The Patriots went into 2017 with a bang, making the Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks moves. This year, they are operating in Ninja Mode.
The Patriots sat out the first few days of free agency, content to wait out the market and let Nate Solder, Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, and Danny Amendola sign big deals with other teams.
Then, in classic Patriots fashion, they struck when no one was paying attention. Late Friday evening, while everyone was starting their weekend, they signed three players: Adrian Clayborn, Jeremy Hill, and Matt Tobin. And on Sunday night, as we were immersed in March Madness and family dinners, they traded for Cordarrelle Patterson.
The Patriots haven’t made the sexiest moves, but they have been busy over the last few days. Let’s take a look at the latest developments:
■ The defense has quietly gotten better.
Super Bowl LII proved that the defense needed better depth across the board. And while the Patriots haven’t added any big-name players like Tyrann Mathieu or Sheldon Richardson, the defense looks a lot better with their free agency additions and the return of a few injured players.
The line still doesn’t have a pure pass rusher, but the depth is much improved: Trey Flowers, Clayborn, and Deatrich Wise at end; Malcom Brown, Danny Shelton, and Vincent Valentine up the middle; and Lawrence Guy playing everywhere.
At linebacker, Kyle Van Noy will still run the defense, but Derek Rivers and Dont’a Hightower will be back to supplement the pass rush. Hightower’s return also should move Elandon Roberts back to a reserve role, where he is better suited. Shea McClellin was cut Monday, a salary-cap casualty. The Patriots probably have one move left at linebacker, but they haven’t bitten on any of the free agents, such as Zach Brown or Preston Brown. It might come high in the draft.
And Jason McCourty should solidify the secondary. While Butler will make big money in Tennessee, McCourty will cost the Patriots just $3 million in 2018. A secondary of Gilmore, McCourty, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones (who was injured for the Super Bowl), Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon can definitely get the Patriots back to a Super Bowl. And I’m not ready to count out former second-round pick Cyrus Jones, who tore an ACL last year.
These signings may prevent the Patriots from having to find random guys on the street during the season, as they did last year with Ricky Jean-Francois, James Harrison, and Eric Lee.
■ Playing hardball with Matthew Slater?
The Patriots didn’t just find a kickoff returner and gadget player in Patterson, the speedster who spent last year with the Raiders. Patterson is also a gunner on the punt coverage team, and his signing may spell the end of Slater’s tenure in New England. The Patriots already re-signed special teamers Brandon King, Brandon Bolden, and Nate Ebner, while Slater reportedly took a free agent visit to Pittsburgh over the weekend.
Yes, I know that the Patriots always get rid of a player a year too soon instead of a year too late (unless his name is Tom Brady). Yes, I know that Slater played in only 12 of 19 games last year (including postseason) as he was bothered by hamstring injuries. And yes, I do believe that Belichick keeps too many special-teams-only players on the roster, which hurts the depth in other areas.
But of all the players to take a hard line on, Matthew Slater?! Even if he’s not the same player anymore, he’s such a valuable leader in the locker room that he’s worth keeping around as a player-coach, since he helps mentor the youngsters who play on special teams and are trying to find their way in the NFL. Not to mention that Slater does a ton of good work in the community and is an excellent face of the team.
And it’s not as if Slater would burn much salary-cap space. He made $1.275 million last year, and $1.7 million in 2016. Pay him another $1.5 million-$2 million this year, and that represents about 1 percent of the salary cap. Robert Kraft can find that money underneath his couch cushions.
I don’t know if the door is closed on Slater yet, but can’t the Patriots find a way to keep him around for one more year? Are his skills so diminished that he can’t cover punts anymore? If anyone deserves to retire a Patriot and be sent out the “right way,” it’s Slater.
■ Malcolm Butler got a good deal.
Butler was asked at his introductory Titans press conference if general manager Jon Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel asked him about the Super Bowl benching.
“They didn’t bother to bring it up,” Butler said.
Full details of Butler’s contract emerged Monday, and while the five-year, $61.25 million deal does have a lot of the usual NFL funny money, Butler received a very strong deal.
He gets two years fully guaranteed, and becomes a top-10 paid cornerback based on average per year. Butler received a $10 million signing bonus and base salaries of $3.5 million and $10.5 million for a guarantee of $24 million over two years. Add in roster and workout bonuses, and he can max out at $25.1 million over two. Butler will have cap numbers of $6 million and $13.1 million the next two years.
The flash point is the fifth day of 2020, when $6 million of his $11 million base salary becomes guaranteed. The final two years and $24.5 million are nonguaranteed.
So while it’s really “two years and we’ll see,” the $12 million average is a strong haul for Butler, and it’s good to see that his value apparently wasn’t hurt much or at all by the Super Bowl benching.
■ Can Patterson be a deep threat, too?
It seems as though Patterson’s two main responsibilities will be as a punt team gunner and returning kickoffs. A $3.25 million salary seems like a lot for those two roles — especially since kickoffs have been so devalued in today’s NFL — but Houston just signed Johnson Bademosi for $3.5 million this year to be a punt gunner and backup cornerback, so maybe that’s just the going rate for a top-flight special teamer.
But can Patterson help out on offense as well? The Raiders did create four plays of 40-plus yards for him last year, including a 47-yard touchdown run. Patterson won’t be a significant part of the offense, but surely Josh McDaniels can find a role for him.
Patterson also has $1.75 million in performance incentives. He gets $350,000 each for: 55 catches, 70 catches, 55 percent of offensive snaps, 70 percent of offensive snaps, and original ballot Pro Bowl selection. Odds are long that Patterson will reach those thresholds. In 2017, he played in 42.7 percent of snaps.
The Patriots now have three burners on the team in Cooks, Phillip Dorsett, and Patterson, and one likely won’t be here in the fall. None of the three has any dead salary cap money, either.
■ Who is the left tackle?
Nate Solder left for the Giants, leaving a gaping hole at left tackle.
The Patriots added Matt Tobin, a five-year veteran who was a backup tackle for the Seahawks last year, playing just 81 offensive snaps. Tobin spent his first four years with the Eagles, starting seven games in 2014 and 13 games in 2015, mostly at guard.
Tobin has played almost 1,700 NFL snaps, so he has experience. But he is better suited as a backup.
Another option is Cole Croston, an undrafted rookie last year who appeared in four of 19 games and played just eight snaps during the regular season. Croston started nine games at left tackle and nine games at right tackle during his college career at Iowa. The Patriots obviously like him after essentially red-shirting him last year, but do they like him enough to make him the starting left tackle?
The other two options missed their rookie seasons because of injury and have yet to play an NFL snap: third-round pick Tony Garcia and undrafted rookie Andrew Jelks.
Other available free agents include Austin Howard, Greg Robinson, Breno Giacomini, and restricted free agent Darrell Williams, but none are better options than LaAdrian Waddle or Cameron Fleming.
Otherwise, the starter will have to come in this year’s draft.
■ Jeremy Hill is going to have to make the team.
Instead of paying big for Lewis, the Patriots got good value on Rex Burkhead, and even better value on Hill, the former Cincinnati Bengal. The Patriots got Hill for just $150,000 guaranteed (his signing bonus), meaning it won’t cost much to cut him.
By the same token, Hill is cheap enough that he could be good value. The maximum value of the one-year deal is $1.5 million: a $1 million base salary, $50,000 workout bonus, $300,000 in roster bonuses ($18,750 for each game he is active), and the $150,000 signing bonus.
Hill is the biggest and heaviest running back on the roster at 6 feet 1 inch and 230 pounds, and he scored 29 touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons. It feels as if Hill will be competing with Mike Gillislee for a roster spot.