New England Patriots Free Agency Tracker: Updated Signings, Rumors, Storylines

Eitan KatzAnalyst IIMarch 12, 2012

New England Patriots Free Agency Tracker: Updated Signings, Rumors, Storylines

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    With NFL free agency set to begin on March 13, the New England Patriots are gearing up for a long few weeks of signings leading up the the NFL draft.

    There are plenty of weaknesses on the roster, with some glaring holes that need to be filled.

    On offense, running back and wide receiver are both areas where the Patriots will be looking to improve, especially with the impending departure of bruising running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. On the other side of the ball, there are a few more positions that need to be upgraded.

    Playing alongside Patrick Chung at safety, the Pats had a revolving door that included James Ihedigbo, Sergio Brown, Sterling Moore, Devin McCourty and even wide receiver Matthew Slater. To say that the position is in need of a serious makeover would be an understatement. It is probably New England's No. 1 priority this offseason.

    Also on defense, the Patriots will be looking to bolster their depth at cornerback and find some permanent fixtures along the defensive line.

    Mario Williams could be an option up front, but the Pats could save themselves a boatload of money and protect themselves from a possible Adalius Thomas-type bust situation by just re-signing the pass rushing duo of Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, both of whom are free agents.

    The last area of free agency New England needs to worry about is actually at quarterback where restricted free agent Brian Hoyer remains an asset. We all saw what happened with the Indianapolis Colts this season, and I imagine the Pats will do what they need to do in order to retain Brady's top backup at least for one more season.

    Let's take an in-depth look at the six areas the Patriots will be focused on during free agency, and even take a stab at some predictions along the way.

Latest Patriots News and Rumors

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    4/5: Adam Schefter of ESPN is reporting that the Patriots have signed LB Bobby Carpenter.

    3/22: Adam Schefter of ESPN is reporting that the Patriots have re-signed WR Deion Branch to a 1 year contract.

    3/21 Report: Adam Schefter of ESPN reports via his Twitter that the Bengals have signed former Patriots' running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to a three-year deal.

    Via macsfootballblog.com, the Patriots have signed cornerback Will Allen.

    3/19 Report: Adam Schefter of ESPN reports via his Twitter that the Patriots have agreed to a one-year deal with Donte Stallworth

    ProFootballTalk is reporting that the Patriots have signed G Robert Gallery.

    Adam Schefter of ESPN reports via Twitter that the Patriots have signed WR Donte Stallworth to a one year deal.

    Jason La Canfora of NFL.com is reporting the Patriots have signed TE Daniel Fells to a 3 year, $5.25 million dollar contract with $2 million guaranteed.

    Report: Adam Schefter of ESPN reports via his Twitter that the Patriots have reached an agreement with WR Brandon Lloyd.

    Report: Adam Schefter of ESPN Reports via his Twitter that the Patriots have signed WR Anthony Gonzalez. He also Tweets that they have agreed to a one-year deal with DE Trevor Scott.

    Report: Adam Schefter of ESPN reports via his Twitter that the Patriots have signed safety Steve Gregory.

    Report: It has been reported that Patriots' backup quarterback Brian Hoyer has received a second-round tender.

    The tender is reportedly worth $1.92 million, and the Patriots would receive a second round pick if a team were to outbid them.

How Will the New England Patriots Handle Free Agent RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis?

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    Adam Schefter of ESPN reports via his Twitter that the Bengals have signed former Patriots' running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis to a three-year deal.

    BenJarvus Green-Ellis is exactly the kind of player head coach Bill Belichick loves: He always works hard, he never loses yards, and most importantly, he never turns the ball over.

    The Law Firm is as tough as they come, punching in 24 touchdowns during his last two seasons in New England while adjusting to two different roles. In 2010, BJGE was the featured back, rushing 229 times for 1,008 yards (4.4 YPC). 2011 was a different story with the arrivals of rookie running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley. Green-Ellis' snap count decreased dramatically and his production slipped as a result.

    He finished with only 667 yards on 181 carries (3.7 YPC), and his playing time was tied to the game plan for that week.

    With an underwhelming running back free agency class, the Patriots must ask themselves how important Green-Ellis' staggering reliability is worth. Do they consider him the No. 1 back of 2010 or the complementary piece of 2011?

    Stud running backs Matt Forte and Ray Rice were both given the franchise tag, leaving a bevy of fringe starters on the market. Peyton Hillis is probably the biggest name of the bunch, but after suffering through injuries and off-field issues in 2011, the Madden 12 cover-man will probably be ignored by the Patriots front office.

    Out of the remaining free agent running backs, Green-Ellis would seem to be the best fit for New England. However, reports are emerging (h/t Rotoworld) that there is a team hot on BJGE's trail. With a significantly watered down stable of backs, Green-Ellis may attract significant attention from teams around the league.

    Assuming his price goes up, I imagine the Patriots will look elsewhere for his replacement.

    Guys like Tim Hightower and Jackie Battle are both bangers like Green-Ellis and are expected to be available for cheap. Picking up either of those guys would help fill the short yardage/goal line void left by the Law Firm.

    Prediction

    Green-Ellis leaves New England for greener pastures and the Pats find themselves a veteran replacement for a quarter the price.

Will the New England Patriots Sign a Big-Name Wide Receiver?

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    Update: Adam Schefter of ESPN reports via his Twitter that the Patriots have reached an agreement with WR Brandon Lloyd.

    Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez form one of the most dominant pass catching trios in the NFL.

    Still, the New England Patriots would benefit from adding a vertical receiver to threaten the deep part of the field. Tom Brady shattered records the last time he was teamed with a receiver capable of making plays down the field and the expectation is that he would do the same if given the chance in 2012.

    This year's free agent class is stacked with players who fit the bill: Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston [Update: Colston has agreed to a five year deal with the New Orleans Saints] are probably the best the position have to offer. Both are relatively young, and would provide their new teams with an explosive athlete who can make catches in traffic and in the red zone.

    The Pats used their franchise tag on Welker last week, and therefore have committed a little more than $9 million to the pesky wideout (assuming they don't reach an agreement for a long-term deal). Given the holes on defense, it wouldn't make much sense for the Patriots to sign Jackson or Colston, because then the wide receiver position would take up about one-fifth of the team's cap space.

    That leaves a few veteran receivers who could probably be had for a more manageable sum. 

    Reggie Wayne and Brandon Lloyd would both give Brady a terrific target along the sidelines and down the field. While neither have the athleticism or size of Jackson and Colston, they make up for it with crisp route running and superb hands.

    Update: According to ESPN's Adam Schefter via his Twitter, the Indianapolis Colts have re-signed star wide receiver Reggie Wayne to a three-year deal.

    The Lloyd to New England rumors are practically unbearable at this point, with nearly every major expert expecting the ex-Ram to land in Foxborough. His connection with newly appointed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been hammered into the ground these last few weeks, and it is becoming almost a certainty that the Pats land the soon-to-be 31 year old.

    Prediction

    While some fans want the Pats to splurge on either V-Jax or Colston, and some even considering the merits of making a massive move for restricted free agent Mike Wallace, I fully expect Lloyd to be in New England by weeks end. And for those of you thinking about Randy Moss—enough already.

Can the New England Patriots Solve Their Long-Term Pass Rushing Problems?

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    March 15, 2012 Update: ESPN's Adam Schefter reports via his Twitter that Mario Williams will be given a six-year deal from the Bills. He reports that the contract is worth up to $100 million dollars with $50 million guaranteed.

    3/14: Scout.com is reporting that the Patriots have signed DE Jonathan Fanene.

    Here we are again folks. Another offseason, and another free agency period where the New England Patriots will look for a permanent solution to their pass rushing woes.

    Last year, for the first time in what seemed like forever, the Pats nailed their free agent pickups, signing Mark Anderson and Andre Carter. The two veterans were terrific in 2011, piling up 10 sacks apiece.

    Unfortunately, both were only signed to one-year deals. 

    Now, the game begins again. Should the Pats re-sign both? Should they only re-sign one, and if so, who? Should they just let them go and try and strike gold again in free agency?

    It seems like out of the two, Carter is the most likely candidate to re-sign. He's already expressed interest in re-signing, and at 32 years old coming off season-ending surgery, the market probably won't be too kind to him. Greg A. Bedard of the Boston Globe even suggests (h/t Rotoworld) that Carter would be willing to take a "hometown discount" to remain in New England.

    Anderson's situation, on the other hand, is a bit murkier. He's only 29, he's injury-free, and he was excellent as Carter's replacement in the second half of 2011. Last year was somewhat of a revival for the ex-Bear, and he may choose to cash in this offseason.

    Complicating all of these matters is the fact that Mario Williams, one of the NFL's preeminent pass rushing wizards, is available. 

    By all accounts, Williams is completely recovered from the torn pectoral muscle injury that ended his season in 2011. His track record is extensive, having accumulated 53.5 sacks in 82 career games, and his reputation is bullet-proof.

    He would, in theory, answer all of New England's pass rushing issues for the next half decade.

    Unfortunately, reports have surfaced that his price tag will probably keep the Pats out of the bidding. Adam Schefter from ESPN and Mike Lombardi from NFL.com both agree that Williams is out of New England's price range despite the tremendous skill-set he brings to the table.

    Prediction

    New England re-signs Carter and lets Anderson walk. If they can't figure out a way to address a pass rusher in free agency, they will probably shift their focus to finding someone in the draft. Dwight Freeney's availability via a trade is something to watch moving forward as well, but I expect the Indianapolis Colts to ask for more than the Pats are willing to give.

When Will the New England Patriots Choose to Address the Hole at Safety?

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    3/15: Jason La Canfora of the NFL Network reports the Patriots have signed S Steve Gregory.

    Once the New England Patriots decided to release safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders last offseason, Patriot Nation braced for what was sure to be a rough transition.

    Well, they didn't expect it to be that rough.

    New England's secondary was putrid in 2011, and the obvious dearth of talent at safety was one of the main reasons why. Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett were unquestionably two of the worst safeties I had ever seen on a football field early on in the season, and head coach Bill Belichick must have agreed.

    Brown went to the bench never to return and Barrett was placed on Injured Reserve.

    Neither are expected to get an opportunity this time around. James Ihedigbo was solid last season, but isn't considered a full-time player. Belichick likes to utilize him in running situations or as a "fifth" linebacker—his coverage skills leave a lot to be desired.

    Other failed safeties for the Pats were Sterling Moore, who later caught on as a cornerback, and Matthew Slater, who is the team's best special-teamer. 

    The wildcard here is Devin McCourty.

    The enigmatic second-year cornerback struggled mightily following his stunning rookie season. Losing training camp to the NFL lockout seemed to have stymied his progression, and he looked a step slow all season as a result.

    Belichick, never one afraid to tinker with a defense, made the interesting switch for McCourty to safety towards the end of the year. Surprisingly, McCourty held his own alongside running mate Patrick Chung, leading a few experts to wonder whether he was the solution to New England's safety problem or merely a stop-gap.

    It seems as though the Pats will move forward with him as a safety/cornerback hybrid, preferring to sort things out once free agency/draft season ends.

    If safeties Michael Griffin, Dashon Goldson and Tyvon Branch didn't receive the franchise tags from their respective squads, New England may have been in a better situation. Unfortunately, they were, so unless the Pats want to settle for a fringe-starter like LaRon Landry, they will probably be better off fixing the safety problem in the NFL draft.

    The team could opt to sign another hybrid cornerback/safety like ex-Arizona Cardinal Richard Marshall, or ex-Houston Texan Jason Allen, but they would be a higher-risk because of their inexperience at the position.

    Prediction

    The team will almost undoubtedly retain free agent safety James Ihedigbo. Had Griffin, Goldson or Branch been available, the Patriots would have been a team heavy in pursuit. But with the slim pickings of this free agent safety class, New England should try and target a safety in the draft (Mark Barron, anyone?) while signing a cheap veteran like Mike Adams as insurance. Expect the Pats to also target a lower-tier cornerback to add depth behind Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling.

Where Will the New England Patriots Find D-Line Reinforcements?

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    Vince Wilfork is one of this team's leaders, and was probably the team's best defensive player in 2011.

    However, the big guy needs help. Wilfork played a ridiculous 87 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Along the defensive line the Pats were murdered by injuries and inconsistency—Mike Wright, Myron Pryor and Andre Carter all suffered season-ending injuries, while veterans like Shaun Ellis and Gerard Warren had trouble stringing together back-to-back productive outings.

    Kyle Love was a pleasant surprise playing alongside Mount Wilfork, and Brandon Deaderick found his groove once he joined the team in the second half of the season, but there is no depth.

    If Wilfork plays 87 percent of the snaps again in 2012, they might have to install an oxygen tank into his helmet. A man that large is not meant to play that much.

    Luckily for the Pats, there are a number of low-cost, veteran defensive linemen available in the free agent market.

    The best option for New England is probably Luis Castillo, the former San Diego Charger. Mike Reiss at ESPN Boston highlights (see above article) his versatile skill-set as a reason the Patriots should be interested in the oft-injured, former first-round pick.

    Another ex-Charger, Igor Olshansky (albeit in 2008), could also be a fit here.

    He is a massive body, listed at 6'5" and 315 pounds, and like Castillo has experience in the 3-4 (Bill Belichick's preferred style of defense). Brodrick Bunkley and Jason Jones are other options the Patriots may consider.

    3/14: Scout.com is reporting that the Patriots have signed DE Jonathan Fanene.

    Prediction

    Even if it isn't a big splash, the Pats must add some depth along the defensive front. Re-signing Andre Carter and Mark Anderson would obviously lessen the call for help, nevertheless, New England must beef up the line considerably if it expects to have any semblance of a depth chart behind Wilfork, Love and Deaderick.

How Important Is Brian Hoyer to the New England Patriots?

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    Nobody wants to see Tom Brady on the sidelines, but football is a wild sport, and unfortunately injuries are something teams need to be prepared for if they want to compete.

    A classic example of that was in 2008 when TB12 went down with a torn ACL just minutes into the first game of the regular season. Backup quarterback Matt Cassel filled in admirably, leading the Pats to an 11-5 record, and secured himself a monster deal that offseason with the Kansas City Chiefs.

    The other side of the coin, of course, is the 2011 Indianapolis Colts. 

    Talk about being unprepared—General Manager Bill Polian was fired for the horrific mismanagement of the roster and lack of attention paid to Peyton Manning's backup. After all, Manning would never get injured, right?

    Turn the clock to today, where the Colts crumbled in epic fashion, finishing 2011 with a pathetic 2-14 record with no thanks to backup quarterbacks Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky.

    Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are smarter than to leave something as important as the quarterback position to chance, which is one of the reasons they have been a model of consistency and success for over a decade. Belichick's attention to detail has saved the Pats on more than one occasion.

    I expect Brian Hoyer, who is a restricted free agent, to be given a second-round tender—which will cost the Pats $1.9 million—so that Belichick can sleep easy knowing that if Brady goes down, he has one of the best backup plans in all of football.

    Some fans may wonder why the team doesn't just hand the backup reigns over to cannon-armed rookie Ryan Mallett, and the answer is simple: Mallett has only been in the system for one year, while Hoyer has been in the system for three years and actually has some game experience

    Better safe than sorry.

    Prediction

    Hoyer may be the best backup quarterback in football, and the Patriots know as well as anyone how important a backup plan can be. I expect him to remain on the team for at least one more year, and for the team to potentially use him as a trade-chip once they feel comfortable with Mallett as the backup.