding “The odd thing is the offer sheet to Hogan. Why not a deep threat?”. Football Insiders handed out a “C-” to the Patriots taking a potshot at Bill Belichick and adding “The truth of the matter is that the Patriots aren’t any better today than they were last week, in fact they’re worse.”
Figuring out what Bill Belichick and the Patriots will do this offseason is always difficult to discern. The first step is to figure out where the team needs to improve and see who may be available who fits the Patriots’ mold. There are three positions that standout as priority in free agency: linebacker, defensive end and tight end. Let’s examine them each in more detail:
The Patriots seemed set at linebacker the past few seasons with Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower anchoring the position. The depth at the position took a hit with the trading of Collins to Cleveland in a surprising mid-season move. Now, with Hightower likely to test free agency, the Patriots could be without Hightower as well moving forward.
Hightower led the way playing 708 snaps at linebacker compared to Collins (438 snaps before being traded) and Shea McClellin (360 snaps), Elandon Roberts (271 snaps), Kyle Van Noy (249 snaps) and Jonathan Freeny (97 snaps) (all snap counts from ESPN). Losing Collins (and possibly Hightower) leaves a gaping hole at linebacker.
The Patriots will miss the big-play ability and excellent blitzing and run defense brought by Hightower if he signs with another team in free agency. New England will try to keep Hightower but after making the game-changing play of the Super Bowl (two years after making the most underrated big play of Super Bowl 49 wrestling Marshawn Lynch to the ground at the one-yard line one play before Malcolm Butler’s interception).
The Patriots currently have Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Jonathan Freeny capable of playing the two inside linebacker roles and definitely would need to add to the mix. Two names to keep in mind as possible replacements for Hightower are former Bills inside linebacker Zach Brown (who Bill Belichick got two close-up looks at this season) and Gerald Hodges.
Hodges had just two tackles as the Patriots clearly game-planned for the 49ers’ inside linebacker (all stats from Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted). In two games against New England, Brown was superb. In Week 4 he had 17 tackles, two forced fumbles and a sack. In Week 8, Brown again had a big game with 11 tackles and another sack.
Beyond Brown and Hodges, there is little excitement at the position. Zach Orr would have been a great fit but he retired at age 25. New England had interest in Rolando McClain in the past but after being suspended all of 2016, he is a question mark to even play again. Kiko Alonso is undersized and injured too often. Former Raiders and Redskins linebacker Perry Riley is past his prime.
Intriguing names are Arizona’s Kevin Minter who has been a disappointment as a second-round draft pick but had seven tackles in Week 1 versus the Patriots and could be another Kyle Van Noy in New England. Sean Spence in Tennessee is another under-the-radar player who could be a fit if he is unable to get traction in free agency and comes to New England cheap.
Without Hightower, there is a huge hole in the defense. Re-signing Hightower should be the priority, but if he leaves the Patriots they will not find many suitable replacements on the free agent market. Belichick may have to piece the position with a number of different players.