Grading the New England Patriots Free-Agency Moves so Far

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IMarch 17, 2015

Grading the New England Patriots Free-Agency Moves so Far

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    The New England Patriots are going in a new direction. With Darrelle Revis off to the New York Jets and Brandon Browner off to the New Orleans Saints, the complexion of the Patriots secondary will be a bit different in 2015 than it was in 2014. That being said, it will also be somewhat the same, with Devin McCourty coming back to the fold. 

    But of course, the high-profile defensive backs are not the only names worth mentioning in the Patriots' free-agency moves.

    As usual, the Patriots are notable not for one or two big moves, but for the volume of smaller moves that help round out the roster. Bill Belichick has addressed holes at tight end and outside linebacker and also added depth at wide receiver in the first week of free agency.

    Here's a look at all their moves with grades for each one.

Patriots Place Franchise Tag on Stephen Gostkowski

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    The Patriots had two options for the franchise tag: Stephen Gostkowski and Devin McCourty.

    Most folks expected the Patriots to use the tag on McCourty, so when Gostkowski was the option, there was some concern that McCourty could be on his way out. That didn't prove to be the case, but it was a risk the Patriots were willing to take and one that nearly didn't pay off.

    Gostkowski is in the fold for the 2015 season on a one-year, $4.54 million deal that is fully guaranteed. But if the Patriots had been able to negotiate him to a long-term deal, they may have been able to retain him for less money against the cap.

    Even at this stage of his career, Gostkowski could be worth a long-term investment. The 2014 season was one of the best of his career, as the 31-year-old kicker hit a career-high 94.6 percent of his field goals and led the league with 35 field goals made. 

    The Patriots keep an important player, but at a price that's a little steeper than they might have preferred. 

    Grade: B+

Patriots Re-Sign Devin McCourty to 5-Year, $47.5 Million Contract

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    The Patriots had a laundry list of free agents entering the offseason, but two stood out: Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty. Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft were able to ensure that at least one of those two key free agents would remain in the fold.

    ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss reported last Monday that the Patriots agreed to a five-year, $47.5 million contract with McCourty, who was presumably minutes away from taking an offer elsewhere; the Jacksonville JaguarsTennessee TitansNew York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles had all shown interest in McCourty before the Patriots made one final push to retain the five-year veteran and former first-round pick.

    McCourty's value to the Patriots defense is superlative. He can hold his own as the lone deep safety in Cover 1, as he showed time and time again in 2014 with his ability to recognize plays and route combinations and his closing speed to help him make a play on the ball. 

    He has been a team captain for the past two seasons, and his leadership was key in getting the defensive backs on the same page last season when the Patriots were making big changes to their coverage unit. Now, he'll have a similar responsibility as the glue that keeps the unit together with two key pieces falling off.

    The Patriots paid a steep price to retain McCourty, but the bang could be worth the buck if the secondary continues to play at a high level. 

    Grade: A+

Patriots Sign Jabaal Sheard to a 2-Year, $11 Million Contract

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots don't have a talent problem at outside linebacker, they have a depth problem. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich play a vast majority of the snaps, and it's about time the Pats add a young pass-rusher to fill out the rotation. 

    There weren't many better options available than former Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard, and NFL Network's Ian Rapoport (h/t NFL.com) reports that the Patriots signed him to a two-year, $11 million contract. Sheard is still young at only 26 years old and has the versatility to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 or defensive end in a 4-3. He will have an opportunity to put all those skills to use with the Patriots switching up schemes from week to week and play to play. 

    Some folks may not like his declining production, as the defensive end has notched fewer sacks each year in the league: 8.5 sacks in his rookie season in 2011, seven in 2012, 5.5 in 2013 and two in 2014. Keep in mind, though, that he will not be the primary pass-rusher in the group. He'll only be a piece of a rotation.

    With the departures of Revis and Browner, the Patriots need to revamp their pass rush. Sheard is a great piece to do just that.

    Grade: B+

Patriots Sign Brandon Gibson to a 1-Year, $825,000 Contract

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    USA TODAY Sports

    One man's trash is another man's treasure. Only time will tell whether wide receiver Brandon Gibson will be trash or treasure, but the former Miami Dolphins wideout was made a free agent as a salary-cap casualty at the end of February, and the Patriots made him one of their own shortly after free agency opened.

    Gibson was set to count for $4.26 million against the salary cap, and his role in the Dolphins offense was diminishing—as were his skills coming off a season-ending patellar tendon injury in 2013. Those factors led to career lows in receptions (29) and yards (295), but if Gibson can get healthy again, he may still have something left to give an offense.

    The risk-reward led to a contract of one year worth only $825,000, according to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss.

    The Patriots take fliers like this on a yearly basis with mixed results. In a loaded group among slot receivers, Gibson may have a hard time finding a role in the offense. Unless he blows the doors off the competition in training camp, this signing may not even register a blip on the radar.

    Grade: C-

Patriots Sign Scott Chandler

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots have an affinity for tight ends, as they prove seemingly every year by adding more and more components the mix. This year, they added former Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, which should be about as surprising as the sun rising in the east every morning. 

    Not only is Chandler a tight end, but he has also given the Patriots trouble in the past. He has caught 28 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns in nine games against his new team. The 6'7", 260-pound tight end should immediately be considered a threat to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart, where Michael Hoomanawanui and Tim Wright battled for playing time last season. 

    He is not an incredibly savvy route-runner but is able to use his size to advantage as a pass-catcher and a blocker, with polish when it comes to setting the edge on running plays. Over the past few seasons, Chandler has caught an average of 48 passes for 574 yards and four touchdowns, which would be more than the production of Hoomanawanui and Wright combined in 2014.

    Rob Gronkowski was fully healthy in 2014 for the first time since his rookie season, but with his history of injuries, the Patriots can't necessarily count on continued good health and good luck for the All-Pro tight end. Picking up Chandler was a wise move to weaken a division rival and strengthen their own depth chart.

    Grade: B-

Patriots Sign Chimdi Chekwa to 1-Year Deal

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots lost two cornerbacks in free agency, but they added one.

    According to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com, the Patriots signed former Oakland Raiders cornerback Chimdi Chekwa as a free agent. The Raiders had a chance to tender the restricted free agent, but in allowing him to become a free agent, the Patriots were able to sign the four-year veteran and former fourth-round draft pick. At 6'0" and 190 pounds, he instantly becomes the biggest cornerback on the Patriots roster.

    He has struggled in coverage of late, allowing completions on 20 of 27 throws into his coverage and three touchdowns over the past two years, according to ProFootballFocus.com, but his coverage ability is not the only thing he brings to the table. The Patriots probably also liked his status as a key contributor on special teams, with 15 career special teams tackles.

    With so much uncertainty at cornerback, the Patriots needed to add to the competition and improve their own chances of fielding a competent secondary in 2015.

    Grade: C-

Patriots Re-Sign Alan Branch to 2-Year, $6.6 Million Deal

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots already have depth issues in the front seven, so it's important that they don't create even more issues with inaction among their own free agents.

    That's why it's big news that the Patriots re-signed defensive tackle Alan Branch to a two-year, $6.6 million contract, according to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss. Branch was a midseason signing in 2014; he played in eight games with two starts in the regular season and played in all three playoff games as well.

    His pass-rushing ability was not what made him a key component on the defensive line; instead, it was his ability to plug gaps in the running game as a complementary piece on the defensive front.

    With Vince Wilfork gone, Branch's skill set could be more important this year than last year. That being said, the Patriots must continue to get younger up front to plan for life after Wilfork and Branch.

    Grade: B-

Overall Grade: B+

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots haven't made the big moves they made last season, but they have rounded out their roster in a few key spots and retained a couple of very important free agents.

    They lost a few compatriots (no pun intended) along the way, with Revis signing with the Jets, Browner signing with the Saints, running back Shane Vereen moving to the New York Giants and Akeem Ayers going to the St. Louis Rams. While their additions may not completely balance out their subtractions, they've filled out the depth chart in different ways.

    Tight end and outside linebacker were positions where the Patriots desperately needed more depth, so the signings of Sheard and Chandler are more important than they may seem. Ultimately, the success of this free-agency period will be determined by the performances of Revis in New York and McCourty in New England.

    Grade: B+

    Unless otherwise noted, all salary cap and contract information provided by OverTheCap.com.

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