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 All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski already on the roster, tight end at first glance seems like it is already filled. However, with the team’s preference for a dual tight end attack and Gronkowski’s injury history, the Patriots need a second tight end to maximize their offensive output and have insurance if/when Gronkowski is injured.
This past season the Patriots struck gold obtaining Martellus Bennett from the Bears for a late-round draft pick. Bennett caught 55 passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns despite battling injuries throughout the entire season. He blocked well, stepped-up when Gronkowski was injured and was solid when called upon to block.
Of course, Bennett has now elevated himself to the top of the free agent class. As a thirty year-old tight end, this is likely the last chance Bennett has to cash in with a big contract. Bennett filled the role the Patriots needed from him and at the same time won a ring and re-established his value. It was a true win-win relationship.
Behind Gronkowski, the Patriots are back to square one with Bennett likely to leave. Clay Harbor and A.J. Derby both failed to stick in 2016 and Matt Lengel is clearly not ready for primetime. New England may try to find a tight end in the draft but like the free agency class, it is not a stacked position.
The best of the bunch may be restricted free agent Trey Burton of the Eagles. Just 25 years old next year, Burton is buried behind Zach Ertz in Philadelphia but stepped in with 37 catches for 327 yards. Burton is undersized compared to Gronkowski, Bennett and Lengel but as a “move” or “joker” tight end he would be a great fit as the Aaron Hernandez tight end in the New England offense.
The other tight ends on the market are a mixed bag: Jared Cook is 30 and will be overpaid after his strong play in the playoffs for the Packers after being a tease his entire career; Jack Doyle is limited athletically and will likely struggle away from Indianapolis’ tight end friendly offense; Jordan Cameron should retire for his own safety after his concussion struggles; Ryan Griffin of the Texans played well against the Patriots but is interesting prospect but is limited athletically.
The lower levels of free agency are even weaker: Jermaine Gresham formerly of the Bengals and Cardinals is a washout; Dion Sims of the Dolphins is a glorified blocker; Luke Willson of the Seahawks has been riding the pine in Seattle; and no one is tripping over themselves to sign veterans Darren Fells, Anthony Fasano and Vernon Davis.
Like with Hightower and the linebackers in free agency, Bennett is head-and-shoulders above the competition. New England is not likely to overpay to keep Bennett and he will likely find a home with a boatload of guaranteed money. Replacing Bennett is near impossible in this market but a young and improving tight end like Trey Burton could be a solid move for the Patriots.