With the calendar turning to March, NFL free agency is set to kick off. While typically never ones to make huge splashes in free agency, the New England Patriots head into this offseason with over $60 million in salary cap space available to them. If the team is looking to add to its roster through free agency, they are well-positioned to do so. Here is a look at some free agents who will likely be of at least some appeal to the reigning Super Bowl champions.
A Look At Potential New England Patriots Free Agent Targets
The assumption here is that Martellus Bennett will be playing elsewhere in 2017. Bennett has made it known that he is looking to get paid handsomely, and at 30 years old, Bennett’s hefty payday will likely come from another organization. Bennett’s situation, coupled with the ongoing injury concerns surrounding Rob Gronkowski, will likely have the Patriots looking to add to their tight end depth chart.
Griffin represents the kind of player the Patriots have often targeted in years past. Despite coming off of a productive 2016 season, Griffin is still relatively unheralded. The former sixth round draft selection managed to haul in 50 passes in 2016, while showing continued improvement as a blocker. At 6’6″, Griffin possesses the package of catching ability, blocking ability, and size that Bill Belichick covets at the tight end position. Furthermore, while in Houston, Griffin played under head coach Bill O’Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey, both of whom are former Patriots coaches. So learning the New England offensive scheme would seemingly be a fairly easy transition for Griffin to make.
With a strong tight end draft class and several other capable tight ends available in free agency, Griffin can likely be had on a modest deal. If he continues to show the improvement he has displayed in Houston, Griffin’s next contract will likely prove to be a huge value to his next organization; and no one appreciates a value like Bill Belichick.
The Patriots’ December waiver claim of Michael Floyd shows that the team is still looking to add a size/physicality element to their already potent offense. The Patriots’ current receiving corps, while talented, is lacking in size. Chris Hogan is the team’s biggest wide receiver, at 6’1′, and while he does stretch the field well, he does not represent a true outside-the-numbers or jump ball threat. The team was hoping that Floyd could add that dynamic to their offense last season, but he failed to establish himself in his trial run. Kenny Britt is a more talented (and less troubled) alternative to Floyd.
Britt is coming off of the first 1,000-yard season of his eight-year career. At 6’3″ and 223 lbs, Britt would give the Patriots a monster outside and end zone threat to complement Hogan, as well as the team’s group of talented underneath receivers, led by Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell. Also perhaps of note is Bill Belichick’s longstanding affinity for Rutgers players. Britt was a first round draft pick from the New Jersey school where he played with current Patriot Devin McCourty. Britt would provide the Patriots with a physical skill set that they are lacking, one that they failed to address with the Floyd acquisition in December.
Running back is not a huge position of need for the Patriots. For years, the team has successfully cobbled together a running game with role players, as opposed to featuring an alpha dog in their backfield. In 2016, LeGarrette Blount rushed for 1,161 yards, which was only the third time since 2004 that the team boasted a 1,000-yard rusher. Despite Blount’s 1,100+ yard campaign (and 18 touchdowns), the 30-year old’s workload declined in the second half of the season, as he ceded carries to James White and Dion Lewis. Furthermore, Blount is a UFA and may not be back with the team in 2017.
If Blount is not back in Foxborough next season, it is doubtful that the team would look to replace him with a true lead back. Instead, the team would likely bring in another role player to complement the skill sets of the returning White and Lewis. Someone like Benny Cunningham could fit the bill. The ex-Los Angeles Rams running back would be a low-cost roster addition, as he has compiled only 171 carries in his four-year career and ended the 2016 campaign on injured reserve. Despite limited opportunities in the NFL, Cunningham has flashed potential, generating 4.4 yards per carry. Likely of even more appeal to the Patriots would be Cunningham’s versatility. In his time in the NFL, the Middle Tennessee State product has accrued 93 catches for 8.1 yards per reception, and returned 95 kickoffs for a 27.1 yards per return average. It should be noted that the Patriots struggled to find a reliable kick returner in 2016.
Cunningham would represent more of a between-the-tackles option to complement White and Lewis, while also providing pass catching and special teams value to a team that covets both of those attributes.
The Patriots struggled early in 2016 to establish their pass rush. While this aspect of their defense improved en route to the team’s Super Bowl triumph, the team is likely looking at some roster turnover at the defensive end positions heading into 2017. Jabaal Sheard is a unrestricted free agent, and coming off a disappointing 2016 season. He will likely not be back in New England. Chris Long is also a UFA, and while he may be back, he is best suited for a part time role at this stage of his career. Rob Ninkovich posted his lowest sack total (4.0) since 2010, last season, and at 33 years old, it’s fair to wonder if the long-time Patriot will opt for retirement this offseason.
With those factors in mind, Andre Branch could represent a viable reinforcement option for the Patriots pass rush. The 27-year old played last season in the AFC East, suiting up in all 16 contests for the Miami Dolphins. Branch racked up 5.5 sacks in 2016, and has a modest 19.5 in his five-year career. With higher-profile options like Calais Campbell, Jared Odrick and Dontari Poe available in free agency, Branch will likely pull in a reasonable contract, which, of course, falls in line with the Patriots’ preference to not hand out top-of-the-market deals.
The Patriots will likely lose Logan Ryan to free agency. Furthermore, stud cornerback Malcolm Butler is an restricted free agent, and facing unrestricted free agency in 2018. Signing Dre Kirkpatrick would not only replace Ryan, but also serve as insurance, should the team and Butler not be able to come to terms on a long-term deal.
Beyond the contractual situations surrounding Ryan and Butler, Kirkpatrick to the Patriots makes sense for other reasons. At 6’2″, Kirkpatrick would add some size to the secondary. Currently, Eric Rowe is the only defensive back under contract for 2017 who is over 6’0′. Additionally, Kirkpatrick played his college ball at Alabama, under Bill Belichick’s close friend, Nick Saban. While, on the surface, it may seem unlikely that the Patriots would spend as much on a player as what Kirkpatrick is likely to command, Belichick has shown a willingness to spend money on his secondary before. In 2015, he inked McCourty to the highest-paying contract for a safety at the time, and paid Darrelle Revis $12 million for his work in 2014. Kirkpatrick is likely to command a top-10 deal for a cornerback, but in the pass-happy NFL, Bill Belichick may just be willing to pony up such a contract to the right player.