5 Most Important 2017 Free Agents on New England Patriots Roster

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IJune 5, 2016

5 Most Important 2017 Free Agents on New England Patriots Roster

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The 2016 season hasn't even begun yet, and we're already talking about the 2017 offseason? 

    It might seem like a stretch from the outside, but make no mistake, the New England Patriots are already looking ahead, and rightfully so. One look at the list of upcoming free agents, provided by Over The Cap, reveals a laundry list of valuable players who might no longer be with the Patriots following this season.

    There are 16 players who are set to be free agents and who also started at least two games in 2015. Some of those players, like wide receiver Aaron Dobson and tight end Michael Williams, might be viewed as more disposable than others—based on each's position and its relative depth compared to other positions.

    These players, however, are indispensable pieces to the puzzle.

5. Sebastian Vollmer

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    This was a hard spot to decide on, and I have to give honorable mention status to tight end Martellus Bennett and defensive end Rob Ninkovich. 

    Why not those two? For one, Bennett still hasn't played a single snap for the Patriots, and while one might argue that he'll finish the season as a more important player in terms of keeping him in the fold, it also stands to reason that Vollmer could still be more important due to the lack of depth at tackle. 

    As for Ninkovich, it really is just a matter of the depth at their positions. The Patriots stockpiled depth at defensive end with Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom and Rufus Johnson additions last year, along with Chris Long this offseason, while the depth at tackle has been stagnant.

    Now, why Vollmer?

    Because without Vollmer, Marcus Cannon becomes a starter. Cannon is also set to hit the open market next offseason, but that only means Cameron Fleming would be the starter instead. For context, Pro Football Focus rated Cannon 52nd out of 75 offensive tackles in pass-blocking efficiency, and it rated Fleming 66th. Vollmer finished 41st. 

    Admittedly, 2015 was not a banner season for Vollmer. He was 15th in pass-blocking efficiency in 2014 and 12th in 2013. When he's right, though, he is one of the better offensive tackles in the league in both the passing game and the running game. 

    Yes, he has been injury-prone at times in his career, and if he misses time in 2016, it could very well be the end of his Patriots career. Why would the Patriots invest in an injury-prone player coming off injury? If he exhibits signs of good and sustainable health, and if he continues to play at the level we've come to expect, Vollmer should be one of the Patriots' highest priorities. 

4. Malcolm Butler

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The cornerback position has been a revolving door for the Patriots for years. As recently as three years ago (2013), the starting lineup consisted of Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington. Almost the entire group had changed by the time the 2014 season kicked off, with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Arrington at the forefront.

    The group changed yet again in 2015, when Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan were entrusted with the top two spots at cornerback. Given head coach Bill Belichick's willingness to mix and match at cornerback, it wouldn't surprise me to see him begin preparing for life after Butler.

    I detailed Butler's specific contract situation last week, but here's the nut graph:

    There would be three possible results of a first-round tender: Butler would play for the Patriots for whatever the first-round tender is valued; he would sign another team's offer sheet and the Patriots would receive a first-round pick from that team in return; or the Patriots would match that offer sheet, essentially signing his long-term extension. Not one of those scenarios seems too unpalatable when you think about it.

    Of course, it might be in Belichick's best interest to hang on to Butler for the time being. Butler is set to become a restricted free agent in 2017, which is a whole different animal from being an unrestricted free agent (here's a brief summary of how unrestricted free agency works, per Nick O'Malley of MassLive.com). In 2015, the first-round tender was worth $3.582 million. 

    If that's what it would cost to keep Butler in the fold for the 2017 season, the Patriots would be stupid not to sign Butler as a restricted free agent. Another team could still make an offer, but the Patriots would then have right of first refusal and would receive draft-pick compensation if Butler signs with another team. 

3. Jabaal Sheard

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The Patriots loaded their defensive end depth chart with young, athletic bodies in the 2015 offseason, but those players have yet to show their true NFL ceilings. That's because last year, the depth chart was already loaded with Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones in a three-man rotation. The Patriots have swapped Jones in that rotation with former St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long.

    That being said, Long didn't produce at the same level in 2015 as we're used to seeing from him. According to Pro Football Focus, Long ranked 49th out of 51 defensive ends in pass-rushing productivity, which is a per-snap measure of pressure generated. On that same list, Sheard ranked No. 1 overall. There might be opportunities down the depth chart, but Sheard has at least one of the top spots locked up. 

    If the Patriots follow up losing Jones this offseason by losing Sheard next offseason, they're treading on dangerous—but familiar—territory. Before those two came along, the Patriots suffered a long drought of pass-rushing talent from 2007-12, when the Patriots had only four instances of a player recording 10 sacks or more in a season.

    Both Sheard and Ninkovich are set to hit the open market, and although the 32-year-old Ninkovich is the more versatile and more seasoned veteran, Sheard is just 27 years old and has a solid NFL career ahead of him.

2. Dont'a Hightower

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Flip a coin. You could make a case for either of these next two free agents to be Nos. 1 and 2. Heck, you could make a different case for each depending on what you classify as the most important traits at linebacker.

    Throughout his career, Dont'a Hightower has been a jack-of-all-trades linebacker. He has lined up at defensive end to rush the passer; he lines up in a two-point stance to blitz the A-gap and create hurried pressure up the middle; he drops into coverage; he gets his nose dirty in run defense. He has been a leader of the defense since shortly after his arrival, and he has been groomed for that role since New England drafted him in the first round in 2012.

    He has also been vital in the Patriots' ability to switch seamlessly between 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. He is more of a run-stuffing linebacker, but he has adapted his game to become more effective in the passing game (rushing the passer and coverage). For the third time in his career, and for the second straight year, he earned positive grades in run defense, pass rushing and pass coverage from Pro Football Focus

    Since 2013, Hightower has worn the green-dot helmet for radio communication with the sideline, making him both the defense's vocal and physical leader. His knowledge of the defense is among the best on the team, so it stands to reason that his leadership spreads into the locker room as well. 

    Hightower's role on the team is one that some of the greatest in recent Patriots history have filled, including Tedy Bruschi and Jerod Mayo. Much like those two, it's hard to picture the Patriots defense without Hightower.

1. Jamie Collins

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Three top defenders are looking at the potential of becoming a free agent in 2017. Why does Jamie Collins get the top spot?

    The fourth-year linebacker, formerly a second-round pick, has all the tools to be a staple in the Patriots defense regardless of the scheme. His physical traits are freakish, as Collins proved by posting a 41.5-inch vertical jump, a 139-inch broad jump, a 4.64-second 40-yard dash and a 7.1-second three-cone drill at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine.

    At 26 years old (27 in October), it's safe to say Collins has a lot of life left in his legs, and he should be a solid investment on his physical traits alone. Couple that with his growing and improving knowledge of the defense—he has been given the green-dot helmet in preseason games—and you have a combination of factors that make Collins the potential physical, vocal and mental leader of the defense in years to come. 

    There's still a way the Patriots can keep both Collins and Hightower—according to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, they could have also kept Chandler Jones if they wanted. In the unlikely scenario that the Patriots must choose between them, Collins seems like the logical choice from this perspective.

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