Good morning, here is your Sunday Patriots news 03-24 and AFC East Notes. Spring to a backseat to a snowstorm that hit the area on Saturday…A sight no one was happy to see except maybe the ski slopes still operating in the area.
We’ll begin our draft profiles on players that we feel would fit the team on Monday. Also, we’re doing a special Patriots 4th and 2 podcast early this week on some of the potential fits for the team in the draft. Be sure to check for that.
ICYMI: Our first Mock Draft 1.0 attempt at building the 2019 Patriots roster is in the books. You can recap it here: You can expect the Patriots to be very active in this one, moving around the board due to having 12 draft picks and half of them in the first 101 picks.
Bill Belichick was in Hollywood with Linda Holliday and as the pair came out from dinner and were awaiting their car from the valet, the paparazzi descended on Bill in force. While Ms. Holliday was gracious with some of the questions, Bill in a quintessential Belichick performance didn’t say a word to the ridiculous, inane questions thrown at him by the clueless TMZ staff. Listening to those questions, undoubtedly made Bill homesick for a press conference in the Gillette media workroom….ok maybe that is a stretch. So how was your week, Bill?
Stephon Gilmore freed up $5.67 million dollars of cap space by converting $8.5 million dollars of his contract into a signing bonus, which was reported by Field Yates of ESPN. That move gives the Patriots some much-needed space and comes just at the right time as the team is supposedly in negotiations with kicker Stephen Gostkowski on a new contract.
Do you think Tom Brady is slow? Maybe on the football field, but watching Brady zip down the ski slopes in the Rockies faster than we can drive any morning on the Mass Pike was a bit disconcerting to watch…can’t imagine the team was thrilled to see that. While we’re all waiting on news of an extension for the Pats QB, he won’t sign anything until he gets back from vacation.
Ryan Allen has re-signed with the team and is coming back on a one-year deal. The veteran of six NFL seasons was just 20th in the NFL a year ago with a 45.1-average. However, Allen’s value lies in his directional punting and the ability to pin teams back inside their 20-yard line. In the Super Bowl against the Rams, he did so three times and could have been a candidate for the MVP of the game.
Malcolm Mitchell Forced to Call it a Career
Former Patriots WR Malcolm Mitchell had to finally come to the realization that his chronic knee woes won’t let him continue his fledgling NFL career and it was over just as it getting ready to take off. Mitchell had close to 10 surgeries on his knees between college and the NFL.
The Patriots knew his injury history when they drafted him in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He caught 32 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns in his rookie and only season in the league. But the vast majority came in the second half of the season.
In Super Bowl LI, during the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, Mitchell caught five passes for 63 in the fourth quarter, helping the Patriots tie and then beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime.
But another knee injury forced him to miss all of the 2017 season. When his knee didn’t respond to treatment, the Patriots released him in 2018. In January, he said he wanted to continue his football career, but sadly it was not to be. At an event at Georgia, he announced he was done with football.
After struggling with reading, he joined a women’s book club and later became an author of his own children’s book, “The Magician’s Hat”. He created the children’s literacy program, “Read with Malcolm” as well as the “Share the Magic Foundation.” Although his NFL career was painfully short, he is making a lasting impact off the field. And he’ll always have SB LI.
Expect the Patriots to Make a Tackle Selection Early in the Draft:
With the free agency losses of both Trent Brown and swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle, the tackle position on the Patriots offensive line has gotten much thinner. And with last year’s top draft choice, Isaiah Wynn (23rd overall selection) coming off of an Achilles injury, it makes things even more uncertain. That’s why we expect the Patriots to make a tackle selection early in the upcoming draft.
If Wynn is healthy and ready to go for the season, it would put he and veteran Marcus Cannon at the tackle positions. Wynn has yet to play a snap in the NFL and their backups are limited to practice squad player Cole Croston, Dan Skipper, and Ryker Matthews.
Even with the legendary Dante Scarnecchia coaching the offensive line, that leaves too much of an unknown factor in the mix. During our first mock draft, we had the Patriots taking Greg Little from Ole Miss as a tackle. He’s one of the best pass blockers in the draft and can play left or right tackle. He could be the swing tackle in 2019 and be prepared to take over for Cannon in the future if all works out well for Wynn.
Achilles injuries are different from everyone, Vince Wilfork told Mike Reiss that it took him a full year and a half before he felt right again.
Patriots Visible at Numerous Pro Day Workouts:
Bill Belichick was on hand at the recent Pro Day workouts in Alabama and Georgia getting an up-close look at several of the players who will hear their names called in the upcoming NFL Draft. Belichick, sporting an Alabama sweatshirt, no doubt courtesy of his buddy, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban seemed to be completely in his element.
Dante Scarnecchia, meanwhile, was working much closer to home, attending the workout for the Boston College players, who have several players who should be drafted next month. One player who was drawing interest from Scarnecchia is Eagles interior offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom. Lindstrom is from Dudley and parlayed an outstanding high school career at Shepherd Hill under the coaching tutelage of his father Chris who played in the NFL, into being a four-year starter for the Eagles.
In just a month, the Patriots will begin voluntary workouts at Gillette Stadium.
Four Patriots Throw Support for Education Bill at the Statehouse:
Four of the Patriots, Devin McCourty, his brother Jason, Duron Harmon and Matthew Slater, all members of the advocacy group, the Players Coalition, testified on Friday in support of Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz’s education bill, the PROMISE Act.
The Players Coalition stated goal is to make an impact on social justice and racial equality at the federal, state and local levels through advocacy, awareness, education, and allocation of resources.
Chang-Diaz’s bill, one of several, has been backed by teachers, parents, mayors and education advocates. And she got the blessing of four of the Patriots star players. The goal of the bill is to bridge the gap in education spending between richer and poorer communities.
“These young people have inspired us in our day-to-day lives. We know that they are the future of our region, our nation, and our world,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. “And we are confident that if we give them everything, we could give them a million things.”
“We are prepared to battle for our children,” said Devin McCourty.
Patriots Still Waiting on a Gronkowski Decision:
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski still hasn’t decided whether to return for the 2019 NFL or to retire. Mike Giardi of the NFL Network said that several members of his family are worried about the long-term health of the big man, not just from the surgeries to his back, knee, and arm but also the blows to his head.
If Gronkowski does indeed retire, it would add nearly $10 million in salary cap space but also leave a tremendous hole at the tight end position. Regardless, the Patriots are expected to add the tight end position in the upcoming NFL draft where several intriguing options exist. They have to start grooming a potential successor even if he does return.
New TE Matt Lacosse was ecstatic after signing a two-year deal worth about $4.8 million last week. “It’s an honor to be here,” he said. “Great franchise, great players, great coaches. Just the history behind this franchise is unbelievable. Just to be here and to see all that happens here and to be a part of it is huge, it’s awesome.”
Lacosse will bring an immediate upgrade at the backup tight end position in the passing game as he should have little trouble passing Dwayne Allen’s 13 receptions in two years, including only 3 in 2018. However, Allen was one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. Lacosse has a long way to go there.
Eastbound and Down AFC East Notes:
Bills Continue to Add Depth:
The Buffalo Bills added a trio of players this week, signing guard Jon Feliciano from the Raiders as well as tight end Jake Fisher and linebacker Maurice Alexander as they continue to build the depth of their roster.
Feliciano is an intriguing player. Stuck on the depth charter behind center Rodney Hudson and guards Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson in Oakland, he started just eight games in four years but appeared in every one. Known as a very physical player who has a mean streak he’ll immediately vie for starting reps.
Fisher was an offensive tackle who lost some weight and converted to tight end. The former 2nd round draft pick is on a one-year contract. He’ll be used as a blocking tight end or an extra offensive lineman. Alexander came over from the Seahawks where he was a reserve safety and special teams’ contributor. He’ll probably be the “big nickel” linebacker and STs for the Bills.
Dolphins Sign Fitzpatrick, Host Edge Rusher:
The Miami Dolphins solved the immediate need for a quarterback by signing veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, making Miami the third AFC East team he’s played for. He’ll be the bridge QB for the time being while the team searches for hopefully their franchise QB. Miami watched Dwayne Haskins and Drew Lock at their respective Pro Days.
Another big need is at the edge. Cameron Wake is gone, Robert Quinn is rumored to be gone also very shortly, which leaves Miami with just Charles Harris. So, the Dolphins are bringing in TCU edge rusher L.J. Collier, who is a shorter, more compact player who was considered a late-round prospect. But a good week in Mobile at the Senior Bowl may have changed the Dolphins perspective on him.
Jets Need Help At Center, Wisniewski on the Radar:
The New York Jets have struggled to run the ball the past two seasons and have given up an inordinate amount of pressure up the A-gap because of poor play at the center position. Spencer Long had a nightmarish season and was cut loose. Many expected the Jets to target Matt Paradis from Denver or Mitch Morse of the Chiefs in free agency.
While the Jets are thought to be looking for a long-term solution during the draft, they are also thought to be looking at Stefan Wisniewski who spent the last three years with the Eagles. He’d be a stop-gap measure but regardless would bring an immediate upgrade in talent at the position.
With the Jets looking to make a big step in rebuilding the team with a young QB in Sam Darnold, they can’t have running for his life every week.
The New England Patriots are off to the Windy City this week as they take on the Chicago Bears for what is a rare 1:00 p.m. start for the visiting team. The last two games have been prime time affairs and next week, it is back to another late game as the Pats will be on Monday Night Football against the Bills.
This week, the Bears return home disappointed after they let the chance to return 4-1 and atop the division with some breathing room slip away. They melted late in the game in the South Florida heat, something the Patriots are well familiar with dropped the game in overtime. At 3-2, they have a half-game lead on the Vikings and Packers.
The Patriots at 4-2, have won three in a row and are tied with Miami for the top spot in the AFC East. They’re entering a tough stretch with KC, Chicago, the MNF on the road and the Packers, before taking on Tennessee before their bye.
The Bears offensively run a similar offense to what the Chiefs do and have some explosive offensive players in Tarik Cohen, Taylor Gabriel, and Allen Robinson to go along with the mobile quarterback Mitch Trubiski. The Bears and Trubiski exploded a few weeks for six touchdown passes in the blowout win over Tampa Bay.
So, from a Patriots perspective, here are our Players to Watch on Sunday:
The Patriots swing tackle will no doubt get the start this week at right tackle as Marcus Cannon hasn’t practiced this week after leaving the KC game with a concussion. This is the reason the Patriots resigned Waddle this spring when he was a free agent. They knew that at some point they’d need him.
He may or may not be facing the Bears’ Khalil Mack, who also hasn’t practiced this week with an ankle injury and is considered day-to-day. Waddle faced Mack a year ago when Mack was a member of the Raiders defense. The Patriots beat Oakland in Mexico City 33-8 and Waddle was in for Cannon that day. Mack against Waddle that day had a sack, a tackle for a loss and three QB hits.
But regardless of whether Mack plays or not, Waddle will have a very important role in the Patriots game plan this week. Not only will he be responsible with protecting Brady’s right side from whoever rushes off the edge (Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks), but he’ll have to be solid in the running game as well.
The Patriots wide receiver is still working on his chemistry with Tom Brady. The deep out routes, the comebacks, and the back shoulder throws are all things that they’ve not worked the kinks out of yet. Those things will come in time, but this week, Gordon could see his role expanded a bit more.
The Bears have a pretty stout front seven and the running game may need the passing game to get it going instead of the opposite. Gordon has the size and athleticism to stretch the field vertically a bit more this week. They tried it a few times against KC. On one play, Gordon was open and ready to catch a deep ball before being interfered with, drawing a 37-yard penalty.
We’d look for the offense to begin expanding Gordon’s range more and more as he gets a bigger comfort level in the offense. Gordon will probably draw Prince Amukamara on the outside, the big, veteran corner should be an intriguing matchup to watch this week.
The Patriots big linebacker had a pretty productive game against the Chiefs despite the team allowing 31 second-half points. Hightower had an interception, a tipped pass and had quarterback pressure on Patrick Mahomes which forced him to throw an interception in the end zone, wiping out a Chiefs scoring threat.
This week the Patriots will have to contend with the diminutive but lightning-fast Tarik Cohen out of the Bears backfield. He’s a threat to run the ball or catch it out of the backfield and can be the Bears “X-Factor” in their offense this week.
How well (or badly) the Patriots defense does this week, will have a lot to do with how well they defend Cohen. While a bit different, the Bears offense does run a similar look to the Chiefs and they utilize the RPO (run/pass option) concepts which try to freeze and take advantage of the opposing linebackers. And for New England, that begins with the big man in the middle.
With a Bears defense that gets a lot of sacks (18) and is much better at stopping the run that the past few opponents that the Patriots have faced, they’ll look to what has always worked for them. The short passing game with Julian Edelman will be key this week, helping Tom Brady get the ball out fast and keeping the chains moving.
Edelman’s short area quickness and ability to find the open seams of the defense are a hallmark at the chemistry that he’s enjoyed with Tom Brady for many years.
The Bears defense will have their hands full with trying to jam, throw off the timing and re-route Edelman off the line. That will no doubt fall to the veteran corner Bryce Callahan. The Bears are really happy with the play of Callahan and resigned the smaller (5’9, 188), but very feisty cornerback this spring.
With the Patriots looking to use the middle of the field, players like Callahan and Danny Trevathan will be tasked with taking that away. The matchup between Edelman and Callahan will be an intriguing one to watch this week.
The Patriots defense has not been good at getting home against opposing quarterbacks and creating consistent pressure this year. Now they’re facing another mobile quarterback that can move and more importantly, throw on the move in Trubiski. That means the defense will have to set the edge and keep him in the pocket.
Flowers has been the best Patriots defensive lineman and although he has only two sacks on the season, he’s played very well. He got a lot of praise from the Bears’ coach Matt Nagy this week, “He’s not the ‘big-name guy,’ but he’s the big-name guy among the coaching world,” Nagy said. “He can hold the point. He’s strong, he’s quick, he’s fast, he plays in front of the quarterback. So, we know that he’s a good football player. … We have a lot of respect for his game.”
The Patriots are going to need a big game out of Flowers this week, setting the edge, and getting after Trubiski if they want their defense to have a better showing than they had with Kansas City. And they’ll need their best defensive player to lead the way.
The Patriots head into training camp in just about three weeks now and as we’ve been saying, the competition this year at a number of positions will tell the tale on who goes and who remains. This has been a tumultuous offseason in many different ways. The Patriots lost a lot of key veteran players and all of the off-field hoopla surrounding Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski have been non-stop.
Soon that will all be behind us as the players get back on the field and we start talking about football again. In the next segment of our 2018 Patriots Training Camp primers is the Patriots Offensive Line.
The team lost left tackle Nate Solder this spring as he signed a big money contract with the Giants. He’s protected Tom Brady’s blind side for several years and done it well. Replacing a trusted veteran like Solder who was as good off the field for the team as well as on it.
So, with that in mind who are locked in and who’s on the bubble?
Roster Locks: Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon
The Patriots traded for Brown with the 49ers this spring, giving up a 3rd round draft pick in return. Although he’s played mostly right tackle in the NFL, he says he can play anywhere and the team may move him to left tackle.
Brown is a mammoth-sized human being. Listed at 6’8, 359 pounds, he’s every bit of that and possibly even bigger. But for a very large man, he has surprisingly good footwork. And he’s just 25 years old. Brown got some great kudos from Denver’s Von Miller who said this about the new Patriot:
“He’s the best right tackle in the National Football League,” Miller said of Brown. “And he may even be a top-five tackle, period, in the National Football League. There’s not another tackle who’s that tall, that big and can move the way he moves.”
The team used a 1st round draft pick (#23 overall) on Wynn and although he played left tackle for the Bulldogs, he projects to be a left guard in the NFL. Wynn is short for a tackle, 6’2, 302 but both he and Brown were competing for the left tackle spot but during the spring, they lined up next to one another with Wynn at left guard.
Andrews, Mason, and Cannon have been starters and remain solid pieces who have performed very well. The only questions with the locks revolve around health. Brown and Wynn are coming off of shoulder surgery, while Cannon was placed on IR late last season.
If this unit is the starting five on Week 1 and we believe that they will be, the team should be in a very good position for the offensive line play to start the season. Cannon’s availability physically is the only question. Will he be ready to go? Or will he begin camp on the PUP?
Near Roster Locks: Joe Thuney, LaAdrian Waddle
Thuney missed the spring minicamp with an injury and his spot was taken by Wynn. It will be interesting to note if Thuney is healthy for training camp, he may a fight on his hands to get back his starting left guard spot from the talented rookie from Georgia.
There is a possibility that Thuney will start training camp on the PUP if he’s still not ready to go. Health is the only possibility we’d see with him not making the 53-man roster.
Waddle is a valuable swing tackle who they brought back during free agency despite his getting feelers from other teams. He can play either side and has performed well when called upon. And with the long season that the team faces, he’ll be called on again this year.
On the Bubble: Cole Croston, Jason King, James Ferentz, Andrew Jelks, Ted Karras, Matt Tobin, Luke Bowanko, Ulrick John
The Patriots have several players vying for one or possibly two spots along the OL. Our feeling here is that Croston nails down one of those slots. We penciled him in for first 53-man roster projection. He’s versatile and can fill in at guard or tackle if needed.
But his spot will have to be earned so, the competition factor again will come into play. The team brought back King this spring, so that speaks highly for him. Karras has made the team as a backup and can play guard or center.
What may open the door for one or two more of these players is if Thuney or Cannon or maybe both are placed on PUP to start training camp. But with the demanding and outstanding OL coach Dante Scarnecchia back in the fold for another year, one thing is for certain. He’ll get the very best out of this group.
While as a whole, they have to improve but in pass blocking and in the running game, Coach Scar made it clear back in the spring, “I really like the guys we have here right now,” he said during the OTAs.
So physical questions aside, the Patriots offensive line may be very different, at least on the left side this year but they also have the potential to be very good and better than the 2017 unit as well.
The initial burst of signings is over in free agency, the Patriots lost four key players and brought in four of their own new players while resigning a few of their own free agents. So, now the question is, where are they at this point in free agency and what are their needs right now with still plenty of free agents still out there before the NFL Draft starts.
They’ve already addressed some of their needs early in free agency. That doesn’t mean that they’re done at any position per se, we would still expect them to double down on some positions in the draft.
With that said, after the initial free agency period what the are the Patriots biggest needs moving forward that can be addressed in free agency, the draft or both?
Left Tackle: No one wants to downplay the losses of Danny Amendola, Malcolm Butler or Dion Lewis, but the loss of Nate Solder arguably hurts the most because the team, at least initially has no replacement in place. With Marcus Cannon on the right side, the Patriots need a left tackle. Their two backup swing tackles, LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming are free agents. Ideally, the team would like to get both back.
There are also some players on the roster that they’ve stashed from 2017 Cole Croston and Andrew Jelks. They just signed Matt Tobin, who was a backup swing tackle from Seattle. Last season the Patriots moved up in the draft to snag Antonio Garcia in the 3rd round of the draft. But Garcia missed the season with an illness where he lost 40 pounds. He’s now cleared to resume his football career but will he be ready?
This year’s draft isn’t a great one for tackles and the one most associated with New England seems to be UCLA’s, Kolton Miller. And I’m not a fan of this if that is who they are targeting. He tends to play too upright and to me is too much of a finesse player which reminds me of last year’s pick also from UCLA Connor McDermott. Croston beat him out for a roster spot.
How they approach the next few weeks and the draft will tell a lot of how they feel about their current situation. If they resign Waddle or Fleming and then don’t draft a tackle high, then they believe that Garcia will be their guy and Waddle is insurance. If they go for a tackle early in the draft, then that answers that question.
Linebacker: The Patriots front seven needed a big upgrade this offseason. They will be getting back Dont’a Hightower, Vincent Valentine, Derek Rivers, and Harvey Langi off of IR so that already increases the depth. But then they added a big defensive lineman in Danny Shelton, a two-gapping space eater who can take on the double teams and allow the linebackers to stuff the run. And they added Adrian Clayborn, a 280-pound defensive end that can set the edge in the running game and get pressure on the quarterback.
Now they need a linebacker inside with better athleticism than they have. The two guys in free agency that we liked, Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown were quickly signed elsewhere.There are some very intriguing names in the draft. The Patriots usually like their linebackers big, although the trend is going smaller, faster and more athletic. One big guy who is intriguing is Leighton Vander Esch. Bill Belichick was just at Alabama and they have a very impressive backer in Rashaan Evans but he’ll probably be gone before they pick at #31.
Belichick also scouted South Carolina’s Skai Moore, an undersized, smaller type player who led his team in tackles for four years. He’d be a mid-to-late round guy. Some others in that vein are Joe Ostman a DE/OLB from Central Michigan and Jack Cichy from Wisconsin.
Quarterback: So, do the Patriots like any of these quarterbacks in this season’s draft? Everyone is assuming that they’re going to draft one early and look for the successor to Tom Brady but would I be shocked if they pass? No. They always seem to do the opposite of what everyone is predicting for them.
Trying to predict which quarterback the Patriots will pick is another difficult proposition. The ones who seem to fit what they do are Kyle Lauletta from Richmond who was a mid/late round prospect until his Senior Bowl performance turned some heads.
Other guys rumored to be on the Patriots radar are Luke Falk and Logan Woodside. But something to keep in mind if he’s still around when the Patriots pick is Louisville QB, Lamar Jackson. The Cardinals play in the same system, the Erhardt-Perkins system that New England uses.
Tight End: Rob Gronkowski is still slated to return this season. But we haven’t heard any confirmation on that. His agent had said that he was contemplating retirement. Regardless, the Patriots need to begin planning for his replacement, as crazy as that sounds with a 28-year old tight end who is still at the top of his game.
Dwayne Allen remains as does Jacob Hollister. Allen has a $5 million dollar contract and was a terrific blocker but offered very little in the passing game. Hollister flashed the ability to make some tough catches and to attack the seams but will need to make a big second-year step up in his play.
There are some good tight ends in the draft. The Patriots have met twice now with South Carolina TE Hayden Hurst. The former professional baseball pitcher is already 24 and maxed out physically but is an impressive player. He has excellent hands and above average speed. His production suffered from poor QB play on many occasions, having watched most of SC games.
Other excellent options in the draft include Dallas Goedert from S.Dakota St., Mike Gesicki, from Penn State, and Mark Andrews from Oklahoma among others.
And of course, Martellus Bennett may reappear on the scene. He hinted on social media that he may return to the Patriots at a lesser amount. But they should look to get younger at the position but it never hurts to have a player of his ability on the roster either.
Running Back: The Patriots resigned Rex Burkhead and added Jeremy Hill to a very team friendly contract and seem like they are well stocked. Hill and Mike Gillislee will battle it out for the big back, short-yardage role. James White is the passing back, strictly third down option while Burkhead can do a bit of both. Brandon Bolden is the depth piece who plays special teams.
I’d still believe that the Patriots need a younger back to add to the puzzle to build for the future. And this draft is chock full of them. Some running backs slotted for the 2nd round or later include, Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson, Georgia’s Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, North Carolina State’s Nyheim Hines, and Notre Dame’s Josh Adams.
The Patriots met with Hines at the Combine and then recently attended NC State’s Pro Day and have been speaking about how he feels he fits with New England as others have told him also…which usually means the team won’t touch him.
The team will probably also dip into the draft for an edge player as well. With Trey Flowers, Adrian Clayborn, Deatrich Wise, Adam Butler coupled with the return of Hightower and Derek Rivers, they have much better depth than the team that went to the Super Bowl just in February.
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.
Like the old saying goes…you can never have enough tackles or cornerbacks. And the Patriots were indeed fortunate to have the depth they enjoyed in 2017. They started the season with starters Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon in place. They drafted what they hope to be their left tackle of the future with Tony Garcia.
And they had returning swing tackle backups LaAdrian Waddle and Cam Fleming in place. It turned out all of those returning pieces were needed. Cannon was injured and placed on IR. Waddle stepped in and played very well. So well in fact, that they hardly missed a beat. He gave up a grand total of zero sacks on the season and seven QB hits in just under 350 offensive snaps this season.
Then Waddle got hurt and in stepped Fleming. He played very well in the playoffs and against the Eagles in the Super Bowl, he and Solder had very strong games. All four tackles played meaningful snaps during the season. And all, thanks to the superb coaching by Dante Scarnecchia, were very solid.
One need only look at some of the teams that struggled during the regular season, their offensive lines, particularly the tackle play was frequently a major issue. The Patriots not only used four but all of them did a good job overall during the season. They also have Cole Croston and Andrew Jelks who the team has high hopes for in the future as well as Garcia. Garcia, it turned out never took the field, he was on NFI list all season with an illness and we’ve read that he lost upwards of 40 pounds during the season.
Free Agency is Key to Continuity: Now three of those tackles are free agents. Solder, Waddle, and Fleming are all unrestricted free agents this spring. So the depth that they currently enjoy will be severely tested this spring.
We’ve already posted on how we feel about resigning Solder and what it may entail. You can re-read that here: In a perfect world, the Patriots would sign all three and enter the 2018 season intact again across the offensive line.
But they have to deal with the realistic scenario that Solder may either not return to the Patriots or retire this spring. Either could conceivably happen and if it does, then they have some decisions that they’ll be forced to make.
OL Cameron Fleming shares a laugh after practice. (SBalestrieri photo)
While both Waddle and Fleming have played well as spot starters, do they want them playing on the edge for 16+ games as starters? Probably not. Then they’d be forced to look at free agency (not a great crop) or the NFL draft to find his replacement. Why? Garcia is still an unknown commodity. They haven’t seen him play yet. Compounded with his current medical condition, he’s a big question mark right now. And then they’d be looking at how to deal with the talented duo of swing tackle backups.
Why Waddle and Fleming Will Resign: The Patriots will probably try to resign both Waddle and Fleming. As last year showed, they were both needed and they each showed themselves valuable enough to play an important if limited role in their success.
Neither probably has a large enough body of work to be seriously considered for a starting position on another team. Would another team tempt either away with enough cash and an opportunity to start? The odds are against it but never say never. As we mentioned above, the tackle play around the league varied, and some teams were just awful.
It probably won’t break the bank with guaranteed money to bring back either. Both have familiarity with the system and coaches and like it here (much to the chagrin of Lane Johnson).
The absence of a bunch of guaranteed money will still allow the trio of Jelks, Croston, and Garcia to develop but leaves the team in a very good position in the event that there are the inevitable injuries.
They may decide on just one and let the other walk, and deciding that either Jelks, Croston or Garcia is worthy of backup snaps with a chance to start down the road. In which case it would be a difficult decision. While Waddle has played the better of the two, his injury history this season may give the team some pause.
But the key from a Patriots’ perspective begins with getting Solder back in the fold. If they are able to do that, then getting their swing tackles back will be a nice addition. I think it is a no-brainer that they’ll try to bring back at least one and possibly both Waddle and Fleming.