Tag Archives: 2017 free agency

An Early Projection for the Patriots Starting Lineup, Better, Stronger, Faster

Steve Balestrieri
May 8, 2017 at 9:08 am ET

The NFL Draft is in the books, free agency has been fruitful, and the Patriots have made a flurry of initial UDFA moves. Barring any late moves or last minute trades, the initial roster of the 2017 Patriots should now be set.

As it stands now on paper, the roster for this season’s team looks better than the one that just won the Super Bowl. But as Bill Belichick has frequently said, you never really know what each season’s team will be like until Thanksgiving. Lots of things can and will change, injuries occur, and some players’ production will either rise or fall inside the system. Tweaks to the roster always occur during the season.

But what we see now should constitute the bulk of this year’s team. Confidence is high as always in New England. And for a team that has won 10 or more games for 14 straight seasons, why should there be any other feeling?

So here is a quick projection for the starting lineup for the 2017 Patriots

Offense:
Quarterback:

Tom Brady: Well duh? No change from last year or the 15 years prior. While the talk remains that eventually, his play is going to fall off a cliff due to his age, at this point, it is a lot of wishful thinking for a lot of non-Patriots supporters. His play, especially in the 2nd half of Super Bowl LI shows he’s still at the top of the heap in regard to NFL QBs.

His backups remain Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. The rumor mill for Jimmy G. had him being traded this offseason but he’s still here, at least for 2017 and should any injury occur, he’ll be ready to step in.


James White is among a crowded Patriots backfield this season.

Running Back:

James White: After a Super Bowl where he could have easily been named the MVP, White has been given a nice raise and contract extension. And with the Patriots being a passing team first, White has proven to be a trusted, capable weapon in the offense.

But the Patriots are a matchup team that uses a rotation of running backs so their roster of backs doesn’t really have a starter per se, it will depend on how they match up against an opponent. Mike Gillislee will have a big role, taking over the big back i.e. LeGarrette Blount role. Something to consider, New England runs the ball on third down much more so than most fans would believe, so Gillislee will have a big role.

Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis, who should be completely healthy now round out the RB options. James Develin remains the fullback. Brandon Bolden, D.J. Foster, and LeShun Daniels are longshots for the roster at this point.

Wide Receiver:

Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Brandin Cooks: The Patriots brought in the speedster Cooks who was very productive in New Orleans this offseason. He’ll move around from outside to the slot depending on the matchups. A look at the top three with Edelman, Hogan, and Cooks shows that all of them can do the same. That makes for a very difficult group to cover. The versatility factor makes this group even more dangerous.

Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola are the primary backups and they’ve shown that they’ve earned Brady’s circle of trust. Mitchell came on in the second half of his rookie season and should be ready for more production in Year 2.

Devin Lucien, Devin Street, and Cody Hollister are longshots for the roster.


Rob Gronkowski is once again the Patriots top TE Option heading into 2017.

Tight End:

Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen: Gronkowski returns healthy for 2017 and Allen was brought over in a rare trade with the Colts, replacing Martellus Bennett who left in free agency. Gronk, when healthy remains the gold standard for NFL tight ends. Allen is an excellent blocker that can be very productive in the passing game who can attack the seams of the defense.

There is now plenty of depth behind them with James O’Shaughnessy, Matt Lengel, Rob Housler and Jacob Hollister fighting it out for a roster slot and repetitions. Training camp competition will be interesting to watch here.

Tackle:

Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon: No changes here from 2016. Solder returned from IR and played very solid in 2016. He’s in the last year of his contract and the Patriots must decide this year if they want him to return in 2018. Cannon was the biggest pleasant surprise of 2016. He parlayed a contract extension into a very solid campaign under the able tutelage of Dante Scarnecchia.

The team drafted a potential replacement for Solder in 2018 or beyond with Antonio Garcia. They added another tackle in the late rounds of the draft with Conor McDermott. He’ll be fighting backups Michael Williams, Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle for reps and a roster slot.

Guard:

Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason: No changes here from 2016. Thuney came in and started from Day 1 at left guard. As can be expected, he struggled a bit as a rookie and needs to come back stronger for his second season. Mason is a tough, road grader in the running game and will be looking to improve as well in 2017.

Primary backups should be Jamil Douglas who was brought over in midseason from Miami who was a 4th round draft pick in 2015 and Chris Barker.

Center:

David Andrews: No change here from 2016. Andrews is a bit undersized for the position but is smart and tough. He won over Tom Brady during training camp last year because of his ability to make the line calls and seeing the field much like Brady did.

His backup remains Ted Karras, the tough but less mobile version of Andrews. Karras can also play guard as well, the versatility that the coaching staff loves.


Flowers had a strong showing in 2016.

Defense:
Defensive End:

Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy: Lots of changes here. Gone are last season’s Week 1 starters Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard via free agency. But Flowers, who came on strong in the 2nd half of the season was the team’s best defensive lineman down the stretch and should be primed for a very solid 2017. Ealy was brought over from the Panthers as well as a 3rd round pick for the Patriots 2nd rounder.

Lots of good depth here now, Rob Ninkovich will play both DE and OLB and fill in where he’s needed and may still lobby for starting duties. Top draft choice Derek Rivers gives the team the speed and athleticism from the edge. Deatrich Wise is a bigger, edge setting end who can kick inside as an interior pass rusher. Lawrence Guy is another big man who can play inside as an interior tackle or on the edge. Geneo Grissom is on the outside looking in this year.

Tackle:

Malcom Brown, Alan Branch: No changes to the starting lineup. Brown played solidly in Year 2 but could stand to improve his pocket push in 2017. Branch was excellent against the run in 2016, eating up a ton of space. He returns with a new deal and has played the best football of his career since coming to New England.

Backups include Vincent Valentine, Woodrow Hamilton, Guy, Darius Kilgo, and UDFA Josh Augusta who is one of the players to watch in training camp. He’s a huge space eater who could be one of the surprise players to stick on the roster.

Linebacker:

Dont’a Hightower, Jonathan Freeny: Wait, what? People forget Freeny, a Bill Belichick favorite was a starter for the defense a year ago until landing on IR. Hightower got a new deal after testing free agency and not finding the market he envisioned out there. He’s the glue that holds the defense together for the Pats. He calls the defense and is the guy they need in the middle. He can do it all, stuff the run, cover in the flat and blitz up the A-gaps. Hightower’s starting slot is secure, Freeny will have to re-earn his spot this summer. But for now, he’s in.

Backups include sub-package third down players Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy, run-stuffer Elandon Roberts, Ninkovich, Trevor Bates and UDFA Harvey Langi. Langi is one of my players to watch this summer.

Since the Patriots spend so much time in sub-packages, we only include two starting linebackers, therefore…


Butler’s potential return solidifies a terrific secondary.

Cornerback:

Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe: The team gave Gilmore a big money contract this spring during free agency. And after a contentious period with Butler, he signed his free-agent tender and has been in for off-season workouts. Rowe is a big matchup corner and gives the Patriots a very solid starting three. Each has the versatility to be shifted around and play outside or in the slot depending on how Belichick and Matt Patricia choose to use them.

Backups include Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Coleman, Jonathan Jones, and intriguing UDFA D.J. Killings who for now, is a long shot for the roster.

Safety:

Devin McCourty, Pat Chung: No changes here from 2016. McCourty is the QB for the secondary and always ensures that the players in are in the right position. He plays the centerfield position in the base defense and can slide up to play in the slot in the “big nickel”. Chung is the guy in the box, he plays physical against the run and he’ll cover tight ends in the short to intermediate range.

Duron Harmon was brought back with a nice deal in free agency. He plays a lot of snaps and replaces McCourty as the center fielder in big nickel coverage. Jordan Richards has been disappointing thus far. Nate Ebner and Brandon King are special teamers.

Special Teams:

Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater: The team’s specialists remain the same. Gostkowski will have training camp competition for the first time in a while from Josh Gable, known more for his trick shots. Punter Ryan Allen and LS Joe Cardona face no competition. Slater is a perennial Pro-Bowl gunner.

So, with the additions made in the draft and free agency, the Patriots look …on paper in a prime position to compete for another Super Bowl bid. Of course, injuries and other factors always weigh in but there are no holes on the roster as it currently stands. They’ve addressed their needs across the board and look even better than the team that won 14 games in the regular season and three more in the playoffs in 2016.

Is it time for mini-camp yet?

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.

Patriots Get Their Man Again From Buffalo, Gillislee Now a Pat

Steve Balestrieri
April 24, 2017 at 6:32 pm ET

The Patriots added another nice piece to their roster when the Buffalo Bills decided not to match New England’s offer sheet and Mike Gillislee is now a member of the Patriots.

The cost? A fifth-round draft pick. But this is another case where with Brandin Cooks and Kony Ealy the Patriots and Bill Belichick decided to go with a known commodity. New England gave up their first rounder for Cooks who has been very productive for New Orleans and their second-round pick for Ealy and Carolina’s third rounder, a difference of eight slots.

Gillislee had 577 yards on 101 carries for a 5.7 yard per carry average with eight touchdowns in 2016 backing up LeSean McCoy. The 27-year old added nine receptions out of the backfield. Against the Patriots last year, he had 12 carries for 85 yards and a score in the game in Buffalo.

He’ll join a stable of running backs including James White, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, D.J. Foster and Brandon Bolden. While Gillislee has never had to stand up for a whole season as a starter, with the Patriots, they have plenty of depth to carry them thru, plus he can contribute in the passing game.

This signing probably means the end of the line for LeGarrette Blount in New England as Gillislee’s role will undoubtedly be that of the “big back” in the Patriots offense. He had a stellar 2016 season with over 1100 yards and 18 touchdowns. Blount was never a fan favorite here in New England but in his seasons here, in all fairness, he was a model citizen, a great teammate and being paid around the veteran minimum, a tremendous value.

So the Patriots raid Buffalo again, Chris Hogan was a restricted free agent last season and Stephon Gilmore was an unrestricted free agent this spring. Gillislee won’t have to worry about knowing many players in the locker room in his first few days.

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.

New England Patriots News 3-26 AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
March 26, 2017 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, here are your Sunday’s Patriots news 3-26, & AFC East Notes.

Although I’m glad that the FBI and the Houston Police were successful in reacquiring Tom Brady’s jerseys and got them returned to Foxboro as well as catch the culprit, doesn’t it seem a bit over the top with the resources used to find it? I wasn’t aware the one from the Seattle Super Bowl was missing as well. One must wonder if the culprit will get credentials this upcoming season.

Building Depth Still Easily Done Before the Draft:
The Patriots have made a lot of moves during free agency, signing some free agents, bringing back a few of their own and adding other players via trade. But with almost $27 million in cap space, there’s no reason that the team cannot continue to build depth and add some impact players in free agency.

Just because things slowed down on the free agency front, don’t think that Bill Belichick and company are done. There are still plenty of good players available and some of those may still end in Foxboro. With the cap space available, they have the option of adding free agents that are still out there and spending to the limit or rolling over whatever cash they have left after the draft and adding UDFAs to the 2018 season.

That may not be that far-fetched. If they keep Jimmy Garoppolo, then the cost of franchising him will not be cheap. It will be interesting to watch how much they roll over into next season.

Revis Rumors Persist:
The rumors that the Patriots are going to sign CB Darrelle Revis “at any time” refuse to die. So perhaps there is some truth to those rumors, however, I don’t see that happening. As we spelled out here about a week or so ago, the Patriots wouldn’t be served well by bringing Revis back.

His level of play has slipped badly, he’s no longer a top corner, the Patriots are better served by sticking with Stephon Gilmore, and further developing young players in Eric Rowe, Jonathan and Cyrus Jones and deciding on whether they hold onto Malcolm Butler.

We’ve heard the rumors as well about Revis moving to safety. First of all, it was Bill Belichick that said that his skill set didn’t lend itself to moving there. But even if they did, who do you sit? Devin McCourty? Duron Harmon, who the team just re-signed? He’s not going to be a strong safety so Pat Chung is out too. Time for this rumor to go.

DC Bound in April:
The White House announced that the Patriots will visit on April 19th. The tradition is for the champions to be welcomed and honored by the President.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made the announcement on Thursday and now the only question remains as to how many members of the team will opt to show up to meet President Trump or decide to sit it out.

Six players from the 2016 Super Bowl team, (Alan Branch, Chris Long, Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty, LeGarrette Blount, and Martellus Bennett) have all stated that due to either political or personal reasons they will not attend.

Return of Pat the Patriot:
Some interesting news this week was that a proposed rule change that will be voted on at the League Meeting in Phoenix this week will be that teams be allowed to wear an alternate helmet in a color to match their third uniform.

That would allow the Patriots to wear the “Pat the Patriot” uniforms and helmets again, which were banned in 2013 in the name of player safety as alternate helmets required a break-in period.

For my money, the white jerseys with the red pants and the Pat the Patriot helmets were the best uniform that New England has ever worn. Nothing else comes close. Not that it would ever happen, but I’d love to see them go back to that setup full time.

A Look Back in Time:
It was 46 years ago, this week, on March 25, 1971, the Boston Patriots changed their name to the “New England Patriots” although at the time, it wasn’t a big deal, it has gotten more important as time goes along.

The Sullivan family who owned the team at the time wanted to change the name from Boston to New England in part because the city of Boston balked at building the franchise a new stadium. Sullivan had just finished building his new facility down in Foxboro on Route 1.

Originally Sullivan wanted the name, Bay State Patriots (yuck) but Commissioner Pete Rozzelle stepped in thankfully and suggested that the new name be reflective of and inclusive of the entire region and the New England Patriots were born. And as Paul Harvey used to like to say, “now you know the rest of the story.”

Amendola Contract Re-Do Still In the Works:
There was an intriguing post on ESPN by Pats beat writer Mike Reiss on Saturday morning about the importance of Danny Amendola. While many in NE are writing Amendola off with the addition of Brandin Cooks. Reiss made the very astute observation that this may be premature.

Amendola doesn’t possess gaudy numbers, but like we’ve said here more than once, the NFL isn’t a fantasy football league. In big games when the chips are on the line, Amendola has proven himself, time and again, to be clutch. More importantly, he has Tom Brady’s trust factor, something that can’t be overlooked.

In the past two Super Bowls played by the Patriots, Amendola has caught 13 passes for 126 yards, two touchdowns, and an all-important two-point conversion. In the playoffs for New England, he’s returned nine kickoffs for a 23.7-yard average and four punts with a 13.5-yard average.

Amendola’s current cap hit with a salary of $6 million will not fly this year, especially with him being a 4-5th option in the passing game. But if he’s amenable to another reduction, and all indications are that he is, he’ll be welcomed back.

Malcolm Butler Sets Social Media Afire with Cryptic Message:
There is nothing new on the Malcolm Butler front, we do know he met with the Saints and afterward, NO coach Sean Payton raved about Butler to the press. Then Butler posted a picture on Instagram of himself sitting on a plane with the quote, “Nothing’s changed but the change” which was a line from a rap song.

It immediately set off social media on a conspiracy theory burn that lasted the rest of the day. Anyone can interpret that to mean any number of scenarios. As many as there are possible outcomes in his contract stalemate. People are still reporting he may be dealt as early as this week, and although that may be true, Butler isn’t going anywhere until he signs his free agent tender.

The Saints and Patriots can’t even discuss a possible trade for him until he does sign it. New Orleans isn’t going to sign him to an offer sheet because, at that point, they run the risk of either losing Butler back to New England if they match. But more importantly, they risk losing their top draft pick #11 to the Patriots if they decline to match.

East Bound and Down…AFC East Notes:

Bills Picked as NE’s Top AFC East Competitor:
The Buffalo Bills and not the Miami Dolphins are the Patriots biggest competitor in the AFC East according to Adam Schein. Schein wrote this week:

“And I still wanna see Ryan Tannehill take the next step. But I love that Buffalo retained Tyrod Taylor. He’s a good quarterback who will get even better now.”

While I’ve always enjoyed Schein’s takes, I respectfully disagree with this one. Taylor has done little with the passing game. Buffalo averaged 189.7 yards per game thru the air. They were 32nd in attempts and 30th in yards. I’ve yet to see Taylor put the team on his back and carry them to a win. The Bills only success in throwing the ball has been when they’ve run it very effectively.

I do agree with Schein that Sean McDermott will change the culture quickly up in Buffalo. And it should prove to be interesting.

Miami a Finalist for LB Zach Brown:
The Miami Dolphins and the Oakland Raiders are the two teams that have hosted linebacker Zach Brown, the former Bills free agent. It is rumored that Brown will choose between one of the two in the next few days.

Brown, 27, led the Bills with 143 tackles and added 4 sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles in 2016. He is reportedly seeking $6 million dollars per year. It is reported by Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald that the Dolphins are only offering in the $3-4 million-dollar range. Brown would upgrade a Miami unit that struggled in 2016. However, they’ve re-signed Kiko Alonso and signed free agent Lawrence Timmons in free agency. Brown would add another solid veteran presence.

Jets sign Patton, Ijalana to Deals:
The New York Jets made a couple of deals this week, re-signing T Ben Ijalana to a new deal. Ijalana, 27, started the first 13 games of his career in 2016 while appearing in all 16 games.  Playing both RT and LT, the 6’4”, 332-pounder totaled 868 offensive plays and 925 overall snaps, ranking fourth most on the offense and fifth most on the team respectively.

The team also signed free agent WR Quinton Patton from the San Francisco 49ers. Patton, 26, set career highs last season with 37 catches and 408 yards, playing 68 percent of the offensive snaps for the Niners. He’ll join Eric Decker and Quincy Enunwa as the primary WRs for the Jets this season.

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.

New England Patriots News 3-19, AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
March 19, 2017 at 5:00 am ET

Good morning, here are Sunday’s Patriots news 3-19, & AFC East Notes.

Some guys just seem to pay attention more…was it just me or did Kony Ealy get the memo before ever stepping on the practice field for the Patriots? In his introductory conference call with the Patriots’ beat writers, Ealy must have mentioned the catch phrase “Do Your Job” about half a dozen times. If Bill Belichick was listening, he must have been smiling.

The Patriots have been one of the most active teams in free agency, but entering the period with $60 million in cap space and a slew of free agents this season, it really shouldn’t come as a big surprise. They’ve already addressed several spots on the roster and with nearly $27 million remaining in salary cap space, they have the flexibility to still be active.

With free agency and the draft coming up next month, what are some of the areas still needing additional depth for New England? The feeling here is DE, RB (big back), S, LB, CB.

Butler Situation Far from Resolved:
Malcolm Butler met with the Saints this week and afterward, New Orleans coach Sean Payton spoke highly of the Patriots restricted free agent cornerback. But don’t expect the Saints to be making him an offer anytime soon.

That situation would be the easiest for the Patriots, they could either match Butler’s offer or refuse to and get the Saints first round draft pick, which is #11 in the upcoming draft. There’s been some significant talk of the Saints offering the #32 pick, which the Patriots shipped to New Orleans for Brandin Cooks. The Patriots put a first round tender on Butler so that’s where negotiations would begin.

Malcolm Butler at 2016 Mini-camp (SBalestrieri photo)

Malcolm Butler at 2016 Mini-camp (SBalestrieri photo)

Will Bill Belichick dig in his heels for the #11 pick? Doubtful and the Saints will not want to pay that for Butler although he is a legit Top10 corner. Giving up the 32nd pick is where they’ll start. Will the Patriots want the equivalent value of #11 with 32 and added value?  Or will they accept a package of picks later down the line?

Ultimately the decision Bill Belichick is going to have to make is: Whatever the Saints decide to offer for Butler, is the value better than bringing him back under his $3.91 million tender? Then letting him play it out and walk next season in free agency and getting a 3rd round compensatory pick? This situation may play out until right before the NFL Draft.

Patriots Happy to Have ‘Overhyped, overrated’ Hightower Back:
The Patriots let free agent LB Don’t’a Hightower test the waters in free agency as the Patriots talented and tough linebacker wanted to see what his worth was on the open market. Hightower has said that he was disappointed in the offers but was happy with his deal, a 4-year, $43.5 million-dollar deal that returns him to New England.

Hightower received interest from the Saints, Titans, Jets, and Steelers with the final two making a push to sign the former #25 pick from the 2012 NFL Draft. Pittsburgh made an offer for him but told him that if he left without signing a deal, that the offer was off the table. It was then that Hightower decided to return to New England and remain a member of the Patriots.

Dont’a Hightower has re-signed with the Patriots for four years, $42.5 million dollars. (SBalestrieri photo)

The comments coming out of Pittsburgh, however, were interesting. Ed Bouchette, one of the most respected writers from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette seemingly took affront to Hightower rejecting the Steelers for New England. Bouchette wrote that Hightower “did the Steelers a favor” by rejecting their offer, calling him “overhyped’ and “overrated”. He said that the Steelers were better sticking with Vince Williams as their buck linebacker.

He cited stats to back up his claim that Hightower wasn’t a big-time player. We’ll respectively disagree here. This isn’t the fantasy football league and anyone who has watched the Patriots knows the value that 6’2, 265-pound linebacker brings to the defense. It isn’t about just sacks. The Patriots defense isn’t that type, but just like Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, and Vince Wilfork before him, his value to the overall defense can’t be denied.

Just for kicks the leading sacker for the team was Trey Flowers with seven but New England’s defense was #1 in points allowed. And Hightower was the glue, in the middle. He’s more than an MLB/ILB, his sack of Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl came off the edge. The Patriots can and do move him around depending on the matchups. Belichick is surely happy to have his Pro Bowl/All Pro LB back in the fold. Overrated, overhyped and all.

Harmon Returns with a new 4-Year Contract:
Another one of the Patriots under the radar signings has been the re-inking of safety Duron Harmon. Harmon returned to the Patriots with a 4-year deal worth $17 million dollars this week and it was a good deal for both sides.

Harmon wasn’t a starter in his first four years here with New England but plays a valuable role in their ‘big nickel’ defense and has been productive. But most of all he loves it in New England and playing for Belichick. On a conference call with the team’s media this week, Harmon said the decision to return wasn’t a hard one.

“I love it here. I’ve built a lot of relationships here with people outside of football. My kids go to school here and just being a part of this organization – it means a lot to me. I really love playing for this organization. I love playing for Coach Belichick. I love being a part of Mr. Kraft’s team. In the end, just coming back here really wasn’t a hard decision. It was something that I ultimately wanted to do.

Burkhead Signing Another Intriguing Move By New England:
The Patriots other under the radar move this week was signing running back Rex Burkhead to a one-year deal worth $3.15 million dollars. He had a very solid season for the Bengals in 2016 carrying 74 times for 344 yards and adding 17 catches out of the backfield for 145 yards in limited action.

He’s a tough, no-nonsense player who will play special teams, can run the ball between the tackles and catch out of the backfield. He’s got good vision and can cut back against the grain and follows his blockers well. But at 5’10, 210, he’s about the same size as James White and just slightly bigger than Dion Lewis, (5’8,195).

The Patriots will probably still address the RB position; bringing back LeGarrette Blount or picking up another big back in the draft doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. But perhaps the coaching staff has decided that they know what works best for them. And having a trio of receiving backs that can run the ball a bit, (a fourth if you count D.J. Foster) and be very productive in the passing game may be the way they proceed in 2017?

Chris Long Explains His Decision to Move On in 2017:
Former Patriots defensive end Chris Long just returned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and has yet to find a new team but has made it clear that he won’t be returning to New England just six weeks after winning a Super Bowl here.

Long joined the MMQB podcast this week and explained his decision why he doesn’t want to be a situational player at this point in his career. He came across as honest and forthright and one can certainly respect his position. He did everything asked of him in 2016 and was well respected in the Patriots locker room as well as on the field.

Chris Long will not be back with the Patriots in 2017 and explained his reasoning on a MMQB podcast. (SBalestrieri photo)

“Well, I knew I wanted to go and have a chance to win a ring and see what that felt like to win, and I want to continue to win in the league,” Long said. “You have to work really hard no matter what team you’re on to win, so there’s no guarantee wherever you are you’re going to win. I just tried to go to the place that gave me the best opportunity. And I said I would do anything to make that possible and to help.”

“And I don’t know if they wanted me back or not, but it was one of those things where it’s like, I have too much respect for that organization to waste their time and go back and forth in negotiations or not tell them that I was planning on moving on. I have too much respect for them. It wasn’t a big deal that I was moving on for them. They’ll be just fine. But for me as a man, I just think I would hate to string them along, even if I was just depth at a position or just a piece of the puzzle. “So, that’s kind of why I said I need to move on. If I’m going to keep playing football, I’m not going to do certain things that I was doing there. I was happy to do them this year, but hey, I’m a year older. If I want to keep playing, I’ve got to do certain things differently.”

“But shoot, I can’t remember the last year where I didn’t miss a day of work, and that’s kind of where I was at this year. I feel very good.”

East Bound and Down…AFC East Notes:

Bills Sign Three Free Agents:
The Bills have just six draft picks this spring and with about 30 spots remaining on the roster to begin their offseason with the 90 players to begin OTAs, they’re going to lean on free agency as well as UDFAs after the draft is over. They began filling out their roster by signing three free agents on Friday, RB Joe Banyard, CB Leonard Johnson, and WR Corey Washington.

Johnson as many will remember spent some time with the Patriots in 2015 and played in four games with three starts. He played well in a limited role. He also had a unique celebration dance on the team at the time. He played for the Panthers and new Bills coach Sean McDermott in 2016 and logged 22 tackles, a pass defended, and a sack after returning from injury a year ago.

The Bills hold the #10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and after losing free agent Stephon Gilmore to the Patriots may be looking for help at corner, although they have numerous holes to fill.

Timmons, Thomas Signings Highlight Miami’s FA Start:
The Miami Dolphins are looking to improve upon a 10-win season and a playoff berth in 2016 and have been adding pieces to their team in the hope to keep the arrow pointed upward. The team signed longtime Pittsburgh LB Lawrence Timmons and also brought in TE Julius Thomas from Jacksonville and each will fulfill a big need.

Timmons 32, plugs a big gap on the inside where the Dolphins were 30th against the run in 2016. He’s big and physical and came on the heels of a 2-year deal worth $12 million. One interesting fact is that the Patriots targeted Timmons the last two times the Patriots played the Steelers, however. So, this will bear watching two times in 2017.

Miami lost the under-used and underrated Dion Sims in free agency but Thomas, if he can stay on the field, should be a very good replacement. They also brought back blocking TE Anthony Fasano as well as bringing back their own FAs Kenny Stills, Andre Branch, and Rashad Jones. It’s been a good start for HC Adam Gase’s second season.

Jets “Concerns” With Hightower Didn’t Appear with Offer, Who’s at QB?
The Jets made a concerted push to sign LB Dont’a Hightower in free agency. According to Jason La Canfora, they made a ‘significantly’ higher offer than either the Steelers or the Patriots. The reported deal on the table was for five years for $55 million with a total compensation worth $62.5 million.

But after Hightower re-signed with New England, reports filtered out of the Jets camp by ESPN’s Rich Cimini that the Jets balked after giving Hightower a physical, citing his shoulder and knee issues and withdrew the offer. Smoking gun down the road, or just a smokescreen to cover a missed opportunity?

The Jets meanwhile haven’t made any inroads on their QB situation. They reportedly aren’t interested in Colin Kaepernick who remains unsigned but have some interest in Jay Cutler and Josh McCown. Cutler is coming off of shoulder surgery and has never been able to put it all together, McCown? He’s lost 20 of his last 22 starts in the NFL. While Kaepernick has four playoff wins on his resume including a Super Bowl appearance where the 49ers narrowly lost.

One has to question, as it would be in Boston where Robert Kraft’s friendship with President Trump is often cited, is the Jets’ non-interest in Kaepernick fueled by political leanings? After all, Jets owner Woody Johnson, like Kraft was a big supporter of Trump.

And unlike Kraft, his friendship has gone completely under the radar. The President nominated Johnson to be the US Ambassador to Great Britain. Kaepernick has struggled the past few seasons but is more than equal to McCown and worthy of a look, unless he’s being blackballed for another reason.

Kaepernick’s political leanings and very public feelings on race would be touted in Boston as a big reason why the Patriots would pass. Why isn’t that the case in New York? Things that make you go hmmm.

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Just Say No to Revis… Patriots Should Pass

Steve Balestrieri
March 18, 2017 at 4:10 pm ET

The Patriots made a big splash in free agency with the signing of CB Stephon Gilmore, formerly of the Bills and he’s locked up for the next several years. They’re also locked into an ugly struggle with Malcolm Butler their restricted free agent corner because of it.

They tendered Butler with a first round pick and the former UDFA corner is upset that the team paid Gilmore the money he feels he’s earned. Now he’s trying to find a home in New Orleans who may very well work out a deal for him. But if Butler goes, should New England bring back Darrelle Revis who was released by the Jets? I’d say a resounding no.

Revis came to New England on essentially a one-year deal and played very well during the Super Bowl run in 2014. He did everything that was asked of him and by all accounts was a good soldier and teammate that year. Butler himself stated that Revis was a big help to him and he credits Revis with helping him to become the player he is today. So, can the Patriots catch lightning in a bottle twice? Again, no.


Darelle Revis had a solid 2014 in helping the Patriots win a Super Bowl. (USA TODAY Images)

The Patriots tried to bring back Revis in 2015 and offered him a big money deal worth in the neighborhood of $35 million. But the Jets were intent on bringing him back, even to the point of tampering with Revis. They didn’t need to. Revis who in retrospect, really wanted to go back to New York, got twice that amount from Gang Green. But he didn’t just get his ring, his money, and be on his way. Revis took parting shots at both Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

Worse, during the Deflategate saga as it unfolded, Revis went out of his way to criticize Brady and the Patriots, basically calling them cheaters. Do you think that Bill Belichick may hold a little bit of a grudge there for this? It is possible. The backlash over his comments about Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots prompted Revis to send his mother to get his Super Bowl ring at the team ceremony in 2015. Except that the Patriots didn’t allow his mother into the celebration.

But the fans and even many members of the media are clamoring for a Revis – Patriots Part Deux, basically ignoring the fact that the past two years, Revis has been flat out awful, especially in 2016.

The 31-year old Revis has been a shadow of himself the past two years and in 2016, teams didn’t shy away from Revis, they attacked him, and sought his side of the field out. For the first time in his career, Revis allowed two touchdowns in a game to the same receiver. In this case, it was against New England and was rookie Malcolm Mitchell.

Revis was overweight, out-of-shape and lost a step. He claims to have already lost 10 pounds this off-season and wants a final shot at redemption. The Jets still owe him $6 million this year, so a one-year deal would be affordable. But would the Patriots pull the trigger again? If they’re smart…in a word no.

While Belichick can bring out the best in players, he doesn’t have a magic elixir that is going to make a player gain those steps he’s lost overnight. No doubt, he’s seen the decline in Revis and knows that he can’t do anything to stop the inevitable slide that has already begun in his game.

It never fails to amaze how fickle some people are. For the past two years, fans and media here in New England have been all over the “Revis is fading” storyline while touting Bill Belichick as brilliant for letting him walk to the Jets in 2015. Many of those same people now are clamoring for his return…And if he signs with his hometown Steelers, as he’s been politicking to do, watch those same people jump back on the “he’s finished” bandwagon.

But while the Pats possibly need another corner if Butler moves to New Orleans, they aren’t in a crisis. Gilmore, Eric Rowe can hold down the corners. And 2nd-year player Cyrus Jones should be much improved in 2017 or Justin Coleman can compete in the slot. And there is the draft.

But as much as Bill Belichick loves to stick it to the Jets, he knows what he sees. Revis is done, or very close to being done. That ship has sailed. And the Patriots should pass.

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Patriots Re-sign Dont’a Hightower, Big Domino Falls

Steve Balestrieri
March 15, 2017 at 2:13 pm ET

The Patriots made their biggest move of an already busy free agent season by re-signing LB Dont’a Hightower to a 4-year deal worth $43.5 million dollars with a full $19 million guaranteed. The deal was first reported NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport.

Hightower, 26 was drawing serious interest from the Jets, Steelers, and Titans but it was always thought that New England was the favorite to bring back their talented linebacker from Alabama.

A year ago, we wrote here that among the top three defenders on the Patriots with Hightower, Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones, that Hightower was the key cog in re-signing first. Collins and Jones have since been traded.

In 2016, Hightower appeared in 13 games for the Patriots and recorded 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble, two pass defenses and a safety. He was a first-round draft pick from Alabama in 2012.

With the Hightower deal done, the Patriots are in fantastic shape heading into the draft. They’ve more than recouped their losses in free agency, with the additions of Dwayne Allen, Kony Ealy, Lawrence Guy, Stephon Gilmore and now Hightower on the defensive side and adding the talented Brandin Cooks and Rex Burkhead on offense.

Heading into the NFL Draft, the Patriots are in tremendous position with cap space remaining to add additional depth. The only domino remaining is that of Malcolm Butler. If the Patriots can repair their relationship with him, there’s no reason to believe that this team isn’t the favorite to repeat as a Super Bowl champion in 2017.

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Pittsburgh reactions to Dont’a Hightower visiting Steelers

John Morgan
March 14, 2017 at 2:00 pm ET

New England natives have strong opinions on Dont’a Hightower, with crucial plays from Super Bowls 49 and 51 etched in their memory. As the linebacker makes his free agency tour, how do western PA writers and fans view the potential of seeing Hightower wearing black and gold at Heinz Field?

 

Dont’a Hightower, Steelers to meet, according to report
Sean Gentille / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers, at some point, are going to have to replace Lawrence Timmons, and they’re reportedly setting their targets high. Like, “stealing a Pro Bowler from the team that beat them in the AFC championship” high.

The Steelers have the cap space necessary to make a competitive offer. Hightower is a better pass rusher than Timmons but probably worse in coverage, so it’d be an interesting trade-off; it’d likely take $50 million or so over five years to bring him in, but you’d also be keeping him away from New England. So, maybe call it a wash.

 

Analysis: Dont’a Hightower would be a good fit for Steelers
Chris Bradford / Beaver County Times

It’s not that the Steelers don’t like or don’t trust Vince Williams, the heir apparent to Lawrence Timmons, who signed a two-year, $12-million free-agent contract with the Miami Dolphins last week. Williams, who received a three-year, $5.5 million extension in September, remains a viable option.

Hightower is an upgrade though. Hightower is seen as a three-down player who has saved some of his best performances for the biggest games, including two, game-changing plays in each of the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl wins.

A potential pairing with Ryan Shazier, another fast, physical inside linebacker, in Pittsburgh is intriguing.

The knock against Hightower is that he has yet to play a full 16 games. He has missed 13 regular-season games in career due to various injuries. He has 13 passes defensed and zero interceptions. Whatever flaws, however minor, are outweighed by Hightower’s 251 solo tackles and 17 sacks.

And there’s this: As they were in 2016, the Patriots are all that is standing in the way of the Steelers and a potential trip to Super Bowl 52. Anytime you can take a great player away from New England, it can only help the Steelers.

 

Keith Butler Could Be ‘Pounding The Table’ Again For Dont’a Hightower
Steelers Depot / Matthew Marczi

The Pittsburgh Steelers currently find themselves in an exploratory phase as they seek out their options on how to replace starting buck inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, and there are several options. The most immediate and readily available option to replace him is to simply plug Vince Williams into the starting lineup, but they do not seem content just yet to rely upon that.

They could use the draft to replace him, but they have perhaps an even bigger immediate—and certainly long-term—need at the outside linebacker position, and this is with consideration of the fact that they have used their past three first-round draft picks prior to last season on linebackers.

Or they could replace (Timmons) the same way that they lost him—free agency. And they are bringing in for a visit a player that their defensive coordinator once “pounded the table” for in the draft room in 2012: Patriots free agent Dont’a Hightower.

Keith Butler was the linebackers coach at that time in 2012, but he admitted in training camp later that year that he wanted Hightower in that draft, with the team instead taking David DeCastro. This was just a month or so after the Steelers released James Farrior, one should keep in mind.

 

Why The Steelers Need To Sign Dont’a Hightower Immediately
Ryan Lippert / Sports Junkies

The addition of Hightower would be a huge upgrade for the Steelers defense. With the defense improving with its young core of players such as Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree, Hightower would provide experience and leadership. Hightower has played five seasons in the league for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. With that being said, he can help to show the young guys what it takes to win.

With Lawrence Timmons leaving for Miami, the Steelers need to find another inside linebacker to pair with Shazier. Timmons was one of the leading tacklers for Pittsburgh over the past ten years as he accounted for 981 tackles and 12 interceptions (one for a touchdown). The next man up at the inside linebacker position would be Vince Williams who has had some experience. However, it has mainly been on special teams and sparingly in the linebacker rotation. With that being said, Timmons will be leaving behind big shoes to fill. However, I believe that Hightower would be the perfect replacement.

 

Dont’a Hightower Rumored to Visit Steelers as Jarvis Jones Visits Cardinals
Timothy Rapp / Bleacher Report

Even if Hightower did join the Steelers, he wouldn’t be a like-for-like replacement for (Jarvis) Jones, who plays on the edge, while Hightower generally plays inside. And Jones has never quite lived up to being the No. 17 overall pick in the 2013 draft, either.

Last season, (Jones) registered 43 tackles, a sack, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. In four seasons, he’s managed just six sacks and has never been more than a rotational outside linebacker for the Steelers. While he is solid against the run, he doesn’t provide the sort of game-changing ability to pressure the passer he was drafted to provide.

So the Steelers could see some big changes in the linebacker group next year, and while Hightower seems likely to return to New England, the thought of pairing him with Ryan Shazier in Pittsburgh’s defense has to send shivers running down the spines of NFL offensive coordinators.

 

$10 million per year for Dont’a Hightower? Hard pass
Curt Popejoy / Steelers Wire (USA Today)

The latest marquee free agent to be linked to the Pittsburgh Steelers is former New England Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Outside linebacker and cornerback are the two primary needs of the Steelers and so it makes sense there would be interest. But if you believe the projected money figure floating around, there’s little chance the Steelers will be interested.

Hightower has started at outside linebacker for the Patriots for the bulk of his five seasons. He’s been a steady contributor but in terms of impact plays, he really hasn’t stood out. The Steelers need to bring in an outside linebacker who can rush the passer on a consistent basis. 17 sacks in five seasons does not scream pass rusher to me.

This really feels like Hightower is making the rounds just to come back and get paid from the Patriots. If the Steelers weren’t going to pay $10 million per season for a top-tier cornerback, would they do it for a run-stuffing linebacker with limited pass-rush skills.

Perhaps the author was out in the kitchen grabbing a brew and some grub during SB 49 and 51, and missed certain ‘impact plays’ . He may also want to dig a bit deeper in his research on how Hightower is utilized in Foxboro, the contrast between the defensive schemes in Pittsburgh and New England, and brush up on the differences between 3-4 and 4-3 (or 4-2) defenses.

 

To see how Steeler fans feel about Hightower, check out the comments sections on the articles linked above. The most common sentiment seems to be that Pittsburgh will not sign Hightower, as the Steelers are traditionally not a big player in free agency.

 

Malcolm Butler Looking For Other Avenues Than the Patriots

Steve Balestrieri
March 13, 2017 at 6:43 am ET

The Patriots and Malcolm Butler seem to a couple heading for divorce. Numerous reports have Butler and his agent growing extremely frustrated with the Patriots and seeking another team to take him on and leave the Patriots.

While Butler would be an attractive target for a lot of teams looking for a very solid, physical cornerback, there is a sticking point that will make it very difficult for him to find a new home this season. Butler is not an unrestricted free agent. He’s still restricted and essentially belongs to New England for at least the 2017 season.

CB Malcolm Butler is not happy with his contract situation and is looking for another team to make him an offer. (SBalestrieri photo)

The Patriots placed a first round tender on Butler just prior to the deadline and he’ll get paid $3.91 million dollars by the Patriots if he signs his tender and plays for them in the 2017 season. Or he can get another offer from an opposing team in the league and the Patriots have the first right of refusal. But the big sticking point is, if the Patriots decline, that team will forfeit its first-round draft pick to the Patriots. That’s why it isn’t likely to happen that Butler will generate much interest.

The other avenue is that the Patriots trade Butler elsewhere. Apparently, that is exactly what they tried to do this weekend with the Saints in the Brandin Cooks deal. But the sticking point is the Patriots can’t trade Butler until he signs his tender. It is a classic Catch-22 situation.

Butler has reportedly stated that he wants the type of deal that Stephon Gilmore got from the Patriots, close to $40 million. The Patriots protected themselves against Butler leaving in signing Gilmore to a long-term deal. While he is arguably one of the top corners in the league, and definitely the top one available right now, he may find himself in a tough spot because he’s probably not going to find that kind of market for his services this season.

Will another team opt to give up its first-rounder for Butler? I find that scenario a bit hard to believe. While possible, I think a better scenario is that the teams that his agent is courting may be much more willing to give up a 2nd rounder for Butler in a trade. Whether or not the Patriots would agree is another story.

Butler is 27 and doesn’t want to hit his big payday at the age of 28 where he’d probably only get a three-year deal as an unrestricted free agent in his one big payday. You can certainly sympathize with his camp there. He’s earned his payday but the circumstances surrounding it have ultimately worked against him thru no fault of his own.

The Patriots would love to trot he and Gilmore out as a 1-2 punch at cornerback in 2017. Can it still happen? Possibly but unless they change their mind and pony up some serious cash, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards right now as Butler wants out.

But he may ultimately decide that he’s stuck in a difficult position and will have to play one final season in New England before moving on and getting his payday elsewhere. Regardless of how it turns out, it doesn’t seem like Butler will be in a Patriots uniform for the long term.

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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.

Patriots Trade For New Orleans WR Brandin Cooks, Give Up 1st Rd Pick

Steve Balestrieri
March 10, 2017 at 8:31 pm ET

The Patriots made another big trade on Friday evening. Diana Russini of ESPN has reported the Patriots have landed WR Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints and the Saints 4th round draft pick #118 for the Patriots 1st round pick, #32 and the Patriots third rounder #103.

Cooks was the subject of an earlier trade rumor concerning Patriots CB Malcolm Butler. Butler wasn’t included in the deal and now one must wonder if the Pats have mended their fences with Butler or is there another trade coming?

The Saints selected Cooks with the 20th pick in the 1st round of the 2014 NFL Draft out of Oregon State. In 2016 he caught 78 passes for 1173 yards (15.0-yard average) and eight touchdowns including a 98-yarder from Drew Brees.

Cooks 23, will join a Patriots offense that features Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman with James White, and Dion Lewis out of the backfield. Brady had a 124.4 QB throwing the deep ball in 2016 to Chris Hogan. With Cooks now working the outside, the Patriots offense just got a lot more dangerous.

Bill Belichick raved about Cooks two years ago during the preseason, and Cooks’ performance during joint practices last year in Gillette did nothing to change his mind. The first day of practices, he had his way with Butler, which the corner freely admitted afterward. Now, Cooks joins New England and is on the final year of his rookie deal although the Patriots hold a fifth-year option.

This free agency period has been crazy thus far with a number of moves the Patriots are making….what’s next?

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