INDIANAPOLIS — Free agency doesn’t officially begin until March 9, but one Patriot announced Wednesday he won’t be back in New England in 2017.
Defensive end Chris Long, who had four sacks and played in 60 percent of the defensive snaps for the Patriots last season, announced on his Instagram account he will be signing with another team for next season.
Long, who turns 32 this month, spent eight years with the Rams before signing with the Patriots as a free agent last offseason. His one year with the Patriots included his first-ever playoff games, and of course, his first Super Bowl ring.
“This year and this opportunity gave me a ton,” said Long, the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long. “I’m so thankful that Coach [the GOAT] took a chance on me and allowed me the opportunity to play a small part in this wonderful year.”
Long said his decision “has zero to do with money” and instead is being made “because I want to get back to the player I was before.”
While Long did play in 739 of 1,230 snaps (including postseason), he became a rotational player by the end of the season, playing in just 20 of 69 snaps in the AFC Championship game and 15 of 49 snaps in the Super Bowl win over the Falcons.
In the Super Bowl, he drew a crucial holding penalty late in the fourth quarter that knocked the Falcons out of field goal range.
“I’m thankful for my role this year, but as a competitor, I’m itching to do what I do best,” he said.
Long had 35 tackles, four sacks, three passes defended, and a forced fumble during the regular season. The four sacks were his most since he notched 8.5 in 2013.
Tight end Martellus Bennett, also a free agent, was one of the first to comment on Long’s post, offering, “Love you bro.”
The Patriots could undergo significant changes along the defensive line. In addition to Long’s departure, defensive tackle Alan Branch and defensive end Jabaal Sheard are both unrestricted free agents.
The Patriots already have had one defensive end, Jared Odrick, who was released by the Jaguars, in for a visit this week.
View this post on Instagram
Thank you Pats Nation. As a player you've given so much support to, I owe you an explanation as to why I'll be moving on in FA... even if it isn't a big deal. This year and this opportunity gave me a ton. I made lifelong friends in a great locker room and became a champion. I'm so thankful that Coach B (the GOAT) took a chance on me and allowed me the opportunity to play a small part in this wonderful year. This has zero to do with money, etc. It's the right move in my heart because I want to get back to being the player I was before. I'm thankful for my role this year, but as a competitor, I'm itching to do what I do best. It was important to say thank you personally. You may not remember me much, but I'll always remember y'all!! #driveforfive #missionaccomplished
Falcons: No regrets
The Falcons suffered one of the worst defeats in NFL history when they blew a 25-point second-half lead to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Their coaches drew heavy criticism for their decision not to run the ball and burn some clock once they reached New England’s 22-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
But at the NFL Combine Wednesday, the Atlanta coaches stood by the decisions they made at the end of that tough loss.
“We’re an aggressive team and we’re going to take our shots,” said head coach Dan Quinn. “And the reason we were able to play in the Super Bowl was because we are aggressive, and we’re not going to back off the challenges.”
The Falcons also called a deep drop-back pass for Matt Ryan on third and 1 at their 36 midway through the fourth quarter, resulting in Dont’a Hightower’s strip-sack that propelled the Patriots’ comeback.
Kyle Shanahan, then the Falcons’ offensive coordinator and now the 49ers head coach, also doesn’t regret making any of those play calls.
“I second-guess, just like all you guys do,” he said. “Any time a play doesn’t work, yeah, I wish I called what worked. But the reasons for calling those, why we did that, what we were thinking, I don’t second-guess at all.”
Quinn said he has rewatched the game “a lot” and wants his players to learn from the experience, but the Falcons won’t be dwelling on the loss, either.
“I am past it — I am not over it,” Quinn said. “I don’t think I ever will be, and that’s a good thing. Sometimes those kind of experiences propel you to have the types of offseasons that you’d like to have.”
In Collins’s corner
The Patriots didn’t see Jamie Collins as part of their future, trading the talented linebacker during their bye week for a measly third-round pick.
But the Browns are more than happy to have him. Collins had 69 tackles and two sacks in eight games with Cleveland, which then rewarded him with a new contract that guarantees him $26.4 million over the next two years.
“He and [coach Hue Jackson] have a good and growing relationship, so we liked everything we saw about him,” said Browns GM Sashi Brown said. “And he played well adjusting to a new system, came in, was I think our second-leading tackler the remaining of the season.”
Brown said it did not concern him that the Patriots determined that Collins wasn’t a part of their future.
“You have to make your own individual evaluations and trust those,” Brown said. “We felt good about Jamie and still do.”
Patriots’ cap isn’t tight
The NFL officially set the salary cap for the 2017 season at $167 million, though each team has a slightly different number based on how much cap space it rolled over from previous years, and any adjustments based on incentives earned and unearned. The Patriots’ salary cap number is approximately $172.29 million after rolling over $5.29 million in unused cap space from last year. This leaves them with more than $59 million in cap space as they begin the 2017 offseason, the sixth-most cap room in the NFL, according to OverTheCap.com. The Browns have $102.35 million in cap space, the most in the NFL.