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)
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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