New England Patriots News 3-12, AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
March 12, 2017 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, here are Sunday’s Patriots news 3-12, & AFC East Notes.

Big Splash: The Patriots uncharacteristically were major players in the first two days of free agency. Signing CB Stephon Gilmore for a big money contract, trading for TE Dwayne Allen, DE Kony Ealy, re-signing FAs Duron Harmon and Alan Branch and then trading for Saints WR Brandon Cooks. They paid a hefty price (32nd pick in the 1st round and the third-round pick #103) but in return got a very speedy WR in Cooks and the Saints 4th rounder (#118).

The Patriots have plenty of quickness at WR but not a ton of speed.  Cooks will fix that issue. He has blinding speed and had touchdowns in 2016 of 98 and 87 yards. The Pats struggled with Atlanta’s speed early in the Super Bowl. The addition of Cooks should alleviate that and give Tom Brady a target to air the ball out when the defense sells out trying to crowd the box.

By bringing back Alan Branch and Duron Harmon, the Patriots made moves that were very affordable and allowed them to keep two of their better defensive playmakers. Branch signed a two-year deal worth around $12 million and was very good at stuffing the run and filling the gaps. Harmon inked a four-year deal worth $20 million and provided excellent production as the deep safety when the Patriots go to their big nickel package. Low key moves but very valuable ones in the big picture.

Patriots Sign Guy, Former Ravens DL on Saturday:
The Patriots added more depth to their DL this weekend by signing former Ravens DL Lawrence Guy to a four-year contract worth $20 million dollars.

Guy a veteran of six NFL seasons is only 26 years old, is 6’4, 305-pounds and is considered a solid interior run stuffer. He joins Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, Woodrow Hamilton and Darius Kilgo on the Patriots’ interior defensive line.

The team could still use another defensive end, with Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, Kony Ealy and Geneo Grissom on the roster at the present time.

Cooks, Allen Give Offense Shades of 2007 Feel:
The Patriots were going to lose TE Martellus Bennett in free agency so they went in on trading for a player that they’ve coveted for a few years in Dwayne Allen.  In adding Cooks, another Bill Belichick favorite, the offense has shades of the 2007 season when the team loaded up with Wes Welker, Randy Moss, and Donte Stallworth.

The 2017 version of the Patriots offense on paper looks ridiculously, scary good. Besides Rob Gronkowski and Allen at TE, the wide receiver position is stacked. Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, and Danny Amendola (for now), return. Add in James White and Dion Lewis out of the backfield and this becomes a pick your poison offensive unit.

Cooks brings an element of pure unadulterated speed to the table. He can split out wide or in the slot and is fast enough to blow by defenders if he gets a clean release. Depending on matchups, the Patriots can throw out a two-TE package, or a three or four wide receiver look.

While the price for Cooks was steep, he’s been a dynamic playmaker with QB Drew Brees. He had touchdowns of 98 and 87 yards a year ago, and his yards per reception have gone from 10 to 13.5 to 15.0 in 2016. He is still just 23 years old and should provide the offense with another viable weapon. Opposing defensive coordinators won’t get much sleep this season.

Ealy Trade a Low-Risk Win for the Patriots:
With the news of the Carolina Panthers signing Julius Peppers to a free agent contract on Friday, that made the talented but inconsistent DE Kony Ealy expendable. Ealy was a 2nd round pick (60th overall) in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Ealy had a monster Super Bowl against the Broncos with three sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble. But the Panthers felt he plateaued in 2016 and got only five sacks. In stepped Bill Belichick. Belichick offered to swap the Patriots 2nd round pick #64 for Ealy and Carolina’s 3rd round selection, #72. So by sliding just eight spots, the Patriots get a player with a tremendous amount of upside. Plus, his salary hardly puts a dent in the salary cap at $803,660 for 2017.

The Patriots ask their DEs to do different things than most other teams. They must set the edge in the running game, and occasionally drop into the passing lanes for opposing QBs hot routes on blitzes. The Patriots must feel that Ealy is a fit for what they do. Regardless of how this move turns out, it was a very low risk, high reward move by Belichick.  Ealy seems to be a very good fit for the Patriots defense and should augment their pass rush by joining the rotation.

Team Loses Bennett, Sheard, Mingo, and Logan Ryan in Free Agency:
Not all of the news was good however for the Patriots. They lost Martellus Bennett, Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo and Logan Ryan during free agency. While not surprising with any of them, their losses will still resonate inside Foxboro.

Bennett signed with the Green Bay Packers, with a three-year $21 million-dollar deal. Sheard and Mingo were signed by the Colts, and Logan Ryan signed a contract with the Tennessee Titans that will pay him between $9 -10 million dollars per year.

Plenty of Flexibility For the Patriots to Still Be Players in FA and the Draft:
Despite all the moves so early in free agency, the Patriots still have nearly $40 million dollars in cap space to work with, and even with the contract of Dont’a Hightower still lingering out there, they have lots of room to still sign some very good free agents on the market.

Having already added Kony Ealy at defensive end, the team could still use some added depth. Recently released DE Connor Barwin from the Eagles could garner a look as well as DeMarcus Ware. Ware may be looking at a one-year deal similar to Chris Long’s a year ago.

Even if they bring Hightower back, they could use some extra help at the position. They currently have Jonathan Freeny (IR in 2016), Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin, and Kyle Van Noy. Roberts is a very good run stuffer but limited in coverage and McClellin and Van Noy are sub-backers on passing downs. A couple of interesting names out there include Datone Jones from Green Bay and Kevin Minter from Arizona. If Hightower leaves, Zach Brown from the Bills could be a fall-back option.

Butler Situation Will Remain a Sticky One:
Malcolm Butler has earned his payday; No one, not even the Patriots are arguing that. However, what remains a situation is how much he’s going to get paid. Butler, an UDFA who worked at Popeye’s before he got a chance with New England, doesn’t have the big college or high draft status pedigree that others (Gilmore for instance) have.

It sucks for him but it is what it is. The fact that he is a restricted free agent this season is another huge sticking point. The Patriots want to pay him as a restricted free agent and not an unrestricted one…which is a big, big difference.

He wants his money now, and no one can fault him for that and doesn’t want to wait until he’s 28 to get his big payday. The Patriots offered him an extension last year which was turned down and supposedly Butler was peeved at the amount offered. His agent, Derek Simpson has taken to social media to plead his case and reiterate that they’re not asking for the moon. But the Patriots haven’t budged. So now what?

If the situation is untenable and the two sides can’t work it out, then a trade becomes a very real possibility, but Butler would still have to sign his tender in order to get the trade approved. There were talks of the Patriots and Saints in the Cooks deal having Butler as part of the package. Those talks could resume. Or they could trade him elsewhere.

Butler could sign his tender, pocket $4 million for 2017 and go and become an unrestricted free agent in 2018. Of course, Butler and the Patriots could work out a long-term deal that would make everyone happy.

Simpson and Butler have until April 21st to find a suitor to sign him to a free agent deal which isn’t likely since that team would have to cede their first-round pick to New England. That would put him in limbo unless he signs his tender.

The situation sucks….no ifs, and’s or buts about it. Butler has earned his payday but that is the system they play in. If the Patriots do work out a trade for him, they could opt for another free agent corner on the market, (Alteraun Verner, Nickell Robey-Coleman) or wait for the draft.

Currently, they have Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones and Justin Coleman on the roster.

East Bound and Down…AFC East Notes:

Bills Active in Free Agency, Beef Up Depth:
The Buffalo Bills haven’t been getting the headline of their divisional counterparts in New England but they’ve been very active thus far in free agency. After working out a revised contract with QB Tyrod Taylor, the Bills have signed K Steven Hauschka, safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse, and fullbacks Mike Tolbert and Patrick DiMarco.

But the big news on Saturday was that LB Lorenzo Alexander was coming back. Alexander who had a breakout season in 2016 with 12.5 sacks and he was rewarded with a two-year contract.

The Bills, however have lost several free agents including safeties Corey Graham and Aaron Williams, cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore, and Nickell Robey-Coleman, kicker Dan Carpenter, wide receiver Marcus Easley, and long-snapper Garrison Sanborn.

Miami Also Active Early in Free Agency:
The Miami Dolphins had a pretty productive start to free agency with a flurry of signings. The biggest was perhaps LB Lawrence Timmons who came over from the Pittsburgh Steelers, an area that the Dolphins needed to upgrade.

But they also acquired two starting-caliber defensive ends Andre Branch, and William Hayes, tight end Julius Thomas, safety Nate Allen, guard Ted Larsen, and re-signed wide receiver Kenny Stills and added a backup tight end, Anthony Fasano.

Jets Sign OL Kelvin Beachum:
The New York Jets signed free agent OL Kelvin Beachum on Friday. Terms were for three years and a reported $24 million dollars. Beachum battled injuries in his 2016 season with Jacksonville but is a solid OL and is expected to play left tackle for the Jets.

The Jaguars declined a long-term option in Beachum’s contract in February. He was slated to receive a $5 million roster bonus on Feb. 15 as part of a five-year, $45 million deal he signed in March 2016, which featured a cap hit that steadily rose to $11 million by 2020, per Spotrac.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.



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