The Patriots are set for a major re-evaluation of their defense this offseason with a number of key free agents that will force them to determine the direction they want to go. The offensive free agents won’t be far behind. Of course, things certainly look a lot easier now (unfortunately) than they did when both Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins were still on the team. Two less major pieces to worry about paying.
And really, the poor overall performance of many of the impending free agents still on the team make it easier too. Again, unfortunately. But of course things can change quickly as the important part of the season and playoffs roll around. A huge playoff performance by one of these players could up their importance and price tag.
We’re at the halfway point of the season, so why not take stock of where we’re at?
One note before we dive in, Malcolm Butler is a restricted free agent. The Patriots should, in my opinion, pursue a long-term extension with him, but the team can easily slap a first round tender for around $3.6 million and retain his rights unless someone wants to give up a first rounder for him, which I wouldn’t entirely rule out. So for our purposes here, I’m leaving him off this list, but if he was on it he’d be second.
Let’s do it, starting from the lowest priority, counting down to the most important.
12. Sebastian Vollmer – Vollmer will likely miss this entire season and he’ll turn 33 next summer. This is likely the end for the big German tackle.
11. Brandon Bolden – Bolden has been a special teams standout and fill-in running back. He will turn 27 in January, so he’s still young, but special teams players often fade out quickly and his value for the offense is limited. Bolden could be back on a team-friendly deal, but his roster spot will always be precarious.
10. James Develin – Develin has a lot of fans, but the reality is he hasn’t been very effective this season. The Patriots are actually averaging fewer rushing yards with him than without him. He’s a nice tool for the toolbox though and won’t require a huge deal, so it’s entirely possible the Pats bring him back and let him compete in training camp. But if he walks the Pats offense won’t miss a beat.
9. Chris Long – I want to put Long higher, I really do. But he just hasn’t panned out the way we hoped he would. He had a sack in the opener and none since. He has just 13 solo tackles, but with two passes defensed, is being used in more a hybrid role that he never was with the Rams. So maybe it’s just a scheme thing and he’s still figuring it out. But if the Patriots defense is to get back on track Long (and Jabaal Sheard) are two guys who have to start making plays. Love what Long brings otherwise, and would be happy if he turns things around and remains with the Patriots beyond this year.
8. Duron Harmon – Harmon is one I struggle with, especially because of the freedom he allows Devin McCourty. This year the Pats have been able to use McCourty even more in coverage closer to the line of scrimmage and that has a lot to do with how much they trust Harmon on the back end. Still, he’ll probably get starter money offer somewhere. His departure would result in immediate changes in how the Patriots have played their secondary the last three seasons, but they won’t play three safeties as starters, will they?
7. Logan Ryan – Ryan’s off to a shaky start in his contract year, but his true value will be determined down the stretch as the Patriots face receivers like Brandon Marshall and Demaryius Thomas, Ryan’s old specialties. The Patriots have the depth to overcome his potential departure. If Eric Rowe improves or as Cyrus Jones climbs out of the doghouse, Ryan could fall down the depth chart even more. He’s at a crossroads, but is certain to get another starting shot that will determine where he ends up next year and how much he’s getting paid.
6. LeGarrette Blount – Blount turns 30 in December, but has already set a career-high for touchdowns (8). He’s just four carries from matching his total in 2015, and is just 40 carries away from his career high that he set as a rookie. Blount’s future will likely be determined over the last half of the season and playoffs. If he maintains this pace and stays healthy, he’ll be higher on this list. If he fades or gets hurt again, the Pats will likely approach him the same way they did this offseason, with a cheap one-year deal. I thought the Pats needed to add at least two new running backs last offseason and feel the same way next offseason, with or without Blount.
5. Alan Branch – Branch has been one of the bright spots on the Patriots defense this season, but he’ll turn 32 in December. We know these defensive tackles that Belichick likes to squeeze every last bit out of at the end of their career, but the end can come quickly. With Vincent Valentine showing promise the Pats could cut ties with Branch, or offer him a manageable one-year deal and see how he looks in camp.
4. Marcus Cannon – What!? Yup. Cannon’s had a solid season and he’s still just 28. With Vollmer likely done, the Pats will have to find a right tackle and why not stick with Cannon? Things can change quickly as far as fan perception goes. One game getting toasted by an elite pass rusher and Cannon will once again be the focus of the fan’s ire. But the Patriots have already given Cannon one extension and it makes sense to give him another one.
3. Jabaal Sheard – I’m not sure anyone has had a more disappointing first half than Sheard, who we expected to be a pass rushing force that would make us all forget about Chandler Jones. It’s pretty shocking considering he’s in a contract year. But I still think there’s plenty of time for Sheard to turn things around, and he just turned 27 in May. He’s got a lot of good football left in him. He has just 3.5 sacks this season and none in the last two games, while recording a measly two tackles. Those numbers have to improve or the Pats will have no problem watching Sheard walk this offseason.
2. Martellus Bennett – I’ve assumed that Bennett would be a one-year rental, but I’ve enjoyed him so much both on and off the field I’d love to see him them lock him up for a few more years. Even Bennett’s Mom thinks he’s a great fit on the Patriots. But you just never know with a free spirit like him. He doesn’t really seem like a paycheck chaser right now, but we’ll see what kind of offers get dangled in front of him this offseason. Maybe, just maybe, he appreciates the noise-free football environment in New England, that still allows Marty to be Marty. Keeping him and Gronk together is great for them both and devastating for the rest of the league.
1. Dont’a Hightower – Hightower is in his first year as a captain, has taken over the vaunted Willie McGinest/Jerod Mayo locker, and appears to be the leader the Patriots would like to base their defense around for the foreseeable future. Now he hasn’t had the best first half of the season. He’s missed two games and has 14 solo tackles with 1.5 sacks. He’s played just 12 games the last two seasons. But there’s still plenty to love about Hightower. He sets the tone on the defense as seen last week against Buffalo with two key hits on the opening drive. Of everyone here, Hightower is the key player. With him everything else will fall into place. Finding a deal with Hightower is priority number one.