Five Patriots listed among Pro Football Focus Top 50 free agents

Five Patriots listed among Pro Football Focus Top 50 free agents

When the free-agency period officially begins on Mar. 9, it looks like there will be several newly-minted Super Bowl champions available for hire. And judging by the list Pro Football Focus published recently, the Patriots seem primed to lose more top-end talent via free agency than any other club in the league. 

Of the Top 50 free agents scheduled to be available next month, according to PFF, five are Patriots: linebacker Dont'a Hghtower (No. 11), safety Duron Harmon (No. 17), corner Logan Ryan (No. 26), defensive end Jabaal Sheard (No. 27) and tight end Martellus Bennett (No. 28).

Though the team doesn't have a single Top 10 player, per PFF, no other club has more than four (Cardinals, Redskins, Packers) in the Top 50. 

And the Patriots probably should have had at least one other player included. 

Not LeGarrette Blount, though he set a franchise record for rushing touchdowns last season. Not Chris Long, though he led the team in total quarterback pressures as he played out his one-year deal in New England. It's Alan Branch, 32, who is coming off of arguably his best season in 10 years as a pro. 

A powerful run defender, Bill Belichick called Branch the team's most consistent interior defensive lineman, and late in the season the coach made it clear just how much value there is in having a player with Branch's stature (6-foot-6, 350 pounds) and athleticism up front.

"Alan has done a great job for us," Belichick said. "And along with his play, which is certainly significant, one of the things that’s really been impressive about him has been his play time. So in addition to his overall production he’s played a lot more than he has in quite a while in terms of number of plays. 

"From a production standpoint he’s got, again, quite a few tackles, tackles for loss. It’s hard to measure the disruptive plays but he’s certainly got his share of those. He’s played very well for us in the running game. He’s given us a presence in the pass rush of a long, physical player in the middle. That’s all been really good, and he’s played more plays so all of that is good. 

"How unique is it? I mean, yeah, guys that weigh 350 pounds and are athletic and long like he is; I mean they don’t grow on trees. They’re hard to find. Ted Washington had that kind of length and size. Ted was 6-5, but Alan moves better than Ted does, or did at that point in his career. We’ve had some other longer guys like Richard [Seymour] or guys like that, but they weren’t 350 pounds. There’s not too many of them."

Though he may not make everyone's Top 50, Branch should certainly be mentioned on any list of impact players Belichick and his staff are at risk of losing in a few weeks. It's a long one.

Report: Cam Fleming visiting the Cowboys

File Photo

Report: Cam Fleming visiting the Cowboys

There's one gigantic hole to fill on the Patriots offensive line.

Replacing Nate Solder is no easy task and it's not exactly clear how the Pats will yet.

NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport was first to report the Patriots would like to bring back Waddle or Fleming.

It now appears that one of the former backup tackle is taking a serious look elsewhere, according to Ian Rapoport. 

It's not the best offensive line free agency market this season, so the Pats may prefer to bring back a guy they are familar with.

If Fleming is off the board, Waddle still remains as an option for New England.



How the compensatory pick formula may impact Patriots free-agent calls

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How the compensatory pick formula may impact Patriots free-agent calls

How highly do the Patriots value their mid-round draft picks? We'll find out as the run on NFL free agents continues this week. 

If Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio plan to make any signings from outside the organization, they'll have to factor into that decision what they will be giving up. Money and cap space matter . . . sure. But there is draft capital at stake.  

The Patriots are currently projected to land two third-round compensatory picks in 2019 after losing both Malcolm Butler and Nate Solder in free agency. There's real value there, and the decision-makers at One Patriot Place may be reluctant to give that up. 

Recent Patriots third-round picks include Derek Rivers, Tony Garcia, Joe Thuney, Jacoby Brissett, Vincent Valentine, Geneo Grissom, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan. 


Before we get into how the Patriots might lose those third-round comp picks if they remain active in free-agency, it's worth noting how comp picks are assigned. 

The compensatory-pick formula the league uses has never been published, but we know the basics. It's based on free agents lost and free agents acquired in a given year by a particular team. The level of those players is taken into consideration -- based on salary, playing time and other factors -- and then picks are issued to teams who have lost more (or better) free agents than they acquired. Only free agents whose contracts have expired (not players who've been released) qualify for the compensatory-pick formula.'s Nick Korte is the best in the business when it comes to predicting how many picks teams will land based on their free-agent losses and acquisitions, and he has the Patriots down for two third-rounders in 2019 and nothing else. 

That may sound surprising given the Patriots lost Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola in addition to Butler and Solder, but that's the way the formula broke, according to Korte. The Adrian Clayborn signing (given a sixth-round value by OTC) cancelled out the Amendola loss (sixth-round value). The Matt Tobin signing (seventh-round value) cancelled out the Lewis loss (sixth-round value). And the Jeremy Hill signing (seventh-round value) cancelled out the Johnson Bademosi loss (sixth-round value). 

Why do Tobin and Hill cancel out Amendola and Lewis, despite being lower-value moves? Here's how OTC describes the process. (Free agents who qualify for the comp-pick formula are known as Compensatory Free Agents or CFAs.)

1. A CFA gained by a team cancels out the highest-valued available CFA lost that has the same round valuation of the CFA gained.

2. If there is no available CFA lost in the same round as the CFA gained, the CFA gained will instead cancel out the highest-available CFA lost with a lower round value.

3. A CFA gained will only cancel out a CFA lost with a higher draft order if there are no other CFAs lost available to cancel out. 

That final point is key. An example? The Seahawks recently signed CFA Jaron Brown, a seventh-round value. The only Seahawks "CFAs lost" available to cancel out the move were Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham, both fourth-round values. Even though there's a three-round difference between Brown and Richardson, per Korte's projections, those moves still will cancel each other out. 

With that in mind, the Patriots may want to tread lightly when it comes to signing free agents who will qualify toward the comp-pick formula. They could lose out on the third-rounders they've received for Solder and Butler even if they sign a lower-value free agent.

Players like Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro or Raiders linebacker NaVorro Bowman would count toward the comp-pick formula. Would their value to the team be such that losing a 2019 third-round pick wouldn't matter to the Patriots? Or would their comp-pick impact hurt their chances of being picked up in New England? My guess would be the latter. 

The good news for the Patriots is that re-signing their own players -- like offensive tackles LaAdrian Waddle and/or Cam Fleming -- doesn't impact the comp-pick setup. Neither does signing players who've been released, meaning the Patriots could theoretically make a splash by signing Ndamukong Suh or Eric Ebron and they'd retain their comp picks.

Given the Patriots made just four draft picks last year, and since comp picks can be traded now (that rule was changed last year), it would come as little surprise if retaining those picks weighed heavily on Belichick and Caserio's decisions as they move through the remainder of the offseason.