BOSTON (CBS) — The Lombardi Trophy is back where it belongs at 1 Patriot Place. The victory parade has come and gone, and the duck boats back in storage for their winter hibernation. Patriots players are starting to make their way home for the offseason, though there’s little doubt we’ll all be thinking about that Super Bowl LI victory at least a few times a day until the Patriots hit the field again in five months.
But as we found out on Tuesday, Bill Belichick is a firm believer in the “No Days Off” policy. While everyone else is shoveling out, the mastermind behind five Super Bowl championships is probably feverishly working on a game plan to repeat in 2017.
He is, after all, five weeks behind everyone else when it comes to that game plan, with a lengthy to-do list to boot. Here’s what the Patriots have to check off their list this offseason, as they look to win their third Super Bowl in four seasons:
There’s no other way around it. Just pay the man.
The linebacker once again showed he’s a big-game player on the game’s biggest stage. Two years ago, he was the man making the play before the play when he stuffed Marshawn Lynch at the one-yard line, setting up Malcolm Butler’s game-saving interception. On Sunday, he got the Patriots’ comeback firing on all cylinders when he saw Matt Ryan with the football, and then took the football away from him.
The guy simply knows how to play winning football. He’s now made two gigantic plays that were a major part of two Super Bowl victories, not to mention his pair National Championships during his time at Alabama.
Hightower is an unrestriced free agent, and will get a boatload of cash from just about any team out there. It’s likely the Patriots franchise their defensive leader (teams can do so starting on February 15), and then hopefully work out a long-term deal with him.
Address The Depth At Tight End
Rob Gronkowski appears to be on track for a return from his third back surgery, but also take into account that he just underwent his third back surgery. While he’s probably the greatest tight end to ever step on a football field, he isn’t always stepping on the football field, and that becomes a problem.
Luckily the Patriots had Martellus Bennett behind him on the depth chart last season, a player who was willing to do just about anything Bill Belichick asked of him. He played hurt. He focused on blocking rather than his stats in a contract year. He was a professional throughout, and a lot of fun to listen to along the way.
But now he’s one of the many free agents the Patriots have to make a decision on, and he’s a man who wants to get paid. He wants to be back with the Patriots, but called his situation complicated.
Given Gronk’s situation, it’s clear the Patriots need depth that the tight end position. He just can’t be counted on for a full season. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be giving Bennett a heap of money. He’s going to command a pretty penny on the open market, and going forward, he’s not going to have that carrot in front of him. There’s a chance he’s back, if he’s willing to do the team-friendly thing, but don’t be surprised if the Patriots let him walk either.
Gronkowski carries a cap hit of just under $7 million next season, so there is wiggle room to invest at the position. There are other options at the free agent market in veterans Vernon Davis, Jacob Tamme, Jermaine Gresham and Jared Cook, and don’t be surprised if the Patriots draft a tight end come April (they also signed Rob Housler to a futures contract in January). It’d be best if they had a mix of a veteran and potential tight end of the future in addition to Gronk heading into the 2017 season.
No matter what route they go, tight end depth is a part of their roster the Patriots need to address this offseason.
What’s The Deal With Jimmy
Jimmy Garoppolo impressed for six quarters, filling in for a suspended Tom Brady before getting injured in Week 2. In the process, he further boosted his trade stock should the Patriots choose to deal him this offseason.
Brady is showing no signs of slowing down. Garoppolo’s stock will never be higher, and he’ll be a free agent after this season. Teams are reportedly lining up to make an offer for Brady’s backup. All of that adds up to the Patriots likely dealing Garoppolo, especially if those trade offers get wild, as they’re expected to do. Many reports are saying the Patriots will get at least a first-rounder for Garoppolo, and that could balloon if teams start a bidding war for Jimmy G.
98.5 The Sports Hub’s Adam Jones Says Pats Should Cash In On Garoppolo:
If the Patriots feel that Garoppolo is their quarterback of the future, they’ll have to convince him to sign on and be Brady’s understudy for another few years. That’s no easy task, but money does talk. It just depends on whether or not the Patriots want to pay two quarterbacks, or cash in on Garoppolo’s high value on the trade market.
Malcolm Butler is a restricted free agent, so the Patriots can let other teams do the negotiating for them. Their No. 1 corner will get a nice raise this offseason, and he’s certainly earned it as he’s developed into one of the best corners in the league. The kid doesn’t quit on any play, and he should be rewarded for his hard work.
While there’s no real concern that Butler won’t be around next season, that will likely become a reality with Logan Ryan. He was solid as New England’s No. 2 corner, but is likely going to get No. 1 money on the open market. That’ll be too rich for the Patriots.
Safety Duron Harmon is also an unrestricted free agent and will also likely get starter money on the open market. So it looks like Belichick will be looking to add a few more Rutgers defensive backs this offseason.
Other Key Free Agents
There’s a handful of them, and some of them are in key spots (check out the full list below).
There will be a big focus along the defensive line, with Alan Branch, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long all free agents. Branch has been a wall along the defensive front since his arrival last season, and had a career-year in 2016. The Patriots would be wise to sign him to a multi-year deal, as long as the money doesn’t get too crazy.
Long showed that he can be a contributor without putting up stats, and could be back on another one-year deal. Sheard had an impressive start to his New England career last season, but he disappeared for a big chunk of the 2016 season. He was also told to stay home when the his teammates went to San Francisco in Week 11, so we’ve likely seen the last of the pass rusher in a Patriots uniform.
Finding Some Future Replacements
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t love Rob Ninkovich and the leadership he provides with his great workmanlike attitude. But he’s 33 and is only signed through next season, so the Patriots will likely look to draft a future replacement in April.
The same can be said for right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who looks to be heading to retirement after missing the 2016 season.
Bolster That Stable Of Running Backs
You either love LeGarrette Blount or you dislike him greatly; it’s very rare you find someone in between. But no matter where you fall on the running back, he’s a free agent. He may want to stick around, and if he’s willing to sign a team-friendly deal, the Pats will likely welcome him back. But that’s no guarantee. Blount may not be re-signed this offseason, but if he doesn’t land anywhere else, don’t be surprised if the Patriots sign him again in the middle of next season.
Dion Lewis and James White are under contract for another year, giving the Patriots a pair of pass-catching threats out of the backfield. But they don’t have anyone for that big back role that Blount filled nicely over the last few seasons, and could turn to a different veteran option or the draft to fill that void.
Brandon Bolden (a key cog on special teams) and fullback James Develin are also free agents, but expect them to be back next season.
Competition At Kicker?
Stephen Gostkowski has had his struggles over the last two years. His kickoffs were phenomenal in Super Bowl LI, but he shanked an extra point as the Patriots were trying to erase Atlanta’s 28-3 lead, which in the end, just made the team’s heroics that much more dramatic.
But it brought back bad memories of his missed extra point in last year’s AFC Championship Game in Denver, when the Patriots couldn’t convert on a potential game-tying two point conversion in the end. Gostkowski remains one of the best in the business, but something hasn’t been right the last 24 months. This time around, it didn’t end up costing the team, but having a little competition in camp to start next season may be the kick in the backside he needs to snap out of it.
2017 Patriots Unrestricted Free Agents
TE Martellus Bennett
RB LeGarrette Blount
RB Brandon Bolden
DT Alan Branch
FB James Develin
WR Michael Floyd
S Duron Harmon
LB Dont’a Hightower
DE Chris Long
LB Barkevious Mingo
CB Logan Ryan
DE Greg Scruggs
DE Jabaal Sheard
RT Sebastian Vollmer
2017 Patriots Restricted Free Agents
G Cameron Fleming
LB Trevor Reilly
CB Malcolm Butler
2017 Patriots Exclusive Rights Restricted Free Agents
S Brandon King
CB Justin Coleman
DE Geno Grissom
TE Matt Lengel
*An exclusive rights RFA is a player whose contract has expired and has three or fewer years in the league. If their team does not make an offer before the league-imposed deadline, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent and the team does not receive compensation.