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So Where Do They Go From Here? Part III

So now, the defense.  There could be significant turnover here next season.  Not only with four starters being free agents, but also some depth pieces, a restricted free agent and a potential cap casualty or two perhaps?

Let’s get right to it:

Defensive end:

Under contract:  John Simon, Chase Winovich, Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers, Nick Thurman (Futures), Tashawn Bower (Futures)

Free Agents:  Keionta Davis (Restricted), Eric Lee (Practice squad)

Comments:  Thin.  No other way to describe it.  Simon is a pretty good piece, but that is what I would describe him as…a piece.  Winovich showed some promise as a strict passing down pass rushing option.  But can he play on all downs?  I have generally liked what I have seen from Wise in the past.  But this year, every time he was on the field he seemed to commit a stupid penalty that always cost the team in a key spot.  I suppose for 880k in the last year of his contract, he could be back as a depth piece.  Rivers has missed a full two seasons over his three years in the league and didn’t do anything in the one he played.  Perhaps it is time to move on.  I bet you didn’t even know Eric Lee was back with the team this season in any capacity, did you?  You may remember that he flashed for a couple of games after being signed away from the Bills’ practice squad late in 2017.  Then quickly faded into obscurity and didn’t even make the 2018 team.  And no, I had no idea he was here either.  I would think upgrades at this position in the offseason would be in order.  But the Pats never like to have a strict pass rush guy that pins his ears back and gets a ton of sacks (Chandler Jones?), so I wouldn’t expect any big names.  Especially after how the Michael Bennett thing worked out this past season.

Defensive tackle:

Under contract:  Lawrence Guy, Byron Cowart

Free Agents:  Danny Shelton, Adam Butler (Restricted)

Comments:  All of a sudden Danny Shelton “matters”, eh?  This guy was a healthy scratch down the stretch in 2018.  A quick fall from grace for the #12 overall pick in 2015.  Then he re-signed fairly late in the offseason, somewhat of an afterthought.  I suppose he had a decent year, but people are now worried about losing him?  Yeah, they are a little thin here as well.  But still.  Butler had a huge year, but it’s possible he could parlay that into big money elsewhere.  For people that analyze nose tackle play, Guy supposedly had a great year.  At a 5 mil cap hit next season in the last year of his contract, that probably makes him a candidate for an extension.  For a guy like me that doesn’t analyze nose tackle play, I saw the team have trouble against the run this season.  That tells me that the Pats could upgrade from ALL of these guys and not miss a beat.  But what the hell do I know?

Linebacker:

Under contract:  Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall (Futures)

Free Agents:  Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts, Shilique Calhoun

Comments:  Speaking of “thin”, this position could take a big hit this offseason.  Of the four free agents that are listed above, I would say the guy most likely to return is Calhoun.  But who cares about him?  Someone will throw Van Noy a boatload of cash, so say goodbye to him.  Collins may turn his dominant first half against bum teams into some sort of decent contract as well.  And although Roberts did his job for the team and played fullback down the stretch, he made no bones about wanting to play more at LB.  I imagine he will try to find a team that will let him do that.  The Brady situation bears watching here as well.  Hightower had a great year and got selected for the Pro Bowl.  He played 15 games this year as well.  But he always seems dinged up, turns 30 in March and costs 11 mil plus against the cap in the final year of his contract next year.  He has been adamant in the recent past about not renegotiating his deals to lower the cap number.  And is the player worth an extension under these circumstances, despite his obvious talent and leadership?  My sense is that if Brady is gone and many other free agents leave, Dont’a could be a cap casualty himself as they remold the team.  If Brady returns and they kind of “load up” for one more run, Hightower will most assuredly return at the same cap number as well.

Cornerback:

Under contract:  Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty, Joejuan Williams, D’Angelo Ross

Free Agents:  None

Comments:  Nothing to see here, though it would not shock me to see the team move on from the 5.5 mil cap hit of Jason McCourty and officially elevate Jackson to a starting position.  Especially if Jason’s brother Devin does not return, but more on that later.  While also creating more playing time for Williams.  Then fill in the back end through the draft or low end free agency.  Or maybe they can go get Duke Dawson or Keion Crossen back.  Side note:  congratulations to Gilmore on winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.  If you showed up against DeVante Parker of Miami in the last game of the regular season, perhaps the playoffs would have gone in a different direction.  Guess the voting was already complete before that game.  And no, I’m not bitter.  At all.

Safety:

Under contract:  Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Terrance Brooks, Malik Gant, Obi Melifonwu (Futures), Adarius Pickett (Futures)

Free Agents:  Devin McCourty

Comments:  The last time Devin hit free agency, in 2015, the team told him to go out and get his contract and then come back to talk to them first before signing anything.  He did and the Pats reacted by signing him to a 5 year, 47.5 million dollar contract.  Seemed like a lot of dough, but hey, he was heading into his age-28 season, fully in his prime and was an invaluable member of the defense as well as the locker room.  Turned out to be the right move…and by a longshot.  This time around, will the Pats do the same thing?  Maybe.  But I don’t think he’s getting almost 10 mil per, heading into his age-33 season.  Leadership or no leadership.  There is a good chance he doesn’t return if he wants that money.  Though, he may not get that kind of offer elsewhere.  So this will be interesting to watch as well.

McCourty, Chung and Harmon have filled out a pretty solid safety crew for years now.  But I am also going to question the returns of the latter two.  Again, if Brady returns, they probably stick even at their almost 6 mil and 5.5 mil cap hits, respectively.  But if Brady goes?  All bets are off.  Chung’s cocaine charges were dropped, pending good behavior or something.  He was dinged up more than usual this season.  And looked susceptible more than he has since his return to New England.  Could he be judged expendable?  If the team starts some sort of “rebuilding” process, do they also need to spend that kind of money on a third safety in Harmon?  Though Harmon will be 29 as opposed to Chung, who, like McCourty, will also be heading into his age 33 season.  Brooks is cheap and mostly a special teamer, so he’s safe.  Just another interesting position to watch.

There you have it.  A lot of words over three pieces.  A lot of random thoughts.  A billion questions.  But not a whole helluva lot of answers.

Unfortunately, we won’t be getting pretty much any of those until mid-March…and then into the summer.

Can’t wait.  But that also means winter will be almost over and that may even excite me more than Brady’s status…

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.

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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