BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
The 2017 season didn’t end the way Patriots fans had hoped for, and the Malcolm Butler mystery still lingers.
But the NFL world keeps turning. The Combine starts this week in Indianapolis. Free agency starts on March 14. We’re on to 2018.
The Patriots have 63 players signed and more than $165 million in salary cap dollars committed for 2018. The salary cap has not been set for 2018 yet, but it is expected to be $178 million-$180 million. The Patriots also will be rolling over $3,012,602 in unused cap space from 2017.
But the Patriots’ roster is hardly set. Several players will be coming, several will be going, as the cap number will fluctuate over the next several weeks.
The Patriots won’t have anywhere close to the most salary cap space in the NFL, but they already have most of their key players under contract, and will have the flexibility to wheel and deal as they see fit.
In case the Super Bowl set Bill Belichick back a few weeks in his preparations, here is a road map for how he should navigate the offseason, with the moves ranked in order of importance:
1. Keep Gronk happy
Rob Gronkowski is still under contract for two more years, at $9 million for 2018 and $10 million for 2019. It’s good money for most NFL players, but when elite receivers are making $14-plus million per year, it’s understandable that Gronk would feel underpaid. Sure enough, Team Gronk has floated the idea of retirement, or joining the WWE, or becoming an action movie star — anything other than playing football in 2018.
That would be a disaster for the Patriots, who badly need Gronkowski in their offense. The Patriots should do whatever it takes to keep the big fella happy, and that likely comes in the form of a raise or bonus package. They did it last year with a three-tiered incentive package that maxed out at $5.5 million, and Gronk responded by participating fully in the offseason workout program and training camp, playing in 17 of 19 games, earning first-team All-Pro honors and all $5.5 million (on top of his $5 million salary).
Giving Gronkowski another bonus package seems like the perfect answer again. It doesn’t have to be for as much money this time, since Gronk is already making an $8 million salary this year (plus $1 million in bonuses). But a couple million extra should serve as an effective carrot. If anyone deserves it, it’s Gronk.
2. Find the next Jimmy Garoppolo
Belichick thought he had the perfect succession plan at quarterback, but Tom Brady just keeps reaching Super Bowls and winning MVP awards. Even at 40, Brady still has a few years left in him, so the Patriots have a little time to find and develop the next long-term solution at quarterback (and no, Brian Hoyer isn’t the answer).
The Patriots have picks 31, 41 or 43 (depending on a coin flip Friday at the Combine), and 63 in the NFL Draft. Garoppolo was picked at 62, and Russell Wilson, Nick Foles, and Kirk Cousins were all taken in the third round or later, so the Patriots don’t have to get crazy and trade up into the top 10. But whether they trade up or down or simply use the picks, Belichick has to come away from April’s draft with another young quarterback to groom.
A first-round pick would come with a five-year contract, while all other rounds come with a four-year contract. Brady probably won’t outlast this draft pick — we think.
3. Re-sign LT Nate Solder
Solder is the Patriots’ most important free agent, as he plays a premium position that is not easy to fill. Solder is the top left tackle in free agency, and he could likely get between $12 million-$13 million per year (or even more) if he truly tests the market. To make matters tougher for the Patriots, they can’t use the franchise tag on Solder, as stated in a clause in his previous contract.
But knowing what we do about Solder, the Patriots probably just have to give him a reasonable offer to get him to return.
Solder and his family have settled in New England, the Patriots are the only team he knows, and considering the serious health issues facing his young son, Solder probably doesn’t want to pick up and move to a new city. He’s coming off a three-year, $27.5 million contract, and something similar would probably do the trick.
4. Release players for cap space
Linebacker David Harris got the process started on Friday, announcing his retirement in a move that sheds $2.125 million off the salary cap. The Patriots can create about $17 million more in cap space by making several obvious releases — tight ends Martellus Bennett ($6.1875 million) and Dwayne Allen ($5 million), defensive tackle Alan Branch ($3.55 million), and linebacker Shea McClellin ($2.35 million). They can save about $2.2 million with running back Mike Gillislee and $1.544 million with wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, but both players are cheap enough that they may be worth giving another opportunity in 2018.
5. Let CB Malcolm Butler walk
It’s been a wild four years, but it’s clear that Butler’s time in New England has come to an end. Given Butler’s inconsistent play this past season and benching in the Super Bowl, it will be interesting to compare whatever contract he gets to the three-year, $30 million deal Logan Ryan signed last year with the Titans.
The Patriots should draft a young cornerback, but youngsters Jonathan Jones or Cyrus Jones, both coming off season-ending injuries, might be able to replace Butler.
6. Try to get Brandin Cooks to agree to a contract extension, and if not, release him
Cooks had a nice season in 2017, catching 65 passes for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns while leading the team with a 16.6-yard average.
He also had the lowest catch percentage of the team’s wide receivers, was non-existent on third down, had trouble getting on the same page as Brady, didn’t fight for the ball, showed no physicality, and lacks football awareness, as was perfectly demonstrated in the Super Bowl with his two baffling, costly runs. As you can tell, I’m not the biggest fan.
Cooks was good value for the Patriots last year at $1.57 million. He’s terrible value this year at $8.459 million, which is more than Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan will make combined. If the Patriots value Edelman at $4.167 million, there’s no way they value Cooks at $8.459 million.
Cooks’s contract, the fifth-year option for first-round picks, has zero dead money before becoming fully guaranteed on March 14. It gives the Patriots a prime opportunity over the next two weeks to play around with the numbers without a cash or salary cap penalty.
They should try to sign Cooks to a two- or three-year extension to lower his cap hit for this year. But the offense didn’t skip a beat without Cooks in the Super Bowl, and the Patriots already have Edelman, Hogan, Dorsett, Malcolm Mitchell, and Kenny Britt, plus Danny Amendola in waiting. If Cooks is unwilling to sign an extension, the Patriots should simply release him and move on, even after giving up the 32nd overall pick last year.
Cutting Cooks won’t cost a dime in cash or cap, and that $8.459 million can be better spent elsewhere.
7. Try to re-sign RB Dion Lewis, but don’t break the bank
Lewis was the engine of the offense for much of the year, and proved himself to be one of the best all-around running backs in the NFL. But this is the first time Lewis is a prized, unrestricted free agent, and a league source close to Lewis predicted that he will be tough for the Patriots to sign. The Patriots should make a competitive offer for Lewis, but nothing crazy — and if he leaves for Detroit or Miami, so be it.
8. Re-sign WR Danny Amendola
No one has been more clutch than Amendola over the last two years. And he won’t cost more than $1.5 milion-$2 million, as Amendola is happy to play Brady’s sidekick and boost his off-field profile. Amendola will be 33 in November, but is still perfectly suited for the fourth receiver role.
9. See if they can get RB Rex Burkhead back for cheap, but nothing more
There’s a lot to love about Burkhead’s versatile skill set as a runner, receiver, and special teams contributor. He scored eight touchdowns in the regular season and was a great Patriot.
But do you realize that Burkhead only played 207 offensive snaps all season? That’s 10.9 snaps per game, postseason included. Burkhead came to the Patriots with questions about his durability, and he didn’t answer them, playing in just 12 of 19 games.
The Patriots only have James White and Gillislee under contract for next season, so bringing Burkhead back isn’t a bad idea. But they shouldn’t break the bank for him, nor count on him to be any sort of workhorse.
10. Needs: LB, DE, CB, S, TE, OL
This will change a bit after free agency, but the Patriots’ biggest roster needs are on the defensive side of the ball. The front seven needs an infusion of youth and speed, particularly at linebacker, where Dont’a Hightower is often battling injuries and Elandon Roberts was disappointing. They should consider bringing back James Harrison for the veteran minimum, but also need to get younger and quicker up front. Derek Rivers should return from a torn ACL, but who knows what to expect from him after he missed his rookie season.
In the secondary, the Patriots will need a cornerback to replace Butler, while Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are getting up there in age.
And on offense, finding a No. 2 tight end will be a priority. The Patriots have targeted veterans recently (Scott Chandler, Bennett, Allen), and in the last two years have opted to trade for a tight end (Bennett, Allen) rather than sign one in free agency.
11. Try to get ahead on contract extensions for DE Trey Flowers, G Shaq Mason, and DT Malcom Brown.
All three players are entering the final year of their contracts and should be building blocks for the future. The Patriots have until early May to trigger the fifth-year option on Brown, which is guaranteed for injury only until March 2019. Flowers and Mason weren’t first-round picks so they don’t have a fifth-year option.
12. Re-sign: ST Matthew Slater, ST Brandon King, ST Nate Ebner (ACL), DT Ricky Jean-Francois, and one of OT LaAdrian Waddle/Cam Fleming
Most of the Patriots’ core special teams players are set to be free agents, but they should all be available for relatively little money. They already re-signed Bolden last week, and should do the same with Slater, King, and Ebner. Jean-Francois did a great job as a rotational defensive tackle and should be easy to re-sign. And signing either Waddle or Fleming is important for depth, as the Patriots’ only other tackle (besides Solder and Marcus Cannon) is third-round pick Tony Garcia, who missed his entire rookie season with an illness.
13. Let walk: LB Marquis Flowers, CB Johnson Bademosi
Flowers was actually solid as a special teams contributor and backup linebacker, and the Patriots should try to bring him back. More likely, he’ll have a few offers on the market, and the Patriots should thank him for his contributions and let him walk. Bademosi was fine as a special teamer and did OK in a pinch on defense (except in the Super Bowl), but replacing him won’t be too difficult.
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