Patriots

A Patriots strength could quickly become a weakness

A Patriots strength could quickly become a weakness

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering the draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding said talent. We'll start things off with what is currently the team's greatest area of need: Offensive tackle.

HOW THEY PERFORMED
Considering the Patriots lost one of the best right tackles in football to injury, the performance at this spot has to be considered a rousing success. Back in August, when backup tackles LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming were having a hell of a time in West Virginia trying to slow down the array of Texans pass-rushers thrown their way, it looked like this group might cripple the Patriots if anything were to happen to Nate Solder or Marcus Cannon. Instead, it ended up being one of the team's deepest positional groups. Solder led the group. After an up-and-down first half, he was stout following the team's bye week. In 11 games after the break, including playoffs - after getting more aggressive with his punch, according to o-line coach Dante Scarnecchia - he allowed just one sack and five quarterback hits. Cannon played in seven of the team's first eight games and was sidelined for the season when he aggravated an ankle injury he'd been dealing with for much of the season. Waddle performed admirably in Cannon's absence, taking on talented pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram of the Chargers, Von Miller of the Broncos and Khalil Mack of the Raiders and not allowing a sack in that stretch. When Waddle got hurt, Fleming stepped in and was more than serviceable. He started seven games, including two of three playoff games, and allowed three total sacks. Despite going against two of the game's best fronts in the AFC title game and the Super Bowl, neither Jacksonville nor Philadelphia could take advantage of New England's third right tackle. The Patriots needed depth at that spot for the second time in three years - 2015 was a mess at tackle due to injuries, and the Patriots were forced to use center Bryan Stork there briefly - and they had plenty this time around. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018
Marcus Cannon, Antonio Garcia, Cole Croston, Andrew Jelks.

WHO ISN'T
Nate Solder, Cam Fleming, LaAdrian Waddle.

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED
It's about as dire as it gets -- a 10 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay memorial "How concerned are you?!?" scale. If the Patriots aren't able to bring back one or more of their impending free agents this offseason, one of their deepest positions will suddenly become one of their greatest liabilities. Solder hadn't yet made any decisions about his future by the end of the season, meaning there's no guarantee he'll return. It's written into his contract that he can't be given the franchise tag so the Patriots will have to figure out a new deal with the soon-to-be 30-year-old if they want him. Fleming and Waddle could try to turn their fill-in performances this season into new contracts elsewhere in what will be a relatively weak free-agent tackle market. Cannon should be back to full health for the start of the 2018 season and he'll be a lock to start the season at right tackle, but it's the left side that could be an issue. The Patriots have three young tackles in-house in Garcia, Jelks and Croston, but it's unclear exactly how ready any of them will be to take on the massive responsibilities that come with protecting Tom Brady's blind side. Garcia missed his entire rookie season due to illness and lost a significant amount of weight - and he came into the league already relatively light. Jelks, an undrafted rookie out of Vanderbilt, stayed on the non-football injury list this year and hasn't played since 2014 due to season-ending knee injuries in 2015 and 2016. Croston is a promising player headed into his second year - the Patriots protected him on the roster all season even though they knew he was buried on the depth chart -- but he's unproven. There are myriad question marks here. If the Patriots can't bring back Solder on a new deal, finding a left tackle capable of handling the job would probably shoot to the top of their offseason to-do list. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?
Not much. The most established tackles hitting free agency, outside of Solder, rank as some of the worst in football, per Pro Football Focus. Greg Robinson (graded as PFF's No. 66 tackle), Chris Clark (No. 77) and Donald Stephenson (No. 51) aren't necessarily names that scream "plug and play!" There are other swing tackles and career backups available, but if the Patriots are forced to look for Solder's replacement, it probably won't be on the free-agent market. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?
The options seem to be better here, although rolling with a rookie tackle at the premier position of left tackle would be a sizable risk. Three tackles are commonly referred to by draft experts as first-round options: Oklahoma's Orlando Brown, Texas' Connor Williams and Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey. Ohio State's Jamarco Jones, Oregon's Tyrell Crosby and Western Michigan's Okorafor Chukwuma have potential and could probably be had in later rounds, but they'll probably need more polish.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?
The best way for the Patriots to address the situation would be by re-signing Solder. He could argue he's worth around $13 million per year (about what Russell Okung received when he signed a four-year deal at 29), and perhaps the Patriots would be willing to go there on a shorter-term deal depending on Solder's career plans. Otherwise, the Patriots could re-sign Waddle and/or Fleming and try Cannon on the left side. In that scenario, the Patriots may be hurting two positions while trying to fix one, but it still may be their next best option. If they're having a hard time coming up with answers, maybe the Patriots could try left guard Joe Thuney at tackle -- he played there in college -- but his length and his track record the past two years would suggest he should stay on the inside. Finally, if Garcia or Croston is ready to take on a bigger role, the Patriots could try either at tackle. Garcia is a very good athlete, but he'll need to get much stronger - especially after his illness - to play on the left side. Because the best tackle prospects in the draft will likely be off the board before the Patriots pick at the end of the first round, getting Solder back seems to be the most logical way to go about making sure the left side of New England's offensive line is secured for 2018. 

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a position where the Patriots have plenty of bodies but an unknown number of difference-makers: Edge defender. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


No position group saw greater change through training camp than Bill Belichick's group of edge players. Rob Ninkovich retired. Kony Ealy was cut. Shea McClellin and Derek Rivers had season-ending injuries. When Harvey Langi was injured in a car accident and Dont'a Hightower suffered a season-ending pectoral injury, the team was dangerously thin on the outside. The Patriots tried to fill in over the course of the season with a series of Band-Aids. Cassius Marsh got the first crack but was eventually sent packing. The Patriots plucked Eric Lee from the Bills practice squad. They signed James Harrison late. By season's end, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise saw more pass-rush work than anyone else. Wise flashed his potential but also experienced some rookie growing pains. Flowers was really, really good in 993 snaps -- more than any Patriots defensive lineman since Ninkovich played 1,040 in 2014 - but he didn't have much in the way of consistent help on the other side. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Hightower, Flowers, Rivers, Wise, Lee, Shea McClellin, Trevor Reilly, Harvey Langi, Geneo Grissom, Keionta Davis

WHO ISN'T?
Harrison

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


The Patriots have numbers here. But there are questions that need answering. How healthy will Hightower and McClellin be in 2018? And will they be better suited to play off the line or on the edge? What will Rivers look like after tearing his ACL? How will Wise and Langi develop? If everyone's back and they're all ready to play significant roles, is the need really all that dire? In reality, the Patriots could probably use another addition here, maybe a free agent who's a known commodity. The Patriots have plenty of lottery tickets that could hit in 2018, but adding a dependable option to play opposite Flowers would make sense.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


The two top edge defenders in free agency will be Demarcus Lawrence (25 years old) of the Cowboys and Ezekiel Ansah (28) of the Lions. The Patriots would have to be willing to commit serious money to either one. More cost-effective options would be Alex Okafor (who tore his Achilles late last season), Trent Murphy (who might be a good fit in New England's multiple fronts), Adrian Clayborn (capable against both the run and the pass), Connor Barwin (missed just two games in the last seven seasons), Jeremiah Attaochu (former second-rounder who may still have some untapped potential) and 38-year-old Julius Peppers (a potential stop-gap while young Patriots pass-rushers grow into pros). Options there. But because this isn't seen as a particularly strong draft class when it comes to edge players, there will be competition for each.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


NC State's Bradley Chubb is the early favorite to be the first edge defender off the board this spring, but he's not viewed by everyone to be a game-changing pass-rush talent. Pro Football Focus has compared him to Bills 2016 first-rounder Shaq Lawson. Behind him? Question marks abound. Marcus Davenport from Texas-San Antonio was dominant last season...but against seriously inferior competition. LSU's Arden Key may be the most talented pass-rusher available, but he left the team last spring, leading to questions about his commitment to the sport. Boston College's Harold Landry looked like a top-15 pick before last season, but he was slowed by injury in 2017, his production fell, and now so has his draft stock. Maybe the Patriots can find a physically-gifted edge-setter or pass-rusher in the middle rounds -  as they did with Flowers in 2015 - but there doesn't seem to be a ton of certainty at the top of the class here.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Because the Patriots are well-stocked with young players at this spot - Flowers, Rivers, Wise and Langi will all be 25 or younger when the 2018 season begins - snagging a reliable veteran for the rotation might be the best course of action. Would Barwin be willing to jump coasts after a year with the Rams in order to join the Patriots while Belichick's 20-somethings grow as professionals? What about Peppers? Could the Patriots coax him to leave Carolina for a one-year deal? He hasn't missed a game in 10 years, and he's missed just six total in his career. Maybe Belichick and Nick Caserio will be willing to go big here and shell out long-term dough to make sure they have both edges locked down for the foreseeable future. But with other needs to fill, and with myriad options already on the roster, it wouldn't be surprising if the team stood pat. It really all depends on how they view their youngsters. If they believe, there's little use in spending on, say, Lawrence or Ansah. If they don't, then there could be a splash coming. 

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McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

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AP Photo

McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

Devin McCourty said immediately after Super Bowl LII that players knew Malcolm Butler's role had changed. Two weeks later, that story hasn't changed.

After falling to the Eagles, 41-33, and while making his way from his media availability period to the Patriots buses, McCourty said he and his teammates weren't surprised that Butler's workload had been scaled back for the final game of the season. 

His explanation made it difficult to understand, though, why other players were so surprised to see that Butler wasn't a part of the defensive game plan. The corner who started in Butler's place, Eric Rowe, said he didn't know until right before kickoff that he'd be on the field instead of Butler. 

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McCourty reiterated his point when asked about the situation during a recent event to benefit Tackle Sickle Cell, founded by McCourty and his twin brother Jason to help families dealing with sickle cell disease.

"As far as I know, all of that is the furthest thing from the truth," McCourty told NJ Advance Media when asked if Butler's benching was disciplinary in nature. "We all knew he wasn't starting all week. That wasn't a secret to the guys on the team.

"I get why people are fishing. The guy played 98 percent of the plays. I just hate that for him character-wise going into free agency. It's just not true. As far as I know -- and I was there all week -- not one time did anything come up."

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Butler took to social media in the days following the loss to dispel any rumors that he was being punished by Belichick and the rest of the coaching staff. He pointed out that he had not attended any concerts during the week, as had been theorized online, and that he spent his free time with family. 

"It sucked for him," McCourty said. "He put a lot of time and effort in. However it falls, the last thing you want to do is not play a snap. To me, the worst part was to see all that (anonymous) stuff come out after."

McCourty called Butler a "great teammte" and appreciated the way Butler grew as a player during his four years in New England. 

"It's been great to watch him develop," McCourty said of Butler. "To watch him, maybe, be late one day his rookie year, and say, 'Hey Malc, you can't do that.' And then becoming a guy you can count on who is very dependable.

"If he decides it's hard to come back after that, anywhere he goes, the guy is a great football player and probably one of the most competitive people I've been around. With all my guys, we're teammates and friends for life."

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