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:
With Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long hitting free agency, the Patriots are left with just Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich from their four-man rotation at defensive end. Geneo Grissom remains but he played just ten snaps on defense all of 2016. If Sheard and Long do not return, there is a serious lack-of-depth at a key position.
Long actually led the team in snaps played at defensive end with 678 snaps played, although his playing time dwindled in the second half of the season. Sheard was benched at one point of the season and while he played his way back in the rotation at defensive end, it likely spelled the end of his tenure in New England.
Flowers should be the number one defensive end going into 2017 after leading the team with seven sacks and adding 2.5 more in the postseason. Chandler Jones–who Flowers has replaced–had just two career sacks in nine postseason games with the Patriots. Ninkovich is aging but still is a solid role player.
Fortunately, there is a high number of impact defensive ends on the free agency market. Chandler Jones will not be returning to New England but San Diego’s Melvin Ingram, Green Bay’s duo of Julius Peppers and Nick Perry, Denver’s DeMarcus Ware, New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul and former Ravens, Browns, and Saints defensive end Paul Kruger headline a deep group.
As usual, there will likely be a feeding frenzy for pass rushers when free agency kicks-off. Once the dust clears look for New England to snatch a pair cheap. Veterans like Kruger, Ware, Peppers, Dwight Freeney, Mario Williams, Trent Cole, Charles Johnson and Mario Addison could all be a veteran who gets passed over and could land in New England for a low price.
A restricted free agent who New England could target is Tampa Bay’s Jacquies Smith. Smith had strong seasons in 2014 and 2015 but a knee injury in Week 1 ended his 2016 season. Just 27 years old, he could be a surprise addition to the pass rush corps. Another restricted free agent who could be targeted is Ethan Westbrooks of the Rams. Westbrooks played 39 snaps against New England in Week 13 giving them some valuable tape on him. Westbrooks is a grinder with talent and could be a target to add to the pass rush.
New England will likely dip into free agency this spring to add to the pass rush. Expect a veteran (maybe even Long returning) and a younger, undervalued pass rusher joining the team come free agency. With a glut of pass rushers available, the Patriots could be in position to add to their pass rush in 2017 on their terms.