5 Free Agents That Need to Be on the Patriots' Radar
The New England Patriots are rarely the sort of team to throw money at a free agent, especially in a season like this when they are so close to the salary cap that they can lick the ceiling if they stick their tongues out.
They're not afraid to take a chance on a high-priced free agent when they have the opportunity. Look no further than their signing of cornerback Darrelle Revis in 2014 for an example of Robert Kraft opening up the checkbook for a player that can help the team.
And if the Patriots want to do that in 2016, there are some moves they could make to free up enough space to sign someone. (Releasing Jerod Mayo, for example, would free up $7 million in cap space, and releasing Danny Amendola would free up $4 million).
That all-in approach, however, is not the norm for New England. Head coach Bill Belichick prefers signing younger players who might have proven less in their career to low-cost contracts that could either pay off big or are only of minimal consequence if they don't pan out.
There are plenty of free agents that fit the mold in this year's crop, so let's take a look at some of the free agents who should be on Belichick's radar.
The Patriots put a lot of value on the hybrid linebacker-safety role in their defense this year, as evidenced by the increased snaps for young safety Duron Harmon on top of full-time roles for Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. Harmon and Chung were used interchangeably as extra defensive backs in a "big nickel" or as extra linebackers in a "small nickel" formation.
Mark Barron began his career in 2012 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a safety. The former first-round pick was traded to the St. Louis Rams, where he took on multiple roles as a chess piece on defense, moving to various spots on the field depending on the opponent and the game plan. By the end of the 2015 season, Barron had officially moved to linebacker on the Rams' depth chart.
Having shifted between linebacker and defensive back, Barron has exactly the kind of versatility Belichick loves in a player. Not to mention, as an Alabama product, Barron comes from a college background with Nick Saban that was influenced by Belichick.
Barron is a recognizable name, which could place him out of the Patriots' price range, but there's no denying that he would fit into New England's plans on defense.
Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell's futures with the Patriots are less than certain, so the Patriots will want to be looking at the wide receiver market pretty closely for good deals this year.
One of the best deals they may find is three-year veteran receiver Marvin Jones of the Cincinnati Bengals, who would serve best as a replacement for LaFell if the Patriots decide to cut him to save $2.675 million this year, according to Spotrac.
At 6'2" and 198 pounds, Jones has the size and speed to win matchups on the outside but the quickness and football intelligence to get open on short routes and in soft spots against zone coverage. What's more, he has some of the best hands of any receiver in the league.
According to Pro Football Focus, he dropped just eight passes in his first three seasons, and with 149 receptions, he dropped just over 5 percent of catchable passes thrown his way.
The Patriots could probably use a receiver of Jones' skill set, regardless of what they choose to do with LaFell, but if they decide to make LaFell a cap casualty, the Patriots will have their eyes peeled for a receiver like Jones.
File this one under "U" for "unrealistic." The Patriots typically don't spend big money on running backs, and if they want former New York Jets running back Chris Ivory, they'll probably have to pony up a substantial sum.
With that said, if they want an upgrade over LeGarrette Blount in terms of a between-the-tackles back, Ivory may be their best option. The 6'0", 222-pound bruiser averaged 2.61 yards after contact per rush attempt in 2016, 15th out of 52 qualifying running backs in 2015 according to Pro Football Focus. He also forced 47 missed tackles as a runner, the fourth-most in the NFL.
Those numbers could have been even higher if Ivory hadn't been dealing with a nagging groin injury since his Week 7 matchup with the Patriots. Even still, he's coming off a career year with 1,070 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns.
Those numbers could put him a little out of the Patriots' price range, but given their lack of production out of the running game (bottom half of the league each of the past two seasons), they need to consider all options to improve that area of their offense.
Buffalo Bills left tackle Cordy Glenn might be well outside of the Patriots comfortable price range for 2016, but as mentioned in the intro, there are some moves the Patriots could make to free up the necessary cap space. One more of those moves would be to release Sebastian Vollmer, who is set to count for $6.2 million against the cap. The Patriots could free up $4 million of that by releasing him.
At 26 years old, Glenn has much more time ahead of him than Vollmer, who is 31. There's only one problem with Glenn: He's been a left tackle throughout his NFL career, and would need to switch to the right side to play in New England. With that said, he has the traits to play anywhere the Patriots want.
According to Pro Football Focus, Glenn allowed just 27 total pressures (23 hurries, two hits, two sacks) in 2015, and ranked 11th out of 59 offensive tackles in pass-blocking efficiency. Given his performance and the prestige of the left tackle position in the NFL, Glenn is likely out of the Pats' price range. But given the performance of New England's offensive line down the stretch, nothing should be out of the question.
The Patriots showed interest in linebacker Rolando McClain last offseason, but were unable to reach a deal with the free agent when the Dallas Cowboys swooped into re-sign one of their own. Now, a free agent again, the Patriots are once again facing questions about the long-term future of veteran linebacker Jerod Mayo with their franchise, so now might be a good time to address a lack of depth at linebacker.
Another former Alabama product, McClain has had some trouble in his career, and was suspended four games last year for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He would fit in as a backup linebacker off the bench in a role like the one Mayo currently occupies coming off the bench and filling in for injured starters.
McClain gave up a high percentage of completions in coverage (69.2 percent), according to Pro Football Focus, but he allowed just 18 receptions total and no touchdowns on the season. That's 1.5 receptions for each game he played. The Patriots would have no problem finding a role for McClain on their defense.