The Patriots will enter the beginning of the 2018 league season with several important decisions to make in regards to free agency. Among the veterans looking for a new deal are Nate Solder, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, Nate Ebner and Matthew Slater. There are other veterans such as Brandon Bolden, James Harrison, LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming who have played significant roles at times and have been limited in others.
The Patriots have only $13.14 million dollars under the salary cap right now and will have to be creative in creating some room as well as decide who they want to retain. They’ll need to sign a few of their own free agents as well as grab some others who they covet from other teams. All the while knowing they have draft choices to sign.
We’ve been doing profiles on each of the free agents and will have more in the upcoming days and give you our take on whether they return or move on. One of the biggest surprises for the end of the season was the addition they made during Week 17 of the regular season when OLB James Harrison fell into their lap after he was surprisingly and probably not wisely let go by the Steelers.
The Steelers barely used Harrison in 2017, he played a total of 29 snaps total for the season. He wasn’t happy about it and let the coaches know about it. They released him and the 39-year old cleared waivers. No team contacted him except the Patriots. He signed and immediately put his nose to the grindstone trying to learn the Pats defense in a crash course.
The conspiracy theorists who see a nefarious end to everything New England does chalked up the signing as merely a Bill Belichick ploy to steal the Pittsburgh playbook for when they were supposed to meet in the AFC Championship Game. Wrong again. Harrison fulfilled a role and played meaningful snaps more each week.
Meanwhile, the team that didn’t need him, spent more time talking about New England and forgetting they had a game against a Jacksonville team that had blown them out in Pittsburgh early in the season. Harrison could have been used as the Jaguars scored 45 points and knocked them out.
Harrison played a key role in the Patriots comeback win over the Jaguars a week later and played an even bigger role in the Super Bowl. Now with free agency approaching, the Patriots and Harrison both have to do what is in their best respective interests.
Why Harrison Will Return: The Patriots lucked into a player who helped them down the stretch by one of their bigger rivals in the conference. Despite being the NFL’s oldest defensive player at 39-years old, he fulfilled a much-needed role. He did a very good job of setting the edge, providing a sorely needed ability at rushing the passer and was decent dropping into coverage, an issue that plagued the Patriots’ linebackers all year.
Harrison earned praise from Bill Belichick who lauded his ability to learn on the fly and was constantly putting more on his plate as the weeks dragged on. His teammates raved about his professionalism and his knowledge, he was quick to help his younger teammates, something his experience lent itself to extremely well.
He could easily return to a type of role that Danny Amendola was used in the offense. The coaches could limit his pitch count to save him to have fresh legs for the defense down the stretch and into the playoffs. His performance down the stretch and into the playoffs showed (much like another 40-year old) that age is a number. He still had plenty of gas left in the tank and can be a valuable, if limited contributor on the field and be a steadying veteran presence on the field especially at crunch time during games.
Why Harrison Won’t Return: There is a dearth of speed and athleticism for the Patriots at linebacker, and with so much uncertainty at the position heading into 2018, the Patriots could possibly not afford to add another player who’ll they have to limit his pitch count during the regular season.
Dont’a Hightower is a very talented but injury prone player who can’t seem to get thru a season intact. Shea McClellin missed the entire season with concussion issues and may be told it isn’t in his best interests to play professional football anymore. Both were missed during the season. Harvey Langi was an intriguing prospect but was badly injured in a car wreck when he and his wife were rear-ended at a traffic light. The Patriots aren’t sure what they have in Langi yet, although he has potential.
At this point, Elandon Roberts is who he is. He can look tremendous one play and lost on the next. He’s a backup. Marquis Flowers played well this season and could be in line for an increased payload next year. Kyle Van Noy was the glue that held it all together. Harrison is going to be 40, and no one keeps themselves in better physical condition or works harder than he does. If there is a doubt check out his Instagram page. But playing one of the most physical positions at 40 is really tough. Can he hold up physically over 16 games and the playoffs?
Bottom Line: The Patriots appealed to Harrison and vice versa. The team liked what he brought to the table and he feels he can still contribute. He told Mike Reiss of ESPN, that he wants to play until he is 40 or 41. I don’t believe money will be an issue with Harrison this season. He’s made some good money and now he wants a chance to compete for another championship while getting another season or two in the sun.
There may not be a big market for a 40-year old linebacker despite what transpired in New England at the end of the season, so the team won’t have to outbid many other would-be suitors.
Had the injury situations with Hightower, McClellan, and Langi be different, I could easily see the team opt to bring Harrison back for a short-term contract and let him play out his career in a place where he can still contribute 15-25 snaps a game. But the current situation that exists in New England right now may preclude that. There are far too many questions lingering at the linebacker position. So, it is the opinion here that the team will go for an injection of youth and athleticism at the position. And sadly I think the chances are better than 50/50 that Harrison won’t be brought back.