The New England Patriots ended the 2014 season with 53 players on their roster. They will start the 2015 season with 53 players on their roster. There is a seven month period that will tell a different story.
Of the 53 players on the roster for the Super Bowl, 13 are headed for free agency. For those doing math at home, that means there are 40 players that were on the 53 man roster signed thru next year. Now consider this.
13 players due to hit FA + Ridley + 7 players who ended the season on IR: Buchanan, Dennard, Dobson, Easley, Gaffney, Mayo + 8 draft picks + Free-Agents the Patriots may sign (Assume the Patriots lose as many as they gain in free agency) That leaves New England to determine 29 players for 13 spots. Still think you can be an armchair GM?
With that in mind, put the homer aside and understand a few things:
- There will be some GOOD players that you LIKE who will not be back (Wilfork, Amendola, Mayo, Ridley, Mccourty, etc.
- The Patriots are likely to trade picks to move up in this years’ draft or stock picks for future drafts
- The Patriots have to spend money but are tight against the cap; expect them to compensate their cap inflexibility with guaranteed money and term
- Their practice squad will have some good players on it
- This will be an incredibly deep, talented roster 1-53
I broke the 14 free agents to be into three tiers. The top tier will garner the vast majority of media attention, rightfully so, but it is the second and third tiers that New England consistently does an outstanding job of managing. I will likely be incorrect on many of my picks, but this is how I see the internal free agent picture shaping up.
Revis has dominated headlines in recent weeks. While he is under contract, his pending $25 million cap hit for 2015 renders him a free agent for all intents and purposes. The 9 year veteran joined New England after seven seasons with the New York Jets and one extremely forgettable season with the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He came to New England eager to prove he had fully recovered from his torn ACL injury from 2012 and to win the elusive Lombardi Trophy. Mission accomplished. Revis and the Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX and did so thanks large in part to Revis’ dominant coverage all season long.
Historically, Revis has “chased the money”. I have a problem with the notion that players should sacrifice money to win but owners shouldn’t. The salary cap makes it more difficult on the owners but players who have high market value in a league where the average player lasts 2.5 years should never be crucified for electing to reward the highest bidder with his services. A mercenary, a “player-agent”, a money-grabber are all terms that preceded Revis when he was first signed. Interestingly enough, fans and experts remember the Wes Welker and Logan Mankins contract situations far better than another trend. The Patriots pay elite talent with elite money. Tom Brady, Logan Mankins, Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Rob Gronkowski are or were all one of the highest paid players at their respective positions. How quickly people forget. Thus, in a passing league with a down CB market and few viable options in the draft, the Patriots will get a deal done with Revis. He will be signed with term and big money. STAYS.
The Patriots drafted McCourty in the first round out of where else, but Rutgers in 2010. As a rookie, he started every game and recorded seven interceptions on the way to earning a Pro Bowl nod. Unfortunately, he hit a woeful sophomore slump inspiring the coaching staff to move him to Safety. Since that time, he has thrived in his role and transformed himself into one of the best safeties in the NFL. A recipient of the Man of the Year award, McCourty is a high character individual who is very involved in local charity work. He has been adamant about his desire to stay with New England and why wouldn’t he? In his five seasons as a Patriot, he has appeared in four AFC Championships and three Super Bowls. On Monday, he expressed to Josina Anderson that he was surprised he did not get the franchise tag which would have kept him on a one year deal worth roughly $9.6 million. This situation is an interesting one: McCourty is a player who is unequivocally the best player at his position this offseason. He is due to field some lucrative offers but he ultimately wants nothing more than to stay with a team who knows this and plans to sign him but at their cost and their cost only. Quite the predicament. The safety free agency market is incredibly weak and the draft is worse if that is possible. McCourty has never cashed in on a big deal having only played his rookie deal. The 27 year-old has a difficult decision to make: money or Super Bowl contention (and in a few select cases, he could potentially have both). His market is anywhere from $8-12 million and it would be surprising if the Patriots went any higher than $8 million annually. One interesting thing to note is that the Patriots are one of the few teams below the mandatory cash spending threshold while in a struggle to stay below the salary cap. I expect the Patriots to make up for their less than market value offer with more term and guaranteed money. It won’t be an easy round of negotiations (McCourty is an agent’s nightmare) but I think McCourty comes back to New England on a slightly player friendly deal. STAYS.
One of the heroes from Super Bowl XLIX did himself and his agent a big favor with his 11 catch, 64 yard performance. The second round product out of California has seen increased snaps over the past three seasons and filled the role that the Patriots love: a third down, change of pace back with good hands, pass protection ability, and situational running. Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead are the two that come to mind and Vereen is certainly in that group. While recent contract history has not been kind to running backs, Vereen is different because of the variety to his skill set. There are not many players hitting free agency at his age with his skill set. Guys like C.J. Spiller and Ryan Mathews have injury problems and guys like Reggie Bush are a little bit older. Vereen is 25 and is about to hit his prime. I do not think Vereen is a top priority for New England because they have a wealth of running backs on their roster and have never valued the position. With that said, they will certainly make him an offer because of his success in their system and Brady’s comfort level with him but the offer will be below market value and test Vereen’s desire to remain with New England which by many accounts, is high. Unfortunately, I think Vereen walks to a team like the Giants or Jaguars for a contract around $4 years, $14 million. LEAVES.
The Patriots applied their Franchise Tag on Gostkowski this past Monday which raises his salary to roughly $4.1 million this season. That figure seems high for a kicker but keep in mind that Gostkowski is an elite kicker and the tag gives New England until July 15th to work out a long term deal. Gostkowski had enormous shoes to fill after taking over for the three time Super Bowl Champion Adam Vinatieri but since he arrived in 2006, he has been a steady presence. He hasn’t been asked to make many big kicks but the three time pro bowler has been excellent over the past three years. He has made 73/78 kicks including 6/7 from 50+. I don’t know if the Patriots will negotiate a deal now or next offseason but he will be kicking for New England in 2015. Just ask Detroit what it was like to not have a reliable kicker. STAYS.
The 32 year old guard has been a regular starter since 2010 but never was his impact more realized than this year. In the three games he missed, the Patriots offensive line struggled mightily. He is not a sexy player, what OG is for that matter, but he has good chemistry with his linemates and remains an above average guard. One of the Patriots biggest priorities this offseason is upgrading their offensive line. Connolly was making roughly $4 million in 2014 so it is entirely possible that he gets replaced by an early round rookie with a much smaller salary. Between Connolly and Wendell, I believe only one will be with the team in September. Connolly is a slightly better player but Wendell is four years younger and makes half as much. LEAVES.
After Sealver Siliga got hurt in late October, the Patriots signed the 6’6 324 pound Alan Branch to fortify their run defense after they were gashed against the New York Jets among others. The former second round pick never earned substantial playing time but certainly strengthened the Patriots defensive line depth especially after Easley was put on IR. Having played with three teams in three years, Branch will be a fairly cheap option. With that said, if the Patriots sign Siliga and feel they can upgrade in the draft, Branch will become expendable. My gut tells me that they let Branch walk to a team desperate for some interior line help. LEAVES.
In another move prompted by an injury, Belichick traded a 2015 5th round draft choice for Jonathan Casillas and Tampa Bay’s 2015 6th round draft choice. Adding Casillas essentially cost the Patriots one draft spot because New England picks last in the 5th round and Tampa Bay picks first in the 6th round. When Jerod Mayo’s season ended against Buffalo, Casillas provided depth and special teams value. LB Chris White and James Morris could make a bid to earn that utility linebacker spot but if Casillas is willing to come back for a similarly low base salary, a deal could be struck. He will be 28 next season so he has some good years ahead of him and I expect Belichick to bring him back and fight for a spot in camp. STAYS.
When Stevan Ridley’s season ended in Buffalo, many presumed Ridley’s time in New England was over. His fumbling problems were overstated but still a cause for concern to a perfectionist like Bill Belichick. At times Ridley is a quick and decisive runner with more power than meets the eye. His best year was 2012 when he rushed 290 times for 1,263 yards (4.4) YPC with 12 touchdowns. However, on some occasions he reminds Patriots fans of Laurence Maroney with his inability to hit the hole and fall forward. Unfortunately for Ridley, New England has never placed high value on running backs and they have a stable of cheap, capable running backs on the roster. Jonas Gray, LaGarrette Blount, Tyler Gaffney, James White, Brandon Bolden, and maybe Shane Vereen figures to make for a cloudy running back picture. Additionally, the draft and free agency is loaded with running back talent so an above average, fumble prone 27 year old running back coming off a torn ACL is not exactly a hot commodity. For this reason, it is more likely that Ridley comes back to New England on a one year “prove-it” deal but there are too many teams with too much money to spend. The Stevan Ridley era will end next week. LEAVES.
Outside of the top tier free agents for New England, Akeem Ayers is the most intriguing to me. The 2011 2nd round draft pick was traded to New England in October when Chandler Jones injured his hip against the Jets. In Jones’ absence, Ayers filled in admirably. He put in extra time to quickly learn the intricacies of the defense and recorded three sacks and many more quarterback hurries. At 6’3, 255 pounds, Ayers has a unique combination of size and speed that makes him very versatile from a schematic perspective. Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio had this to say about Ayers: “He showed his versatility and we were able to use him in a multitude of roles and he was able to benefit the team as a result. We were fortunate that it worked out the way it did.” That is high praise from a high ranking official on the New England staff. Chandler Jones has yet to prove himself as the elite pass rusher that he has been projected to be. Rob Ninkovich has been very dependable and efficient while playing almost every snap from scrimmage over the past three years. A third pass rusher with Ayers’ versatility is desirable, but at the right price. The Patriots used Ayers sparingly after Jones returned and some conspiracy theorists would suggest this was the “Tommy Kelly” treatment in order to diminish his market value and raise the likelihood that New England can sign him at their price. Ultimately I think Ayers’ value is too high for the Patriots to bring him back. LEAVES.
The 300 pound run stuffer came to New England last season as part of the solution for replacing Wilfork’s heavy workload. He only appeared in seven regular season games this year but played a role in all three postseason games and proved to be an average run defender. He, like Branch, is good but not great and his spot is in jeopardy in the event the Patriots bolster this position via free agency or the draft. Easley’s return from knee and shoulder injuries will impact Siliga’s playing time as well. Luckily, Siliga is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent so as long as the Patriots make him a minimum offer, New England is the only place he can play next season. Thus, Siliga will have a chance to prove himself as a regular contributor. STAYS.
White is a sneaky two year veteran for the Patriots. He has played almost exclusively special teams while providing linebacker depth. However in the event of an injury, the Patriots would make a trade (Jonathan Casillas) before letting White see extended time. Nevertheless, White is an ERFA and will likely be signed to a minimum contract. STAYS.
The four year veteran has served as New England’s long snapper in all but one game during that time. Aiken has never noticeably struggled but he has not exactly been a beacon of consistency. Punter Ryan Allen has saved Aiken from more extended criticism from fans and writers. Aiken played through an injury for most of the 2014 campaign and will likely sign a small deal. Similar to last year, expect Belichick to bring in a body to make Aiken compete for his position. STAYS.
The Brown graduate brings a hard hat and lunch pail attitude to practice every day. He has been on New England for three years and contributed in multiple ways. Aside from his few highlight reel touchdown receptions, Develin has paved running lanes for his running back counterparts and earned his way onto almost every special team. He only plays in roughly 15-20% of offensive snaps but serves a defined role. The Patriots are a gameplan offense and his presence allows the Patriots to exploit certain matchups (see Indianapolis). Develin, like White and Siliga is an ERFA so the Patriots would be remiss to not at least sign him to the minimum and bring him into camp. STAYS.
Tyms is another fascinating player for New England. He followed an impressive preseason (largely with Garrapolo) with an underwhelming regular season. The 6’3 210 pound wide receiver did have his 15 minutes of fame this year against Buffalo when he snatched a 43 yard touchdown pass between two Buffalo defenders. He has shown flashes of ability but has not always been on the same page with Brady (see Indianapolis and Buffalo). To his credit he was one of the more demonstrative and passionate guys on the sideline all season long, in pads or street clothes. He is another ERFA so the Patriots will likely sign him back to compete for a wide receiver position that will bear monitoring this summer. Assuming LaFell, Edelman, and Amendola are back, Tyms and Dobson will be fighting against each other and any free agent or draft choice that New England brings in. STAYS.