In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors has been detailing each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We conclude the series today with the Super Bowl champs.
Pending Free Agents:
- Martellus Bennett, TE
- LeGarrette Blount, RB
- Brandon Bolden, RB
- Alan Branch, DT
- Malcolm Butler, CB
- Justin Coleman, CB
- James Develin, RB
- Cameron Fleming, OT
- Michael Floyd, WR
- Duron Harmon, S
- Dont’a Hightower, LB
- Brandon King, S
- Matt Lengel, TE (ERFA)
- Chris Long, DE
- Barkevious Mingo, LB
- Logan Ryan, CB
- Greg Scruggs, TE
- Jabaal Sheard, DE
- Michael Williams, TE
Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:
- Tom Brady, QB: $14MM
- Nate Solder, LT: $11.17MM
- Devin McCourty, S: $10.94MM
- Danny Amendola, WR: $7.8MM
- Rob Gronkowski, TE: $6.75MM
- Julian Edelman, WR: $5.75MM
- Patrick Chung, S: $5.4MM
- Stephen Gostkowski, K: $4.5MM
- Marcus Cannon, LT: $3.37MM
- Shea McClellin, LB: $3.2MM
1) Help on the Defensive Line: With linebacker Dont’a Hightower and cornerback Malcolm Butler set to hit free agency, most pundits will say that those two positions should be the Patriots’ main priority as they head into the draft and free agency.
However, the team should be absolutely fine at both spots, even in the unlikely event that both of these top free agents depart. Now, there’s nothing to suggest that the potential linebacker or cornerback replacements would immediately replace the production of Hightower and/or Butler. Rather, history tells us that the Patriots will adequately fill those roles with rookies or veterans.
Hightower didn’t have his most productive season when it comes to plain statistics. In 13 games, the former first-rounder finished with 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and one forced fumble. Of course, the 26-year-old proved his worth in the Super Bowl, where he collected a sack and a key forced fumble. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) was particularly fond of his performance this past season, as the website ranked him as the 12th best linebacker in 2016 (as well as the second best at his position in pass rushing).
The organization made it clear that they were committed to Hightower following the trades of impending free agents Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones. Despite the team’s abundance of cap room, it was unlikely that the organization would be able (or willing) to sign the trio to lengthy, lucrative contracts. By moving on from the other talented defenders, the front office made it clear that Hightower was going to be the anchor of their defense for years to come.
That sentiment still seems to be the case, although a recent report indicated that the team wasn’t going to slap Hightower with their franchise tag. The linebacker presumably won’t command the franchise tag’s $14.7MM annual salary in free agency (although it may be close), so this news seems to be more of a financial decision, and there haven’t been any reports suggesting that the Patriots are prepared to move on without Hightower. Rather, I’d expect the team to approach his situation similarly to how they handled Devin McCourty’s free agency. They’ll offer the linebacker a contract and allow him to shop around for better offers from inferior teams. Assuming Hightower gets a better offer, he’ll presumably allow the Patriots to match. Therefore, the ball still seems to be in the organization’s court.
If Hightower does leave the Patriots, the team’s remaining linebackers shouldn’t be relied on to fill his starting role. Following the trade of Collins, coach Bill Belichick relied on a rotation of Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin, Barkevious Mingo, Kyle Van Noy, and Rob Ninkovich (when he wasn’t playing defensive end) to play opposite Hightower. While the Patriots were able to rely on the hot hand through the rest of the season and the playoffs, it’d be tough to rely on two of those guys as starters next season.
Fortunately, in the event that Hightower does leave town, the Patriots shouldn’t be overly worried. While the team has generally struck out on all of their recent late-round linebackers (Xzavier Dickson, anyone?), the team has had plenty of success drafting the position in the first two rounds. Hightower, Collins, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes are among the team’s successful linebackers taken in the first two rounds of the draft. Furthermore, there’s plenty of depth at the position in free agency, and a number of aging veterans could adequately fit the role that the Patriots coaching staff is seeking. After all, the team doesn’t need a game-changer at linebacker. Instead, they just need someone who is capable in pass protection and stopping the run. Of course, all of this is moot if Hightower re-signs with the team.
Butler’s situation is a bit different than Hightower’s. There’s no denying that the cornerback is one of the most indispensable members of the Patriots defense, and his role is arguably more essential to the Patriots’ success than Hightower’s. The former undrafted free agent put his name on the map during the 2015 Super Bowl, and he was solid during his first season as a starter. In 2016, the 26-year-old established himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the game. Butler finished the campaign with 63 tackles, two fumbles recoveries, and four interceptions, and PFF ranked him as the seventh-best cornerback in the NFL.
Logan Ryan may have had his best season in a Patriots uniform (ranking 16th among cornerbacks by PFF), but there’s no way the former third-rounder can be relied on as a number-one cornerback (not to mention that he’s a free agent himself). Additionally, former Eagles cornerback Eric Rowe flashed plenty of potential during his nine games this season, and the squad clearly thinks highly of rookie Cyrus Jones. Still, there’s no reason to think that any of these players could step in and seamlessly replace Butler.
Fortunately for the Patriots, Butler is a restricted free agent, so the team will have the opportunity to match any contract he receives. Belichick has shown that he’s willing to spend big on the position (Darrelle Revis and Aqib Talib come to mind), so it’d be a shock if the team let Butler walk without a clear replacement in place. His return is all but inevitable, and that means cornerback shouldn’t be a position of need.
That brings me back to my original point. While a hypothetical Butler or Hightower departure would certainly open a giant hole on the depth chart, no part of the Patriots defense needs as much work as the defensive line. The team’s pass rush was plenty impressive during the Super Bowl, but the unit struggled for stretches during the season. Despite finishing the season as one of the top defenses in the NFL, the Patriots still ranked 16th in sacks (34) and failed to develop a consistent pass-rush.
Furthermore, while Hightower and Butler more-or-less seem to be shoo-ins to return to New England, many of the team’s impending defensive line free agents do not. Chris Long already made it clear that he won’t be returning next season, and Alan Branch may be looking for a payday following the best season of his career (49 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble). Jabaal Sheard is also set to be a free agent, and I’m not convinced that he’ll return after getting benched during the regular season.
Fortunately, the team does have some young stars on the defensive line in Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown. Flowers was a revelation this past season as he essentially replaced Chandler Jones in the lineup. After sitting out his entire rookie campaign, the former fourth-rounder responded with 45 tackles and seven sacks in 2016. Meanwhile, Brown looked a lot more confident during his second season in the league, compiling 50 tackles and three sacks while ranking as PFF’s 31st-best interior defender. The Patriots can at least take solace in the fact that they have two spots on their defensive line covered.
However, considering the impending free agency of Long, Sheard, and Branch, the Patriots could be lacking depth at multiple positions, and these players all played an integral role in the team having one of the best run defenses in the NFL. The draft seems to have plenty of talented edge defenders, so the team could theoretically use several of their picks to fill that depth. The team could also look to free agency to fill those holes, especially if they’re seeking the play-making type of player they lost when they traded Jones.