The New England Patriots have just about concluded an extremely busy offseason which saw the team exploring every avenue for improving the roster on both sides of the ball. After being the last team to get started on the offseason after their dramatic Super Bowl 51 victory, Bill Belichick and the front office made up for lost time by attacking the offseason like Tom Brady attacked the tired Atlanta Falcons defense in the fourth quarter and overtime.
With the 2017 NFL Draft and the well-chronicled free agent frenzy the Patriots have stocked their roster with depth on both sides of the ball. Add in an undrafted free agent class of young and hungry players and the Patriots will have a number of position battles this summer. The undrafted free agents are important to get to know since Bill Belichick almost always gives one or two undrafted players a roster spot.
With the offseason workouts and organized team activities already started and rookie minicamps in the rearview mirror, the Patriots will be busy before the mandatory minicamp starts during the first week in June. Before the players are all together on the field in front of the media and on the practice fields, it is the perfect time to review the upcoming positional battles.
Part one of two kicks off with a look at the defense.
Newly Added/Retained: Alan Branch (UFA), Lawrence Guy (UFA-Baltimore), Josh Augusta (UDFA), Adam Butler (UDFA)
The New England Patriots had a quiet offseason at defensive tackle. The Patriots re-signed their only free agent at the defensive tackle position when they re-signed veteran Alan Branch. The defensive line was stout against the run in 2016 as the defense was third in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed and allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns (per Pro-Football-Reference.com).
Branch was the veteran in the defensive tackle rotation with younger players Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine. The Patriots clearly needed more depth with Branch turning 33 years old during the 2017 season. They addressed this in free agency when an under-the-radar signing brought them former Baltimore Ravens 3-4 defensive end/tackle Lawrence Guy.
Guy at first seems like an odd fit in the New England 4-3 defense. He likely fits best at defensive tackle in New England as he clearly would not fit as a 4-3 defensive end. However, with the Patriots’ primary defense a nickel defense with defensive ends moving along the interior and exterior of the line, at six-foot-four and 300 pounds Guy’s strength at the point of attack and unique quickness would let him rush from the interior on passing downs and be strong against the run.
Malcom Brown and Branch are excellent run defenders, and while both have some ability to collapse the pocket when rushing the quarterback their bread-and-butter is funnelling running backs into the arms of linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Vincent Valentine is massive and eats space in the running game
Behind the top trio and Guy, the Patriots have a pair of returning young players in Woodrow Hamilton and Darius Kilgo. Hamilton held his own when forced into action against Cleveland and Cincinnati early in the season. Kilgo is a potential run-stuffer who can get low and take up space in the running game.
Kilgo and Hamilton will battle undrafted free agents Josh Augusta and Adam Butler for what is likely to be one spot on the practice squad. Augusta is intriguing as he was almost 400 pounds at Missouri due to a medical issue and down to less than 350 pounds. He was also used on offense in the backfield. Butler is a smaller, penetrating defensive tackle who would have to show an ability to get to the quarterback in the preseason to stick on the practice squad.
The Patriots added a versatile depth piece on the defensive line in Guy and brought back Branch to join with former first round draft pick Brown and last year’s third round draft pick Valentine. They added versatility in Guy and brought back consistency and leadership in Branch.
Keeping their defensive tackles healthy and developing practice squad depth is the goal for this preseason at the position.
Newly Added/Retained: Kony Ealy (trade), Derek Rivers (3rd round), Deatrich Wise (4th round), Corey Vereen (UDFA)
Departed: Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard
The Patriots made their intentions clear last season when Jabaal Sheard was benched in the middle of the 2016 season after a breakout 2015 season. Chris Long got his Super Bowl ring and left to maximize his playing time and positional preference after re-establishing his value by not complaining and providing value lining up at left and right defensive end.
The stunning trade of Pro Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones prior to the 2016 season was mitigated by the emergence of 2015 fourth-round draft pick Trey Flowers. Flowers--who was drafted with the pick New England received from Tampa Bay for Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins in 2014--had flashed in the 2015 preseason before missing almost the entire season to injury. Flowers moved inside on third downs and rushed from the edge on early downs maximizing his strength to set the edge in the running game, a quick first step and explosive pass rushing skills.
Flowers was the defensive star of Super Bowl 51 with 2.5 sacks and New England added the defensive star of Super Bowl 50 with three sacks of Peyton Manning, Kony Ealy, in exchange for moving down a handful of spots from the second to third round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Ealy fell out of favor in Carolina when he struggled early in the season but came on down the stretch with all five sacks coming after week seven. Ealy has all the skills to be a solid pass rusher in the NFL and may just need a change of scenery and proper motivation. New England defensive line coach Brendan Daly will be tasked with getting Ealy to contribute in 2017.
Behind Flowers and Ealy there is little proven depth of the roster. Rob Ninkovich has lost a step and is playing what is likely his final season in New England. Ninkovich was never a great pass rusher but his versatility to play defensive end and linebacker and great technique setting the edge makes him a solid part-time contributor.
Defensive end Geneo Grissom was actually taken four spots ahead of Trey Flowers in the 2015 NFL Draft and has been a major disappointment in his first two seasons. After playing occasionally at defensive end on defense as a rookie in 2015 he played just 10 snaps on defense in 2016 (per ESPN). Grissom contributed only on special teams and is on the roster bubble heading into training camp this summer.
New England doubled-up at defensive end in the 2017 NFL Draft and grabbed athletic pass rusher Derek Rivers in the third round and Trey Flowers’ running mate at Arkansas in Deatrich Wise. Rivers is from small-school Youngstown State and will have a rough adjustment to NFL-caliber offensive tackles and the speed of the game in 2017. That said, he held his own and excelled in the Senior Bowl and played for former NFL (and Patriots) coach Bo Pelini and could contribute as a third-down pass rush specialist as a rookie.
Wise is the same size and build as Flowers with good length and technique. Like Flowers, he fell in the draft due to some teams seeing him as a tweener and not a fit in their defensive scheme. New England will use Wise on the edge and slide him inside on passing downs to rush from the interior as well. In addition, Wise was clearly slowed by injuries during his last season at Arkansas and like Flowers could be a mid-round draft steal.
Undrafted free agent Corey Vereen has a tough road to a roster spot in New England. He was productive playing for defensive coordinator Bob Shoop in Tennessee and may be a practice squad project to convert into a Rob Ninkovich style linebacker/defensive end hybrid. Vereen had first-round draft pick Derek Barnett drawing attention opposite him at Tennessee but could be a player to watch in 2018.
Newly Added/Retained: Dont’a Hightower (UFA), Harvey Langi (UDFA)
The Patriots took care of business this offseason by re-signing unrestricted free agent linebacker and captain Dont’a Hightower. Hightower surprising had little interest in free agency and his total contract paid less than was initially expected to retain him. He did visit the Jets (the embarrassing Cupcake episode) and the Steelers. Neither team was interested in overpaying him and were likely scared off by Hightower’s injury history.
Hightower is the prototypical Bill Belichick linebacker as he is big and can stuff the run, has excellent blitzing instincts, and has is deceptively quick for his size in zone defenses dropping into the middle of the field. His only knock has been his durability as he has missed games each season due to nagging injuries which are a by-product of his aggressive role on defense.
The Patriots surprised everyone by trading away Jamie Collins at mid-season sending him to the NFL’s version of Siberia (Cleveland) and filled his role with a trio of linebackers. Young veterans Shea McClellin--a 2016 free agent signing from Chicago--and Kyle Van Noy--a 2014 second-round draft pick by Detroit acquired via trade--both brought different skills to the linebacker position.
McClellin and Van Noy are both versatile and a full offseason and training camp should help integrate both into the defense. Sixth round draft pick Elandon Roberts showed good speed and tackling ability in the middle of the defense, but his coverage skills were poor and he undersized for a New England linebacker. He remains an intriguing prospect to develop.
A 2015 contributor at linebacker missed most of last season and returns to add vital depth in 2017. Jonathan Freeny was a key special teams performer and serviceable backup in New England after being signed away from Miami and could step in as the top backup again in 2017. He adds much-needed depth at linebacker.
Freeny will compete with undrafted free agent Harvey Langi from BYU and former Maine Black Bear Trevor Bates for what is likely one roster spot in training camp. Langi was tied to the Patriots throughout the draft process and has the best chance of any of the undrafted free agents to make the roster. He is great against the run and also capable dropping into coverage. At BYU he was versatile and played inside, outside and nickel linebacker as well as defensive end.
Retaining Hightower was one of the biggest moves of a busy offseason. Linebacker has solid depth with Freeny returning and Roberts, Van Noy and McClellin back. While Bates is likely a practice squad longshot, Langi has an interesting skill set and could bump Freeny or Roberts from the 53-man roster in September.
Newly Added/Retained: Stephon Gilmore (UFA), Malcolm Butler (RFA), Dwayne Thomas (UDFA), D.J. Killings (UDFA)
Departed: Logan Ryan (UFA)
The New England Patriots made a rare splash at cornerback signing unrestricted free agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore away from division rival Buffalo on the first day of free agency. Gilmore has all the size and talent of a number-one shutdown cornerback but has overlooked in Buffalo due to some terrible safety play behind him and multiple head coach and defensive coordinator changes. The consistency of the New England defense will help Gilmore reach his potential.
The Patriots went from being criticized for reaching for cornerback Logan Ryan in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft to losing the two-time Super Bowl champion after he signed with the Tennessee Titans as an unrestricted free agent with a three-year $30 million contract with $16 million guaranteed. Ryan gave New England four solid seasons but the long, strong, and aggressive Gilmore is a significant upgrade at the position.
High drama ensued throughout the offseason with disgruntled cornerback Malcolm Butler a restricted free agent. Butler visited New Orleans and allegedly had a deal in place but the Saints were unwilling to surrender their first round draft pick for him. Trade rumors swirled right up to the NFL Draft but the Saints and Patriots could not work out a trade. Butler may not be happy to be back in New England, but he should be free to leave next year as an unrestricted free agent.
Stephon Gilmore’s five-year $65 million contract with over $30 million in guaranteed money played a big role in paving the way for Butler’s eventual departure. Head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are clearly building a secondary focused on long, lean cornerbacks capable of playing press-coverage with Gilmore and last season’s in season pick-up, Eric Rowe.
Rowe and Gilmore are the likely outside cornerbacks heading into 2017 with Butler most likely moving inside to play the slot position, but depending upon the match-up they could keep Butler outside opposite Gilmore and kick Butler inside on passing downs and bring Rowe in for that package. With Butler, the Patriots have flexibility at cornerback to mix and match depending on the wide receiver group they face.
With last year’s second-round draft pick Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones and Justin Coleman for depth, the cornerback position seems set. Jones should bounce-back and get significant playing time in the slot. He will be pushed by Jones and Coleman who have both have flashed talent over the past two seasons and may be battling each other for one spot.
The Patriots brought in undrafted free agent D.J. Killings by paying him $31,000 in guaranteed money. Killings is a smaller cornerback and played on some Central Florida teams that were lacking talent around him on defense. Killings has the calling card of position flexibility having played outside and in the slot as well as free safety and covering tight ends.
New England also signed undrafted free agent Dwayne Thomas from LSU. Thomas opened eyes at the Senior Bowl but a slow 40-yard dashed dashed his chances of being drafted. He is slot cornerback with blitzing skills and may be buried in a numbers game at cornerback.
If Malcolm Butler eventually gets traded away prior to or during training camp, New England still has options in free agency with safety Devin McCourty’s twin brother Jason still available after being released by Tennessee. Also, the possibility of a healthy, motivated and lighter Darrelle Revis returning to New England remains a possibility if he wishes to play in 2017.
Gilmore should be the replacement for Aqib Talib that Belichick has been looking for since 2014. Butler should be motivated to play well to increase his stock as a free agent after the season. A full offseason and training camp will help Rowe assimilate to the defensive scheme. There is a lot of depth behind the trio and cornerback should be an entertaining training camp battleground this summer.
Newly Added/Retained: Duron Harmon (UFA), Brandon King (ERFA), David Jones (UDFA), Kenny Moore (UDFA), Jason Thompson (UDFA), Damarius Travis (UDFA)
At safety, the entire unit returns as Devin McCourty is locked in at free safety and Duron Harmon re-signed to return to his third safety role. Patrick Chung, after two excellent seasons, regressed last season and may face competition from 2015 second-round draft pick Jordan Richards. Behind them, special teams aces Nate Ebner and Brandon King are listed as safeties but only play on defense in the preseason.
McCourty remains one of the top free safeties in the NFL with athleticism, smarts, and strong coverage skills. His versatility is enhanced with Duron Harmon back allowing Harmon to use his speed and knowledge of the defense to play centerfield and let defensive coordinator Matt Patricia maximize McCourty’s skills.
Chung had better-than-anticipated 2014 and 2015 seasons but struggled in coverage last season. Those struggles were highlighted in the Super Bowl against Atlanta with tight end Austin Hooper abusing him on his touchdown reception. The drafting of Richards in the second round in 2015 was considered a reach and he has done little to change that way of thinking. Chung’s contract has been extended twice and Richards will need an impressive training camp and preseason to steal snaps from Chung.
There is a lot of competition at safety with undrafted free agents David Jones (Richmond), Kenny Moore (Valdosta State), Jason Thompson (Utah) and Damarius Travis (Minnesota) all signed. Jones brings athleticism that makes him intriguing and gives him a chance to stick. Moore could play safety or slot cornerback giving him good versatility. Travis and Thompson are the most likely to compete for the strong safety position with good size. Thompson was a former college quarterback and athletic while Travis may open eyes with his thumping run defense at strong safety.
Safety is probably the deepest position on the defense with McCourty, Chung, and Harmon all roster locks. Richards could be on the roster bubble with Ebner and King if any of the undrafted free agents standout in training camp. Like the rest of the defense, there is versatility and depth on display heading into the 2017 season.