Biggest Challenges Facing New England Patriots in 2017 Offseason
Instead of having to build or rebuild, New England realistically only needs to add or maintain a few pieces to remain a title contender.
Of course, this doesn't mean that every stage of the Patriots' offseason is going to be a cakewalk. There are some real obstacles they will have to overcome in order to produce what one might consider the perfect offseason.
These challenges may not be as big as those for a rebuilding franchise like the Cleveland Browns or San Francisco 49ers. However, if the Patriots don't address them properly, there could be serious repercussions in 2017 and in future seasons.
We're here to examine the unique challenges the Patriots face this offseason along with our thoughts on how the team should approach them.
Dont'a Hightower's Contract Status
Since the start of the Bill Belichick era, the Patriots have treated few players as truly indispensable. There's a chance, though, that the team may view linebacker Dont'a Hightower in this way.
Not only was Hightower the defensive hero of Super Bowl LI, he was one of the top overall linebackers in the NFL all year. He racked up an impressive 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two passes defended during the regular season. Pro Football Focus rated him ninth overall among all linebackers for the season.
Trying to retain Hightower could prove to be a major challenge for the Patriots, as the defensive star is looking to be handsomely compensated.
According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, Hightower was offered a contract extension last offseason that would have paid him more than $10 million per year. He turned the deal down.
If New England wants to keep Hightower around, it's going to have to pony up even more money, especially with free agency looming. There is going to be no shortage of teams interested in adding a player of the 26-year-old's caliber.
New England may have to overpay in order to keep Hightower—something the team generally doesn't do—or utilize the franchise tag. The tag would at least allow New England to receive quality draft compensation should another team sign the Tennessean away.
The best the Patriots could hope to get by allowing Hightower to walk is a compensatory third-round pick in next year's draft.
Maintaining the Secondary
The Patriots fielded one of the league's best secondaries in 2016, but that unit is in danger of being severely weakened this offseason. The most immediate obstacle is the potential loss of cornerback Logan Ryan.
Ryan, who spent much of Super Bowl LI matched up with Atlanta Falcons wideout Julio Jones, is set to become a free agent. He was rated 38th overall among all cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus and his loss would be a big one for the Patriots secondary.
As is the case with Hightower, Ryan has likely played his way into a sizable new contract, so retaining him could be a challenge.
Ryan isn't the only cornerback New England could lose, though. Star corner Malcolm Butler is scheduled to be a restricted free agent as well. Unless the Patriots work out a long-term extension, it seems likely that another team will at least make a run at Butler.
Even if the Patriots give Butler a first-round tender, it would be worth if for some team to sign him to an offer sheet. He's about to turn 27 years old and was rated fifth overall among cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus this past season.
Some team out there is likely to view Butler as worthy of a first-round pick. If the Patriots aren't careful, they could lose two of their best pass-defenders this offseason.
This isn't a massive challenge—it may actually seem a bit trivial—but the Patriots will have to overcome picking at the bottom of each round in April's draft.
As defending Super Bowl champions, the Patriots have earned the last selection slot. The draft haul will be bolstered by a compensatory pick from the Browns (projected to be a third-rounder) and a fifth-round pick from the Denver Broncos. In the first three rounds, however, New England will select last.
This doesn't mean the Patriots will struggle to successfully navigate the draft. In fact, picking last—or not having a first-round pick at all—hasn't really hindered the franchise much before. However, it does make things a tad trickier.
If the Patriots have their eyes set on a particular player in any given round, the chances are now increased that the team will have to trade up in order to snag him. This makes plugging holes with the desired pieces harder, which is the entire point of parity-driven draft seeding.
A Lack of Center Options in Free Agency
New England's offensive line wasn't a disaster in 2016—it was actually rated 11th overall by Pro Football Focus—but there is room for improvement.
Since protecting quarterback Tom Brady for the last few years of his career should be a top priority, the Patriots should do everything they can to improve the line.
There are two main spots where New England can improve its line, guard and center.
Pro Football Focus rated rookie guard Joe Thuney 138th overall among guards and credited him with allowing a whopping 32 quarterback hurries in 2016. Only one guard allowed more; David Andrews was rated 43rd overall among centers and credited with 16 quarterback hurries.
If New England wants to upgrade these two spots during the offseason, the team is going to have an easier time doing it at guard. There are some quality guards scheduled to hit the free-agent market—including Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler and Green Bay Packers guard T.J. Lang.
Pro Football Focus rated Zeitler and Lang sixth and 13th among guards, respectively, for the 2016 season.
The free-agent pool isn't as deep at the center position and doesn't feature a true premier talent. The best center available might just be A.Q. Shipley of the Arizona Cardinals. He was rated 18th overall among centers by Pro Football Focus last season, but he'll also be 31 before next season and has just one year as a full-time starter under his belt.
The Patriots may ultimately find themselves jostling with other teams to secure one of the top centers in the draft. It won't help that the team is picking at the bottom of each round.
The proverbial elephant in the offseason room in 2017 is backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. While the former Eastern Illinois star has one year remaining on his rookie contract, the Patriots have a decision to make on his future now.
This is because Garoppolo's trade value is incredibly high and has likely peaked. This year's crop of rookie quarterbacks is unimpressive, and there is no shortage of quarterback-needy teams scattered throughout the league.
Garoppolo, who played all of six full quarters this year, has made enough of a positive impression that the Patriots may be able to deal him for a high draft pick—potentially a first-rounder. In addition to passing for 502 yards and four touchdowns in limited action, the 25-year-old has also increased his value by impressing teammates.
"The guy is a stud. He went out and played in the regular season and played very well. He has that kind of gunslinger-like confidence, that Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers kind of confidence," Patriots wideout Julian Edelman recently told NFL Network.
The challenge for New England is deciding exactly what to do with Garoppolo. If the team believes he can truly be the heir to Brady—and believes that he will be content waiting for the veteran to hang it up—then they should try getting an extension done this offseason. Otherwise, they'll be faced with a potential bidding war or the utilization of the franchise tag next offseason.
If the Patriots don't believe Garoppolo is the future, then they should deal him for the best package possible.
This is one of the bigger challenges of the offseason because Garoppolo has such a limited body of work to judge. Yet, the potential of failure either way is great. New England doesn't want to see him become a Hall of Famer with another franchise, and the team doesn't want him to be a bust with the Patriots either.
The Super Bowl Hangover
If there's a franchise that is built to withstand the pitfalls of success, it's the Patriots. New England has been to seven Super Bowls in the Brady-Belichick era and has missed the playoffs the year after reaching the big game only twice.
One of the lost seasons was the year New England went 11-5 with Matt Cassel under center and with Brady on injured reserve.
Yet, this doesn't mean the Patriots can simply avoid the threat of the dreaded Super Bowl hangover. If players lose focus or become complacent during their time away from the team this offseason, starting off strong in 2017 could become difficult.
Remember, neither the Denver Broncos nor the Carolina Panthers returned to the postseason in 2016 after reaching the Super Bowl the year before. Talent isn't always enough to remain competitive.
The Patriots will need to juggle the desire to celebrate the season that just occurred and the need to keep returning players focused on the one ahead. The importance here is compounded by the fact that Brady is entering the back portion of his playing career. New England needs to take full advantage of every opportunity while his window remains open.
This may seem like a simple challenge to overcome—especially for this franchise—but it is a challenge nonetheless.
Planning for Future Contracts
Salary-cap space isn't going to be an immediate issue for the Patriots this offseason. According to Spotrac, New England is set to enter free agency with nearly $63 million in cap space.
The challenge for the Patriots will be trying to re-sign guys like Hightower and Ryan, play the free-agent field and still have enough money left over to maintain the roster in the future. There are a number of players who will be looking at the possibility of free agency within the next couple of years.
Key players who are scheduled for free agency next season include Butler, Garoppolo, running back Dion Lewis, wideout Julian Edelman, running back James White and left tackle Nate Solder.
This means that any big moves New England makes this offseason have to be made with the future in mind. The Patriots could lose a large chunk of their championship roster next offseason if they don't plan ahead financially.
For many of these players, the best move may actually be to address their contract situations now. We've already discussed this idea for Garoppolo, and the same principles hold true with guys like White, Butler and Solder.
This isn't a challenge that will heavily impact the coming season, but it's one that must be addressed if New England hopes to keep its Super Bowl window open for the next few years.
We're going to wager that the Patriots are hoping to keep that window open for as long as possible.
*All contract information via Spotrac.com.