Following a disappointing loss to the Titans on Wild Card weekend, the Patriots head into the biggest offseason of the Belichick era with extra time to make critical personnel decisions.
For the past eight seasons, the Pats played deep into January or even February, but with an early playoff exit, they’ll have a few more weeks to prepare for the months ahead.
“We have more time and we’ll try to use that time as productively as we can,” Bill Belichick said during his season-ending press conference on Sunday. “We’ll sit back, we’ll take a look at what the priorities are, what we can try to accomplish and then make the most efficient use of this time that we can. That’s what we’ll do. Has all of that been laid out yet? Absolutely not. That will be one of the first orders of business.”
The first order of business for Belichick will certainly be sorting out the contract situation with impending free agent Tom Brady, and yes, it’s weird to write that in a sentence about Brady.
The Patriots can agree to new contract terms with the 42-year-old now, but if they don’t agree to terms by the start of the 2020 league year on March 18, Brady will be free to sign elsewhere.
Brady shopping his services if he’s low-balled by the Patriots is a possibility, but the most likely scenario is that he’s back in New England for a 21st season on a short-term deal.
Earlier this week, we took an in-depth look at the complicated situation, which includes a dip in Brady’s play in 2019 and how he can return to championship form with an improved supporting cast.
The six-time Super Bowl champ also serves as a reminder that the Patriots already had the oldest roster in the NFL, and now a chunk of those veterans will be a year older next season.
In 2019, the Patriots had an average age of 27, and even if you substitute Brady for a league-average aged QB, they were still the oldest team in the league.
We typically ignore age, and for a good reason, it’s overrated, but we are on the bridge to ushering in a new era of Patriots football as the stars of dynasty 2.0 age out of the league. One already called it quits before last season (miss you, Gronk).
At the top of the list is the search for Brady’s successor, who might already be on the roster in Jarrett Stidham, but he might not be, so you want to bring in as much talent and competition as possible.
By all accounts, Stidham was impressive in his practice reps with the first-team offense, and he got more than usual due to Brady’s injuries throughout the season.
Multiple Patriots defensive players told me that Stidham made competitive throws that challenged them at practice. One defensive starter said he was most impressed by Stidham’s ability to make good decisions and read out post-snap rotations in the secondary; in other words, the mental stuff.
The second-year quarterback might be the long-term plan, but for now, the focus remains on re-signing Brady, setting him up for the 2020 season while setting the team up as best as possible for his inevitable retirement.
Along with Brady, the Patriots will be busy, with 20 other free agents (17 unrestricted), and holes to fill on a roster that wasn’t good enough offensively to win in the postseason.
Belichick, depending on Brady, will have roughly $50 million in cap space to work with and 12 selections in the 2020 draft, four of those picks are in the first three rounds.
There’s once again an unprecedented amount of cap space throughout the league that will lead to some insane spending.
But if the Patriots structure contracts the way they usually do, they should have enough space to retain some of their free agents and upgrade the roster, with the potential of a significant upgrade depending on how things fall.
Below, we’ll set some of New England’s priorities with their other free agents and discuss their biggest needs as they try to reload to make a run at banner number seven:
TOP OFFSEASON NEEDS
We all know by now that retooling the weapons around whoever the quarterback is next season should be Belichick’s top priority.
The Pats receivers ranked dead last, 32nd, in average separation on passing plays, and Tom Brady’s bunch dropped the second-most passes of any receiving core in the league (34).
Outside of Julian Edelman, the Patriots didn’t have another receiver that could consistently get open against man or zone coverage, and a lack of chemistry with Brady exacerbated that issue.
Brady’s stats on passes to first-round pick N’Keal Harry, deadline acquisition Mohamed Sanu, Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers, Ben Watson, and Matt LaCosse were staggeringly bad.
Harry, Sanu, Meyers, and LaCosse are under contract for next season, and you’d like to think that the rookies will improve in year two, and they could save $6.5 million by releasing Sanu.
The Pats prioritized size and contested-catch ability last offseason, and we all know how that worked out, so it would be nice to see them draft, sign, or trade for a high-end separator.
At the tight end position, the Patriots could use some youth and explosiveness since they lack both. The Pats can’t replicate Gronk, but they haven’t tried through the draft.
Since they double-dipped with Gronk and Aaron Hernandez in 2010, Belichick has drafted three tight ends, and all three were in the fifth round or later: Lee Smith (fifth round, 2011), A.J. Derby (sixth round, 2015), Ryan Izzo (seventh round, 2018).
Although nobody expects Belichick to find another Hall of Famer, it would improve the offense if they could find a tight end that excels on their types of routes, such as intermediate crossers or seam patterns.
After all, studies have found that passes to tight ends and throws between the numbers are some of the most efficient pass attempts in football.
The Patriots could have the cash to sign a free agent or two that’ll hopefully upgrade the arsenal of weapons on offense.
If New England wants its offense to return to form in 2020, the pass-catchers need to improve.
The Patriots rolled with four true defensive linemen in the playoffs with Lawrence Guy, Danny Shelton, Adam Butler, and Deatrich Wise on the game-day roster, and it limited them up front.
On top of a lack of depth, those four players are specific to certain roles. Guy and Shelton are run-stuffers, while Butler and Wise are best suited to play in passing situations.
Belichick masked things along the defensive line by highlighting the depth at linebacker, playing out of a 3-4 base front, and using linebackers in the pass rush; Dont’a Hightower led all off-ball linebackers in pass-rush snaps (259) while Jamie Collins was third (174).
For the most part, the strategy worked, but the lack of size was an issue against run-heavy offenses like the Titans and Ravens.
Against Tennessee, the Patriots played most of the first half out of their standard 3-4 base, with three defensive linemen, two standup edge defenders, and two off-ball linebackers.
The Titans and Derrick Henry averaged 6.8 yards per rush in the first half with their zone-heavy scheme, and attacked Wise, who again, is more of a pass rusher than run defender.
In the second half, the Patriots adjusted to a variation of a 4-3 tilt front with six players across the line of scrimmage, the same front they used in Super Bowl 53 to shut down the Rams’ zone rushing attack.
Instead of going with a true 4-3, they used linebackers John Simon and Kyle Van Noy as standup five-techniques. The Titans average did drop to 4.4 yards per rush against the 6-1 front, but they didn’t have the size or versatility they needed for that kind of matchup.
The Patriots lost Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, and Adrian Clayborn in free agency last offseason and replaced them with Michael Bennett (eventually traded) and rookie Byron Cowart.
We knew the Bennett trade might eventually cost them when they needed an extra big body and more of a penetrating force, and that came to fruition against the Titans.
This offseason, they’ll need to rebuild their depth along the defensive line, and hopefully, add some two-way players that aren’t so hyper-specific into certain roles.
OWN FREE AGENTS: HIGH PRIORITY TO RE-SIGN
Joe Thuney (projected APY: $12-15 million): The Pats left guard is on a tremendous run of durability and production since the team selected him in the third round of the 2016 draft. In his first four seasons, he has missed only 34 snaps starting all 74 games, including playoffs, and posted an 87.4 pass-blocking grade this past season, ranking third among offensive guards and seventh among all offensive linemen. He only allowed one sack and wasn’t called for a penalty on 732 pass-blocking reps. Although he isn’t a dominant run blocker, he makes blocks in space with ease on runs and screens and wins with sound body positioning.
Still, his specialty is pass blocking. Thuney has flawless technique and excellent core strength and balance to give himself a sturdy base to handle interior pass rushers. Above, the Pats left guard wins two one-on-ones with Rams All-Pro Aaron Donald on the game-winning drive in Super Bowl 53. Thuney’s sturdiness and foot speed help him from a physical standpoint, but his late hands result in consistent wins. He lets Donald throw his hands first, then counters to stall Donald’s momentum, and that causes defensive linemen to get off-balance.
Based on his age (27) and performance, Thuney will become one of the highest-paid offensive linemen in the league, assuming he hits the open market, making it difficult for the Patriots to re-sign him. However, he should be their top priority, even with right guard Shaq Mason on a big contract as well.
Devin McCourty (projected APY: $10-12 million): watching McCourty on TV every week doesn’t do his game justice, you need the all-22. The Pats safety patrols the deep part of the field as well as anyone in the league, ball-hawking five interceptions and finishing ninth in PFF grade at the position this past season, and he’s also versatile. McCourty played a third of his snaps in the box, covering tight ends and even joining the rush as a blitzer on 19 of his snaps. He’ll also play both wide and slot corner, finishing the season with a 44.4 passer rating allowed into his coverage (ninth among safeties). The Pats use the 32-year-old in several ways depending on the situation and game plan.
DMac INT: #Patriots drop into cover-2. Allen thinks he has Brown on the post splitting the two safeties. DMac opens to the sideline then reads the QB to jump it once Allen releases the ball. Perfectly done. Can't play safety any better than DMac is right now. pic.twitter.com/VctQ3NwCiZ
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) October 1, 2019
Additionally, he’s also the unquestioned leader of the secondary and is a coach on the field, making checks to get everyone in position. McCourty is mentioned with Stephon Gilmore in terms of importance to the defense due to his leadership. The two sides will likely reach an agreement to bring McCourty back for the 2020 season.
Matthew Slater (projected APY: $2-3 million): He won’t command a big contract, but Slater is an integral part of the Patriots on and off the field. The 34-year-old earned first-team All-Pro honors for the second time with a career season. Slater posted an elite 90.9 special teams grade, a career-high, and second-best among all players with at least 80 special teams snaps. We get a glimpse at his renowned leadership skills following Patriots wins, but that’s only a snapshot of someone that several players referred to as one of the best people they’ve ever been around. His speeches are legendary, pumping up his teammates, and capturing the moment perfectly after games. Slater is a rare kind of person, and although he only covers kicks, his presence is felt throughout the organization. Retirement is a possibility for Slater, he said he’d take some time to reflect with his family, but if he wants to return, it’s a no-brainer for the Patriots.
OWN FREE AGENTS: BRING BACK AT THE RIGHT PRICE
Kyle Van Noy (projected APY: $13-15 million): The Pats linebacker had a career season playing primarily on the end of the line of scrimmage, a role he excelled in at the college level before playing off the ball for most of his pro career. Van Noy’s 60 quarterback pressures were 13 more than his previous career-high, and 25 more than the next closest Patriot. His career-best 84.2 overall grade was also 16th among edge defenders. Van Noy is an athletic end of the line defender, using a quick first step, change of direction skills, and ability to bend the arc to rush the passer. He also has terrific recognition of blocking schemes to sniff out pullers and set the edge.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) September 24, 2019
The 29-year-old made it clear towards the end of the season that he plans on cashing out in free agency, which makes a return to the Patriots unlikely, but they’ll monitor his market closely. He has developed into a high-end hybrid edge defender, similar to Rob Ninkovich or Mike Vrabel, that knows the intricacies of the defense.
Jamie Collins (projected APY: $7-9 million): Collins had a bounce-back season in his return to the Patriots, posting his best grade (73.0) since his last full season in New England and tying a career-high with 33 quarterback pressures and a team-high seven sacks. The Pats used Collins as a pass-rusher more than he ever has in his career, which explains some of the uptick in production. He also set a new career-best passer rating into his coverage at 55.0.
Although he had a solid year, Collins’s play dropped off after an All-Pro caliber start. In the first six weeks, Collins posted an 81.3 grade and had four games with a 90-plus elite grade. In the last 11 games, Collins’s grade was 57.1, and his highest individual game grade was 75.7. He also posted his lowest grade of the season in the Wild Card loss to the Titans (29.9). Collins was unable to maintain the insane rate of negative plays he produced in the first six weeks of the season down the stretch. He seemed to lose confidence in his eyes later in the year. At the beginning of the season, he was clicking into running plays quickly and making plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Collins’s free-agent market should be interesting. The Patriots get the most out of him so he could return on a team-friendly deal.
Ted Karras (projected APY: $5-6 million): Belichick refers to depth as an insurance policy: you hope you don’t need it, but when you do, you better have a good one. Karras was an excellent insurance policy for the Patriots, who were blindsided by David Andrews’s illness (blood clots) a few weeks before the regular season. Karras had big shoes to fill, and he did it admirably, ranking 18th among centers with a 66.5 overall grade. He is a bigger center that can move people in the running game and made considerable strides in pass protection. Over the last six games, Karras’s pass protection grade rose to a very solid 80.5. Quality offensive linemen, in particular, quality backups, are tough to find. Karras played at a starter-level, and with Andrews’s future still uncertain, it would behoove the Patriots to renew their insurance policy.
OWN FREE AGENTS: LOW PRIORITY TO RE-SIGN (BUT USEFUL PLAYERS)
Danny Shelton (projected APY: $4-5 million): Shelton’s new offseason workout program led to a more explosive player for the 2019 season, and the Pats usage of Shelton changed slightly to fit his skillset. Belichick let him penetrate more often instead of holding at the point of attack. In reality, Shelton is a three-technique in a nose tackles body. The Patriots love big-bodied tackles that are good against the run, and Shelton holds down that role adequately.
Elandon Roberts (projected APY: $3-4 million): Roberts brings a physical presence in all three phases of the game and offers fullback insurance as we saw this past season. But the linebacker made it clear that his focus is on the defensive side of the ball, and he’ll return to his linebacker duties next season. His selflessness and work ethic earned him team captain honors in 2019, and Roberts has improved in coverage over the last two seasons. This season wasn’t his best against the run, but he fits into the program nicely.
Justin Bethel (projected APY: $2-3 million): Bethel, in many ways, is a slightly younger version of Matthew Slater. He wasn’t as good as the Pats captain this past year but watching the two of them cover punts was tremendous. If Slater was the first one down there, Bethel wasn’t far behind, and the tandem ended up in the face of the returner the vast majority of the time. The two gave the Patriots a dynamic kick coverage duo, and especially if Slater retires, it would be nice to retain Bethel.
Phillip Dorsett (projected APY: $5-6 million): Dorsett is a useful role player as a vertical threat. Outside of a Hall of Fame deep threat like Randy Moss or a very good one in Brandin Cooks, the downfield element of the Pats offense is more about creating space than it is producing big numbers. Dorsett’s speed can threaten coverage to open the middle of the field or attack defenses horizontally, but he’s never going to be a high-volume receiver that demands targets. The Patriots like to send him on fades, Vader routes (post/corner option), deep crossers, and the occasional double move, and he runs those with plenty of pace to test defensive backs. If they don’t upgrade that role in the offense, there aren’t many 4.3 guys out there that know the system as well as Dorsett.
Other Unrestricted Free Agents: Nate Ebner, Nick Folk, Marshall Newhouse, Benjamin Watson (retirement), Shilique Calhoun, James Ferentz
We’ll update positional needs after free agency, but here’s a look at the 12 selections the Patriots will have in April’s draft:
– 1st round (23rd overall)
– 3rd round (87th overall)
– 3rd round (projected compensatory pick: Trey Flowers)
– 3rd round (projected compensatory pick: Trent Brown)
– 4th round (via Chicago Bears)
– 6th round (via Houston Texans: Keion Crossen trade)
– 6th round (via Denver Broncos: Duke Dawson trade)
– 6th round (projected compensatory pick: Malcom Brown)
– 6th round (projected compensatory pick: Cordarrelle Patterson)
– 7th round (via Seattle Seahawks)
– 7th round (via Falcons)
– 7th round (via Philadelphia Eagles)