-by Mr. Scratch
In the previous article we took a look at the Patriots’ current roster situation along with their cap situation and some potential options for relief. Now we’ll delve into the five biggest decisions they face (or could face) that will most impact their free agency course:
1) Trey Flowers
The Patriots’ offseason essentially hinges on Flowers. While some suggest the Patriots won’t use the prohibitive price of the franchise tag to retain him and that his market is somewhat suppressed since he doesn’t record high sack totals, I look at it differently.
In my opinion, Flowers may not just be one of the top DL in a very good free agent crop but also one of the most valuable DL in the entire league. Flowers is the โnew-ageโ prototype at the position where 4-3, 3-4, and nickel concepts are starting to meld. He’s a more than capable edge rusher who can play 5-tech in 30 fronts and 3-tech in sub rush. He’s become the proverbial queen on the chess board of the defensive front. I even think he can play 3-tech in a base 40 front if called on.
We next need to look at his market. While plenty of teams could very well be in the hunt for his services, two of the three teams that currently possess the most salary cap space in the league, the Jets and Bills, reside in the Patriots’ division. Flowers’ defensive coach this season, Brian Flores, just took over the reigns on the remaining AFC East team and will likely look to replace the aging Cameron Wake. His defensive coordinator from last year, Matt Patricia, is currently running the show in Detroit and will also likely be looking for a replacement, this time to take the place of the formerly franchise-tagged Ziggy Ansah.
Finally, as was discussed previously, the Patriots defense was largely comprised of players in their late 20s and early 30s last year, in or past the hot zone for most of their key players. While J.C. Jackson had a very promising season, it’s easy to forget that he only started for the last third of the year and was still an undrafted rookie. Flowers, just turning 26, is really the only proven asset entering his prime age that New England has on the defensive side.
The tag will cost somewhere around or over $18M. But it is almost imperative that New England uses it if they want to retain Flowers.
2) Rob Gronkowski
After a shaky and somewhat lackluster season, Gronk turned his play on in the playoffs and started to resemble the player we knew. The injury toll looks to have caught up to him and it is uncertain how much he has left – if he even returns. His $12M cap number this year is prohibitive. The Patriots would free $10M of that with a straight-up release. Could they find common ground in a renegotiation? It’s possible. But there are two things to keep mind: 1) Gronk essentially nixed a trade last year which suggests the Patriots were already to move on at that point, and 2) he then pushed for renegotiation of his current deal which the Patriots did by adding incentives. That might not tank a return, but it will be remembered.
3) the McCourty twins
As a career Patriot, defensive stalwart, and team captain who is coming off another good season, Devin McCourty’s future should be his call. While 2019 would likely be his last season in New England, he has hinted at calling it quits now. Jason’s situation is a little more murky. As an unrestricted free agent he has an open choice. He could retire if he feels he’s done, but coming off a very solid season himself, he likely will have a choice: return for New England for one more run or look to go somewhere else for one more payday.ย [ED. NOTE: Since writing, both McCourtys have stated that they intend to play in 2019.]
4) Dont’a Hightower
Hightower had a rough season while looking slow and often disappearing in games. He recorded 48 tackles, 1 interception, 1 sack, 3 tackles for loss and 6 QB hits. However, he played in 15 games, the second-most ever in his career. Come the playoffs, like Gronkowski, he seemed rejuvenated and was a key cog on the defense, especially in pass rush. He’ll turn 29 years old this year. But there were players behind Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, and their contributions came, although quietly. Elandon Roberts, although he did not put up lofty numbers, had a productive season. Rookie LB Ja’Whaun Bentley was getting significant playing time and showed glimpses of high-end production early in the season before landing on IR. Considering his drop in production, age, injury history, and lofty cap number ($11.9M), Hightower’s future in New England is in doubt. Hightower would be a $5M cap hit and $5.9M cap savings if released. However, if the Patriots designated him a post-June 1 cut, they could push half of his cap hit into 2020 and open up $8.4M.
5) Josh Gordon
Gordon’s situation is more interesting than impactful. He’ll become a RFA after finally logging his third year of service time, having played just 10 games in the previous four seasons. That should mean that the Patriots would need to tender him to retain his rights but that money shouldn’t count against the cap until he is reinstated, at which point he could be looking at a lengthy suspension. At a second-round level, the tender projects to be $3.1M. But if Gordon’s suspension were to run most of or all of the 2019 season, he wouldn’t accrue another year of service time and (I believe) we’d be right back here again next year.
Ordinarily, for a troubled player with as many issues as he has had, a repeat offender and possible significant distraction, the best idea would be to move on. However, this free agency WR market kicked off just before New Year’s, with Quincy Enunwa receiving a four-year, $36M deal from the Jets. Enunwa, last season, caught 38 passes for 440 yards and one touchdown in 11 games. Meanwhile, in 11 games as a Patriots, Josh Gordon caught 40 balls for 720 yards and three touchdowns. Combined with the Patriots lack of depth at the position, this makes for an interesting decision.
Whether Gordon has a desire to return and feels he is able, and if Patriots would even consider it or feel that they could actually ever rely on him, is still an unknown. But this year’s free agent WR class is weak, and the money for mediocrity this year could be exorbitant.