By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Despite sitting back and watching while a number of teams were throwing piles and piles of money at free agents, it ended up being a fairly busy opening week to the 2018 league year for the New England Patriots.
There were some surprises, there were some sound decisions, and there certainly is much more to come. But for now, one week after the so-called legal tampering window opened, here’s a look at how Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio have begun to shape their roster for the 2018 season.
RB Rex Burkhead
CB Jason McCourty
DT Danny Shelton
DE Adrian Clayborn
T Matt Tobin
RB Jeremy Hill
KR/WR Cordarrelle Patterson
DB/ST Nate Ebner
RB/ST Brandon Bolden
DB/ST Brandon King
2018 Fifth-Round Pick (CLE/Shelton)
2018 Sixth-Round Pick (OAK/Patterson)
2018 Seventh-Round Pick (CLE/McCourty)
T Nate Solder
WR/PR Danny Amendola
RB/KR Dion Lewis
CB Malcolm Butler
TE Martellus Bennett
WR/ST Bernard Reedy
CB Johnson Bademosi
LB David Harris
DL Ricky Jean Francois
2018 Fifth-Round Pick (Patterson)
2018 Sixth-Round Pick (McCourty)
2019 Third-Round Pick (Shelton)
STILL UNSIGNED/FREE AGENTS
Some Thoughts On The Additions
The Patriots haven’t made any headfirst dives into the biggest names of free agency, but they’ve taken some pretty methodical steps to improve their roster.
First and foremost, they addressed their biggest void on defense by adding Jason McCourty. They didn’t get Richard Sherman or Aqib Talib, and they didn’t sign Trumaine Johnson, but they added a veteran corner on a cost-effective deal who can complement Stephon Gilmore as a reliable every-down corner. The fact that it unites the McCourty twins for the first time since their days in Piscataway is just a sidenote, as Belichick doesn’t typically make roster moves for sentimental reasons.
The re-signing of Rex Burkhead brings some continuity to a backfield that was a real strength last year. It seemed obvious that the team was going to lose at least one back, and with Dion Lewis getting more than $11 million guaranteed from Tennessee, the Patriots went ahead and brought back Burkhead. What’s interesting is that the team still went out and signed Jeremy Hill, who was a very effective back for his first three years in the league before taking a back seat last year. He rushed for 1,124 yards in his rookie season of 2014, and he scored 11 rushing touchdowns in second season. He averaged 10 rushing touchdowns per season over his first three years. Hill’s addition could spell trouble for the future of Mike Gillislee, but at the very least he adds a healthy level of competition that helped fuel that group – which includes James White — last year.
The addition of Danny Shelton works as a replacement for the contributions of Alan Branch and Ricky Jean Francois. Shelton was the 12th overall pick in the 2015 draft, and to many, he’s underperformed. But, well, he was playing for the Cleveland Browns, who were abysmal and went 4-44 during Shelton’s three seasons. Belichick has a long history of identifying interior defensive line talent and getting the absolute most out of players, so there is great reason to believe in Shelton’s upside.
The addition of Adrian Clayborn puts a veteran presence at defensive end. Though Trey Flowers is entering year four of his career, the other defensive ends who figure to contribute most are Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise. Rivers missed his rookie year, while Wise got plenty of run. But the addition of a player with seven years in the league — and 30 sacks to his name — is never a bad thing.
Signing free-agent tackle Matt Tobin may end up not being significant; it’s hard to really tell on a 27-year-old tackle who’s started 21 games in his five-year career. (By comparison, the outgoing Nate Solder had started 64 games after his age 27 season.) At the very least, he’ll be another player who figures to be competing for a spot with Tony Garcia, Cole Croston, and perhaps LaAdrian Waddle or Cameron Fleming (the latter two remain free agents).
The team apparently prioritized re-signing core special teamers Nate Ebner, Brandon King and Brandon Bolden, while noticeably not rushing to re-sign longtime captain and seven-time Pro Bowler Matthew Slater. Slater will turn 33 in September, and with his visit to Pittsburgh over the weekend taking place, it seems as though there might be a changing of the guard in the leadership of the special teams room in Foxboro.
And most recently, the Patriots picked up Cordarrelle Patterson for a very low price. That’s a somewhat significant addition, because Dion Lewis made 23 of the Patriots’ 28 kick returns in 2017. With third-year corner/kick returner Cyrus Jones a very large question mark heading into 2018, Patterson appears to be the choice as the team’s kick returner. Patterson has averaged over 30 yards per return in his career, bringing five kicks back for touchdowns.
Some Thoughts On The Departures
With all of his pay cuts over the past three years, Danny Amendola seemed like a sure thing to merrily continue his career as one of Tom Brady’s most trusted targets. Then the Dolphins went in and threw a two-year, $12 million contract with more than $8 million guaranteed at him. It was far too large to turn down, so Amendola will go ahead and make a ton of money to live in Miami. Not bad. As far as the Patriots are concerned, this is a loss they can withstand as long as Julian Edelman returns healthy and Rob Gronkowski returns to the sport of football. If either one of those players can’t be what the Patriots hope or expect them to be, then the offense will suffer a bit without one of the best third-down receivers in football.
The loss of Nate Solder is being pegged by many as significant, but really, that’s an overstatement. Solder has always been above-average but not great, and there’s not an analyst on the planet who would rank Solder as a top-five left tackle in the NFL. Some would place him as a top-10 tackle, but even then, there would be debate. The point is that only a desperate team with a dreadful offensive line could throw the kind of dough at Solder that the Giants did when they made Solder the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL. That’s great for Solder, who’s earned that payday, but he’ll be 30 when the season begins. The Giants are paying top dollar for the years that won’t be the best of his career. The Patriots just do not operate that way.
In place of Solder, the Patriots could slide Marcus Cannon from the right to the left side. Whether they do that or not, the competition for the open tackle spot will take place between the aforementioned Tobin, Croston, Garcia and either Waddle or Fleming, if the team opts to re-sign either of their free-agent tackles.
While everybody foresaw the Malcolm Butler departure coming, it was still significant. Butler led the team in defensive snaps in 2017 and 2015, and he took the second-most snaps in 2016. His play might have dipped in 2017 for various reasons, but that’s a lot of cornerback play to replace. The task is tall for Jason McCourty.
It’s a similar situation with Dion Lewis. Yes, it was mostly expected that a team would give him more money than the Patriots would, but still, Lewis accounted for 896 (roughly half) of the Patriots’ rushing yards last year. There’s reason enough, though, to believe that the group currently in place can make up for the lost yardage.
Again, there were no major splashes, and no major shocks. But the Patriots have been doing what they do more often than not, which is soundly and steadily improving their roster without overpaying. Notably, after a 2017 draft that saw them make just four picks, Belichick made sure not to trade away the 2018 draft.
While it’s yet to be seen how the likes of McCourty, Hill, and Tobin can replace some of the more significant departures, the fact is that to this point of the young offseason, the Patriots have acquired replacement candidates to every player that has left the team. Defensively, they’ll be adding in Derek Rivers, Harvey Langi, and whoever might be drafted (at linebacker, you’d think) in April. Offensively, so long as Gronkowski returns, and so long as Brady and Belichick can work out whatever disagreements they might have, the team is in position to maintain its potency.
Though the Jaguars, Titans, Chiefs, Texans and of course the Steelers remain worthy foes in the AFC, the oddsmakers at this point in time would still point to the Patriots as the favorites to once again represent the AFC in next year’s Super Bowl.