New England Patriots Veterans in Danger of Losing Roster Spot This Offseason
We've seen it happen multiple times over the years. Quality players for the New England Patriots are let go or traded while still capable of contributing. This is because head coach Bill Belichick has a longstanding tradition of getting rid of players a bit too soon rather than too late.
This is often the approach with aging veterans, as the Patriots don't want to be saddled with a late-season performance drop-off. Sometimes, Belichick simply wants to move a player while he still has trade value. Over the last year, we saw New England trade away linebackers Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones. Both were quality players the Patriots ended up not needing to win another Super Bowl.
Not everyone believes this is a great strategy for the Patriots to employ. Former Patriots cornerback Ty Law, for example, believes losing veterans has cost the team in the past.
"I think it has cost them championships. I think they let go of too many guys who can rally the troops and win Super Bowls," Law said, per Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com.
While Belichick might not be right in every instance, the five Lombardi Trophies he has brought the franchise will likely prevent anyone in the organization from questioning him the next time he sends a veteran out the door.
Whether everyone likes it or not, the trend of parting with veterans still capable of contributing is going to continue in New England. Here, we're going to look at some veterans who could lose their roster spots as soon as this offseason. We'll examine their situations, what they've meant to the team and why they could be off the roster in 2017.
Danny Amendola, Wide Receiver
Wide receiver Danny Amendola has restructured his contract in each of the last two offseasons in order to remain with the Patriots. He is also coming off a strong performance in the Super Bowl—78 yards receiving with a touchdown and a two-point conversion—and brings value as a return specialist.
So why could Amendola be in danger of losing his job? In this case, it's purely a numbers game. New England traded to acquire Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints this offseason. He and Julian Edelman likely become the top two wideouts, with 2016 offseason addition Chris Hogan pushing Edelman into the slot in three-receiver sets.
Depending on how many receivers the Patriots decide to carry in 2017, there simply might not be room for Amendola. The Patriots like rookie Malcolm Mitchell enough last year to give him a pretty significant role. He was actually third on the team among receivers with 538 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
If the Patriots like Mitchell enough to make him the fourth wideout, Amendola could be in real trouble. The team had a number of running backs who can split out and play receiver. They also have a pair of receiving tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen. New England may never have five true wideouts on the field.
Fellow veteran Matthew Slater may make the team simply because he carries a ton of special-teams value. The team added Cody Hollister and Austin Carr as undrafted free agents this year and is still sitting on 2016 seventh-rounder Devin Lucien. They'll all compete for roster spots as well.
While Amendola's contract isn't as taxing as it once was, the Patriots may not want to spend $1.25 million in base salary on a fifth or sixth receiver. The saving grace for Amendola is that he already has another $1.25 million guaranteed. There's a possibility the Patriots will feel they can't justify cutting him too.
LaAdrian Waddle, Offensive Tackle
LaAdrian Waddle has been an NFL offensive tackle for four years. He joined the Patriots partway through the 2015 season and managed to pick up a Super Bowl ring last year. While he is one of the more experienced backups at the tackle position, he hasn't seen much playing time in New England.
Waddle saw just one snap in the 2016 regular season, according to Pro Football Focus.
There are a couple reasons why Waddle could be in danger of losing his job this offseason. One is that the Patriots spent two of their four draft picks on offensive tackles—a fourth-rounder on Troy's Antonio Garcia and a sixth-rounder on UCLA's Conor McDermott. The other is that Waddle is set to carry a cap hit of $1.125 million.
It definitely wouldn't break the bank to keep Waddle around for another year, but it doesn't make sense to pay a guy roughly a million dollars a snap either. Assuming one of the rookies performs well enough in camp to play a depth role alongside primary backup Cameron Fleming, Waddle is probably out.
Brandon Bolden, Running Back
The Patriots didn't bring back LeGarrette Blount this offseason but they did add a couple of new faces to the backfield. In are former Buffalo Bills running back Mike Gillislee and former Cincinnati Bengals back Rex Burkhead. They join a group that also includes Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden and Super Bowl LI hero James White.
Of the returning collection of backs, Bolden appears the most likely to lose his job.
We'll actually forgive you if you forgot Bolden was still on the team—he had just one carry for four yards in 2016—but he is. In fact, he's been on the roster every year since 2012. He's had some decent outings as a running back, but the Patriots seem to have kept him around for his special teams contributions.
Unfortunately, Bolden's ability to contribute as a special teamer may not be enough to save his job this year. Guys like White, Burkhead and Lewis are much more multidimensional as running backs and receivers. Gillislee is a potential home run threat the Patriots thought enough of to sign away from the rival Bills as a restricted free agent.
Bolden has managed to hang around New England for half a decade, but the influx of backfield talent could have him staring down an exit this offseason.
Rob Ninkovich, Defensive End
Rob Ninkovich has been a defensive mainstay for the Patriots ever since joining the team back in 2009. He has played roles at both linebacker and defensive end and has earned two Super Bowl rings with the franchise.
In many ways, though, Ninkovich's career feels like it is at the juncture that Belichick is prepared to part with. He's 33 years old and is set to carry a cap hit of nearly $2.5 million. Among Patriots defensive ends last season, he was the lowest-rated by Pro Football Focus.
We also have to consider the fact the Patriots bolstered the position in the offseason, trading for Kony Ealy, signing Lawrence Guy and drafting Arkansas product Deatrich Wise. Ironically, Wise and fellow rookie Derek Rivers have been honing their craft under Ninkovich's guidance this offseason.
"He's taught not only me but Derek as well," Wise explained, per Kevin Duffy of MassLive.com. "He's another mentor type. I would say like an older brother/father-type figure."
A lot is going to hinge on how well the new additions at end do or do not jell with the defense in the offseason. Ninkovich has been an exemplary member of the Patriots organization, but if Belichick believes he is at all expendable, he could make the veteran so.
Jonathan Freeny, Linebacker
Linebacker Jonathan Freeny is another defender who could be pushed out this offseason, though he's nowhere near as tenured as Ninkovich. In fact, he's only spent the last two seasons with the Patriots after spending three with the Miami Dolphins.
Working against Freeny is the fact he wasn't a major player on defense last season—he only saw 97 snaps, per Pro Football Focus—and yet he's still set to make a pretty sizable salary. Freeny's 2017 cap hit is just under $1.8 million.
As long as New England's primary linebacker trio—Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin—remains healthy, there isn't likely to be a major need for Freeny. Then-rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts began to make a name for himself as the 2016 season went on, and the Patriots spent a third-round pick on Rivers, who could move to outside linebacker, this offseason.
Unless Rivers seriously struggles to transition to the NFL, Freeny may be looking at a role as the team's sixth linebacker. Unfortunately, the Patriots may view Freeny's contract as too rich for that role.
Dion Lewis, Running Back
We mentioned earlier that the Patriots have a pretty full stable of running backs. We also mentioned that the versatility of guys like Burkhead, White and Lewis could lead to Bolden being an early and relatively unsurprising cut.
However, the Patriots could trim the backfield down further by moving a player whose departure would be a bit more surprising. My guess is that the Patriots try to move Lewis, who is entering the final year of his contract.
Lewis has shown that he can do a lot of things on the football field—he can run, he can catch and he can return kicks—and that he can excel in a variety of roles. However, his skill set as a running back is similar to those of White and Burkhead. Plus, Lewis has a significant injury history that dates back to his time with the Cleveland Browns.
Injuries have limited Lewis to just 14 regular-season games over the last two years. While he can be truly dynamic when healthy, the Patriots just haven't been able to count on Lewis staying healthy. While White and Burkhead may not be quite as explosive as Lewis, each can fill the hybrid rusher-receiver role. Over the next couple months, New England will likely try to see if it has a returner as dangerous.
Belichick has done a good job of showcasing Lewis over the past two years when he has been healthy. It wouldn't be a shock to see Belichick now move Lewis, his injury risk and his $1.2 million base salary for a mid-round pick while he can.
*All contract information via Spotrac.com.