Patriots

Patriots To-Do List: Pats shouldn't over-extend for Bennett

Patriots To-Do List: Pats shouldn't over-extend for Bennett

With the glow of Super Bowl LI finally beginning to fade -- a little -- it's time to start looking ahead to 2017. Over the next few days, we'll look at the Patriots' to-do list: Things they need to care of as the offseason begins. Today: tight end Martellus Bennett.

What will Martellus Bennett do? What’s today? The soon-to-be-free agent has sent all manner of mixed messages about where he wants to play next season and what will inform his decision.

In the “he’s leaving” column are his statement that teams overpay for free agents who are “Super Bowl champs”  and a couple of instances in the Patriots locker room this year when, completely unprompted, Bennett started a soliloquy about not being with the Patriots next season.

In the “he’s staying” column are Bennett’s comments that he loves it in New England, both for football and marketing opportunities for life after football.

PATRIOTS TO-DO LIST:

The Patriots paid Bennett more than $5 million last season and he’s collected more than $25M in his nine-year career. 

For his line of work, resume and skill set, that’s very good but – at 30 – the sand is almost out of the big-earnings hourglass.

What did the Patriots get for their $5M in 2016? Good return. Bennett played every game (many with serious pain), caught 55 balls for 701 yards (the 12.7 YPC average his highest since 2008) and a career-high seven touchdowns. He was a pretty inconsistent blocker but some of that can be linked to playing hurt. He also caught 10 of the 11 passes sent his way in the AFC Championship and Super Bowl. Post-Gronk, the next tight end on the roster behind Bennett was Matt Lengel. And that was it. So the team should be damn happy it traded for him.

Going forward? The team will try to keep the term short and it has to be wary of the Rob Gronkowski landscape. Gronk’s making about $4.75M in salary and bonuses this season (his contracts balloons to salaries of $8M and $9M in 2018 and 2019). The top-tier tight ends are making more than $9M in salary.

With both those situations in mind, the Patriots should slide a three-year, $18M offer across to Bennett with $10M guaranteed and see what happens.  

If a team out there decides it wants to blow Bennett out of the water, c’est la vie. The Patriots can comb the draft and free agency (Eagles RFA Trey Burton would be a very intriguing target since he’s marooned on the Eagles depth chart and is a special teams maven and crisp route-runner).

There should be no hard feelings on either side if Bennett goes someplace else. He was good for the Patriots and the Patriots were good for him. It’s on Bennett to decide if the relationship is more than a one-year stand.

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 

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The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.