Eight days after the Patriots hoisted their sixth Lombardi Trophy, the quest for banner number seven is on.
There’s no better way to finish a season than with a championship parade, but the truth is that the Patriots have some serious questions to answer over the next few months.
New England has a laundry list of free agents that includes key contributors in defensive end Trey Flowers, left tackle Trent Brown, both kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Ryan Allen, and just about every wide receiver on the roster besides Julian Edelman.
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And they need to navigate that free agency pool with only around $18 million in cap space as of right now.
Although that seems lofty, there are some ways that the Patriots can create cap space to free up room to re-sign some of their free agents.
But the easiest path to cap flexibility, the retirements, release or trade of tight end Rob Gronkowski or safety Devin McCourty, would leave huge voids at the top of the roster.
To put it frankly, the Patriots are in a transition period as some of their stars begin to age out and their promising young players hit the open market.
On a positive note, the Patriots might not have cap space, but they do have 12 draft picks in April’s draft including six in the first three rounds.
With that kind of draft capital, Bill Belichick can rebuild the roster on the fly if there is a mass exodus of talent this offseason.
Below, we’ll go through a five-step plan for the Patriots to repeat as champions next season:
1. Sign Quarterback Tom Brady to a Contract Extension
Currently, Brady’s deal is set to expire at the end of the 2019 season.
It would be unprecedented for Brady to report to training camp in July on an expiring contract, and it doesn’t make much sense for anyone involved for that to be the case.
First, the distraction that Brady’s expiring deal would bring to the team over the next year without an extension would be detrimental; a then 42-year-old Brady playing for the Patriots without knowing his future? Yeah, unlikely. Plus, owner Bob Kraft said during Super Bowl week that Brady’s age won’t factor into the negotiations and that he wants to get a deal done.
Second, from a cap perspective, an extension for Brady should give the Patriots some relief, especially with Brady’s $27 million cap hit in 2019; it seems unlikely that Brady will play at that cap number next season. In the past, the Patriots have converted Brady’s salary to signing bonuses and done other cap tricks to create space, and Brady has gone along with it knowing it takes the entire roster to compete for titles. We’ll see if Brady is willing to take a team friendly deal again, but even if he doesn’t, they can create some wiggle room by extending his contract and converting some of his 2019 salary into a signing bonus.
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And third, Brady has earned an extension, and this isn’t a lifetime achievement award. Over the last two years, Brady has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and was the MVP of the league in 2017. Although he had his ups and downs this season, he rose to the occasion in the playoffs with dominant play in the fourth quarter and overtime of the AFC Championship Game and the final frame in the Super Bowl.
Nobody wants to see Brady play for another team, and if I were a betting man, I’d put the mortgage on Brady signing a new deal with the Patriots this offseason.
2. Work Out Retirement and Contracts Talks with Rob Gronkowski and Devin McCourty
Both Gronk and captain Devin McCourty hinted at retirement over the last few months, but they also have contract situations that the Patriots will want to address if they do return next season, and both players are on expiring deals.
Gronkowski’s cap hit is nearly $12 million next season as it stands right now, and the team will want to lower that number if he returns. The Patriots can do that by signing him to an extension or asking him to take a pay cut, the latter of which probably won’t go over well with the big tight end.
Although his play improved in the postseason, Gronk wasn’t the same receiving threat due to multiple injuries this past season, and as he gets older, and with his injury history, it seems unlikely that he’ll go through another year without wear and tear.
As we saw in the playoffs, when Gronk is healthy and at his best, he’s still a dominant player, but paying him that kind of money next season might be too pricey for the team, and Belichick already tried to trade him last offseason.
McCourty’s retirement rumors could be a bit overblown as the Pats safety dropped the word amidst a moment of self-reflection on winning a Super Bowl with his brother, Jason.
But McCourty is entering his tenth NFL season at age 32 and has plenty of tread on those tires.
Plus, at times this season, McCourty mentioned to us that the grind of the season was catching up to him at his age. On top of retirement talks, McCourty’s cap hit next season is roughly $13.5 million, and although I’m a McCourty truther, he’s not a $13 million player at this stage.
For both Gronkowski and McCourty, if they do put off retirement, they won’t play under their current deals for the Patriots next season.
3. Sign Linebacker Kyle Van Noy and Left Guard Joe Thuney to Extensions
Another way the Patriots can create cap space is by extending some key contributors a year early to lower their 2019 cap hit, and Van Noy and Thuney both earned extensions.
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Van Noy had his best season as a pro with a career-high 47 quarterback pressures and became one of the vocal leaders of the team. Van Noy was a mouthpiece of sorts for the Patriots’ “nobody believes in us” attitude and Belichick mentioned multiple times this season that he’s one of the leaders of the defense on the field as well. The Pats linebacker capped off a breakout season with three sacks and 11 quarterback pressures in the postseason.
Patriots left guard Joe Thuney might not be as flashy as Shaq Mason, but as an offensive line nerd, his play is a joy to watch. Thuney’s pass sets are flawless combining unique athleticism for his position with incredible core balance, hand usage and lower body strength to anchor against power which used to be his weakness. As one of the best athletes at his position, Thuney is also a perfect fit in the Patriots’ run blocking schemes that call for multiple blocks on the move.
On the lone TD drive of the game, the #Patriots had LG Joe Thuney block Aaron Donald 1v1 twice in key situations, and Thuney won both times. Thuney has tackle-like skills. Always balanced, great core strength, quick feet, knows how to use his arms/hands. Underrated player. pic.twitter.com/MQQaWpdZLj
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) February 7, 2019
In the Super Bowl, the Patriots asked Thuney to block Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald one-on-one twice on the game-winning touchdown drive, and Thuney held up both times.
If the Patriots extend Thuney, they’ll have center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason, right tackle Marcus Cannon, second-year tackle Isaiah Wynn, and Thuney signed through at least 2020.
4. Make Competitive Offers to Trey Flowers and Trent Brown
In an ideal world, the Patriots would bring back both defensive lineman Trey Flowers and left tackle Trent Brown.
However, both likely played themselves into franchise player type contracts at their position, and the Patriots would need to get creative with the cap to afford both.
If you had to pick one, Flowers is the easy choice. I wrote after the regular season about how Brown’s play declined as the season went on, but he picked it back up in the postseason. Brown had similar issues in San Francisco with heavy workloads, and there is some risk involved in breaking the bank for Brown after his impending free agency clearly motivated him. Brown is a starting caliber tackle in this league and one of the best pass protectors at his position, but after just one year with the team, he’s not the type of player the Patriots typically invest heavily in to keep in free agency.
Flowers, on the other hand, is a homegrown stud that the Patriots stole in the fourth round in the 2015 draft and developed into one of the best players at his position. The 25-year-old did things the right way, honing his craft over the years and earning his playing time every step of the way; he’s a Patriot-type player through and through. Plus, he’s darn good and is the Patriots’ best pass rusher by a wide margin. Flowers’ 78 total disruptions were nearly double the next player on the team.
Flowers will likely demand somewhere in the mid-teens on the open market, but his lack of sack production throughout his career could deter some teams that still evaluate based on box scores (21.5 sacks in three seasons).
The Patriots will do what they always do in free agency with Flowers and Brown.
Belichick will set a number that’s the teams absolute best offer, and they won’t exceed that number.
In the past, the Patriots have lost key free agent as a result of that strategy, but it’s that kind of restraint and a lack of attachment to players that have made the dynasty sustainable.
5. Patriots Positional Needs Pending Free Agency
Let me preface this by saying that Bill Belichick scoffs at the idea of team needs.
The hoodie will never set his board based on the Patriots’ “needs” at any given position, which is a sound strategy to build the best possible 53-man roster.
If you have a need at a position and draft a player at that position you have ranked ten spots below another player that’s how you end up with Greg Robinson or Justin Gilbert over Odell Beckham and Aaron Donald.
With that said, we don’t have act like Belichick, so here are my top five needs for the Patriots as we enter free agency:
I know, I know; he’s the greatest of all-time. Nobody is disputing that, and we can all agree that the Patriots have more significant immediate needs than quarterback. But at some point, father time will catch up to Tom Brady, and when that time comes, the Patriots can either be prepared for the next generation or fall into the abyss of teams that don’t have a quarterback. Trust me, you don’t want to that. The next guy might not be in this draft or free agency class, but it would be foolish for the Patriots to operate like Brady will play forever. He won’t.
2. Wide Receiver
As of right now, the Patriots only have Julian Edelman and second-year wideout Braxton Berrios under contract at the wide receiver position along with a few members of the practice squad. If the Patriots can bring back Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett or Cordarrelle Patterson at the right price that’s an easy solution for the short-term. But in the long term, the Pats need to start developing the next go-to guy in their passing game, and they could use an immediate upgrade at the “X” receiver spot. The 2019 draft is loaded with wide receiver prospects. Go get one, Bill.
3. Tight End
If Rob Gronkowski retires the Patriots’ tight end position is nonexistent, and even if Gronk returns, they need to start looking to the future at the position. On top of Gronk’s situation, veteran blocking tight end Dwayne Allen is a candidate for release with his $7 million cap hit next season. The Patriots drafted Florida State product Ryan Izzo in the seventh round last season, and Izzo could replace Allen as a blocking tight end, but in a loaded tight end draft, the team should look for the next playmaker at the position.
The safety position is one of the most important spots in the Patriots defense. Belichick asks a lot of his safeties in his scheme with a multitude of roles that could change week to week. Belichick always says that if you can control the middle of the field and limit big plays defensively you’re in good shape, and that’s why he puts such a heavy emphasis on the safety position. With Devin McCourty (age 32) contemplating retirement and Patrick Chung (age 31) getting up there in age, the Patriots need to start thinking about drafting their replacements. Either a strong safety or free safety is a good possibility with one of their 12 picks.
5. Defensive Line or Offensive Tackle
The Patriots’ last need depends on what happens with Trey Flowers and Trent Brown in free agency. Even if both somehow return, it’s never a bad idea to add depth along the line of scrimmage. If Flowers walks, defensive line becomes a real possibility for the Patriots in the first round as they search for an impact player at the position to replace Flowers. And if Brown walks, they do have last year’s top selection, Isaiah Wynn, returning from a season-ending injury, but you’d like some insurance for Wynn who’s coming off a ruptured Achilles. Plus, you might want to start looking at the next guy at right tackle with Marcus Cannon on the wrong side of 30.
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