Don’t get me wrong, I want to milk this Super Bowl win as long as possible. It’s almost unfair to the players that Patriots fans expect the team to get right back to it and begin working towards Super Bowl LII, but that’s the common mentality in Foxboro as long as Bill Belichick is the man in charge.
The offseason should have much more action for the Patriots than it did for the 2016 season, since many star players have expiring contracts and the Patriots actually have a first round pick.
I’m not too sure why Patriots writers continue to write suggestions for the greatest coach in the history of the NFL, but here it goes nonetheless.
Trade Jimmy Garoppolo
As if the Patriots haven’t already made Tom Brady’s four-game suspension handed down by Roger Goodell look absolutely pathetic, the suspension may aid the Patriots in further extending their dynasty.
A Brady-less Patriots obviously were led to start third-year player Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. Exposing Garoppolo’s talent and skill set was an absolutely perfect scenario for the Patriots; the one loss in the four-game stretch clearly did not come into play in seeding, Brady was given a shortened season which is rather significant to his 39-year old body, and the many quarterback-needy teams were able to get a glimpse of Garoppolo’s play.
The number of teams that are looking for a quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft is absurd. The Browns, 49ers, Bears, Jets, Bills, Saints, Cardinals, Redskins, Broncos, Giants, and Texans all have shaky quarterback situations in one way or another. Garoppolo has played for three years behind the greatest coach of all time and the greatest quarterback of all time. No rookie is going to have nearly the immediate impact that Garoppolo can bring to the table.
The most logical destination for Garoppolo is Houston. The Texans do not have many needs outside of quarterback and offensive line, and with a very weak offensive line class, the Texans can afford to deal a first rounder for Garoppolo. At this point, the best quarterback available at their slot would be Pat Mahomes from Texas Tech. Houston is very close to being a dangerous threat in the AFC, and it’s just not going to happen with Osweiler or Mahomes at the reigns.
Jacoby Brissett has also proven to be at the least serviceable albeit a pleasure to watch. A need for three quarterbacks is nonexistent.
Reportedly, several teams are interested in trading for Garoppolo. Nonetheless, the Patriots have to absolutely pull the trigger in the offseason on a trade, whether it be in March or during training camp.
Stick With Young O-Line
This is the closest the Patriots have been to a consistent offensive line in years. In the past, blocking has been a liability that stymied their playoff runs, with no clear starters outside of Nate Solder. The starting line of Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Marcus Cannon is very young and has plenty of potential. There was a very prominent improvement between 2015 and 2016, and there is plenty more improvement to come; Solder and Cannon are the oldest on that starting line and they were drafted in 2011 (Andrews and Mason were second-year players and Thuney was a rookie).
Matching one of the greatest offensive line coaches with this talent-filled group of young blockers has paid dividends and will continue to in the upcoming years. Add a serviceable depth chart with Cameron Fleming, a healthy Tre Jackson, and Ted Karras, and there’s a chance this corps remains intact through the years.
This plan leaves Sebastian Vollmer out of the equation. Vollmer is nearing his final NFL seasons and he is far too inconsistent injury-wise. Set to become a free agent, it would be wise for he Patriots to let Vollmer walk. The Patriots have implied that this is the plan, extending Cannon’s contract through 2021.
Vollmer has been a tremendous asset for the Patriots when healthy, but the 32-year old may find himself in retirement soon.
Not much draft efforts should be put towards the offensive line. Only a third day draft pick or two will be necessary.
The list of free agents for the Patriots is rather frightening; Martellus Bennett, Alan Branch, Dont’a Hightower, Jabaal Sheard, Logan Ryan, LeGarrette Blount, Duron Harmon, are all unrestricted free agents. Malcolm Butler is also a restricted free agent.
With that being said, the Patriots have over $65 million in available cap space. Locking down 3-year or longer deals with all of these players is the top priority, except for Branch and Blount. 2-year deals might be more favorable for the Patriots in regards to Blount and Branch due to Blount’s inconsistency and Branch’s age.
Some players are much more important to lock down than others, but finding replacements for any of these stars is no easy task.
Martellus Bennett (Estimated contract: 3-yr $25 million): Patriots fans thought Rob Gronkowski was impossible to take down until they saw Bennett throw Kam Chancellor down like a little kid in the regular season. Bennett played extremely well in the Patriots’ system, and the inability to rely on Gronkowski’s health makes re-signing Bennett so important. Luckily, Bennett is not the type of player to go after money whatsoever and his loyalty to the Patriots should lead to an easy contract agreement.
Alan Branch (2-yr $10 million): Fans will miss watching Branch dance to Outkast’s “Hey Ya” during timeouts if the Patriots are unable to re-sign Branch this offseason. Branch’s run-stopping abilities are too valuable to lose, as the statistics are incredibly different between when he is on the field versus off. The Patriots allowed less than two yards per carry when Branch was on the field in the AFC Championship against the Steelers. Age may cause the Patriots to be hesitant.
Dont’a Hightower (5-yr $50 million): Sign that man! Hightower is the leader on the defensive side of the ball and his playmaking abilities are worthy of him being paid as one of the best linebackers in the league. Locking Hightower down should be the biggest priority for Belichick and the front office this offseason. Perhaps a franchise tag is in store if the two cannot agree upon a price, but losing Hightower would regress the linebacker corps in New England drastically.
Jabaal Sheard (4-yr $32 million): This is probably the most difficult contract to discuss a price on. The end of the 2015 season saw Sheard play like a $10 million per year player, but often this season he played like one that deserved half that price. Thank goodness for Trey Flowers, or the Patriots’ pass rush from its defensive ends would have been nonexistent. With plenty of cap available, a smart move would be to sign Sheard for a price more towards his max but leave little of it guaranteed.
Logan Ryan (3-yr $19 million): He had his ups and downs at the beginning of the season, but the last half of Ryan’s contract season was phenomenal, including the playoff run. Keeping the corner trio of Butler, Ryan, and Eric Rowe would be very effective, but Ryan may impetuously chase money elsewhere after his great finish.
LeGarrette Blount (2-yr $12 million): There are a few second day running backs that could replace Blount, such as Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon or Texas’ D’onta Foreman, but not many players can top Blount’s downhill explosiveness. He’s not nearly the top free agent for the Patriots, but still should attract attention.
Duron Harmon (4-yr $16 million), Brandon Bolden (4-yr $10 million): Harmon and Bolden are two players with very defined roles whose absence would be missed. Harmon is very valuable in various secondary packages who really came on in 2015, and Bolden is a very reliable special teamer. They don’t require a great deal of money and losing them would be a shame.
Malcolm Butler (5-yr $42 million): Not matching an offer received by another team will be the biggest mistake the Patriots could make this offseason. Butler is still developing and already is considered a borderline Pro Bowler. A long term contract isn’t a must — as long as there is a contract agreed upon — but the longer the better.
James Develin (2-yr $2 million): Is there even a chance of Bill Belichick not taking a fullback on the roster?
Chris Long (1-yr $3 million): Chris Long will forever be one of the most intimidating edge rushers purely based on his arm tattoos, but perhaps expectations were ultimately too high for the nine-year veteran. Re-signing Long isn’t a must, but whether they do or not, the Patriots’ first round pick should be used on a defensive end.
Michael Floyd (2-yr $9 million): At least make Floyd an offer. Hogan, Edelman, Amendola, Mitchell and the pair of tight ends are all injury prone. If Matthew Slater has to run a route, there’s an issue. Floyd was not benched because of his drop against the Texans, but rather was not included due to a numbers game, according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss. Floyd is a player that definitely took advantage of his second chance and would be welcomed back in Foxboro in 2017.
Draft Defense Early
If the Patriots cannot lock down Hightower for whatever reason, the first pick may go to a linebacker (Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham). If all goes as planned, a mid-round pick or two should go to the position instead.
If Bennett does not re-sign, taking a player like Alabama’s O.J. Howard is a possibility as well.
With that being said, the Patriots’ 32nd overall pick should absolutely go towards a defensive end. No other position has nearly the desperate need as defensive end for the Patriots at this point in time. Possible targets include Michigan’s Taco Charlton, Missouri’s Charles Harris, UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley, and Michigan State’s Malik McDowell.
A great first two days for the Patriots (before seeing who comes and goes in free agency) would look somewhat like the following:
What was with Gostkowski this season? Ever since his miss in the 2015 AFC Championship against the Broncos, Gostkowski seemed to be less reliable, missing extra points and a few chip shot field goals. Picking up an undrafted free agent kicker for training camp would a smart decision just to add some competition in the kicking game. Doing the same with a punter wouldn’t be awful either.
Jackson Haskins is an NFL writer for DYSTNow.com, you can follow him on Twitter @JacksonHaskins1.