Although the season is over it doesn’t mean the excitement for Patriots fans is finished. With free agency just under a month away (March 14th at 4 pm begins the new league year), it is never too early to look at potential fits for the Patriots moving forward. Currently, they have just under $14 million available under the salary cap. By the time the new league year begins, they will likely have created a bit more space as they move on from a number of players such as Alan Branch and Dwayne Allen.
Traditionally, the Patriots have never been one to delve into the free agent market. However, they have strayed from that path in recent years to add players that ultimately contributed to Super Bowl runs. Although they fell short in Super Bowl 52, day-one signee, Stephon Gilmore, played a significant role.
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Now, the Patriots have a number of free agents of their own they would prefer to keep. Most notably, Nate Solder, Dion Lewis, and Danny Amendola. With that said, they will certainly be looking to upgrade a defense that was stingy on points but had trouble coming up with key stops. Especially in the Super Bowl against the Eagles.
Aqib Talib, Cornerback
Technically, Talib is still a member of the Broncos as they are attempting to trade the veteran defensive back. Those attempts to this point have been fruitless and he will ultimately end up as a cap casualty. The Patriots are more than familiar with Talib between his previous stint with the team and his last four seasons with the Broncos.
Talib came into the league as a first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Upon his arrival in New England midway through the 2012 season, Talib immediately added star power and credibility to a secondary that had lacked that for several seasons. Since Talib’s departure, the Patriots have seen a string of top-notch corners come through, starting with Darelle Revis in 2014 and continuing with Stephon Gilmore in 2017.
The impending departure of Malcolm Butler creates a glaring void in the secondary. Gilmore, despite a slow start, showed why he was given the big contract before the season. Players like Eric Rowe and Johnson Bademosi are nice depth pieces but adding Talib to pair with Gilmore adds a different dimension to this defense. A defense that, at times, lacked an identity and was void of any tenacity. Talib checks all those boxes. Given the Patriots restrictions against the cap, Talib would likely have to take a below-market deal to return to the Patriots. However, no team can almost guarantee a Super Bowl appearance like the Patriots and that could be what ultimately lures Talib back to New England.
Jimmy Graham, Tight End
Graham’s path to the Patriots is a bit more complicated than perhaps Talib’s despite already set for free agency. However, the Patriots pursuit of Graham will hinge on a number of factors. Most importantly, the future of Rob Gronkowski. There has been some serious speculation that Gronk is considering retirement. If that were to happen, regardless of whether Martellus Bennett returns, there will be a large void to fill left by the best tight end of this generation. In that case, the timing would be perfect to bring in Graham. With that said, Graham is not the complete tight end that Gronkowski is, however, he is more than capable of replicating the offensive production.
Before spending the last three seasons with Seattle, Graham began his career with the New Orleans Saints. In New Orleans, Graham was teamed with an otherworldly quarterback in Drew Brees. With Brees, Graham eclipsed 1,200 yards receiving twice in five seasons. Additionally, he caught at least 10 touchdowns in a season three times in five seasons. He had a career-high 16 touchdowns in 2013. Imagine what he could do with Tom Brady and the Patriots?
If Gronkowski returns the speculation will not stop there. If he is already considering retirement to the extent that he reportedly is, then the end is soon. Perhaps the Patriots see an opportunity to pair him with Graham for at least a season. This would truly be a formidable duo at the tight end position, something the Patriots have coveted since drafting Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2009. Graham’s knack for scoring in the red zone would be a great addition to a Patriots team that struggled at times throughout the year. Especially when Gronkowski was out of the line up against the Dolphins. Again, the Patriots would likely have to get Graham on a below-market deal no matter the scenario.
Tahir Whitehead, Linebacker
Even with a healthy Dont’a Hightower, the Patriots would have had depth issues within the linebacking group in 2017. All year the Patriots had players better suited with depth roles thrust into key positions as starting linebackers. The Patriots, desperate for help sealing the edge, even took a chance on 39-year-old James Harrison when he was released late in the year and relied on him down the stretch.
Some reinforcements are already on the way for the Patriots. Hightower will return next year but there is no guarantee he makes it through a full season. In addition, forgotten 2017 third-round pick, Derek Rivers (who missed the entire 2017 season) will help as well. However, the Patriots are in need of some more talent moving forward. Enter Tahir Whitehead.
Whitehead has spent his entire six-year career with the Lions. His new coach, former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, will likely be keen on keeping him. Especially considering he was the Lions best linebacker last year. His ability to move around the field and his tackling prowess should entice the Patriots to make a play at the 27-year-old. In 2017, the Patriots relied heavily on players such as Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, and Marquis Flowers to play critical roles down the stretch in place of Hightower and McClellin. Despite an admirable performance from the trio, the Patriots could use a bit of a talent infusion at the position. Especially one that could potentially help offset another season-ending injury to Hightower.