Biggest Roster Decisions Facing New England Patriots This Offseason

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistDecember 20, 2017

Biggest Roster Decisions Facing New England Patriots This Offseason

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    With an 11-3 record and control of the AFC's top seed, the New England Patriots are well-positioned for the immediate future. At the very least, they have a legitimate shot at Super Bowl LII and will host at least one postseason game—that much is certain.

    What lies beyond the 2017-18 season, however, is a bit more of a mystery. New England has several difficult roster decisions lurking in the horizon.

    According to Spotrac, the Patriots are expected to have just under $15 million in cap space, so the team shouldn't have to be too  creative with its cap management. However, New England cannot be careless with its money, either; the goal of the franchise is to build a perennial contender.

    Because of this, it's important for the Patriots to focus on the players they already have—they are performing well, after all. That's the area we're going to focus on here.

    We're going to examine some of the most difficult decisions that need to be made with players already on the roster. We'll consider the situations and provide our own thoughts on each.

Danny Amendola

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Wideout Danny Amendola may be 32 years old, but he's been a big part of the New England offense this season. He has 54 receptions for 588 yards and two touchdowns so far, but he is set to become a free agent in the offseason.

    Here's the thing with Amendola. His significant role has mainly come because of the injury to Julian Edelman. With a healthy Edelman on the roster last season, Amendola had just 23 receptions and 243 yards with four scores.

    It will be hard to justify re-signing Amendola to any significant deal if Edelman is back to 100 percent. The Patriots also have Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Malcolm Mitchell and Kenny Britt on the books for next year.

    It would make more sense for the Patriots to re-sign special teams ace Matthew Slater, who is also a pending free agent. Unless Amendola will return for a very minimal contract, New England should let him go.

Mike Gillislee

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    The Patriots signed Mike Gillislee away from the Buffalo Bills as a restricted free agent this past offseason. They did so with a two-year, $6.4 million deal.

    Unfortunately, the running back hasn't been the explosive playmaker he was with the Bills. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry in both 2015 and 2016; this season, he's averaging just 3.6 yards per rush. He's also fallen out of favor with the team and has been a healthy scratch in recent weeks.

    Instead, the Patriots have been relying on Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead on the ground, as James White has operated as the receiving back. It hasn't been ideal for Gillislee.

    "As far as me being backup, I feel like I shouldn't, but right now I'm in a situation where I'm not playing," he said, per Kevin Duffy of MassLive.

    Gillislee could find himself back in the lineup for the final two weeks, as Burkhead is dealing with a knee sprain. This may be his last chance to prove he deserves to be a Patriot.

    The 27-year-old has no guaranteed money remaining after this season, meaning the Patriots can cut him with no financial implications.

    Unless Gillislee shines for the remainder of the season, the Patriots should give his roster spot to someone else.

Dion Lewis

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Dion Lewis is in the final year of his contract, and the Patriots should do everything they can to keep him.

    Lewis is dangerous as both a runner and a receiver. He also returns kicks. This season, he's racked up 674 yards rushing, 150 yards receiving, 527 return yards and six total touchdowns. He's also averaging 5.2 yards per carry, which is extremely impressive for a 5'8", 195-pound back.

    "He's got a little bit of Ray Rice in him where he may be small in stature but plays very big in his role," Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward explained, per Mike Reiss of ESPN.com.

    There is risk with Lewis, though. He has an extensive injury history and has only appeared in seven regular-season games each of the past two seasons. If he plays all 16 games this term, it will be the first time he's done so in his six-year career.

    Still, it would be worth offering Lewis a three- or four-year deal that is incentive-heavy. He'll still be 27 at the start of next season and should still be productive for the duration of such a contract.

    Making the deal incentive-laden would help financially protect the Patriots from the aforementioned injury risk.

Brandin Cooks

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    OK, so Brandin Cooks is on the books for one more season, as the Patriots exercised his fifth-year option. However, giving him a back-loaded contract extension could free up some cap space for the team in 2018.

    The wide receiver, 24, is scheduled to make just under $8.5 million next season.

    Giving Cooks a back-loaded deal with a low 2018 salary and a high signing bonus—spread over the course of the contract—could free up enough money to re-sign a running back such as Lewis or Brandon Bolden.

    This isn't an uncommon occurrence in the NFL, and it's a tactic the Patriots have used in the past with quarterback Tom Brady.

    In fact, the Patriots might consider renegotiating Brady's deal, which is set to pay him $22 million in 2018.

Dwayne Allen

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Patriots traded for tight end Dwayne Allen this past offseason in order to provide a complement to Rob Gronkowski at the position. Unfortunately, the former Indianapolis Colts man has mostly been a disappointment.

    Though he's appeared in all 14 games, the 27-year-old has produced just eight catches and 60 yards. Those are shockingly low numbers considering Gronk has missed two contests.

    Allen has two years and $12.4 million remaining on his contract. However, none of that is guaranteed, so the Patriots can simply cut him if they choose to.

    Unless they believe he can grow into a more significant role in Year 2 with the team, the Patriots should cut him.

    The Patriots signed tight end Jacob Hollister as an unrestricted free agent. They should let Allen walk and focus on developing the 24-year-old.

Malcolm Butler

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Fortunately, most of New England's top defenders are under contract through 2018. Cornerback Malcolm Butler, however, is not.

    The Patriots added Stephon Gilmore last offseason to be their new No. 1 corner. He's had his ups and downs this season, but he is more than serviceable against top receivers. The thing is, so is Butler.

    While it's hard to see the Patriots paying big for the 27-year-old a year after giving Gilmore a five-year, $65 million deal, the team needs to at least try to keep him. He's a defensive leader and a Pro Bowl talent. Losing Butler would leave a big hole in an already inconsistent secondary.

    Using the franchise tag is probably out of the question. Last year's number was just over $14 million for cornerbacks. It would likely take a creative long-term deal to keep Butler, but the Patriots should do everything in their power to get it done.

    If keeping Butler proves too costly, the Patriots need to at least retain fellow defensive back Johnson Bademosi, who is also a free agent.

Nate Solder

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Left tackle Nate Solder is scheduled to be a free agent in the offseason, which puts New England in a bit of a predicament.

    Has he been great this season? Certainly not. He and the rest of the offensive line have disappointed, allowing Brady to be sacked 31 times in 14 games. However, starting-caliber left tackles don't just grow on trees, and there's been a serious shortage of them coming out of the draft.

    The reality is Solder is the most attractive left tackle slated to hit the open market in 2018. Because of this, he stands to make a lot of money. However, the Patriots can't overpay to keep him.

    If New England can convince the 29-year-old to take a team-friendly deal, it makes sense to keep him. If he demands big bucks, though, the Patriots are better off gambling on a draft target such as Texas' Connor Williams—if they can move into position to grab him.

    Drafting tackles is a risk, but it's better than overpaying for a guy who is average at best.

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