Mike Gillislee

Patriots re-sign Bolden on one-year deal

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Patriots re-sign Bolden on one-year deal

The Patriots have re-signed Brandon Bolden on a one-year deal that includes a base salary of $790,000. Why does the move matter? Here's a quick look at how this impacts the Patriots moving forward . . . 

1) Bolden's new deal gives the Patriots the opportunity to return one of their core special teamers in 2018. While there are significant needs on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball for Bill Belichick's team, there are also areas in the kicking game that need to be addressed this offseason. Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Marquis Flowers and Johnson Bademosi are all scheduled to hit free agency, and Brandon King will be a restricted free agent. With Bolden, the Patriots have one of their top kick-coverage players back for next season. The Patriots were the top team in the league when it came to opponent average starting field position in 2017 due in part to their effective kick-coverage units.

2) The 2018 running back number for the Patriots now sits at three. Bolden is not a significant part of New England's offensive plan. He played just 49 offensive snaps, including playoffs, last season. But he did score a touchdown in the Divisional Round against the Titans and he saw one red-zone snap in the Super Bowl against the Eagles. The Patriots have turned to Bolden in the past to take on some of the running back workload (68 carries in 2015, 55 in 2013, 56 in 2012), and so he may be viewed as an emergency stop-gap moving forward. Before Bolden's signing, the only Patriots backs under contract for 2018 were James White and Mike Gillislee. 

3) The move is a cost-effective way to maintain some consistency. The Patriots got this deal done quickly, well before the start of the new league year, and it won't hurt them when it comes to the salary cap. Bolden, 28, is reportedly receiving $170,000 guaranteed, and his cap number will be $720,000. The Patriots still have a long way to go in terms of filling some of the holes on their roster, but re-signing Bolden is one of the first small step in ensuring there's some continuity on their special teams units from 2017 to 2018.

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Stick with Lewis or handoff to someone else?

Stick with Lewis or handoff to someone else?

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 the guys who will (or won't) be running the football for the Patriots in 2018.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

 

HOW THEY PERFORMED


The running back position was one of the deepest and most consistent on the Patriots roster in 2017. The team's collection of backs, coached by Ivan Fears, were good enough that the player signed in the offseason to replace LeGarrette Blount ended up having a hard time finding the field. Mike Gillislee was a healthy scratch for the stretch run of the season, while Dion Lewis averaged 5.0 yards per carry and helped make the Patriots more of an unpredictable offense with his ability to both run out of heavy formations and align as a receiver when called upon. Lewis caught 32 passes for 214 yards, but the diminutive back was at his best as a runner. Per Pro Football Focus, he ranked fourth in the league in average yards after contact per carry (3.2) and fifth in forcing missed tackles as a runner. He made 42 tacklers miss, just two fewer than Le'Veon Bell in a whopping 141 fewer rushing attempts. James White didn't finish the season with the same kind of flare he did in 2016, but his 2017 regular season wasn't all that far off from the year prior in terms of his production. He had 60 catches for 551 yards in 2016 and 56 for 429 in 2017. Rex Burkhead was limited by injury throughout the course of the season but provided value as a rusher, receiver and special teamer. The Patriots ranked 10th in the league in rush yards per game (118.1) and 12th in yards per attempt (4.2) and were tied as the third-best team in the league in terms of protecting the football (four rushing fumbles, two lost). 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
White, Gillislee

WHO ISN'T?
Lewis, Burkhead, Brandon Bolden

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Right now, the position doesn't look all that different than it did in 2016, when the Patriots offense was the fourth-best team in the league in terms of yards and third-best in terms of points. They had their sub-back (White) and their hammer (Blount). If Gillislee can take on the Blount role, they'd have both roles covered once again. The Patriots, though, could use an all-purpose runner to add to the mix. After the 2016 campaign, the team wanted to become more unpredictable, and they found a better mix with a healthy Lewis and an occasionally-healthy Burkhead. Bringing one of those players back in 2018, or someone like them, would seem to be a priority this offseason. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


The name topping everyone's list right now at this position this offseason is Bell's. One of the best dual-threat backs the league has seen in recent memory, he's going to be paid handsomely. Whether that's via the franchise tag (which he was given last season) or a long-term deal worth somewhere in the range of $11 million per year, he's not going to be on New England's radar in all likelihood. Others available? San Francisco's Carlos Hyde, Minnesota's Jerick McKinnon and Indy's Frank Gore are the best multi-purpose backs out there. Would the Patriots be willing to extend for someone like Hyde, who could argue he's worth somewhere in the range of $6 million per year, per Spotrac? 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


For the second consecutive year, it looks like the college ranks have churned out a fine running back class, with plenty of players who can do a little bit of everything. Penn State's Saquon Barkley is the cream of the crop and could be gone within the top five picks of the draft. LSU's Derrius Guice is more of a violent between-the-tackles runner and could hear his name called by the end of Day 1 or the start of Day 2. The next tier of backs could be the sweet spot for anyone looking for an every-down runner. USC's Ronald Jones, Georgia's Sony Michel, Auburn's Kerryon Johnson and San Diego's State's Rashaad Penny may not be perfect prospects, but experts say all four have shown promise as potential three-down players.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?

As was the case with the tackle group, Bill Belichick's best option may be to go with what he had in 2017. If Lewis isn't blown away by another team's offer in free-agency, it'd make sense to try to bring him back. Should Lewis end up capitalizing on his last season elsewhere, Burkhead should offer the Patriots good value. Durability may be a concern, but the Patriots know what Burkhead's capable of, he understands the offense, and after missing six games last season, he won't be looking to break the bank. If neither of those familiar faces is interested in a return, McKinnon, 25, is an enticing option in free agency. He may be more receiver (51 catches last season) than a runner (150 carries), but he forced 39 total missed tackles on his 201 touches and had PFF's fifth-best running back grade in 2017. The 2014 combine standout would also provide some value as a kick-returning option; that was Lewis' gig last season. As far as the draft goes, Penny would be intriguing in the middle rounds because the SDSU offense used some the pro-style concepts -- the Aztecs leaned on the I-formation, for instance -- that would be thrown his way in Foxboro.

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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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