Let’s set the table for the New England Patriots in free agency so far in 2018:
- Starting left tackle since 2012: gone.
- Leading rusher in 2017: gone.
- Starting cornerback since 2015 (controversially benched during Super Bowl loss): gone.
- Clutch (especially in the playoffs) slot receiver and punt returner since 2013: gone.
- Almost every premier free agent on the market and also on Patriots fans’ wish lists: gone.
Welcome to the first day of the 2018 NFL League Year–also known as the biggest panic day in New England.
The New England Patriots under Bill Belichick tend to be extremely reserved in free agency, particularly early in the process. Other than 2001 when New England began their dynasty with undervalued free agent veterans such as wide receiver David Patton, linebackers Bryan Cox and Roman Phifer, defensive linemen Bobby Hamilton and Anthony Pleasant, and cornerbacks Terrance Shaw and Terrell Buckley kick-starting their team, the Patriots build primarily through the NFL Draft, undrafted free agents, trades, and bargain values after the first few days of free agency.
The only recent exceptions with free agency have been 2013 (wide receiver Danny Amendola) and 2017 (cornerback Stephon Gilmore). Both moves were immediately ridiculed by the New England press and the fan base. Both have already turned out to be excellent signings with Amendola working back into a key contributor and Gilmore starring as the best cornerback on any team in the NFL Playoffs in his first season.
Free agency usually involves under-the-radar players and veterans trying to latch on to re-establish their value. Look at these “highlights” of their free-agency signings in the past decade:
- 2009: RB Fred Taylor, CB Leigh Bodden, CB Shawn Springs
- 2010: TE Alge Crumpler, DT Gerard Warren, WR Torry Holt
- 2011: DT Shawn Ellis, DE Mark Anderson, DE Andre Carter
- 2012: WR Brandon Lloyd, EDGE Trevor Scott, S Steve Gregory
- 2013: Amendola, DT Tommy Kelly
- 2014: CB Darrelle Revis (after losing Aqib Talib), CB Brandon Browner
- 2015: EDGE Jabaal Sheard, TE Scott Chandler, CB Bradley Fletcher
- 2016: EDGE Chris Long, EDGE Shea McClellin
- 2017: Gilmore, RB Rex Burkhead, DT Lawrence Guy, LB David Harris
Standing pat in free agency–especially early on when mad money is being thrown around–is the norm in New England. The Puritanical economic model of the Patriots features few dips into the costly unrestricted free agency on day one.
This team values their compensatory draft picks and salary cap flexibility. Big contracts in free agency are a rarity for the Patriots. Most players targeted by the Patriots are “bargains” who sign below-market deals as part of the team’s desire to “maximize value”.
These compensatory picks are calculated by a secret formula the NFL does not share. However, it is known that compensatory picks are awarded to teams that lose more or better compensatory free agents than they acquire. The number of picks a team can receive equals the net loss of compensatory free agents, up to a maximum of four (per OvertheCap.com).
MOVES BY THE PATRIOTS SO FAR:
Prior to the first day of free agency in 2018, the Patriots re-signed just a trio of veteran special teams players to minimum veteran contracts (with Captain Matthew Slater still unsigned). Bringing back Brandon Bolden, Nate Ebner and Brandon King is huge for their special teams unit, but generates little excitement with masses.
Down three starters on offense and another in the secondary, it is understandable that the fan base is upset.
New England did address one of their biggest needs by trading a 2019 third-round draft pick to Cleveland for 2015 first-round draft pick defensive tackle Danny Shelton. With the regression of veteran Alan Branch in 2017, the defensive line struggled to stop the run. Shelton is massive, strong at the point of attack, and is ferocious in the trenches. Teamed with Malcom Brown inside, he will allow the Patriots to deploy Lawrence Guy at the end of the defensive line where he is much more effective.
Running back Rex Burkhead was re-signed to a multi-year deal on the first day of free agency. Burkhead flashed potential in his first season in New England but his value to toher teams was likely diminished by injury issues in 2017. Burkhead lost playing time to Dion Lewis and only played ten games.
Burkhead finished with 30 receptions for 254 yards and three touchdowns and was effective in the red zone scoring five rushing touchdowns. With Lewis signing in Tennessee, the Patriots may have had to put a larger influence on re-signing the versatile Burkhead.
Losing Danny Amendola tugs on the heartstrings of New England fans and quarterback Tom Brady, but with Julian Edelman returning to the slot position in 2018, Amendola become redundant again. After three straight seasons of pay cuts, kudos to Amendola for finding a sucker team in the Dolphins to cough-up guaranteed money to a 32-year undersized slot wide receiver with a nine-year history of injury issues.
Amendola was a rare first-day of free agency splash in 2013 signed to replace Wes Welker after two years of contentious contract negotiations (a Bill Belichick tradition in New England). Amendola was considered a complete and total bust after being beat-out of a starting role by Edelman. Amendola eventually became a trusted weapon for Brady late in 2014 as a role player.
Dion Lewis was signed with absolutely no fanfare to a futures deal after the 2014 season after not playing in the NFL for two seasons. He was on a comeback-player-of-the-year path before blowing his knee out in game seven of the season. Fortunately for New England, he was already signed to a team-friendly extension. Lewis came back late in 2016 and elevated his game to the top running role in 2017.
Lewis is entering his age 28 season and the undersized running back has worked his tail off to put himself in position to for a big payday. No Patriots’ fan should be upset with Lewis taking the top dollar contract offered to him by the Tennessee Titans. Lewis is one of the good guys of the NFL and had clearly played beyond what New England would pay for a part-time running back in their offensive system. Letting Lewis go is mitigated by the re-signing of Rex Burkhead.
Nate Solder has been a good soldier in New England holding down the left tackle position after the retirement of Matt Light after the 2011 season. Solder–other than a torn biceps costing him much of 2015–has been a reliable starter providing consistency protecting Tom Brady’s blind side.
The loss of Solder leaves the Patriots thin at tackle with Marcus Cannon returning from an ankle injury that put him on injured reserve in 2017, undrafted rookie free agent prospect Cole Croston, and 2017 third-round draft pick Antonio Garcia who missed all of his rookie season due to blood clots in his lungs. Tackles Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle are both free agents so there is urgency for the Patriots to at least re-sign one of them (probably Fleming).
Finally, there is the sad case of Malcolm Butler. Passed over in the 2014 NFL Draft due to a bad 40-yard dash time and off-field incidents at Hinds Community College (prior to transferring to Division II West Alabama), Butler went undrafted and landed in New England with a group of other undrafted free agents to try-out for the 90th roster spot.
After his miraculous interception in Super Bowl 49, Butler replaced future Hall-of-Fame cornerback Darrelle Revis and made the Pro Bowl. A solid 2016 season saw him named a second-team All-Pro. However, a contentious salary negotiations (or lack there of) led to him given a restricted free agent tender at a first-round level which left him with little market. Butler was benched in Super Bowl 52 after an up-and-down season and his departure was a fait accompli.
PATRIOTS’ FREE AGENTS–OFFENSE:
On offense, the Patriots have tackles LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming still on the market. Fleming is younger and may have more potential than the injury-prone Waddle. That could also work against New England keeping Fleming as everyone saw his stand-out Super Bowl 52 performance. However, Waddle had some fantastic performances against J.J. Watt, Joey Bosa and Von Miller in 2017 that could also catapult him to a higher contract value than New England wishes to pay.
Tight end Martellus Bennett was never in the Patriots’ plans in 2018 with his contract which he signed in Green Bay in 2017 prior to being claimed on waivers by the Patriots. Bennett was a key contributor in 2016 but the Patriots are likely looking at the veteran on a short-term, team-friendly deal. Bennett–if he plays in 2017–is likely looking for a starter or key contributor role and paycheck.
PATRIOTS’ FREE AGENTS–DEFENSE:
On defense, the Patriots have already seemingly moved on from veteran defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois. Veteran edge rusher James Harrison is a possibility to return still. Two interesting free agents are linebacker Marquis Flowers and cornerback Johnson Bademosi.
Both Flowers and Bademosi were low-profile pick-ups who were expected to only contribute on special teams. Bademosi impressed filling in for Stephon Gilmore when Gilmore missed a few games due to a concussion before mid-season. A team may take a chance on him as a low-cost starter at cornerback. He was solid on special teams all season long as well.
Flowers was another afterthought who was acquired for a late-round draft pick. After not playing much on defense in the first half of the season, he used his speed and sure tackling to earn more playing time. His sideline-to-sideline speed gave the defense a boost in the second-half of the season and New England would likely want the popular young veteran to return.
Also worth noting, special teams ace and Captain Matthew Slater is a free agent. All signs point to him returning to the franchise that values special teams players more than any other in the league. Slater is a perennial Pro Bowl selection at special teams but his 2017 season was marred by multiple injuries. All signs point to Slater returning in 2018 and beyond.
Patriots fans seemingly always have the same reaction each offseason with opponents buying high on other team’s castoffs. New England will sign a few players from other teams on day two or three (or later) and maybe make a run at a restricted free agent or two. They will continue to let their free agents test the market before seeing if they come back to New England for similar money.
The Patriots will kick the tires on a number of players and back-off when the money gets out of control–accept it, that is just the way this team operates. New England will make one outrageous draft pick a few rounds early just because they always do so. They will bring in a ton of undrafted free agents.
The Patriots will make trades heading into the NFL Draft and look at players available during training camp and cut-downs. Players will be moving on and off the roster right into week one of the 2018 season. Through it all, as long as the Patriots have Tom Brady at quarterback it does not matter whether they “win free agency” or not. What matters is that the pieces are in place (no matter what way they get them) to make another run at the Super Bowl.
–Hal Bent a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01