On March 14, the 2018 NFL league year begins at 4 p.m. At that time, all contracts which ran through the 2017 season expire and the annual free agency bonanza begins.
The New England Patriots aren’t always active early in free agency, but when they are, the moves tend to be blockbuster in nature. Just last season, who could have predicted that cornerback Stephon Gilmore would wind up receiving more guaranteed money ($40 million) from the Patriots than any defensive player in franchise history?
On offense, New England has key players at almost every level set to hit the market next week. The focus on that side of the ball should be more on retaining what the Patriots already have, rather than seeking help from the outside.
With that in mind, here’s a position-by-position rundown on what New England is facing in the coming weeks. Check back later this week for a similar look at the defensive side of the ball.
Nothing to see here. NFL MVP Tom Brady is overdue to receive a contract extension, one would think, even as he enters his age 41 season. He’s under contract for two more seasons, as is his backup, Brian Hoyer.
It’s no secret that following the trade of Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots need to find another heir apparent for Brady. That surely won’t happen in free agency, though. Save for emergency third-string quarterback additions such as Doug Flutie and Vinny Testaverde, pretty much every Brady backup since Rohan Davey has been drafted by the Patriots or signed as an undrafted free agent. Hoyer, whom New England brought in after dealing Jimmy G, was originally an undrafted free agent signing by the Patriots in 2009.
Chances for upheaval are strong at running back, where both Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead are unrestricted free agents. Cutting Mike Gillislee after he was a healthy scratch for much of the second half of 2017 and playoffs wouldn’t cost the Patriots anything against the cap, meaning it’s not impossible that James White will be the only player left from last year’s stable of backs. Brandon Bolden was also recently re-signed to a one-year, $880,000 contract, but he had only 13 carries a season ago. He’s a core special teamer.
Lewis would appear to be priority No. 1. He had a career-high in rushing yards (896), rushing attempts (180), rushing touchdowns (six) and yards per carry (5.0). At only 27, he doesn’t have nearly as many miles as a typical running back has on their odometer by this point in their career. Lewis was originally drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011 but barely played until the Patriots uncovered him in 2015; part of that was due to a torn fibula he suffered with the Cleveland Browns during training camp in 2013, causing him to miss the entire season. Lewis also tore his ACL during his first season with the Patriots.
Appearing on The Adam Schefter Podcast last month, Lewis said that his main thing is making sure he’s valued. How would New England value Lewis on the open market, considering it hasn’t paid a running back in excess of $5 million per season since Corey Dillon in 2006?
“It’s a business,” Lewis told Schefter. “I’m not putting all my eggs in one basket.”
Re-signing Burkhead, also 27, feels more likely. He made $3.15 million in his first season with the Patriots and played great in both the running and passing games, scoring a combined eight touchdowns in just 10 games. Could Burkhead’s inability to stay on the field due to injury knock his price tag down a bit?
In the event that Lewis and/or Burkhead fly the coop, former New England running back Shane Vereen is set to hit free agency after three up-and-down years with the New York Giants. Vereen may be a bit redundant with White, operating almost solely as a pass catcher out of the backfield, but there’s no question he has a rapport with Brady. In Vereen’s final game with the Patriots, Super Bowl XLIX, he had 11 catches for 64 yards as Brady’s security valve against the Seattle Seahawks.
Despite restructuring the contract on three separate occasions, Danny Amendola saw through the original five-year deal he signed with the Patriots prior to the 2013 season. Now a free agent again at 32, will Amendola continue to help New England with a team-friendly deal that allows him to finish his career in a place where he’s become a folk hero?
Speaking at Bryant University last week, Amendola addressed his pending free agency, saying that he definitely wants to stay with the Patriots.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t want to leave,” Amendola said to the crowd during a moderated Q&A session. “But it’s a business. I’ve learned that the hard way.”
Julian Edelman looks on track to return from a torn ACL that cost him the entire 2017 season, while Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Philip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Bernard Reedy and Malcolm Mitchell – who also missed the entire 2017 season due to injury – are all under contract for 2018. Don’t expect the Patriots to be active on the external market for free agents at wide receiver.
Not that he plays much receiver, but special teams captain Matthew Slater is also a pending free agent. It would be surprising if the Patriots and Slater couldn’t come to terms on another contract similar to the one that paid him $1.8 million last season.
What happens here depends an awful lot on if perhaps the greatest tight end in NFL history decides to return for a ninth NFL season. Rob Gronkowski has two years left on his current deal that will pay him $8 million in base salary in 2018 and $9 million in 2019. He’s set to earn more cash than any other tight end in the league this coming season while also carrying the highest cap hit at the position. Is that enough to convince Gronk to hold off on Hollywood, the WWE and whatever else he might have his eyes on? Or will he seek a deal that pays him more in line with a top-flight wide receiver, such as Antonio Brown, who as it stands today will be the highest-paid receiver in 2018 at $16,775,000?
There’s another tight end who once sought to be paid like a wide receiver set to hit the market next week in Jimmy Graham, who could provide Gronk insurance. Graham’s numbers have fallen off since he left New Orleans after the 2014 season, but he did catch 10 touchdown passes last season for Seattle. There’s also a chance Marty Bennett continues his second tour of duty with the Patriots; claimed off waivers after a disastrous seven games in Green Bay, Bennett played only two games with New England in 2017 before shoulder and hamstring injuries forced him to injured reserve.
Bennett is due a $2 million roster bonus on March 14. Any clarity on Gronkowski’s situation by then, however unlikely, could determine whether the Patriots pick that up. It warrants mentioning how big a part of the offense Bennet was in 2016 for New England, including during the comeback from 28-3 down in Super Bowl LI – without the services of Gronk.
Further along the depth chart, New England is almost certain to move on from Dwayne Allen, who carries a $5 million cap hit in 2018 and would cost nothing in dead money. Jacob Hollister has two years left on his rookie deal but was inactive for both the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LII after being a healthy scratch just once in the regular season. Cutting Hollister would result in a miniscule amount of dead money, roughly $10,000 over two years.
New England’s stability at quarterback is no secret, but blindside protection of whoever happens to be under center for the Patriots dates back three decades.
Bruce Armstrong (1987-2000), Matt Light (2001-2011) and Nate Solder (2011-present) have given New England unique continuity at left tackle most other teams would dream of. Which is why retaining Solder, an unrestricted free agent, is of utmost importance for the Patriots.
Per a provision in his previous contract, the franchise tag cannot be applied to Solder – a Pro Bowl alternate last season. This means the two sides are going to have to meet somewhere in the middle to ensure Solder, who turns 30 next month, remains with the only organization he’s known professionally since being drafted 17th overall in 2011.
Solder is far and away the best tackle set to hit the market. It’s hard to gauge which other pending free agents are due significant raises, if any, but Solder’s 2017 salary cap hit ($11,166,418) was more than double any other player who will become a free agent next week. The Patriots are going to have competition to retain his services.
In addition to Solder, tackles LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming are both unrestricted free agents. Each player is capable of playing either tackle spot and should be a priority to retain regardless of Solder’s status, given the ankle injury that caused starting right tackle Marcus Cannon to miss the final eight games of the regular season and the playoffs. Fleming got the start at right tackle in Super Bowl LII.
Further muddying the waters is the status of 2017 third-round pick Antonio Garcia. Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported last week that it was blood cuts in Garcia’s lungs that caused him to miss the entire 2017 season. While Garcia is expected to make a full recovery, there’s no timetable for him to return to the field.
The interior of New England’s offensive line, meanwhile, is among the most stable positions on the team. Guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney and center David Andrews are all under contract for at least another season. Mason played more snaps than any other player on the Patriots offense last season, with 1,136 (99.74 percent) and Thuney was right behind him at 1,134. Andrews, an undrafted free agent in 2015, has emerged a team leader in New England. He was named a team captain for the first time last season, before which he signed a three-year, $9 million contract extension through the 2020 season.