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New England Patriots Free Agency Roundup, Part 2

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.

Wide receiver:

Players under contract:  Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Devin Lucien, Malcolm Mitchell

Free agents:  Michael Floyd

What I would do:  There’s a good chance I wouldn’t do anything to the group that ended the year on the team.  The top 4 of the group (Edelman, Hogan, Mitchell and Amendola) have earned the complete trust of Tom Brady.  This alone is huge.  They run the right routes, make the right reads, have decent hands, make the tough catches and are completely comfortable in the system.  And all that.  Amendola gets banged up a lot and that would most likely necessitate carrying a 5th receiver (please no Matthew Slater here).  But these four seem to be a reliable crew in general.  Amendola would have to adjust his almost 8 million cap hit…and all indications are that he is amenable to that.  The other 3 have salaries that the team could live with.

That 5th receiver could be Floyd.  I’d be ok with that.  He likely will have to take one of those 1 year “prove it” deals that people love to talk about…and the Patriots like to give out.  At probably cheap money too.  Why not take a chance?  He’s got talent…and a head start in the system already.  There have been some rumors that the Pats have interest in New Orleans’ Brandin Cooks.  Wouldn’t argue with that either.  Not sure why he is even on the market, but that’s their problem I guess.  Lucien, a 7th rounder from last year, would not seem to be able to crack this group.  Maybe sticks on the practice squad again.

No reason to go too crazy finding other receivers to fit in here right at the start of free agency for sure.

What I think will happen:  Belichick doesn’t love dressing 5 receivers for games, unless they make an impact on regular special teams units.  Edelman and Amendola do returns, but none of the other guys above are a factor there.  But if Amendola takes that pay cut and returns, I think Bill adds either Floyd or another “traditional” receiver.  That also could come through the draft though.  Maybe they eventually make a trade for a Cooks or the like.  But this is another position that will be low priority in free agency for the team.

Tight end:

Players under contract:  Rob Gronkowski, Rob Housler,

Free agents:  Martellus Bennett, Matt Lengel (exclusive rights), Greg Scruggs, Michael Williams (?)

What I would do:  Bennett was a good soldier this year.  Kept his attitude in line.  You know he played hurt for a great deal of the season.  It’s a crime he and Gronk were not together, healthy, for a 16 game season.  That would have been fun to watch.  Bennett has his ring now and wants big money in free agency.  He will probably get it too.  If the dough is out of hand, I’d let him go.  I’d let him go regardless actually.  Because he is the type of guy that if he signs here for less than he believe he deserves, and he already has a ring, he could revert to his past ways where he is kind of a headache.  No thanks.

That being said, having a TE of Bennett’s caliber is something I think the team should pursue.  Gronk is Gronk.  But with another back surgery in the books.  The Pats should chase another TE that is in the upper tier.  Maybe buy low on someone like they did with Martellus last year.  Housler, Lengel, Scruggs and Williams don’t fit that bill.  I don’t even know if Williams is still here.  He spent all of last year on injured reserve and is still listed on their roster.  But not on the salary cap page from what I can see.  But that really doesn’t matter I suppose.  Anyway, maybe that upper tier TE comes in the draft.  But I’d look hard for one in free agency.

What I think will happen:  Bennett walks.  The team signs a couple of backup TE’s in the mold of a Clay Harbor or something.  A veteran with seemingly more to offer than the 4 “other” TE’s above, but not as good as Bennett.  Then work on getting another quality TE in the draft…which is supposed to be TE-rich.

Offensive line:

Players under contract:  David Andrews (C), Chris Barker (G), Marcus Cannon (T), Jamil Douglas (C), Chase Farris (T), Tre’ Jackson (G), Ted Karras (G), Shaq Mason (G), Nate Solder (T), Joe Thuney (G), LaAdrian Waddle (T)

Free agents:  Cameron Fleming (T) (restricted)

What I would do:  The line was exposed a bit in the playoffs.  Maybe it’s because the middle is full of young guys.  Maybe it’s because Cannon isn’t actually as good as he apparently played this year.  Maybe it’s because Nate Solder isn’t as good as people think he is, period.  Maybe it’s because it was Dante Scarnecchia’s first year back in the saddle and he is still working on some things with the unit.

The line seemingly played pretty well this year before the playoffs, so maybe the weaknesses showing up there can be fixed in the offseason…plus with more experience for the interior guys.  I’d work on getting better depth in free agency for one thing.  The team carried only 8 guys for most of the year…with Waddle mostly inactive and Fleming playing a lot of tight end when injuries hit.  I haven’t done any research, but I would say Belichick usually has 10 or so guys on the active roster.  Maybe he felt he didn’t need that this year with the line staying intact for most of the year.  And also with Douglas, Farris and Barker on the practice squad for most of the year too.

Even with Jackson returning from injury, none of the backup guys seem to inspire confidence.  I’d spend some time in free agency finding a better veteran backup swing tackle and a better veteran backup interior guy that can play both guard and center.  I’d also restructure Solder’s gruesome 11 mil cap hit.  The Pats will have plenty of cap space to do what they want.  But that number (currently second on the team overall) just doesn’t look right.

What I think will happen:  Nothing.  Maybe Solder gets an extension to shrink his cap number.  But I think these are most of the characters you see next year.  Certainly the starters.  Solder and Cannon, with his fat extension signed during last season, will be the tackles.  Thuney was a third rounder from last year that they love and he played something like all but 4 snaps the entire season.  He’s going nowhere.  Andrews seems entrenched.  If anything, maybe Mason gets pushed.  But by Jackson or Barker (since he can’t spend an 18th consecutive year on the practice squad I would bet), not by a vet they have signed.  They will probably bring in some big bodies at the middle to end of the draft.  But I doubt they sign any veterans.  Not in the first wave of free agency anyway.  I can tell you that Sebastian Vollmer ain’t coming back either.  So long Sea Bass!!

Next:  Onto the defense.

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…

Gross…

…and it is still leaving a bad taste in my mouth two days later.  The New England Patriots’ performance on Sunday was just atrocious.  I guess it was worse since I saw it live.  And it wasn’t exactly a gorgeous autumn day to boot.  All in all, not a whole lot to be excited about.

The Buffalo Bills essentially had one player to stop, LeSean McCoy, and the Pats couldn’t do it.  Yeah, McCoy’s final numbers weren’t otherworldly (19 rushes for 70 yards plus 6 catches for 38 yards and a TD), he seemed to always get the job done when it needed to be done.  As did Tyrod Taylor.  A decidedly average quarterback, he seemed to accomplish what he wanted to as well.

You can say whatever you want about the offense.  And they seemed bad.  But…were they really that bad?  I’d call it moreso just conservative.  How much can you really accomplish when you play extremely conservative?

Granted, the Patriots had a third string QB at the helm.  One with a bum thumb on his throwing hand.  And the team once again played with only one legitimate QB active.  They still were clearly babying Rob Gronkowski.  Danny Amendola seems to be working his way back as well and he is not playing much at this time.  Etc.

But I thought Jacoby Brissett looked…competent…out there.  I thought he showed well for someone with his experience, not to mention with the limitations the coaching staff placed on him.  Sure, the fumble inside the 20 was inexcusable.  And he missed a wide-open Amendola on one third down.  But he also dropped one right into Brandon Bolden’s hands for a potential TD, only to have Bolden drop it.  He probably held onto the ball too long most of the time and did other things that rookies are prone to do.   But to me, he didn’t look out-of-place like a lot of rookies do.

They let him throw 3 passes in the first half.  THREE!!  Not counting the 90 yarder to Edelman on the first play of the game due to penalties.  Ok, it was a screen pass that Edelman turned into 90 yards, but a pass nonetheless.  Once the coaches saw what direction the game was going in, couldn’t they have opened it up more earlier?  Yeah, they did a bit in the second half, but still…not quite enough in my eyes.

I thought the game plan and the adjustments from the coaching staff left a lot to be desired.  Especially with 10 days to prepare.  But I have to say, I kind of don’t blame them for at least the offensive plans.  Guys are banged up, as I said, including your only real QB.  The Bills are terrible.  LeGarrette Blount had been running well and was just named the AFC Player of the Month for September.  And all that.  With the game at home, they probably thought they could sneak out of there with like a 20-10 win or something.  Even 14-10 or 14-7.  Something along those lines.

The other units just didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.  Special teams…returns in particular…not good.  Cyrus Jones is supposed to be a dynamic returner.  That quality supposedly separated him from other players in the 2nd round the Patriots thought were about equal where they drafted Jones.  But since the lights have come on in the regular season, Jones has been dropping the ball a lot and has been indecisive when he holds onto it.  Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal as well.  Ryan Allen punted well, but, not a banner day overall.

My ire is mostly with the defense.  16 points against looks good in the box score.  Making the Bills attempt 5 field goals and allowing only 1 touchdown may look like a positive as well.  But not really.  No pass rush, terrible coverage, couldn’t get off the field on third down.  Ugly.

I know Billy B. has his way of playing mobile QBs…not a ton of pass rush, contain the QB, some sort of zone D, etc.  I know Jabal Sheard and Dont’a Hightower are not 100%.  I know Vincent Valentine left the game somewhere in the middle of it, leaving the Pats essentially with only two defensive tackles in Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch, at a position where they like to rotate a bunch of guys to keep those big fellas fresh.  I know all that and more.  But a hugely disappointing effort all around on the defensive side.  Countless missed tackles.  A cornerback with an amazing 17 tackles (Logan Ryan…which is not actually a good stat for a CB, by the way).  Guys running around TOO wide open, even for zone defense.  As noted above, too many third down conversions against.  And on and on.

With all that negativity being said and as angry as I have been since the game, I am really here to tell you…it doesn’t matter!!  yes, the Pats really should be 4-0.  Sure, everyone figured they’d be 3-1, with the loss actually coming against Arizona.  Once they got to 3-0 and had a bad team at home, 4-0 really should have happened.

Now that it didn’t, it’s probably a good time to look at the big picture.  With their 3rd string QB playing two and a half games out of the four Tom Brady was suspended, the team went 3-1.  They still lead the putrid division by a game.  And now Brady comes back.  Rob Ninkovich is back as well.  Presumably, Gronk, Amendola, Sheard, Hightower et al will get healthier.  The offensive line will continue to gel (helped by quicker decisions and releases by Brady).  The defense should play better and round into some sort of form.  Gostkowski should return to his reliable self.  Even Jones may learn from his return mistakes.  Maybe we see more of Barkevious Mingo chasing the QB around as well.

The goal here is the end of the season, not September.  We know Belichick always treats the first month or so as an extended training camp.  Gets an idea of what they have.  How things can be adjusted.  The team should win the division going away still.  And be in the mix for home field advantage in the AFC for sure…let’s just hope they don’t blow it like last year.

Maybe an early loss is good for them?  No undefeated record to chase.  Early wakeup call.  Stuff like that.

That’s what I’m going with now anyway…

 

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