This upcoming offseason promises a lot of change for the New England Patriots. Several key players are headed to hit free agency, and New England needs to make the right moves to stay competitive moving forward. Sixteen players from the 2017 team will enter the offseason unsigned. Here’s what to do with the Patriots free agents.
What to Do With the Patriots Free Agents
New England should do everything they can to keep their left tackle around
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He may not be an All-Pro, but Solder is one of the most important pieces to this offense. Solder joined the Patriots as a first round pick in 2011, and has called New England his home ever since. He spent his rookie year at right tackle before switching to left tackle after longtime lineman Matt Light retired. Since then, Solder has established himself as one of the top 10-15 left tackles in football.
There will be a market for Solder, but it would come as a surprise to see him leave. Quality starting tackles are incredibly hard to come by in the league, and head coach Bill Belichick knows that. Factor in quarterback Tom Brady’s age, and it’s now more important than ever to ensure Brady receives as little punishment as possible.
Additionally, Solder has always appeared to love New England. He passed up his previous chance at free agency to sign a two-year extension for below market value. Expect him to return once again, but this time he’ll receive a paycheck in line with his worth. A three-year deal worth roughly $11.5-12 million a year would likely keep Solder around.
It would be great to get Butler back, but that isn’t going to happen. Butler has been a great cornerback in his four years with the Patriots, but will most definitely be playing somewhere else next season.
It will be fascinating to see what type of market emerges for Butler. The one-time All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowler didn’t have his best season in 2017. Combine the down year with being benched in the Super Bowl, and teams will likely be afraid to invest heavily in the West Alabama product. Ironically, his value has probably dropped enough that the Patriots could afford him, if they wanted to.
Unfortunately, the Patriots won’t offer him anything, and Butler wouldn’t take the offer if they did. Super Bowl 52 was an unceremonious end for a Patriots legend, but it was definitely the end. Expect Butler to sign a one-year deal with any of the other 31 teams and to hit free agency again next year.
This type of hard-nosed running will earn Lewis a big payday
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While Butler had a disappointing 2017, Lewis had a career year. After starting the season at the bottom of the depth chart, Lewis became the lead back after just five games. His 2016 season was average, but Lewis showed in 2017 that he was completely recovered from his 2015 ACL tear.
Lewis was genuinely one of the best all-around backs in football this last season, and he’s hitting free agency at the perfect time. Health has always been an issue for him, but he managed to play in all 19 games in 2017. After initially coming to the Patriots on a futures contract in late 2015, Lewis is finally set to get a big payday.
Unfortunately, that payday probably won’t be coming from New England. The Patriots have never been known to invest heavily in their running backs, and Lewis likely played his way out of New England’s price range. It’s easy to see a team like the Oakland Raiders banking on Lewis staying healthy and giving him a multi-year deal for roughly $6-7 million a year.
Burkhead just finished his first year in New England after signing a one-year deal the previous offseason. He did that knowing that the Patriots offense was a perfect fit for his skill set. The plan was to spend one year with the Patriots, then enter free agency with a vastly improved market.
Unfortunately for Burkhead, Dion Lewis happened. Lewis stole Burkhead’s spotlight, and Burkhead enters the 2018 offseason without the market he anticipated. This actually works out well for the Patriots. Burkhead suffered some injuries, but played very well when he was on the field. He showed great ability in both the pass and run game, scoring a combined eight touchdowns in ten games.
With Lewis likely gone, the Patriots need running backs and Burkhead needs a home. Another one-year deal makes perfect sense for both sides. The Patriots get their guy for 2018, and Burkhead has another chance to cash in during free agency.
Slater will remain in New England until he hangs up his cleats for good. The longtime Patriot has found a home in New England as the heart and soul of the team. Injuries have limited him in recent years, but Slater remains the best all-around special teamer in the league.
Bill Belichick loves Slater, and there’s no doubt that his career will end in a Patriot jersey. Nobody values special teams as much as the Patriots, so Slater brings more value to the Patriots than he would to any other franchise. He’ll stick around.
Danny Amendola always comes up with the biggest plays in the biggest moments
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Amendola won’t be playing for any team other than the Patriots in 2018. Amendola’s coming off yet another fantastic postseason run, hauling in 26 passes for 348 yards and two touchdowns. He doesn’t put up the same regular season numbers as someone like Julian Edelman, but he’s always there when the Patriots need a big play.
Amendola brings more value to the Patriots than he would any other franchise due to his phenomenal chemistry with Brady. However, the Patriots would still likely retain Amendola’s services if an unlikely bidding war broke out for him. Amendola calls New England his home, and has taken pay cuts the past three seasons in order to stay with the team.
The only plausible way Amendola would have left is if Josh McDaniels had departed for the Indianapolis Colts. However, since the longtime offensive coordinator stayed in New England, Amendola is sure to stay as well. Age and injuries are a factor with Amendola, but expect the Patriots to make a two-year offer to the longtime Patriot.
The Patriots should resign Flowers yesterday. Flowers came over from the Cincinnati Bengals for a seventh round pick. Initially acquired as a special teamer, Flowers didn’t make a defensive impact until injuries struck late in the season. Once he was on the field, he showed why he shouldn’t be taken off.
Flowers put all his raw athleticism together to become one of the Patriots best defenders down the stretch. After not recording a single sack through his first two and a half seasons, Flowers recorded 3.5 in the final two weeks of the regular season. He showed great promise as a pass rusher and played above expectations across the board. His ceiling isn’t as high as former Patriot Jamie Collins, but he has a similar skill set.
Flowers saw playing time throughout the playoffs, and the team would love to have him back. Judging from Flowers’ twitter feed, he likes it in New England too. He’s credited the New England coaching staff for slowing down the game and helping him transform into more than just a special teamer. Look for the Patriots to resign him to a two or three year deal. Watching him bolt for Matt Patricia’s Lions wouldn’t be a surprise either.
This is kind of cheating, but these two can be lumped together since their situations are so similar. Both players have gone back and forth as the top backup at tackle. Due to injuries to the starting tackles, both have seen extensive time on the field filling in at both tackle positions. And now, both tackles are hitting free agency at the same time.
While you’d never want either to be your starter for a 16-game season, both have shown that they’re capable of playing adequate football when needed. As mentioned earlier, this free agency class has no depth at tackle beyond Solder. When factoring in a poor draft class at tackle, these two could be in line to get overpaid.
What the Patriots do with these two depends on how the Patriots value the talent they already have. Tackle Andrew Jelks missed all of last season, but should be making his return next season. Undrafted rookie Cole Croston was the primary backup along the entire line in 2017. When Marcus Cannon and one of Fleming/Waddle were injured, he would have been the next guy off the bench.
Frankly, none of the depth options are too reliable. New England probably won’t be able to retain both players, but they should try to bring back one. Fleming’s market is probably lower than Waddle’s, so the Patriots will most likely try to bring Fleming back on a short deal for high backup money.
Ricky Jean Francois
Jean Francois has definitely earned a ticket back to training camp, if nothing else. Jean Francois was picked up off waivers prior to New England’s matchup against the Denver Broncos. He was cut two weeks later, but came back for New England’s Week 14 game against Miami.
He didn’t set the world on fire, but he performed above what’s expected from the waiver wire. Jean Francois became the void filling run stuffer that Alan Branch failed to be. His market is basically non-existent, as a veterans minimum contract would probably be enough to sign him. If any other team were interested in the longtime veteran, they would have claimed him either time he went on waivers.
Another midseason acquisition, Harrison made even more of an impact than Jean Francois and was a big part of fixing the defense enough to go to the Super Bowl. The Patriots edge defenders struggled setting the edge against run plays all season until Harrison showed up.
He’s not the same player that won Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, but he showed there’s still something left in his tank. Harrison was more than capable of setting the edge against the run, and was a big reason for the run defenses improvement in the road up to the Super Bowl. He still showed the ability to get to the quarterback, and was one of the Patriots best defensive players in the Super Bowl. Admittedly, that’s not saying much, but it’s still true.
The biggest knack against Harrison is his age. He’ll be 40 at the start of next year, and the Patriots defense needs to get younger, not older. If the Patriots do bring Harrison back, it would be at the veteran’s minimum. Regardless of what they do with him, look for the Patriots to acquire some more help on the edge.
Several members of the special teams unit are set to hit free agency. Nate Ebner, Johnson Bademosi, Brandon Bolden, Brandon King, and Bernard Reedy are all scheduled to test the open market this offseason.
The biggest priorities for New England will probably be Ebner and Bolden. Both are the longest tenured members of the Patriots special teams, and both play the biggest roles. Ebner is coming off a season-ending injury, but he’s expected to be fully recovered for the 2018 season. Nate Ebner’s importance to the special teams is second only to Slater, and Belichick won’t let him get out of Foxboro.
Bolden, while not on Ebner or Slater’s level, is still a big member of the special teams unit. While his best role is on special teams, he’s also a competent backup for the running backs. A jack of all trades and master of none, Bolden has filled in as the early down back, goal line back, and third down back during his tenure in New England. He’s one of the more underappreciated Patriots, and Belichick will surely sign him back.
Bademosi and King will both likely be back due to lack of market interest. Both have performed well on special teams, but not so well as to draw attention from other teams. While King is a linebacker in name only, Bademosi actually does offer some upside as a cornerback. He just shouldn’t be playing ahead of Malcolm Butler. As for Reedy, he’ll probably earn a training camp invite, but it would be astonishing to see him make the final roster.
Cover image courtesy of USA Today.