NFL free agency begins on March 14 at 4 P.M. Before that though, the negotiating can take place. Beginning on March 12, teams can contact the agents of players that will become free agents when the league year begins, but a contract can not yet be executed.
The New England Patriots have a lot of free agents of their own, but outside of the club, there is tons of talent available. This list features 5 players that the Patriots should absolutely think long and hard about signing. The first two are current Patriots players, with the following three coming from other cities around the league.
Each can be viewed as a critical piece towards the Patriots success in 2018 if signed.
OT Cameron Fleming
The Patriots have both Cameron Fleming and Nate Solder as free agents in 2018. Solder is clearly the better player as the starting left tackle, but his price tag may be too high. He may also choose to retire as some have hinted at to avoid further injuries.
I’m not totally convinced that Solder wants to keep playing football, so for that reason, it should be a priority for New England to re-sign Fleming. If Solder is clear with the Patriots that he wants to return in 2018, just swap him in here and let Fleming walk. The team would be able to find another cheap backup tackle.
If Solder does walk away from the NFL, Fleming is a very capable holdover until the Patriots find their next starting left tackle, either in 2019 free agency, via a trade, or through the NFL Draft.
RB Dion Lewis
Dion Lewis has earned himself a nice payday, but it sounds like he would love to stay in New England. Of course, the Patriots are not going to overpay for a running back, but maybe he will take a hometown discount. Lewis has been electric in his years with the Patriots, and the offense simply would not be the same without him.
New England should let Rex Burkhead walk, and use some of that money to re-sign Dion Lewis to a 3-4 year deal. He is a worthy investment to ensure that Tom Brady has a dynamic receiving back by his side as his career winds down.
TE Tyler Eifert
I wrote more extensively about Tyler Eifert and the Patriots the other day, but I’ll say it again. Eifert to the Patriots just makes too much sense. Yes, Eifert has a history that is riddled with injuries, but that is what would make this deal work.
When healthy, Eifert is among the best tight ends in the NFL. Those injuries though should help to drive down the price of his new contract. The Patriots should be able to scoop in and take Eifert on a one-year deal that allows him to go out onto the field and prove he is still elite.
DE Ezekiel Ansah
The Patriots have a lot of young talent in Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr., and Derek Rivers on the edge, but you can never have enough. Ziggy Ansah has been on my radar for years, and now as a free agent, he may be the right fit for the Patriots. He is a sack machine, and that’s something New England has been missing ever since Chandler Jones was traded to the Cardinals.
Last season, Ansah had 12.0 sacks for the Detroit Lions. His career-high was 14.5 in 2015.
Ansah won’t come cheap, but the Patriots should find a way to make it work.
CB Kyle Fuller
Kyle Fuller has been in the NFL for four seasons, but he missed all of 2016 with an injury. That did not derail him though, as he returned last season and played in every game for the Chicago Bears. In fact, in his 3 full seasons, he hasn’t missed a game at all.
Aside from being a durable player, Fuller has what it takes to succeed as a cornerback in the NFL. He has 8 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles in 48 career games. He also has 41 passes defended. For comparison, Malcolm Butler has 8 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, and 50 passes defended in 50 career regular season games. Fuller surely would have surpassed Butler’s numbers had he played in 2016.
Now, Kyle Fuller can become Butler’s replacement for years to come. He has the skill to be able to play opposite Stephon Gilmore, which would allow Eric Rowe to remain the slot corner. New England could also still draft a cornerback or two, in order to develop their own in-house talent.
When all is said and done, I fully expect the Patriots to take a look at these five players. They’ll certainly be in discussions with Fleming and Lewis as their own free agents, but the biggest gains may come from outside of Foxboro. Tyler Eifert, Ziggy Ansah, and Kyle Fuller can all contribute in 2018 as the Patriots make a run at another Super Bowl title.