The Definitive Blueprint For A Perfect Patriots Offseason
While people continue to try and sort through the Malcolm Butler nonsense (whatever it was, it’s Bill’s fault for not putting him in the game) it is time to turn an eye towards the 2018 offseason. Super Bowl LII certainly felt like it could have been the end of the Patriots dominance as we know it, and without a strong plan this spring, it very well could be. I decided to throw my GM hat on and plot out what I think is the best course of action for the Patriots in the coming months, from the big picture issue to the bottom of the roster minutiae we all love so much.
Let’s start with the moves that should have been made already. After the team gave us a good scare trying to hire Greg Schiano as DC, the Patriots are without a defensive play-caller. Lucky for them, they shouldn’t need to go far to find someone to fill the role. The team dodged a bullet not losing Flores to the Arizona Cardinals, and should offer him the defensive coordinator job before another team (Matt Patricia and Detroit perhaps) tries to lure him to the same position. Flores is a brilliant football mind who was widely regarded as one of the top positional coaches in the NFL last season. His work ethic and attitude are a perfect fit for Bill Belichick’s system; they would be kicking themselves if they ever let him walk out of that building for another organization.
Next it’s time to clean up the salary cap situation, something the Patriots traditionally do better than any other NFL team. By trimming three players off the roster, New England can immediately save themselves almost $13 million, which can get you multiple quality players in free-agency. First, they can cut ties with or trade Mike Gillislee, who is under contract for $2.1 million next season, but with none of it guaranteed. Removing Alan Branch from the roster, if he doesn’t retire first, will save them $3.5 million, which they can use much more effectively, especially given the depth at that position. The third player is a tricky one. Marty Bennett is due to make $6.2 million a year for the next two years, but none of it is guaranteed. Bennett will be toxic to the other 31 teams on the open market with his injury situation and history of nasty endings with the organizations that pay him, so the Patriots should use that as leverage and work out a more affordable deal, weighted heavily on playing time incentives. Unlike the other two players I mentioned, Bennett can still contribute to the Patriots, but six million dollars is just too pricey for that risk.
What do the Patriots do with that extra money? Let’s start in house. Brandin Cooks will be on the final year of his rookie deal in 2018, making just over $8 million. While some Pats fans soured on Cooks quickly last season, the fact is he is a game-breaking player who is two or three years away from his prime. The Patriots should make it a priority to work out a long term extension with the Oregon State product before he has a true breakout season and commands TY Hilton type money. $10-$12 million over 4 or 5 years are the numbers I see them working towards.
But enough about that, let’s focus on the guys who are going to be free agents in just a few weeks. I’ll start with Malcolm Butler, because that one is quick. As long as Belichick is here, he’s gone. End of discussion. The most interesting case is Dion Lewis. Lewis made just $1.3 million last year, but after playing a full season and looking like the most dynamic player in the Patriots offense, he is due for a major raise. As much as I’d love to keep watching him in blue and silver, those days are probably done. Lewis is going to command $6-$8 million a year on the open market, and it would be irresponsible for the Patriots to match that when they have other established running backs, and a pass heavy offense. Belichick has never been one to pay running backs in the past, letting the likes of Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, BenJarvis Green-Ellis, and even Corey Dillon walk without a second contract. He has always shown the ability to go and get the next guy without missing a beat, and I trust him to do so again. James White is still in Foxboro, and Rex Burkhead should be back for less than half the money Lewis will get. Throw in a low round draft-pick (we’ll get to that later) and the Patriots will be all set at running back without breaking the bank for the most over-rated position in the NFL.
There are a few other important names the Patriots will have to look at, but none involve major money. Retirement rumors have floated about Nate Solder in recent weeks; he’ll either be home next fall or back on a 1-year deal worth around the $10 million he got paid last season. Danny Amendola is a lock to return for between $1 and $2 million a year. Veterans James Harrison and Ricky Jean Francois will test the open market, but unless someone is willing to pay them top dollar, the Patriots will have a good shot to bring them back at a discount by promising them a shot at a title. Marquis Flowers went from special teams body to one of the Patriots best players at the end of the season, and he may have played well enough to earn himself starting linebacker elsewhere. Remember, the Giants gave Jonathan Casillas 10 million dollars based on what he did in half a season in New England. Special teamers Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner are all due new contracts this year as well, they’ll all be back on affordable deals.
You don’t win Super Bowls keeping things in-house though, and the Patriots will need to be players in free agency in order to make it back to the biggest stage. I’m not saying they need to land a top-5 guy, and frankly I don’t want them to. After paying Gilmore last year, this should be a relatively tame free agency for the Patriots, at least from a fiscal point of view. That being said, there are guys out there who will make a difference without having to pay them top dollar.
Assuming the departure of Malcolm Butler, the Patriots most desperate need will be at cornerback. Now they could drop a bucket of cash in Trumaine Johnson’s lap, but that seems like as stretch. The guy I have my eye on is former Bears corner Kyle Fuller. Fuller had an up-and-down career in Chicago, but ended on a high note with a solid 2017. The Virginia Tech product is just 26, so in theory he would improve throughout the duration of the contract. Adding a capable outside corner like Fuller opposite Stephon Gilmore would seriously help cushion the blow of the Patriots biggest offseason loss in Butler.
Staying on the defensive side of the ball, it is important the Patriots add an edge rusher this spring as well. They have talent, but there are too many question marks when it comes to health between Dont’a Hightower, Deatchrich Wise, and Derrick Rivers, who will be returning from a torn ACL. Expect New England to add a versatile, situational player, similar to Chris Long two years ago. Trent Murphy would fit the bill perfectly. At 6’6, 260 he can play end in a two or three point stance, or as a standup linebacker off the edge. He’s a bit of a risk given he is coming off of an ACL surgery of his own, but the upside is enormous for a guy the Pats should be able to get for pennies on the dollar. Hey, he can’t be worse than Kony Ealy, right?
While most of the offense remains intact and looks promising for 2018, the Patriots could really help out Tom Brady by adding an effective second tight end. From Scott Chandler to Dwayne Allen, New England has tried and failed time and time again to find a capable counterpart to Rob Gronkowsi since, well…you know. The only player who’s had success in that role is Bennett, but he is not a guy you can rely on to play 16-plus games a year. If the Patriots want to try again by going out and finding insurance for Bennett and by extension Gronkwoski, the guy they should look to a tight end from Seattle. No, not Jimmy Graham*, but his backup Luke Willson. Willson is a well-rounded player who can contribute as both a receiver and blocker, and has proven to be a threat in the red zone, an area where the Patriots struggled more than any other last season. Given the limited reps he had behind Graham, I’d expect him to come cheap too. *Note: If Rob Gronkowski does retire, scrap all of this and go get Jimmy Graham. This offense can’t function without that kind of threat at tight end.
That brings us to the NFL Draft. Thanks to their busy offseason last year, the Patriots currently have just 5 picks, although 4 of those come in the top 100. This should be a talented draft class, and after a disappointing haul last year, Bill Belichick needs to capitalize. Granted, there will be trades made, so this order is hardly final, so I’ll lay out a more general draft plan I’d like to see. Those first three picks (31, 43, & 63) should be, in whatever order, an inside linebacker, cornerback and quarterback.
As good of a player as Dont’a Hightower is, we saw this season how vulnerable the defense is when he misses time. It is worth investing highly in another defensive signal caller. In fact, the last time the Patriots used this approach it rewarded them well, when they drafted Hightower to spell with the talented-but-often-injured Jerrod Mayo.
Drafting a cornerback is always risky, and perhaps Bill Belichick’s least successful position when it comes to talent evaluation early in the draft. That being said, they need a long-term solution opposite Stephon Gilmore, and while Kyle Fuller is a nice piece in the short term, I’m not sure he’s that guy. This draft is especially deep at outside corner, and while I’m not saying they need to move up and draft Minkah Fitzpatrick, it would be encouraging to see them invest a high pick at the position this year.
The quarterback, well that is pretty obvious. The Patriots traded ‘the next guy up’ this fall, and now need both a short term backup and a long-term replacement for TB12. Given how loaded this class is with quarterback talent, and how rarely it comes around, it would be a mistake for them to pass on taking a signal caller this year. The guy I like is Mason Rudolph out of Oklahoma State, but if Baker Mayfield falls to 31, they should pull the trigger without hesitation.
Whatever picks are left ideally would be spent building up defensive depth, especially at linebacker, with maybe an offensive tackle on day 3. The fact is the Patriots don’t have many roster spots to hand out, so every pick needs to be made with a specific role in mind, and I’m not sure any of those spots exist on offense. You may be wondering “well what about the Dion Lewis role? This idiot said they should let him walk, and he hasn’t said how they will replace him”. All true, but for the same reasons I don’t want them breaking the bank on Lewis, I wouldn’t want them spending a high pick on a back either. The Patriots don’t need a Todd Gurley or Leonard Fournette to compete. In fact, having that kind of running back would be counter-productive to what the Patriots want to do offensively. I trust James White can fill in for most of what Dion Lewis did last season, and I trust Belichick to find someone on day 3, if not a UDFA, who can contribute as the pass catching back (although if they do want to go high on a running back, I am 1000% in on Bo Scarborough).
So there you have it, the blueprint to the Patriots capturing ring number 6 in 2018. There are some other smaller moves that would be nice too (ex. Trying to bring back LeGarrette Blount), and some more out of the box moves that aren’t completely worth getting into right now (ex. Trading Dwayne Allen, trading Malcom Brown) but I’m already at 2,000 words and frankly, I’m surprised you’re still reading. Clearly if you’ve made it to this point you feel strongly one way or another about what I’ve laid out here, so share your thoughts with me on Twitter @RealAlexBarth. Better do it fast though, the combine is right around the corner, and before we know it the draft will be upon us. Isn’t it great how its never NOT football season?
–Alex Barth (@RealAlexBarth)