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New England Patriots Free Agency Roundup, Part 3

NFL free agency begins Thursday afternoon at 4:00 pm.  Of course there is some sort of “legal tampering” period that starts Tuesday.  But let’s ignore that for now.  The following is one man’s thoughts on what’s going on with the players that ended the 2016 season on the Patriots’ roster, by position.

Defensive line:

Players under contract:  Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, Woodrow Hamilton, Darius Kilgo, Rob Ninkovich, Vincent Valentine

Free agents:  Alan Branch, Geneo Grissom (exclusive rights), Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard

What I would do:  Sign Branch ASAP!  Along with Flowers, Branch was the best the defensive line had to offer this season.  Brown is competent.  Valentine may have promise.  The rest?  Ugly may describe most of them.  Long wants to leave “to get back to showing the world the player he once was…” or something like that.  What?  His playing time dipped as the year went on because…he will never be the player he once was.  But good luck to him.  Sheard had a nice year in 2015, not so much in 2016.  See ya.  Ninkovich has always been a nice piece.  But without the ‘roids this year, was this the beginning of the end?  Pass rush was non-existent most of the year outside of Flowers.  They were pretty stout against the run however.  I’d work on some edge rushers in free agency.  If Branch is retained, as I would like, the tackles should be in decent, if unspectacular shape.  Maybe add a big body in the draft or a close to “end of the line” player as free agency rolls on.

What I think will happen:  Not sure which way the league will go on Branch.  My sense is he will be back.  Simply because no one is going to hand him a fat contract when he is one toke away from a suspension.  But you never know.  Long and Sheard will be replaced by two lower level free agent defensive ends similar to what brought them here.  Short deals, not huge dollars and being veterans looking for a fresh start or a last hurrah, so to speak.  Sign a bunch of guys like Marcus Kuhn and Frank Kearse and see what sticks, similar to last year.  The Pats will not break the bank here…as if this comes as any surprise.

Linebackers:

Players under contract:  Trevor Bates, Jonathan Freeny, Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy

Free agents:  Dont’a Hightower

What I would do:  Don’t you HAVE to re-sign Hightower?  Last offseason, the Pats had kind of a “Big Six” on defense that were becoming free agents:  Hightower, Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Jabaal Sheard.  Collins and Jones are gone, Sheard is likely to be.  Ryan?  We will get to that.  Butler is restricted, so they can hold off a year.  It appears that the Pats will have over 60 mil of cap space, even more if guys like Solder and Amendola restructure.  Don’t you have to pay SOMEBODY?  Who is getting all the dough?

Look at all the names above.  Again, don’t you HAVE to re-sign Hightower?  That list above…YIKES!!  Sure they can replace Dont’a with a guy or two.  But they are not likely to have the same impact.  Look how long it took Hightower to be what he is in this defense.  A few years.  Why lose that now?  Sure, he is banged up a lot and misses games.  But he’s in the games that count.  I feel like they have to keep him.  And also add a few more decent guys to the mix as well.

What I think will happen:  My gut tells me that other teams in the league won’t overpay for Hightower, with the injuries and all.  My gut also tells me that he brings the best offer to the Pats and the team matches it.  Similar to Devin McCourty a couple of years back.  The Patriots will then be paying Hightower more than they want, but less than the franchise tag.  BUT…my gut has often been wrong.  All it takes is one humongous offer from one specific team with a ton of cap space.  We should know quick at least.

Other than this, I’d say the Pats sign a couple of lower level veterans to bring to camp.  Nothing else to see here.

Next:  Finishing up the defense and the specialists.

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In Bill We Trust??

Jamie Collins is gone.

Chandler Jones has been gone for a while.

Jabaal Sheard, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan have regressed from last year.  To the point of Sheard now getting benched for some reason.  Perhaps regression can describe Malcom Brown and Patrick Chung as well?

Chris Long has been pretty invisible.

As has Rob Ninkovich.  But I guess that’s what happens when you can’t juice anymore.

Throw in the fact they gave away Dominique Easley for nothing if you wish.  I’m ok with even saying they let Akiem Hicks get away over short money.  Hicks played pretty well after being acquired from the Saints last year.

Etc.

And that’s just the defense.

Should we be worried?  In the whole scheme of things, probably not.  There are a bunch of cream puffs on the schedule going forward and the offense alone should beat all of them.  But in reality, the whole thing is concerning.

Throw all the departures and regression from above and add in the high draft picks in recent years that have contributed very little on defense (Cyrus Jones, Jordan Richards, Geneo Grissom, Vincent Valentine, and probably still including Trey Flowers).  Not to mention in-season acquisitions that have added zero (Barkevious Mingo, Kyle Van Noy and Eric Rowe…contributing negatively in Rowe’s case actually).  So where is the talent now…and the depth?

Good question.

The positive I suppose is that the Pats are actually 6th in NFL in points allowed with 163, only 11 behind league leading Minnesota’s 152.  But this is kind of a bogus positive.  The schedule has had plenty of cream puffs on it already.

The Patriots should once again cruise to the division title and still actually host the AFC Championship Game.  But that is more of an indictment on the rest of the AFC really.  The East is putrid and the South ain’t much better.  The West has some teams with good records, but is anyone really afraid of Oakland or Kansas City?  Denver, maybe.  But their offense has taken several steps back.  And I don’t know what is wrong with Pittsburgh at this point.

But it just doesn’t feel right.  I don’t know what the game plan was against Seattle.  That game was all lined up for a win.  Seattle was on a short week.  Travelling across the country.  Their defense had spent a ton of time on the field in recent weeks and were missing Michael Bennett.  Russell Wilson is a little banged up and doesn’t run as much now.  The Seahawks running game was lacking.  The Patriots were coming off a bye and were at home.  And on and on.  Seattle will always play everyone tough despite whatever odds.  But it still should have been a win.

For years a lot of us have questioned the Patriots’ defensive methods.  Defensive backs never turn their heads in coverage.  They don’t blitz often.  Years of “bend, but don’t break” mentality.  Par for the course this year, but seemingly worse.  How ’bout for once we try something different?  Unleash Mingo or something…tell him to just make a beeline for the QB on every snap?  Maybe play a little more man and not have opponents’ wide receivers running free all through the secondary?  Stop carrying 85 special teamers and have some of those guys actually play a position capably.  Stop giving away talent.  Yeah, not likely.  I’m not a defensive coordinator.  But there has to be a better way.  Very rarely should anyone question Belichick.  But again, things just don’t feel right.  Even if they are 7-2.

Sadly, I am a little worried about Colin Kaepernick looking like Joe Montana later today…

We’ve focused on the defense, but the offense isn’t necessarily as stout as it can be either.  Sure, the first 4 games were helmed by backup quarterbacks.  But that side of the ball doesn’t feel right now either.

Julian Edelman isn’t the same.  They don’t seem to play Danny Amendola a whole lot for reasons unknown.  Maybe they are managing an injury there too.  Now Chris Hogan is banged up.  Malcolm Mitchell has been hurt some as well.

Now Gronk is out…and who knows for how long?  Martellus Bennett has been pretty good.  But he isn’t 100%.  I don’t know if AJ Derby can play in the NFL.  But Denver thinks he can.  And they gave him away to the Broncos.

The running game?  LeGarrette Blount has been better than expected.  But he is still…LeGarrette Blount.  Dion Lewis is back.  But let’s hold up on going crazy on that for now.  Still not a fan of James White.  And the offensive line doesn’t exactly open up a lot of holes…or give Brady a ton of time for that matter.

Tons of negativity here, I know.  But 7-2 never felt so bad.  This season was supposed to be a cakewalk to at least a Super Bowl appearance.  And it may very well be still.  After all, the NFL as a whole kinda stinks this year.  But the decisions of the team and the head coach appear to be making it hard to see that now.  It’s hard for me to see how the team gets better down the stretch, even if guys get healthy.  The competition should be weak, so what kind of test will any of the games be for the team?  Actually, with all of the above, maybe the games WILL be tests.  And that is pretty scary.  Because they shouldn’t be.

So watch Kaepernick be…Kaepernick later today and the Pats win something like 45-7.  After posting this, I’m pretty much counting on it now.  This is pretty much the first time in the Belichick era that I have had some doubts.  Prove me wrong Bill…as always…

Roster projection…already? Part Two…

I told you yesterday the roster would be in flux.  The Patriots are clearly playing games with the Blowhard.  Shortly after I posted the first part of this projection, Danny Amendola did indeed restructure his contract (which now makes him a “lock”) and Joey Iosefa was released (he was “out” anyway).  Plus, they signed 8 undrafted free agents…where the original list was 9.  And one of the eight is TE Bryce Williams (“way out”, for completeness), who was not on the original list of 9.  It appears that they also did NOT sign an apparent “Blowhard” favorite, D’Runnya Wilson, either.  Oh well.  Let’s just blow through the rest of this before the roster changes again.

Onto the defense:

DE (4):

Locks:  Chris Long, Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard

In:  Geneo Grissom

Out:  Trey Flowers, Frank Kearse

Way Out:  None

Comments:  I’m assuming Long has something left.  This may be a bad assumption.  We’ve seen the “high-profile player on the downside of his career come to New England and not even make the team” guy here before.  The team did not exactly extend for him and he isn’t as old as some of the guys that fell into this category in prior years.  So I’m thinking he’s pretty safe…for now.  Nink and Sheard are no-brainers.  You could go in any direction for the 4th spot.  Flowers didn’t even come close to the field for the most part last year.  Grissom played some, and also some on special teams…but on one occasion let someone blow by him to get a punt blocked…so I am not sure that even matters.  Kearse is a 5 year veteran, who if I remember correctly, played like 79 snaps last YEAR.  Maybe it’s someone else by the onset of the season.  Maybe they keep more DT’s or LB’s and use them as ends.  I just went with Grissom at this point.

One thing I did notice is that Long, Ninkovich, Sheard and Kearse appear to be only signed through the end of this year.  Flowers and Grissom don’t appear to be stars in the making.  Chandler Jones is gone.  Not that we care too much…yet.  But 2017…yikes!!

DT (4):

Locks:  Alan Branch, Malcolm Brown, Terrance Knighton, Vincent Valentine

In:  None

Out:  Joe Vellano, Marcus Kuhn

Way Out:  Woodrow Hamilton

Comments:  Looks pretty set in stone here with what they have now.  Not as many bodies as last year, seems a little thin to me.  Sealver Siliga, Dominique Easley and Akiem Hicks are gone.  Vince Wilfork didn’t come back through that door.  Though Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton may be a reasonable facsimile…as long as he doesn’t come in at 5 bills.  Would’ve liked to have seen them keep Hicks, who seemed to thrive last year once he arrived.  It’s not like the Chicago Bears wildly overpaid him.  Still not sure what the deal is with Easley, but he is still a free agent, so maybe the team was right.  Valentine may have been a questionable pick according to the experts…but they kind of need him.  Vellano always seems to be on the fringe, like the Chris Barker of the D.  He may always be an option in-season.  Maybe they keep a Kuhn here because of the lack of bodies.

LB (5):

Locks:  Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Shea McLellin

In:  Jonathan Freeny, Ramon Humber

Out:  Rufus Johnson, Jon Bostic, Tony Steward, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Elandon Roberts, Kevin Snyder

Way Out:  C.J. Johnson

Comments:  Freeny is probably a lock with the first three.  Bill and the staff seems to have a lot of confidence in him, based on how much he played last year.  And of course the special team abilities!  That’s what made me put Humber on over the rest.  Maybe Bostic developed in the time he has been here…adding in the full offseason.  After all, he was drafted 2 spots ahead of Collins in 2013, if that means anything to ya.  How many times did you hear that last year??  Johnson was a nice story early last season, but once he got that “illness”, they didn’t waste any time putting him on IR.  That should tell you something.  Steward was a 6th rounder on the Buffalo Bills last year, Grugier-Hill and Roberts were 6th rounders this year.  Snyder was signed in the playoffs last year after going undrafted before the season.  Seems like one of them would really have to stand out to make it beyond the practice squad this year.  Though Snyder went to Rutgers, so all bets are off there with the way Bill loves his Rutgers guys.

And…the hype-train may have already started with Grugier-Hill.  To wit, I borrow (steal?) the following quote from an article by Doug Kyed on NESN yesterday, “Kamu Grugier-Hill looks like a safety, plays like a linebacker and has the athleticism of a slot cornerback.  So, where will the sixth-round pick play for the New England Patriots?  The NFL needs to decide on a name for the position made popular by Arizona Cardinals safety/linebacker hybrid Deone Bucannon, whether that be “moneybacker,” “rover” or something else. The hybrid role is becoming more and more popular in the NFL, and Grugier-Hill seems to fit the bill perfectly.  For now, he’s listed as a linebacker on the Patriots’ roster.”  Fits the bill perfectly…of course!!!  I’m not blaming Kyed, by any means.  I’m sure he’s pumped to be quoted in the Blowhard.  I have heard this stuff elsewhere plenty of times since the draft, so I am sure he has too.  “Moneybacker.”  Sheeeesh.

CB (4):

Locks:  Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Cyrus Jones

In:  Justin Coleman

Out:  Darryl Roberts, E.J. Biggers

Way Out:  V’Angelo Bentley, Jonathan Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc

Comments:  Cyrus Jones HAS to be better than any of the teams’ third cornerbacks last year, doesn’t he?  Tarell Brown, Bradley Fletcher, Coleman, Doug Johnson, Rashaan Melvin…I feel like I’m missing others, but you get the point.  I’m just hoping that Logan Ryan doesn’t remember that he is…Logan Ryan…and builds off his pretty good year last year.  I still wouldn’t pay him when he is a free agent after this year, but that’s me.

The Pats went with three corners in many games last year, so they could start this year the same way.  I don’t see it though.  Coleman did make a few plays, so we will see.  I keep hearing Roberts “flashed” in training camp last year from various writers.  But “flashing” in training camp does nothing for me.  Biggers is a long-time vet that is another special teamer, so we can’t rule him out.  I suppose we can’t rule any of the undrafted guys out here because of Butler’s rise.  But since I have no idea who they are, I will dismiss them at this point…until one of them “flashes” in camp, that is…

S (4):

Locks:  Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards

In:  None

Out:  Brock Vereen

Way Out:  Devonta Burns, Cedric Thompson

Comments:  Seems pretty cut and dried here too.  A couple of the specialists can play a little safety in a pinch.  Hopefully that doesn’t need to happen though.  Vereen and Thompson are mid-rounders that may be practice squad-types.  It appears that they never even signed the undrafted Burns, as I noted with the difference between initial reports and actual signings above.  But I am leaving him here anyway.  Because again, with the roster shuffling, he may actually be here next week.  Never can tell.

Specialists (6):

Locks:  Stephen Gostkowski (K), Ryan Allen (P), Joe Cardona (LS), Matthew Slater (ST), Nate Ebner (ST), Brandon King (ST)

In:  None

Out:  None

Way Out:  Christian Yount (LS)

Comments:  I’ve expanded the specialist section even more this year.  Just had the first four last year.  Added Ebner and King.  These guys simply do not play defense at all.  If they do, many other options have been exhausted.  So that’s what these guys are, simply specialists.  You may even be able to put a guy like Humber here too.  Because if the linebackers stay healthy, he won’t play there.  But since the Pats’ linebackers never stay healthy, I left him at that position.

The only wild card here is if Cardona has Navy obligations which take him out of the region.  He had Navy obligations last year, but was able to play in all the games as he fulfilled them locally.  From what I have seen and heard, that may not be the case for the upcoming season.  I’m not convinced Yount would be the guy to actually replace him.  But he will be the guy getting the reps for now.  Since, you know, he is the only one actually here.

I suppose another wild card is if Ebner gets hurt playing for the U.S. Rugby team this spring/summer.  I have no issues with him playing.  He is a good special teamer, but not necessarily integral to the success of the 2016-17 team.  I just hope he doesn’t come back with more ideas and options for more “rugby kicks” for Bill.  I still blame those needless kicks turning the tide for the “ready to quit” Philadelphia Eagles team and the Chris Harper fumbled punt against Denver for preventing the Pats from getting home-field advantage in the playoffs and probably (definitely?) playing in another Super Bowl.  I’m not really that bitter though…no…not at all.

Anyway, that’s about it.  I’ll wait until August to project the practice squad and IR/PUP/NFI and other lists.  As hinted at earlier and in the titles, projecting the 53-man roster at this point is really kind of silly.  But I did enjoy putting it together, I have to admit.  As pathetic as that may sound to some…

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