Breaking Down the New England Patriots' Free-Agent Radar
For the better part of the past month, the New England Patriots and their staff have been cloistered in their offices like bishops in a conclave selecting the next pope. The general public has no idea idea what goes on behind closed doors, and we won't know much more until players either sign or they don't.
Not surprisingly, nothing major has been accomplished as of yet.
For most of the Belichick-Brady era, the Patriots have operated as a well oiled machine. Every offseason they replace the more heavily worn moving parts, tighten the nuts and bolts and fire that baby up again every September.
Of course, free agency throws a wrench into the whole system. It represents not only losing key parts, but a unique opportunity to replace them with upgrades and newer models. The key pieces in any machine inevitably break down and need replacing.
Sometimes, the newest models on the market provide a major upgrade and a universal fit to work with any system. Sometimes the older models still represent the gold standard, like Goldeneye of the James Bond video game franchise, the '67 Chevy Camaro and Ed Reed playing safety. Sometimes, despite the shiny luster of the newest item or the vintage appeal of a classic, a refurbished model provides the most value and best fit.
One man's trash is another man's treasure, and when NFL franchises feel buyer's remorse because their newest toy didn't perform the way they'd hoped, or simply can't afford the upkeep on their old classics, they send the very players they used to prize to the scrap heap.
A discerning general manager can sift through the rubbish and find those gems that just need a bit of polishing and plug them right into their system.
Here are 10 reclamation projects who the Patriots could dust off, insert into their system and have New England's football machine purring like a kitten this fall.
Osi Umenyiora needs no introduction to Patriots fans. He and Michael Strahan ran roughshod through New England’s offensive line and helped lead the New York Giants to one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history.
He may no longer be the same player who thwarted a perfect 19-0 season—the Giants wouldn’t have released him if he was—but as his Twitter page states, “stories of [Umenyiora’s] demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
He has battled injuries and inconsistency over the past few years, but entering his age-32 season, it’s hard to argue Umenyiora can’t still make an impact on the field. The former All-Pro defensive end has tallied 26.5 sacks over the last three seasons, or roughly nine per season. He accomplished this despite starting only 27 games during that time and playing as part of a rotation along the defensive line.
Not only are those nine sacks more than any Patriot had in 2012, they’re more than any player currently on the roster has ever posted in a season.
At 32 years old next year, Umenyiora is still theoretically in the last stage of his prime years. This isn’t a case of a washed up player still clinging to the NFL life; it’s simply the case of a player who fell out of favor and needs another chance to prove his doubters wrong.
As valuable as players like Rob Ninkovich and Kyle Love have been for the Patriots, neither of them has the talent to keep Umenyiora off the field on a regular basis. Considering he’s averaged nearly nine sacks since 2010 on a team loaded with defensive line talent that didn’t play him as much as most teams would, imagine what he could accomplish with a full workload playing alongside Love and Vince Wilfork in a 4-3 alignment, or coming off the edge in a 3-4 scheme.
In 2003, Bill Belichick rolled the dice on a former All-Pro in his early 30s who’d been released by his former team. That player—Rodney Harrison—helped lead the team to two Super Bowl victories and was named All-Pro in his first year with the team.
Umenyiora could have a similar impact on the defensive front seven.
The 36-year-old Charles Woodson—he turns 37 in October—led the NFL in interceptions during two of the last four seasons. He was first-team All-Pro as recently as 2011. The recently released future Hall of Famer shifted to safety for the Green Bay Packers in 2012 because he simply isn’t as fast as he once was.
His skills remain intact, however, and while he represents an injury risk at such an advanced age, so do half the players in New England’s secondary despite many of them being close to 10 years his junior.
Aqib Talib has never played a full season. Alfonzo Dennard is facing a certain suspension and possible jail time for assaulting a police officer. Devin McCourty may very well shift back to cornerback to cover Dennard’s loss, which creates a gaping hole at the safety position.
Most fans, myself included, would prefer to see Ed Reed fill that void. He brings an infectious attitude and hard-nosed demeanor to any secondary. If, however, the Patriots are unable or unwilling to match Reed’s other offers, Woodson offers a cheaper, albeit older and less physical alternative.
The Buffalo Bills parted ways with their longtime cornerback/return specialist earlier this month. He doesn’t offer the same upside as somebody like Umenyiora or Woodson, but Terrence McGee has been a solid player his entire career.
The 32-year-old has battled injuries for most of the past five seasons, but as a role player willing to play special teams, he’s exactly the kind of player Belichick covets.
Let us not forget that current nickel corner and fan pariah Kyle Arrington is a free agent himself. McGee could conceivably step in and fill Arrington’s role admirably, not to mention bring an added dimension to the return game.
As a former starter, McGee has solid experience patrolling an NFL secondary and would bring a veteran presence to a fairly young secondary seemingly devoid of leadership. The closest parallel I can draw would be the Patriots signing Terrell Buckley in 2001.
Buckley didn’t make a profound contribution in the box scores and only started three games in two years with the team, but he embraced his role as the nickel corner. As an elder statesman, he had the wisdom the listen to his coaches and was rarely out of position, even if it meant taking fewer risks.
A player like that won’t have a major impact, but bolstering depth at a weak position never hurts.
The former college wide receiver was also released by the Bills earlier this month, and like his former teammate McGee, George Wilson spent most of his career as a role player, only developing into a full-time starter during the past two seasons.
He may not have the name recognition of an Ed Reed or Charles Woodson, or even Nate Clements, but Wilson has proved to at least be a capable defender during his NFL career.
At age 32, Wilson may never develop into much more than a low-end starting safety or excellent fifth defensive back, but even as such, his veteran presence would be welcome in a secondary that currently projects to start Devin McCourty, Ras-I Dowling, Steve Gregory/Tavon Wilson and Marquice Cole to begin the 2013 season.
Dennard’s possible suspension may very well push McCourty back to cornerback so a solid yet unspectacular player like Wilson should be fairly affordable and exactly the type of player the Patriots need to bolster a weakness while the younger players get their feet wet.
The former Cowboy and recent Giant was released by New York this month along with Umenyiora and running back Ahmad Bradshaw.
Chris Canty has shown excellent versatility in his career, playing both defensive end and defensive tackle, and we all know how much Belichick loves versatile players.
The 30-year-old would give the Patriots loads of flexibility along their defensive line, and at 6’7”, he has the size to be a major disruption in passing lanes. He doesn’t rush the passer particularly well, having totaled 19 sacks in eight seasons, but he’s been a starter for most of his career.
He likely wouldn’t start for the Patriots, but considering Kyle Love, Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Deaderick are all unrestricted free agents following the 2013 season, he would provide valuable depth and stability along the defensive line.
As of this writing, Robert Meachem is still a San Diego Charger, but with Malcolm Floyd, Danario Alexander and Eddie Royal under contract, not to mention Antonio Gates, Meachem will likely find himself without a prominent role in the offense, and the team may be better served to cut him loose rather than absorb his $6.875 million cap hit for 2013.
If he is indeed released, Meachem would be a great option for the Patriots. He obviously isn’t worth what the Chargers are currently paying him—so if released, he should be fairly cheap. He would bring elite downfield speed to a team that lacks a true deep threat.
The former first-round draft pick runs a 4.39 40-yard dash and would open up underneath patterns for Hernandez, Lloyd and (if he signs) Welker.
Meachem will likely never be a very good receiver, but as a one-trick pony, he would fit in nicely with the weapons the Patriots already have on offense and shouldn’t occupy much of the team’s $18.5 million in cap space.
Jason Smith was released by the New York Jets earlier this week, and the former No. 2 overall pick would instantly fill a need as an offensive tackle for the Patriots. Current right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is currently a free agent and stands to make a lot of money, possibly receiving offers the Patriots simply can’t match.
Still just 27 years old for the duration of the 2013 season, Smith never lived up to expectations in St. Louis or New York, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t still useful. With Vollmer possibly moving on to greener pastures and little-to-no depth along the offensive line, Smith would bring considerable talent to a unit sorely in need of depth and skill.
Prior to Jeff Fisher’s arrival in St. Louis, the Rams weren’t exactly a bastion of accountability, and the Jets have never been accused of showing much discipline. An environment like New England with a locker room that will hold him accountable might be just what Smith needs to tap into the outstanding talent that once made him a highly coveted player.
With minimal risk and potentially sky-high reward, I see no reason why Belichick wouldn’t at least give Smith a closer look.
After playing defensive end in Kansas City’s 3-4 scheme for the past four seasons, Tyson Jackson would seem to be a natural fit for the Patriots.
At 6’4”, 295 lbs, he has the size the hold the edge at the point of attack. Even if he doesn’t start, he could spell Kyle Love effectively.
The third overall pick in 2009 will likely never live up to his draft position, but when a player with that kind of talent becomes available, it never hurts to explore your options.
Jackson is still under contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, but he’s slated to account for over $17 million of the team’s salary cap entering the final year of his contract. Considering the man who was so high on him in the first place—former GM Scott Pioli—is gone, there’s a strong chance Jackson will be released.
At this point in his career, Nnamdi Asomugha’s name value far outweighs his production on the field. That doesn’t mean he’s useless—it just means he’s not worth his salary. Considering the Eagles owe him more than $37 million over the next three years, I think they’d be inclined to agree.
Common perception on Asomugha is he was a poor fit in Philadelphia’s zone defense, which attributed to his poor play. When playing one-on-one man coverage, he still showed the skills we’ve come to expect from him, finishing 19th on the Pro Footbal Focus ranking scale.
Given his enormous salary, there’s virtually zero chance the Eagles retain him this season since they can save $11 million by cutting him lose.
His coverage skills have clearly eroded, but he still deserves mention among the better half of starting cornerbacks in the NFL. If the price is right, the allure of adding a potential shutdown corner to his secondary might be too much for Belichick to resist.
The former Arizona Cardinal and New York Jet was released by the J-E-T-S this past week and would be an excellent fit in Belichick’s hybrid defensive scheme.
Drafted as a defensive end out of Wake Forest, Calvin Pace has played DE, ILB and OLB in his career. That’s exactly the sort of versatility Belichick looks for in his players.
As a likely role player, Pace would come to camp competing for playing time and with a good preseason could challenge Ninkovich for a starting gig. He’ll never compete for a sack title, but Pace possesses a well-rounded game, and his veteran know-how would go a long way with young up-and-comers like Brandon Spikes, Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower.
He could conceivably fill in for anyone besides Wilfork on the defensive line and in short stints could play any linebacker spot on the field. His best position is OLB where he can rush the passer off the edge, and in that role, he would simply be an insurance policy for Ninkovich unless he really opens some eyes in training camp.
His versatility would be a huge boost, and one must think Belichick would find all sorts of ways to get him on the field. One way or another, Pace would make his presence known as a low-risk, medium-reward type of free agent.