Top Areas That the Patriots Must Address in Free Agency

Steve Balestrieri
March 7, 2018 at 8:30 am ET

Everyone was planted in front of a television over the weekend listening to Mike Mayock do his thing talking about the hundreds of NFL prospects over the weekend. And frankly, there is no one better. He puts an incredible amount of time preparing for the Combine and Draft and he and Rich Eisen are fantastic at what they do.

But before we get all gaga about players getting drafted and who going to get picked when and where free agency will have the most to say about what their true needs are to be addressed in the draft. Because free agency, or at least the vast majority of it will be done before the draft rolls around.

Then we’ll have a good idea of how Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio, and the staff will proceed. So, in a perfect world, the Patriots would get the majority of their problems worked out in free agency and then add pieces and depth during the draft and with undrafted free agents.

So when the league year opens at 4 pm on March 14. The Top 51 Rule takes effect and they’ll have to be under the salary cap and here are what we believe are the top few areas of need that they’ll have to address.

Resign Nate Solder and Add Another Tackle: This is numero uno, the big enchilada, the Patriots have to bring Solder back in the fold for at least 2018 but preferably for two years. Right now they have three of their top four tackles who are free agents. Solder, Cameron Fleming, and LaAdrian Waddle. Marcus Cannon remains on the roster but is coming off of IR in 2017.

Solder has been a very good left tackle and could continue to be on for the next couple of years. He’s had some injury and illness concerns but frankly, he’s the best option out there in free agency. The pickings are slim in free agency and it isn’t a great year for tackles in the draft. Solder is their best option out there and he won’t be cheap.

The depth the Patriots had at tackle served them well last year. Solder, Cannon, Fleming, and Waddle all played significant snaps. Waddle, in my opinion, is the better swing tackle than Fleming but he suffered a couple of injuries and Fleming’s performance in the Super Bowl may get him a nice payday. So if they can do it, the team should bring back Solder and one of the two. I was asked if Solder walked could they make do with Fleming, Waddle, and Cannon. I like their swing tackles but not as 16-game starters

They also have Cole Croston and Andrew Jelks who they kept around last year. The big question now is centered around Tony Garcia. They drafted him to be the possible successor to Solder but he suffered an illness that cost him 40 pounds and the entire season. Will he be ready to go, fully back to strength this summer? No one knows yet.

Extend Brady and Gronkowski to Keep Their Cap Hits Lower: The Patriots have a tad over $14 million in salary cap space as it now stands. They can generate some room by cutting a few players or re-doing their contracts. Alan Branch, Dwayne Allen, and Martellus Bennett are three players who will either be cut outright or have their deals done to limit their cap hit. But reworking the deals for Tom Brady especially and Rob Gronkowski if he decides to keep playing, will happen sooner rather than later.

They could get their salary cap up into the $30+ million dollar range with those moves, of which Solder will take up close to have of it (estimate? $12-13 million). That would still allow them to chase a medium priced free agent or two and still leave some room to sign their draft picks and leave some capital on the books for the invariable injuries which occur during the season.

And hopefully, in doing so, they can possibly lower the salary cap hits on Brady and Gronkowski for this year a little bit.

Get the Tight End Situation Sorted Out: As it stands right now, Gronkowski is contemplating retirement. Dwayne Allen is on the books for $5 million and Martellus Bennett is owed $6.2 million with a $2 million dollar roster bonus due on March 16. None of these scenarios are what the Patriots need to have right now.

According to Drew Rosenhaus, Gronk’s agent, he hasn’t made a decision one way or another about returning or retiring yet. Hopefully, that decision will come sooner rather than later as they can base their decisions, at least partly on whether or not to move on from Bennett or Allen or bring them back.

Regardless, neither of them will return for what they are owed right now. Both will have to take a big pay cut to remain on the team. I think they’ll cut ties completely with Allen and then make a decision on Bennett. Allen never became a factor in the passing game at all and they’ll look to move on. The Bennett situation will bear closer scrutiny.

The team has Jacob Hollister who showed good hands and the ability to stretch the seams of the defense a little bit but he’ll have to improve in the offense as well as a blocker too. The team also has Will Tye who has caught 95 passes in the NFL. He’ll get a longer look this summer.

Re-Sign Danny Amendola to a 2-Year Deal: This one is kind of a no-brainer. Amendola isn’t going to light the world on fire and catch 100 passes, or anything close. But when it comes to crunch time, he’s absolute money. His moniker of “Playoff Danny” has been well-earned. In the 2017 playoffs, he caught 26 passes for 348 yards in three games which averages out to 8.7 catches a game for 116 yards. That is pretty elite territory.

Amendola has the best hands on the team and always can be counted on the make the most difficult catches when games are on the line. He’s versatile and can also return punts and kickoffs if the need arises. And with Cyrus Jones being placed on IR along with Julian Edelman this past preseason, the need arose.

He won’t break the bank to keep around, but he has the absolute trust of Brady, something that can’t be overstated. The “circle of trust” is something very real with Brady and he was included in the offseason work with Edelman that was included in the “Tom vs Time” docuseries last season. The three went Brady’s body coach Alex Guerrero to Montana before training camp to work on their timing and chemistry.

Replace Dion Lewis in the Patriots Backfield: As more time passes, it seems Lewis is less and less likely to return in 2018. The Patriots set a low bar on what they pay their running backs and it quite possible that a team will pay Lewis more than the Patriots will spend. It is being tossed around that he’ll be garnering in the neighborhood of $6.5 million a year in 2018. If that is the case, color Lewis gone.

The Patriots will want to replace him with a back that can not only run but catch the ball out of the backfield, something that hamstrung Mike Gillislee last season. Gillislee ran well but could never break into the passing game. Opponents quickly learned that Gillislee would either run or pass block. With Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White, they had to play a guessing game, making the offense much more difficult to stop.

Burkhead is also a free agent although one would have to assume that his asking price will be much more affordable than Lewis’ at this point. He has a much better chance at being retained at this point.

We heard thru the grapevine (a reliable grapevine) that with the Broncos expected to release C.J. Anderson soon, that the Patriots may make a move for him. Although it is doubtful, he commands any less than Lewis would. But that’s what we heard so, we’ll assume that it would be the case. A quick look at their numbers from 2017:
Lewis    – 180 carries,  896 yards, 5.0 avg. 6 TDs, 32 catches 214 yards, 3 TDs
Anderson – 245 carries, 1007 yards, 4.1 avg. 3 TDs, 28 catches 224 yards, 1 TD

I think this one could be nominally filled by resigning Burkhead and then drafting a young back who can catch and carry the ball. That is the Patriots usual M.O. The majority of the free agent running back class are filled with names that I don’t believe the team being interested in. But we shall see.

Adding Some Veteran Help on the Edge: The team should get back Dont’a Hightower, Derek Rivers, and Harvey Langi this season from Injured Reserve, That alone should help the play on the edge. Although in the case of last season’s rookies, Rivers, and Langi, the team really doesn’t know what they have in them yet.

What Bill Belichick likes to do is bring in established veterans. Guys who can set the edge, get after the passer a bit and not break the bank. They aren’t going after the high priced, high profile free agents. But a guy who can do these things and isn’t a “name” everyone clamors for. Who would this be?

Connor Barwin is an established veteran who has played well with the Eagles, Texans, and last season with Rams. He could step in, help the defense and still has some juice left in the tank. He’s the kind of player that the team may look at once free agency begins.

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

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