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New England Patriot Free Agency Review – Defense

Picking up where we left off yesterday…onto the defense.

Arriving:  Stephon Gilmore, Kony Ealy, Lawrence Guy

Returning:  Dont’a Hightower, Alan Branch, Duron Harmon, Geneo Grissom, Justin Coleman, Brandon King

Departing:  Jabaal Sheard, Logan Ryan, Barkevious Mingo

In limbo:  Malcolm Butler

Who cares?:  Chris Long

Worth mentioning:  No one else

Let’s start with the big ones:

*Sign Gilmore for 5 years, 65 million…of which apparently 40 mil is guaranteed.  Whoa.  Lotta dough.  Did anyone see this coming?  I doubt it.  Sure, everyone knew they were likely to lose Ryan.  And that Butler would want some big money sooner, rather than later (more on him later) and that fact may have had some impact going forward.  So signing a cornerback or two in free agency may have been on the list at some point.  But signing a big-ticket CB?  One of the most coveted free agents out there?  On the morning of the very first day of free agency?  Not typical Patriot behavior.  Especially throwing the most guaranteed money for a defensive player in the history of the franchise.

OK, let’s just cover Butler here as well.  A lot of fans seem to be pretty upset that the team would make this kind of move.  After all that Butler has done here…cementing the Super Bowl with his interception at the end of his rookie year.  Then playing at an All-Pro/Pro Bowl level the subsequent two years.  All the while doing everything the team asked him to and keeping his mouth shut.  At limited dollars.  Blah blah blah.

And those fans may have a point.  Butler sure as hell does deserve a raise.  And he got one.  This year as a restricted free agent, he was tendered at the highest level and will make close to 4 million.  I’d say that is a pretty good raise.  Apparently, he was offered 6-7 million dollars a year before this past season.  Now, we don’t know how many years (ie: how many years past his current unrestricted free agent date at the end of next year would he have to lock into and “lose”), or the guaranteed money involved (BIG consideration).  But still looks like a pretty good raise nonetheless.

Malcolm did not want any of that and wants to cash in after next season in unrestricted free agency.  Fair enough for sure.  So despite the fact that we all feel for him to some degree, he really shouldn’t be upset that the Pats pounced on a potential long-term replacement now in case Butler walks next year.  Plus, the team rarely pays players before they have to, unless it’s a situation like above, where the player pushes off unrestricted free agency a few years for additional financial security before the Pats actually HAVE to lay out the cash.  I usually don’t begrudge a player for going after the money, especially in a sport like football where the average career is short.  But…them’s the rules…

As for the two players’ actual skills on the field?  I have seen Butler every week and I love him.  I don’t watch a lot of (ummm…any) Buffalo Bills football, so I can’t tell you if Gilmore is a better player.  But he is a smidge younger.  A smidge bigger.  And the Patriots locked him up for 5 years, so apparently THEY think he is better.  So who am I to argue with that?

All that being said, I hope Butler stays this year, makes his 4 mil, gives the team a great CB tandem (while keeping Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman, et al off the field as much as possible) and this helps them win another Super Bowl.  Then he can walk, since I doubt the Pats are paying 2 cornerbacks 8 figures a year apiece.  But now what I think will happen, especially with Butler’s visit today to New Orleans, is that Malcolm will get traded to the Saints post-haste.  It appears it would have happened in the Brandin Cooks deal, but it didn’t for many reasons.  One, Butler can’t be traded without signing his tender.  Two, Cooks had some sort of bonus deadline that he had to be dealt by if NO didn’t want to pay.  And also I suppose three, Butler needs to decide if he wants to play there and sign long-term and he and the Saints would have to negotiate and all that.

Butler leaving would certainly be too bad.  But that’s life in the NFL I guess…now that we’ve beaten this to death…

*Trading a second round pick (#64) to Carolina for Ealy and a third rounder (#72).  Steal, even if Ealy sucks.  Dropping 8 spots in the draft and getting a young defensive end with potential?  One that makes less than a million beans?  With Long and Sheard gone and Rob Ninkovich seemingly towards the end of the line, leaving the position fairly thin?  How could you not do that?  Maybe he’s not as good as the guy that had 3 sacks against Denver in the Super Bowl 2 years ago.  But should be an asset…and absolutely worth the seemingly miniscule acquisition price.

*Re-signing Branch and signing Guy.  You know I wanted Branch back.  Don’t know a thing about Guy and the contract seems steep.  But I’m guessing he is better than Woodrow Hamilton.  And along with Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine, seems like a serviceable rotation to have in the middle of the defensive line.  I’ll wait and see if Guy gets turnstiled regularly before I complain about this one.  In the meantime, Hamilton can go back to the practice squad and be insurance for if/when Branch decides to smoke some more weed.

The rest:

*I’m not classifying Hightower’s return as a “big” one.  Not because it’s not a big deal he came back.  It sure is…just look at the rest of the linebacking core.  But rather because I think most felt like he was pretty much coming back here anyway.  That he had a “McCourty-esque” kind of understanding with Bill Belichick and the team.  Where he would bring any offers back to the Pats and they would get the opportunity to match it.  Once the first few days of free agency passed with no monster offers for Dont’a, I think this theory became stronger.  I mean, seriously, the Jets?  The cupcakes were a nice touch (huh?), but unless they gave him the moon, did anyone actually think that he would go there?  Doubtful.  Didn’t seem to be other serious suitors.  Always kind of felt like he wasn’t going anywhere.

*Seems like waaaay too much dough for Harmon.  3rd safety, technically a backup.  But I’m not opposed to him being here.  Just hope the money invested in Duron doesn’t stop them from paying someone, you know, good, in the future.

*Again, I expected someone to overpay Ryan.  That happened.  No worries there.  We knew Sheard wasn’t coming back.  But the Colts gave him 25.5 mil over 3 years?  Yikes!  The Colts also gave Mingo 2 mil for a year.  Mingo barely played on D here, so 2 mil sounds way too steep as well.  Guess Indy had some money to burn.

*We covered Long already, with his desire to “get back to being the player he once was”.  Good luck with that, my friend.  I hate to tell you that that ship has sailed.

*Grissom, Coleman, King?  Useful.  Depth.  Low cost.  Sounds good to me.

Now let’s get this Butler nonsense settled…

Thanks Donnie!!

Donnie Hockey actually came through!!  Things must be looking up!!

So Don Sweeney pretty much did what the Blowhard wanted him to do at the deadline.  All Sweens did was trade a 6th round pick for a couple of months of Drew Stafford.

Some people may not even like that, since Sweeney traded away yet another pick.  But it’s a 6th rounder.  Sure you can get a Bob Sweeney or Mike Krushelnyski in that round.  And maybe Anton Blidh and/or Zane McIntyre turn into something.  But the list of “ne’er made its” is looooong.  And yes, I totally looked all that up.

Plus, Sweeney has a slew of young talent (we hope) that has already been drafted or acquired and at some point at least some of those guys will have to be implemented into the mix.  So who cares about the 6th round pick?

The most important thing is that he wasn’t blinded by the great record under Bruce Cassidy and pretend that this team was a player or two away from a Stanley Cup Championship run, give up too many young players and/or more picks…and then either not make the playoffs or lose in the first round.  Would have been yet another black mark against him.

I’m sure he listened to both buy and sell situations.  If he didn’t, he’s not doing his job.  But thankfully, he did not pull the trigger on buying.  I actually am ok with him also not completely selling at this point.  As discussed previously, the edge of the roster guys weren’t going to bring you much anyway.  The more talented players on this roster seemed to have been re-energized some with the coaching change.  And it may behoove the team to keep a guy like Zdeno Chara for next year, to be a kind of “coach on the ice”…especially for the significantly reduced cap hit.  Let’s ride this thing out this year as is, have no illusions of where the finish line is, then tinker with things over the summer.

To me, this was the best case scenario.

As for Stafford?  I can’t say I have followed his seemingly less than illustrious 144 game Winnipeg Jet career.  But I do remember when he was a Buffalo Sabre he always seemed to play well against the Bruins.  Although Jimmy Hayes has played better since Cassidy took over, he still is playing only 8-9 minutes a night.  So the coaching staff can’t be trusting him THAT much.  Stafford would probably qualify as an upgrade, no?

Stafford would also seem to qualify a sort of “Peter Cehlarik”-type of insurance.  Don’t get me wrong, in my eyes, Cehlarik has played pretty well with David Krejci and David Pastrnak.  I like what I’ve seen thus far.  But he’s just a kid.  He hasn’t scored in his 8 career NHL games.  And as the playoff race gets tighter, if he isn’t producing offensively on the second line, I can see him back in Providence (instead of buried on the 4th line or a healthy scratch) as Cassidy leans on the veterans more.  Unfair?  Perhaps.  But all bets are off if the team is actually trying to make the playoffs.  Which I presume they are.  And I know, Stafford is technically a right wing and Cehlarik a left wing.  But those types of things always work themselves out.

Seems to me that Stafford is a solid, if unspectacular acquisition.  At a reasonable cost.  No problems there.

So I applaud you Don Sweeney!!  I’m not sure I’ve ever said anything positive about Donnie Hockey since he took over the GM chair.  I suppose there is a first time for everything though, right?

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…

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