Making the Call on New England Patriots' Top Free Agents

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 9, 2017

Making the Call on New England Patriots' Top Free Agents

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    TIght end Martellus Bennett is one of several key Patriots players marked for free agency.
    TIght end Martellus Bennett is one of several key Patriots players marked for free agency.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The 2016-17 NFL season is over, and in case you missed it, the New England Patriots are league champions.

    New England's stunning 34-28 comeback victory in Super Bowl LI won't soon be forgotten. However, if you think the Patriots are going to put off preparing for next season in order to celebrate, you aren't familiar with the Patriots.

    New England jumps directly into preparation for free agency, which kicks off on March 9. Given that a lot of player key to this year's championship run are scheduled to hit the open market, there's plenty of work to be done.

    According to Spotrac.com, the Patriots will head into the offseason with roughly $63 million in cap space. The team can obviously choose to use that money to re-sign players, add new talent or simply bank it for the future.

    We're here to break down the most important pending free agents on the Patriots roster. We'll examine each player's contributions, situation and make a determination on whether or not New England should re-sign them. We'll also example potential alternatives for players we deem expendable.

Dont'a Hightower, Linebacker

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    Re-signing Dont'a Hightower should be a top priority for New England.
    Re-signing Dont'a Hightower should be a top priority for New England.Al Bello/Getty Images

    Quarterback Tom Brady may have won the Super Bowl MVP award, but linebacker Dont'a Hightower is perhaps the real hero of the game. His strip-sack of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan set up a critical scoring drive and completely flipped the momentum in New England's favor.

    Hightower didn't just stand out in the title game, either. He finished the regular season with 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two passes defended and a forced fumble. Pro Football Focus rated him fifth overall among all inside linebackers for the regular season and playoffs.

    The Patriots absolutely must re-sign Hightower, even though doing so isn't going to be cheap.

    The Patriots traded away linebacker Jamie Collins during the season, and the Cleveland Browns subsequently signed him to a four-year, $50 million deal. Hightower is arguably worth even more than that.

    Hightower is going to turn 27 years old next month and can still be the centerpiece of New England's defense, presumably until Brady is ready to retire and this incarnation of the dynasty is over. Bringing him back makes too much sense, and the Patriots may already be planning on doing that.

    With Collins and pass-rusher Chandler Jones (traded to the Arizona Cardinals) elsewhere, Hightower has little competition to be the heart of the defense. At the very least, Collins' and Jones' are contracts the Patriots don't have to concern themselves with.

Chris Long, Defensive End

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    Chris Long performed well in his lone season as a Patriot.
    Chris Long performed well in his lone season as a Patriot.Rob Leiter/Getty Images

    The Patriots brought in former first-round pick Chris Long this season, in part to help offset the loss of Jones. Long performed well in his role on the Patriots defense, and the two parties definitely helped each other earn a championship.

    However, it felt all along like Long was only with New England for a one-year run, and it still does. He earned almost $2.4 million for the 2016 season, and unless he is willing to do a similar deal this year, the Patriots can afford to move on.

    Long produced 22 tackles and 4.0 sacks in the regular season, and Pro Football Focus rated him 31st overall among all 4-3 defensive ends for the year. However, Long will turn 32 during the offseason, and there are a number of talented pass-rushers in this draft. Looking to the draft for a rotational defensive end seems like the smart option here.

    If the Patriots are going to bring back one of their pending free-agent defensive ends, it should be the younger Jabaal Sheard.

Jabaal Sheard, Defensive End

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    Bringing Jabaal Sheard back makes sense for the Patriots.
    Bringing Jabaal Sheard back makes sense for the Patriots.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Sheard spent a couple of seasons miscast as an outside linebacker with the Browns before landing with the Patriots in 2015. Since then, he has racked up 13.0 regular-season sacks and has become a consistent presence on the Patriots defensive line.

    Sheard was rated 15th overall by Pro Football Focus among all 4-3 defensive ends for the 2016 season. He amassed 33 tackles, 5.0 sacks and four passes defended.

    Retaining Sheard over Long makes sense, because Sheard is roughly four years younger. The Patriots gave him $5.5 million per season and can afford to give him a similar deal again, perhaps with a longer duration.

    Signing Sheard to, say, a three-year, $18 million deal would ensure the Patriots would have a quality end across from budding star Trey Flowers for the foreseeable future. Re-signing him makes sense even if New England chooses to add a rookie pass-rusher in the draft.

    Presumably, Sheard's new deal would be up by the time said rookie is due for an extension.

Martellus Bennett, Tight End

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    Is Martellus Bennett looking for a payday now that he has his ring?
    Is Martellus Bennett looking for a payday now that he has his ring?Bob Levey/Getty Images

    The Patriots acquired tight end Martellus Bennett from the Chicago Bears this past offseason, and one could argue the team wouldn't have been as dominant if it hadn't made the deal. Once Rob Gronkowski ended his season for good, Bennett ensured that Brady still had a weapon at the tight end position.

    Given the uncertainty surrounding Gronkowski's health—and the fact that the original plan was to utilize both players at the same time—it would make sense to bring back Bennett. However, it only makes sense to do so at the right price.

    It seems like Bennett could be looking to maximize his value on the open market.

    “I’m going into free agency as a Super Bowl champion," Bennett said on NFL Network after Super Bowl LI. "You know they overpay Super Bowl champions."

    With such a talented group of young tight ends coming into the NFL this year, the Patriots shouldn't be the team that overpays for Bennett.

    Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller believes that this year's rookie tight end class could be a historic group. Unless New England can retain Bennett for a bargain, the draft is where the team should turn for its next tight end.

Michael Floyd, Wide Receiver

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    If wideout Michael Floys wants to return to New England, he'll likely need to take a sizable pay cut.
    If wideout Michael Floys wants to return to New England, he'll likely need to take a sizable pay cut.Marc Serota/Getty Images

    The Patriots took a flier on former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd last season after he was released by his former team. He was on the field for two regular-season games and one postseason contest in what was essentially an extended audition for next season.

    It turned out to be a pricey audition for New England, who had to pay out $1.29 million of his guaranteed salary.

    While Floyd played 110 snaps in his three appearances, according to Pro Football Focus, it doesn't seem that the Patriots were too impressed with him. Floyd was made inactive for both the AFC title game and Super Bowl LI.

    Floyd is also likely to face league discipline during the offseason, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Unless the former Notre Dame star is willing to come back at or near the league minimum, it doesn't make much sense for the Patriots to re-sign him. There will be plenty of young options to explore in the draft, and those players can be groomed in the Patriots system from Day 1.

LeGarrette Blount, Running Back

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    The Patriots nearly didn't re-sign LeGarrette Blount last offseason.
    The Patriots nearly didn't re-sign LeGarrette Blount last offseason.Eric Espada/Getty Images

    The Patriots waited nearly a month after the start of free agency before deciding to bring back running back LeGarrette Blount. The team should be glad it did, as Blount finished the regular season with over 1,000 yards rushing to go with an NFL-high 18 touchdowns.

    If the Patriots are going to bring Blount back for another year, though, they need to do it at a bargain price. This may lead the team toward a different direction, as Blount played on a $1 million deal this year and is unlikely to do so again.

    Blount is 30 years old and is limited as a back. Sure, he is a bruiser that can wear down a defense, but he isn't much of a weapon as a pass-catcher. He had just seven receptions all of last season. This is part of the reason why James White and Dion Lewis have roles as receiving backs in the New England offense.

    There are plenty of talented running backs in this year's draft, some—like Stanford's Christian McCaffrey—that the team might even consider at the bottom of the first round. If the Patriots can get younger and more dynamic at the running back position, they should.

    One potential free-agent option to consider, though, is Adrian Peterson. If the Minnesota Vikings end up releasing him, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Patriots show interest. This obviously goes against the age argument, but it wouldn't be an entirely unprecedented move.

    New England traded away a second-round pick for 29-year-old Corey Dillon back in 2004 and rode him to another Lombardi Trophy.

James Develin, Fullback

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    Re-signing James Develin makes a lot of sense for the Patriots.
    Re-signing James Develin makes a lot of sense for the Patriots.Eric Espada/Getty Images

    While plenty of football minds consider fullbacks to be interchangeable or downright expendable, James Develin has proven his worth in the Patriots offense. Though not heavily utilized in the offense, he has protected Brady on several occasions.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Develin played 418 offensive snaps between the regular season—and no fullback was rated higher in blocking. Unless New England is looking for a more dynamic offensive player at the fullback position, Develin seems to be the right man for the job.

    Develin is still just 28 years old, and while champions do usually earn a raise, he should be relatively affordable. He played on a one-year, $750,000 deal last season. Develin has now spent four seasons in the Patriots system, and it only makes sense to keep him there.

Logan Ryan, Cornerback

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    Logan Ryan played a big role in New England's Super Bowl run.
    Logan Ryan played a big role in New England's Super Bowl run.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Malcolm Butler may be the standout cornerback in New England's secondary, but Logan Ryan is a player who shouldn't be overlooked. He finished the 2016 season with 92 tackles, 11 passes defended and two interceptions. He racked up 22 more tackles, four passes defended and another pick in the postseason.

    Pro Football Focus rated Ryan 16th overall among cornerbacks for the regular season and the playoffs combined.

    Keeping the secondary intact should be a big priority for the Patriots this offseason, and so should re-signing Ryan. The former Rutgers standout is just 26 years old yet already has four years of significant experience in the New England defense.

    Henry McKenna of USA Today believes that this is going to make retaining Ryan difficult.

    "Ryan has probably played his way off the Patriots," McKenna said via Twitter. "He's going to require a pretty significant contract due to his recent play."

    The Patriots cannot afford to go giving Ryan the same kind of deal they'll likely give Hightower, but they need to seriously consider bringing him back. They have enough cap space to offer a fair deal, and it would be a shame to see the team part with a key defensive cog about to enter his prime.

Sebastian Vollmer, Offensive Tackle

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    It might be time for the Patriots to move on from Sebastian Vollmer.
    It might be time for the Patriots to move on from Sebastian Vollmer.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has been with New England since 2009. He has been a part of two Super Bowl teams and has certainly had a hand in the Patriots' sustained success. However, it's probably time for the Patriots to move on.

    Vollmer dealt with hip and shoulder injuries during the 2016 preseason, eventually having surgery on the shoulder. The Patriots placed him on the physically unable to perform list and never activated him. New England still fielded one of the better offensive lines in the league—rated 11th in pass blocking and third in run blocking by Pro Football focus—and won the Super Bowl without him.

    Between salary and bonuses, Vollmer carried a dead cap hit of $4.3 million in 2016.

    Vollmer earned roughly $4.2 million per season on his last contract with the Patriots. If he is going to command something in the $4-5 million range in free agency, the Patriots should allow him to walk. The team can find a quality heir early in the draft, and it's not as if the team struggled during his absence.

    This isn't to say that Vollmer cannot still play well, only that the Patriots should allow him to do so with another team.

Alan Branch, Defensive Tackle

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    If the Patriots can work out a team-friendly deal, they should consider bringing back Alan Branch.
    If the Patriots can work out a team-friendly deal, they should consider bringing back Alan Branch.Billie Weiss/Getty Images

    Defensive tackle Alan Branch made his presence felt in the Super Bowl—three tackles and half a sack—just as he did throughout the regular season. The 32-year-old defender amassed 49 tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and three passes defended in 16 regular-season games.

    For a non-pass-rushing down lineman, these are solid numbers.

    Now, it isn't exactly the Patriots' way to invest in an aging defender, but the Patriots really should consider making an exception in this case. Branch is still playing at a high level—Pro Football Focus rated him 17th among all defensive tackles for the 2016 season—and he now has three years of experience in Matt Patricia's system.

    Branch was previously playing on a manageable two-year, $4.3 million deal. If New England can bring Branch back on a similar contract, it should. The team should still look to the draft to add another young lineman to complement Malcom Brown, but Branch would have a lot of value as a mentor and as part of the defensive-line rotation.

                                                                

    *All contract information via Spotrac.com.

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