Lawrence Guy

Branch's uncertainty may lead to another big body up front

Branch's uncertainty may lead to another big body up front

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 to that area, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a spot where the Patriots are always on the lookout for power and athleticism: interior defensive line. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


Depends on who you were watching. Malcom Brown may never live up to the impossible expectations some set for him as the team's first-round 320-pounder brought aboard immediately after Vince Wilfork left, but he put together his most consistent season as a pro and was the team's top defensive tackle. It would not be a surprise if the Patriots opted to pick up his fifth-year option for 2019. Lawrence Guy was absolutely solid as the team's other primary interior defender and ended up playing more defensive snaps than anyone not named Trey Flowers or Kyle Van Noy. Adam Butler, the undrafted rookie out of Vanderbilt, showed promise as an interior rusher, and Ricky Jean Francois came through with valuable contributions late in the season. Alan Branch, meanwhile, struggled to find his footing after signing a new deal last offseason, and this group struggled against the run. They allowed opponents to average 4.7 yards per carry, which was the second-worst mark in the league. Having another body inside to improve the rotation and help eat up blockers - such as Vincent Valentine, who spent the season on injured reserve - would've helped. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Brown, Guy, Valentine, Butler, Branch

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Francois

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


The need here hinges on a couple factors: 1) Can Branch be a dependable option in 2018, and b) how does the team feel about Valentine's odds of becoming a regular after missing the entirety of his second season? Hard to believe the answer to that first question would be a resounding "yes." He was a healthy scratch down the stretch in the team's biggest games of the season and could be a cap casualty. The perception of Valentine is a little murkier. The Patriots should feel good about what they have in Brown and Guy, and Adam Butler showed flashes of his potential as a sub rusher. An important factor in the equation here is just how frequently Bill Belichick likes to use his edge defenders inside. Flowers has been especially effective in that regard, and Deatrich Wise the ability to beat interior offensive linemen as well. Still, the Patriots could use a player here to help bolster their big-bodied depth up front. They simply can't have another year where they're near the bottom of the league against the run. Some of that falls on linebacker play, but another competent space-eater would help. Let's put this spot at a 6 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay Memorial "How Concerned Are You?!?" Meter.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY


A handful of big names hit the open market in March at this position. Carolina's Star Lotulelei may be the best of the bunch (even though he's coming off of a down season) and Atlanta's Dontari Poe isn't all that far behind. There are a few under-the-radar names who could be contributors even if they aren't huge names. Shamar Stephen of the Vikings, Justin Ellis of the Raiders and Bennie Logan of the Chiefs are intriguing options. From a Patriots perspective - and we've suggested this kind of move multiple times in this series - finding an accomplished veteran near the end of his career could pay dividends. Buffalo's Kyle Williams and Detroit's Haloti Ngata are both into their mid-30s, but maybe they could be coaxed into a season in New England as the No. 3 guy on the inside. We all saw just how much it meant to Williams to make the playoffs last season. He may want to ride it out in Buffalo as one of that team's unquestioned leaders, but a season playing under Belichick could be enticing. One more name: Sheldon Richardson. The Patriots are plenty familiar with the former Jets defender, and he'd be a fine on-the-field fit, with a couple of caveats. Is his head is on straight? And what's his market? His talent level and age (27) would suggest he commands big bucks. But if the market is suppressed because teams are worried about whether or not his head is screwed on correctly, does he end up being a relatively low-risk signing? Doesn't seem like someone the Patriots would gamble on, but never say never. Would he take a short-term deal to rebuild his image and then hit the market while he's still in his late-20s?

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


The name everyone will be watching, particularly at next week's combine, when his next-level athleticism will be on display for all to see, will be Vita Vea of Washington. He's 6-foot-4, 344 pounds, and he was much more than a clog-the-middle man for the Huskies. He rushed the passer. He even covered punts. He's expected to run a sub 5-second 40...and he'll be long gone by the time the Patriots pick. For a team like the Patriots that may be looking for help against the run? Alabama's Da'Ron Payne is enticing as a run-stuffer and he's a good enough athlete to potentially make some noise as an interior rusher. Michigan's Maurice Hurst and Florida's Taven Bryan have the kind of quick get-off that could make them first-round interior disrupters. One name to keep an eye on because of his rare combination of size and athleticism: Virginia Tech's Tim Settle. He's 6-3, 335 pounds, he's shown great quickness for a player with his frame, and he's only 20 years old. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


The Patriots don't have to do anything drastic here with Brown and Guy in the fold, but another dependable contributor could alter the look of their front-seven and provide a lift against the run. Players like Lotulelei and Poe - and Richardson if another team gets desperate -- could be too pricey to make Belichick and Nick Caserio bite. Williams or Ngata would be solid in the locker room and legitimate top-three options inside if healthy. And someone such as Ellis, in his fifth year out of Louisiana Tech, probably won't break the bank but could be what they need. He's played 16 games in three of his four years in the league. Settle, because he looks like a tremendous athlete with NFL size who's still growing as a player, could be tough to pass on at the end of the first if he's available. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compares him to Vince Wilfork. 

 

Patriots' postseason first-timers have 2017 offseason approach to thank

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Patriots' postseason first-timers have 2017 offseason approach to thank

FOXBORO - There aren't many players inside the Patriots locker room who will be new to the postseason experience this weekend. But the do-or-die nature of the playoffs is completely foreign feeling for a few key first-year contributors, such as Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore. 

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That those players are finally getting a taste of football in mid-January is thanks in part to an evolving offseason approach in New England that saw the Patriots slot in as one of the NFL's top offseason spenders in 2017. 

The Ringer's Kevin Clark put together a fascinating piece on free-agent spending this week, pointing out which teams dealt out the most cash, why, and how they fared. The Patriots ended up as one of the top 10 spenders in free-agency, and they were one of six top 10 spenders that made the playoffs. 

It's a staggering number considering that free agency has long been viewed as an often-foolhardy last resort for NFL teams desperate to turn things around. But in recent years, organizations have had much more salary-cap space to play with, which has allowed front offices to be more aggressive. Those who have shown a willingness to spend have been rewarded as they've separated themselves from teams who've clung to the idea that thriftiness is key.

Where's the cap space coming from? The cap has ballooned from $120 million to $167 million in the past six years. Plus the 2011 collective bargaining agreement made two changes that have had an impact: 1) It reined in rookie contracts and 2) it allowed teams to roll over unused cap space from one year to the next.

The Patriots have long held a reputation as a team that prefers develop from within, as their list of long-term, high-priced, free-agent deals would indicate, with the 2007 addition of Adalius Thomas coming in as one of the few outliers in Bill Belichick's tenure. 

While the arrival of 2017 heralded a different approach, one doesn't need to go back all that far to find an example of the Patriots largely staying on the sidelines in free agency. Even though they came in as the No. 9 free-agent spenders in 2016, the vast majority of their money spent was a result of Tom Brady's contract extension. Without it, they would have placed among the NFL's bottom-third spenders, just a few spots ahead of the perennially free-agent averse Packers. (After shuffling their front office this offseason, even Green Bay has made a commitment to being more aggressive in the free-agent market, as bold an indication as any that teams are changing their stance on spending.) 

Then last offseason, the Patriots went on a shopping spree. They made Gilmore one of the highest-paid corners in the league. They went out and signed largely unheralded defensive tackle Lawrence Guy to a four-year deal. They invested (in the short term) at the running back position by grabbing unrestricted free agent Rex Burkhead and restricted free agent Mike Gillislee. They re-signed Duron Harmon and Dont'a Hightower. And they were willing to trade an opportunity to draft cost-effective rookies in order to acquire Cooks, and Dwayne Allen, both of whom would cost more against the cap in the short-term.

One could argue the effectiveness of their method, but not that it had a decidedly different look than the norm for them.

Will it continue into 2018? Will the Patriots have the money to add another playoff-starved free agent with a top-of-the-market deal?

They don't have much in the way of 2017 cap space to roll over next season (about $3 million), but the cap is expected to go up again. Over the Cap has projected it to land somewhere in the range of $178 million and for the Patriots to have around $17 million in cap space. Unless something changes, that's hardly a king's ransom that the Patriots will have available to them to spread around in March. 

But what the Patriots did last offseason -- shelling out for immediate help at expensive positions -- showed that when they have the ability to spend they're willing to do it. And in a league with a cap that's increasing annually, where it seems as safe to gamble on outside help as it's ever been, a prodigal approach isn't necessarily a bad one. Based on recent evidence, at least, fortune has favored the bold.

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Pats aren't sleeping on McCoy, despite sluggish 2017

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Pats aren't sleeping on McCoy, despite sluggish 2017

FOXBORO -- To say the Buffalo Bills are riding LeSean McCoy would be an understatement. On a team full of flayed-legged foals, the Bills have had to put the saddle on the 29-year old running back this season to mixed results. 

McCoy has piled over a thousand yards from scrimmage with a handful of explosive plays. But a closer look at the numbers reveal a runner who’s averaging just 3.9 yards per carry, down a full yard-and-a-half from the year prior. However, that’s not the back Bill Belichick or his defensive players are seeing.

“It's a power running game with a back that can, literally, run the ball from sideline to sideline and make four guys miss in a phone booth,” Belichick said. “McCoy can take any play and turn it into a play that doesn't look like any other play you've seen before."

“I’ve been playing him since college where we had calls where you’ve got him in a phone booth and you come up with just his towel,” added Devin McCourty, recalling his days at Rutgers facing McCoy’s Pitt Panthers.

McCoy hasn’t had a ton of explosive plays this year, which again shows in the numbers. He has just three runs of 20 or more yards (long is 24). You think at his age and with his experience - this is his 9th NFL season - that maybe McCoy is finally starting to slow down. However, Buffalo’s offensive line has been inconsistent. Only guard Richie Incognito is playing at a level comparable to last year. Thus, some of McCoy’s best runs have been the ones where he avoids taking a loss thanks to his suddenness that - in many ways - reminds you of some of runs we’ve been seeing from Dion Lewis.

“Trying to tackle LeSean is scary in and of itself, the guy can be running this way and all of a sudden cut and he’s going in completely the opposite,” said safety Duron Harmon. “He’s probably the most - if not the most - elusive players in the league.”

“He stresses the defense, for sure,” said Lawrence Guy. “But this is a big game plan game. Do what you’re suppose to do when you’re suppose to do it.”

As part of that plan, the Pats have had it drilled into their heads this week that they must rally to the football, but also make sure they maintain their discipline when they do. That means proper spacing between would-be tacklers and never thinking the play is over until McCoy is on the ground.

“I think everyone else has to realize that when a guy gets a one-on-one shot on him, it doesn’t mean slow down,” said McCourty. “It means let’s all get there. If he makes him miss, let’s all try to get him down after that. For years, for nine years now, he’s been a very tough back to try to take down in the open field, and it’s going to be the same thing Sunday. But, I think we need to have the mentality of all 11 guys on run plays need to be in that coaches’ copy of the film where we talk about getting to the ball and trying to gang tackle him.”

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