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Grading New England Patriots' Free Agency Plan so Far

Kristopher KnoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2017

Grading New England Patriots' Free Agency Plan so Far

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    The 2017 offseason so far has pretty much been business as usual for the New England Patriots. While the flurry of trades to open the new league year might have caught some by surprise, it's really just another example of how the Patriots do things their own way.

    Sure, New England traded away its first- and second-round draft picks to strengthen the team, but does that really matter? The Patriots dynasty has never been one built on high draft picks. What matters is that the Patriots have a new deep threat in Branin Cooks, a standout defender in Kony Ealy and a young second tight end in Dwayne Allen.

    Oh, and the Patriots added a Pro Bowl corner in Stephon Gilmore and managed to retain star linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

    On paper, the Patriots appear to be an even more dangerous team than they were last season, and they still have April's draft with which to add talent—but has every move been a winner? Well, that's precisely what we're going to try determining today.

    We'll be examining the major offseason moves the Patriots have made so far and attaching a letter grade to each.

Trading for Kony Ealy

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    New England landed a quality starter in Kony Ealy.
    New England landed a quality starter in Kony Ealy.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    The Patriots relied heavily on the tandem of Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard as complements to Trey Flowers. While Sheard and Long actually played more snaps—1,257 combine snaps to 564 for Flowers, per Pro Football Focus—Flowers was the guy who emerged as an impactful pass-rusher.

    Long and Sheard combined for 9.0 sacks during the regular season. Flowers had 7.0 by himself.

    With Long and Sheard both heading out into free agency, the Patriots were faced with the prospect of landing a starting-caliber end to play opposite Flowers. They got their man by trading for Carolina Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy.

    Ealy, who has 10.0 sacks over the past two seasons, is a quality end who should complement Flowers well. Pro Football Focus rated him 32nd overall in pass rush among 4-3 defensive ends last season. While Ealy might not be seen as a major upgrade over a guy like Sheard, he's only 25 years old.

    Assuming the Patriots commit to Ealy long-term he's entering the final year of his contract—he can become a building block for the future. His addition also left the Patriots with plenty of cap space to make other moves this offseason.

    Ealy's cap hit is less than $900,000 this season. Sheard's cap hit with the Indianapolis Colts is just under $10 million.

    Perhaps the best part of the deal is that New England only had to move back eight spots in the draft (from No. 64 to No. 72) in order to get it done.

    The only downside is that this could prove to be a one-year rental. If it is, though, it's a cheap one.

     

    Grade: A

Signing Lawrence Guy

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    Lawrence Guy adds depth at the defensive end postion.
    Lawrence Guy adds depth at the defensive end postion.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    While Ealy and Flowers will likely fill the starting roles at defensive end, the Patriots like to utilize a rotation along the defensive line. Therefore, replacing depth was a priority with both Long and Sheard leaving. The Patriots helped fill the depth void by signing former Baltimore Ravens defensive end Lawrence Guy.

    Guy, who played 3-4 end in Baltimore, could become a heavy part of the rotation in sub-packages. While he isn't a flashy producer on the field—he had 28 tackles and a sack last season—he is a stout meat-and-potatoes end with the size (6'4", 305 pounds) to also kick inside in four-man fronts.

    Pro Football Focus rated Guy 14th overall among all 3-4 ends in 2016.

    Guy is also on the younger side—he won't turn 28 until next offseason—and he's another player coming in at a bargain price. The Patriots signed him to a four-year, $13.4 million deal. His cap hit this season is a mere $2.6 million.

    Essentially, the Patriots have both Ealy and Guy this season for a third of what it might have cost to retain Sheard.

    While Ealy is unquestionably the more notable addition, don't be surprised if Guy finds a way to shine in New England's defense over the next couple seasons.

     

    Grade: B+

Trading for Dwayne Allen

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    New Patriots tight end Dwayne Allen is going to look pretty good lining up across from Rob Gronkowski.
    New Patriots tight end Dwayne Allen is going to look pretty good lining up across from Rob Gronkowski.Al Bello/Getty Images

    Last offseason, the Patriots acquired tight end Martellus Bennett to be a complement to one Rob Gronkowski. However, Gronkowski missed the latter portion of the season after undergoing surgery, and Bennett became his de facto replacement.

    Instead of handing out a chunk of cash in order to bring Bennett back, the Patriots traded for Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen. The team acquired Allen and a sixth-round pick in exchange for a 2017 fourth-rounder.

    While Allen isn't a bargain-bin acquisition, his cap hit of just under $5 million for 2017 isn't going to hurt the Patriots. Overall, the contract looks pretty good. The Patriots will have Allen for three more years for roughly the same money Bennett got from the Green Bay Packers (three years, $21 million).

    The upside with Allen is that he's three years younger than Bennett.

    Can Allen replicate what Bennett did for the Patriots this past season? That obviously remains to be seen. However, it's worth noting that Allen's 2016 season (406 yards, six touchdowns, 11.6 yards per reception in 14 games) was quite comparable to the 2015 season Bennett had the year before joining New England.

    Bennett played in 11 games in 2015, amassing 439 yards, three touchdowns and a yards-per-reception average of 8.3.

    While Allen isn't necessarily an upgrade over Bennett, he is younger and can potentially be an offensive building block moving forward.

     

    Grade: B

Signing Stephon Gilmore

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    The Patriots got a quality starter in Stephon Gilmore, but was he the right choice?
    The Patriots got a quality starter in Stephon Gilmore, but was he the right choice?Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Perhaps the splashiest move the Patriots made at the start of free agency was the signing of former Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The South Carolina product is just 26 years old and was coming off the first Pro Bowl season of his career.

    Now there are certainly things to like about the Gilmore signing. He is definitely a starting-caliber cornerback and he gets stolen from a division rival. The Patriots obviously grew to like what he brings to the table after facing him twice a year.

    However, there are also reasons to question the move.

    For starters, the Patriots are paying Gilmore $13 million a year over the next five years. This is $3 million per year more than departed corner Logan Ryan got in his three-year deal with the Tennessee Titans.

    Is Gilmore a major upgrade over Ryan? This is certainly debatable. Ryan is actually a tad younger than Gilmore (both are currently 26) and was already a proven fit for the Patriots offense. Pro Football Focus rated Ryan 38th overall while rating Gilmore 74th for the 2016 season. The caveat is that Gilmore more frequently faced opposing No. 1 receivers.

    The second reason to question the move is the fact Gilmore's massive contract has upset starting corner Malcolm Butler. Butler, who was rated fifth among cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus last season, hasn't received an extension and remains unsigned as a restricted free agent.

    According to Mike Giardi of CSN New England, Butler is "extremely unhappy" and is looking to play elsewhere.

    If the Patriots end up losing Butler, this deal could look like a poor move since retaining Ryan was a possibility. As things stand, it appears the Patriots got themselves a top-end corner but may have overpaid to do so.

     

    Grade: C

Trading for Brandin Cooks

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    Brandin Cooks will add even more home-run ability to the Patriots offense.
    Brandin Cooks will add even more home-run ability to the Patriots offense.Norm Hall/Getty Images

    The Patriots went out and got Tom Brady a dangerous deep threat by trading away the 32nd overall pick and a third-round pick for New Orleans Saints wideout Brandin Cooks and a fourth-round pick.

    On one hand, this move can be seen as a major win for New England. While the cost to acquire Cooks was steep, he is a proven and talented receiver. He racked up 1,173 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging an impressive 15.0 yards per reception last season.

    The addition of Cooks gives Brady the type of home-run threat he hasn't had since the Randy Moss day. Cooks also seems pretty fired up about playing with Brady.

    “To come in, and now have the opportunity to play with another Hall of Fame quarterback, I guess I know how to pick quarterbacks, right?” Cooks said, per Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald. “I’m looking forward to it. I’ve followed Tom Brady since I was a kid. To have a chance to play with him, it’s awesome.”

    The downside here is that Cooks is still in his rookie deal. While the Patriots can exercise their fifth-year option for Cooks, the longest they're guaranteed to keep him is for two seasons (barring the franchise tag).

    If Cooks decides he doesn't want to stay in New England beyond 2018—something that could be a possibility if Brady decides to retire—New England would have given up a chance at a talented rookie receiver in order to rent him for two years.

    In the short-term, this is a great addition for Brady and for New England. Looking long-term, though, there's a fair amount of risk involved.

     

    Grade: B

Signing Rex Burkhead

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    Burkhead feels like the perfect Patriots player.
    Burkhead feels like the perfect Patriots player.John Grieshop/Getty Images

    While he certainly isn't going to command as much attention as Cooks, running back Rex Burkhead could become another valuable piece for Brady and the Patriots offense. The Nebraska product is versatile and played a variety of roles during his time with the Cincinnati Bengals—he even spent time in the slot.

    Last season, Burkhead totaled 344 yards rushing, averaged 4.6 yards per carry and caught 17 passes for 145 yards. Pro Football Focus rate him 16th among all running backs for the year.

    While Burkhead may not be a budding superstar or even a replacement for LeGarrette Blount (though we wouldn't bet against the latter), he is a proven utility piece that seems to fit the Patriots perfectly. The Patriots snagged him with a one-year, $3.1 million deal.

    Burkhead should come right in and be a part of the backfield rotation alongside Dion Lewis and James White. The price for Burkhead may seem a tad steep given it's roughly three times what the Patriots paid Blount last year. However, the deal isn't outrageous and there's virtually no way to argue against his fit in the offense.

     

    Grade: B+

Re-Signing Dont'a Hightower

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    Dont'a Hightower is back with the Patriots for the foreseeable future.
    Dont'a Hightower is back with the Patriots for the foreseeable future.Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    The icing on the proverbial cake that has been New England's offseason so far was the re-signing of linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

    Hightower entered free agency as one of the most coveted players on the market. He was rated fifth overall among inside linebackers by Pro Football Focus and ended the 2016 season as the defensive hero of Super Bowl LI.

    Teams like the Titans, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers showed interest in Hightower in free agency, but he ultimately chose to return to the Patriots on a new four-year deal. That deal will pay Hightower a total of $43.5 million.

    Bringing back Hightower is a big win for the Patriots. He is a defensive leader and an integral part of how the Patriots communicate on that side of the ball. Mike Reiss of ESPN.com recently explained the importance of retaining him:

    The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Hightower is one of the NFL's most physical linebackers and calls the defensive signals as the primary communicator on defense. Because of that, he is the first domino to fall before each play and what he does affects the other 10 players on defense. Having to possibly replace that was something the Patriots hoped they wouldn't have to do, and this ensures they won't.

    New England gets bonus points for this move for showing patience with Hightower. The team didn't force the use of the franchise tag or panic and overpay Hightower at the start of free agency. The Patriots allowed him to test free agency and ultimately inked Hightower to a deal that features less money than the four-year deal the Cleveland Browns gave former Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins.

     

    Grade: A+

     

    *All contract information via Spotrac.com.

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