With the re-signing of Dont’a Hightower, along with the other significant free agency moves the Patriots have made over the past two weeks, the 2017 team is starting to round into form. There’s still a big question mark surrounding Malcolm Butler and, to a lesser extent, Jimmy Garoppolo, but it would appear that outside of those two most of the heavy lifting this offseason is close to done.
What we know? The offense looks ready to evolve once again with the addition of Brandin Cooks. He’ll bring a whole new level of explosiveness and if Rob Gronkowski can return to form and everyone stays healthy, who knows what the ceiling is for this offense.
Defensively, the Pats swapped Logan Ryan for Stephon Gilmore and Jabaal Sheard/Chris Long for Kony Ealy. On paper those moves look like they made the Patriots better. There are still depth questions at linebacker and defensive end, but those should be manageable. If Malcolm Butler returns it’s not crazy to think this defense will be even better than last year’s that led the league in points against.
What holes do the Patriots still have? Whose contracts could be extended or released? There’s still plenty of moves to come, and with the Pats currently having no draft picks before the third round, there’s a good chance they’ll look to round out their picks so they can still grab some impact rookies.
Here’s what I see as the priorities going forward with the rest of free agency and the draft.
- Malcolm Butler – Butler is visiting the Saints today and while there would be a lot of moving parts between the two teams if they wanted to work out a deal, it’s not crazy to think the Pats could be getting their 32nd overall pick back. While the Pats have okay depth to overcome the loss of Butler, it’s far more intriguing to keep him in the mix, forming a top notch trio of him, Gilmore and Rowe. And that doesn’t even include last year’s 2nd round pick Cyrus Jones who could push for playing time at corner as well. Of course, they’ll add a couple more cornerbacks no matter what.
- Jimmy Garoppolo – While I’ve advocated keeping Garoppolo, we can’t rule anything out until the draft is past, especially if the Pats aren’t able to squeeze a first rounder out of the Saints for Butler. I don’t think the Browns are out of the picture, especially with the sheer number of picks that they have. A lot of those picks will be appealing to the Patriots.
- Re-Structures – The Pats had plenty of cap space this offseason so there was no urgency to reduce Danny Amendola‘s nearly-$8 million cap hit. Now that they’ve given out some big deals it might be time to figure out what to do with Amendola. With Cooks in the fold, Amendola fell another step down the depth chart. He’s still a clutch designated receiver in key moments, but I’m not sure they’re going to preserve him for an entire season again just so he can come through in the playoffs. McClellin is another guy who could be re-structured. Or even Stephen Gostkowski.
- Solder/Edelman Extensions – The Pats could use some of their cap space to extend Solder and Edelman, both are entering the final years of their deals and are critical to the Pats success. If Edelman plays out this year it will set up an interesting scenario in 2018. That’s not something I’m ready to think about, but it’s crazy when you realize Edelman will already be 31 in May. Solder will be just 29 in April so another deal for three-to-four years would make a ton of sense. If not, the Pats need to draft a potential left tackle this year in case they can’t retain Solder in 2018. You don’t mess around with the left tackle spot.
- Linebacker – Thank Hoodie Hightower is back, because the linebacker depth behind him is a little scary. I’m sure they could get by with Hightower, Van Noy and Roberts, but I still think this group needs another young rotational player who can hopefully run well. Van Noy and Roberts are specific matchup players and neither was equipped to play three downs. Shea McClellin went from defensive end to linebacker after Jamie Collins left, but didn’t make much of an impact. If the Pats can get a first or second round pick back, I’d love for them to look at a linebacker. If Hightower goes down (which is often does) the Pats linebackers would be in trouble.
- Running Back – I like the signing of Rex Burkhead who can play all four downs, and maybe LeGarrette Blount returns as well, but I still think the running back corps could use another pounder, preferably in the draft. I’m wondering if Brandon Bolden is in the Pats’ plans at all. Usually guys like him sign quick. There’s definitely still work to be done here.
- Tight End – I like the Dwayne Allen signing but I’d still like to see a tight end be made a priority in the draft. I’m still bummed they traded AJ Derby, who might’ve been a great third tight end this year. But that’s the kind of guy they need and I’m sure they’ll add at least three more tight ends before camp. Hopefully one of them emerges and can apprentice behind Gronk and Allen, and fill in if/when Gronk gets dinged.