Mike Fanelli | February 27th, 2019
On February 3rd, 2019 the New England Patriots took part in their fourth Super Bowl in the last five seasons; winning their third during that streak. Unlike the previous three appearances where the Patriots scored an average of 31.7 points per game, they were only able to put up 13 against the Los Angles Rams. However, a win is a win and Tom Brady couldn’t care less about how the score looks. With Brady’s sixth Super Bowl win, the argument for greatest quarterback of all time is pretty much over. In a season that had more drama and mistakes than usual, the Patriots still came out on top, winning it’s sixth Super Bowl in franchise history.
What Went Right:
Last offseason many fans questioned if Bill Belichick had lost his mind, letting long time left tackle Nate Solder sign with the New York Giants and former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler sign with the Tennessee Titans. However, both plays struggled with their new teams and the Patriots got two third-round compensatory picks in this year’s draft for them. Even more satisfying for Patriot fans is the team was able to replace both players with cheaper and better playing options.
On the second night of the 2018 NFL draft, the Patriots traded a late third round pick to the San Francisco 49ers for starting right tackle Trent Brown and a fifth-round pick. The Patriots then flipped Brown to the left side where he had a career year. To replace Butler as the nickel back, the Patriots used a combination of former undrafted cornerbacks J.C. Jackson and Johnathan Jones along with some creative game planning.
The Giants and Titans paid Solder and Butler a combined $16 million dollars against the cap this year while the trio of players the Patriots used to replace them cost just over $3 million dollars against the cap. Year in and year out the Patriots find a way to take unknown players and turn them into contributors while avoid having to overpay for players that struggle outside of the Patriots’ locker room.
In addition to the smart free agency move the Patriots made, they had a very successful 2018 draft. First-round pick offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn torn his Achilles in the preseason but is expected to take over at left tackle if the Patriots let Brown leave as a free agent. The other first round pick, Sony Michel, went on to have a successful rookie season, leading the team in every rushing category despite missing three games because of injuries. Also, Michel was the only player to score a touchdown in Super Bowl 53.
By moving around the draft and trading away picks, the Patriots have an extra second-round pick from the Chicago Bears from the draft night trade of Anthony Miller and an extra third-round pick from the Detroit Lions from the draft night trade of Da’Shawn Hand. Add in the two compensatory picks for Butler and Solder and the Patriots have six picks in the top 101 selections of the 2019 draft.
What Went Wrong:
When you win the Super Bowl, there isn’t much that could have gone wrong with you season. However, there are three things that Patriot fans should be a little worried about. One, Brady’s age and the signs of it. Compared to his 2018 MVP season, Brady’s stats were mostly on par. However, he threw the most interceptions in a season since 2013 and had his worse winning percentage as the starter since 2009. Now neither of these is a reason to sound the alarm, but Brady had several moments this season where he did not look like his old self. Father time is undefeated and the time has come for the Patriots to focus on Brady’s replacement, not to take over next year as the starter but potentially in 2020.
Two, Rob Gronkowski is clearly done. Whether he returns for one last ride in 2019 or not, the Patriots can’t count on him to be the dominant force he once was. Yes, he had a good two-game stretch verse the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game and in the Super Bowl, but during the season Gronkowski was average at best. He still hasn’t announced if he will retire or come back for one more season. If he does come back the Patriots will demand he lower his 2019 cap number from the $11.9 million dollars it’s currently at. Either way the Patriots need to add a young tight end and this draft class has plenty of good ones.
Finally, the Patriots struggles against weaker competition this year. The Patriots were 4-0 against playoff teams but were just 7-5 against non-playoff teams, including losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins. Usually, the Patriots destroy weaker opponents but a 7-5 record against non-playoff teams this year is a red flag. In addition, Belichick put Gronkowski out on the field for the final play in the loss to the Dolphins to protect for a Hail Mary pass attempt. The only problem was the Dolphins were 69 yards away from the end zone.
The Dolphins ran a lateral play instead and Gronkowski was unable to make the game-saving tackle (understandably so for a 6’6” tight end trying to play safety). Belichick’s mishandling of the situation cost the Patriots home field advantage in the playoffs and forced them on the road for the AFC Championship game. When they defeated the Chiefs, it was the first road playoff win for the Patriots since 2006.
While the 2018 season had its ups and downs, a Super Bowl victory makes the season a complete success. Entering the offseason, the Patriots will have a lot to deal with but fans should have faith as the team has been the most consistent sports franchise over the last 16 years.
Outlook for the Offseason:
According to over the cap, the Patriots are projected to have about $15.6 million dollars in cap space before making cuts. Clearly, the Patriots will need to open up some room, and the good news for them is there is plenty of ways to do it. Some players that could be at risk for being cut are Dwayne Allen ($7.4 million saved), Adrian Clayborn ($4 million) and Elandon Roberts ($2 million). Allen is almost a guaranteed to be released as he would leave the Patriots with no dead money. However, he could agree to a seriously reduced deal to stay with the team.
If Gronkowski does decide to retire, the Patriots will save $9.9 million dollars in cap space. If he decides to return for the 2019 season, he will need to lower his cap number down from the $11.9 million dollars it’s currently at to probably around $5.5 million dollars. The Patriots and Brady are expected to come to an agreement on a contract extension. Depending on how the deal is structured the Patriots could open up as much as $10.4 million dollars in cap space.
The Patriots have several players that are upcoming free agents, including a few key starters. However, they more than likely won’t use the franchise tag on any of them and only resign them if they meet the Patriots price value on them. Of their many free agents, the key ones are Trey Flowers, Trent Brown, Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, and Jason McCourty. Of the group, Allen and McCourty have the best odds of re-signing with the team this offseason.
Cornerback Jason McCourty is the twin brother of longtime Patriots’ safety Devin McCourty. The McCourty twins considered retirement earlier this offseason but both want to play in 2019 and for the Patriots. With Devin under contract for 2019 at $13.4 million dollars, Jason will want to come back even at a discount to play with his brother and compete for another Super Bowl trophy. Allen is one of the few left-footed punters in the league, something the Patriots value, and has been on the best, averaging over 43 yards per game in every season of his career.
Assuming all the player projected to get the franchise tag actually do get slapped with it, Brown and Flowers will be the top guys at their position on the open market. Now if the price is right, the Patriots would love to bring back both but given their history of not overpaying for their free agents and the expected money both players will get on the market, neither is expected to return.
Josh Gordon was left off the list of free agents because he is suspended indefinitely by the league and is a restricted free agent, I’m not sure there will be any kind of market for him. I expect the Patriots to keep him around as he won’t cost them much of anything and hope he can return from the suspension and play like he did in the 11 games for the team this season.
While opening all this cap space is nice on paper, the Patriots are rarely a team that spends big money on free agents. Instead, they target cheaper free agents and players released by their teams. Players that have been released don’t count against the compensatory pick formula for the next season and the Patriots love to target those kinds of players. Here are so cheap bargain value free agents the Patriots should take a look at.
Cheap Bargain Values:
- Cole Beasley, WR, Cowboys
- Devin Funchess, WR, Panthers
- Demaryius Thomas, WR, Texans (released 2/12)
- Michael Crabtree, WR, Ravens (released 2/25)
- Tyler Eifert, TE, Bengals
- Cameron Fleming, OT, Cowboys
- Vinny Curry, EDGE, Buccaneers (released 2/12)
- Earl Mitchell, DT, 49ers
- Thomas Davis, LB, Panthers
- Glover Quin, SAF, Lions (released 2/12)
Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman and 2018 sixth round pick Braxton Berrios are the only wide receivers under contract for next season. Outside receivers Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett are free agents and neither did much in the playoffs to secure a new deal. Instead, I expect the Patriots to explore the open market for veteran receivers, especially those who have been released to protect their compensatory picks in 2020.
Both Thomas and Crabtree had down season the last two years but both could bounce back playing with Brady. The Patriots almost acquired Thomas at the trade deadline last year and coming off a torn Achilles injury, the Patriots will cautious with signing him. Funchess got benched at the end of last season and could sign a one year prove it kind of deal. Beasley isn’t an outside receiver but signing him could be a real possibility.
Last season was the first time since 2013 that the Patriots didn’t have two slot receivers on their roster. For all those seasons they had Edelman and Danny Amendola at slot receiver. Adding Beasley would give the Patriots that 1-2 punch again and lighten the workload for Edelman, who led the team in receiving yards despite playing in just 12 games.
Eifert has played well when healthy, the problem is he is never healthy. However, the Patriots have dealt with Gronkowski’s injury history and could give Eifert a one year prove it kind of deal to rebuild his value. Fleming was the Patriots’ swing tackle in 2017 and if Brown is allowed to leave, the team needs to bring in a veteran behind Isaiah Wynn.
If Flowers isn’t resigned I expect the Patriots to draft a pass rusher early. In addition, they should look to add a veteran in free agency. Because Curry was released earlier this offseason he won’t count against their compensatory picks in 2020, but he still has something left in the tank. Mitchell would provide defensive tackle depth if Danny Shelton or Malcolm Brown isn’t resigned. Davis was informed earlier this offseason that the Carolina Panthers wouldn’t resign him and he says he wants to keep on playing. Signing with the Patriots would give him his best shot at winning a Super Bowl.
Bigger Name Options:
At the trade deadline, the Patriots tried to add a veteran wide receiver. Thomas was a target and Tate was the other. Tate struggled in Philadelphia and isn’t expected to be resigned, could the Patriots pony up the money needed to bring him in? Tate would give the Patriots a wide receiver that would take the defense’s attention away from Edelman and can be used in multiple ways on offense.
The Baltimore Ravens are expected to be tight against the cap and with several free agents they want to keep, Suggs might not be resigned. At 37 years old, Suggs doesn’t have too many years left but if Flowers leave, he would provide a veteran presence to the defensive line unit and he can still put pressure on the quarterback. Suggs has produced at least seven sacks in five of the last six seasons; the exception was in 2015 where he played in just one game because of injury.
Earlier I said the Patriots don’t sign big price free agents but Thomas might be the exception to the rule. All of the Patriots’ top three safeties are under contract through next season but they all have two or less years left on their current deals. Both McCourty and Chung are on the wrong side of 30 and Duron Harmon isn’t a difference maker.
Adding Thomas would give the Patriots even more flexibility week-to-week in their game planing because of his ability to cover sideline-to-sideline in the back end. Of the three, releasing McCourty is the only one that would the Patriots much cap space, so signing Thomas is a long shot but the Patriots should be considered a dark horse team for his services.
With all the trades the Patriots made during last year’s draft and their compensatory picks, they have six picks within the first three rounds of the draft. There is zero chance the Patriots make all six of these picks. They might move up, move down or trade away selections for 2020 picks, but one thing is for sure, the Patriots will be active during the draft.
Everyone wants to know what players the Patriots should take with their picks, but I don’t want to give player names because we still have a little under two months of evaluating to do before the draft. Also, free agency and trades will have an impact on how the team drafts so take these suggestions lightly.
- First Round (#32 overall): Tight End
As I mentioned above, Gronkowski can’t be counted on any longer. This draft class has several good tight end prospects, including three that should go in the top 40 picks. The Patriots offense focuses a lot around the tight end position and if they can land one of T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant or Irv Smith Jr., the offense shouldn’t miss a beat.
- Second Round (#56 overall): Defensive End
This pick comes from the Bears as part of the Anthony Miller trade. If the Patriots don’t resign Flowers, they will need to find his replacement. Flowers was a fourth round pick and the Patriots do a good job finding pass rushers in the draft. Much like the tight end class, the EDGE class is very deep this year and at the end of the second round, they should be able to find a day one starter.
- Second Round (#64 overall): Wide Receiver
Even if the Patriots add two of the receivers I listed above, this team has zero young receivers on the roster. This draft class has plenty of potential number two and number three wide receivers that will be available on day two. The Patriots haven’t had a big body wide receiver in a long time because Gronkowski filled that role. However, the time has come to add someone to take over that role.
- Third Round (#73 overall): Quarterback
This pick comes from the Lions as part of the Da’Shawn Hand trade. Many think the Patriots will draft a quarterback in the first round, but historically that isn’t the case. Since 1994 the Patriots have drafted 12 quarterbacks and only one (Jimmy Garoppolo, 62nd overall) was picked before the third round. While many think this quarterback class isn’t very good, the Patriots need to draft a quarterback in the middle rounds and see if he is Brady’s replacement. If not, they will draft another one again in 2020.
- Third Round (#97 overall): Cornerback
Cornerbacks Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones and Eric Row are free agents and while McCourty should be resigned, the Patriots still need to add depth to the unit. Last year’s second round pick Duke Dawson is better off playing as the nickelback leaving the Patriots with just one proven guy at outside cornerback; Stephon Gilmore. While the class lacks a lot of star power, the depth at cornerback is good. The Patriots can probably find an eventual replacement for McCourty with this pick.
- Third Round (#101 overall): Defensive Tackle
Both Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton are free agents and there is a good chance neither is resigned. If that is the case the Patriots will need to add depth at the position behind starters Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler. With several good defensive tackle prospects expected to be on the board come the late third round, the Patriots might be able to find a future starter with this selection.
Coming off a Super Bowl title, many teams would be happy with that, but not the Patriots. Belichick is famously known for starting a “no days off” chant at their parade after winning Super Bowl 51. If anyone thinks Brady and Belichick are happy with six Super Bowl victories, they are completely wrong. For as long as the Patriots have Brady and Belichick the expectation is simple; win the Super Bowl or else it was a disappointing season. That is the expectation for the 2019 season; no excuses otherwise.
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