ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The "brain drain" the Patriots will endure this offseason, with both Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia ready to depart for head-coaching gigs, has been discussed ad nauseam. The potential talent drain has been less of a story.
The Patriots roster could look significantly different when September rolls around, as it does every year around that time, and one of the key changes could be at running back.
Dion Lewis is coming off of the best (and healthiest) season of his career, and he has an opportunity to cash in as a free agent after this season. He's proven that despite coming back from a torn ACL in 2015 and a fractured patella at the start of last season, he's still lightning quick and one of the most versatile backs in football.
One former teammate believes what Lewis did this season -- 896 yards on 180 attempts, 214 receiving yards on 32 catches, and nine total touchdowns -- should earn him a huge payday. Whether it's with the Patriots or not.
“I’ve seen him catch the ball as well as any back in the league,” LeGarrette Blount said during the NFL's "Opening Night" on Monday. “I’ve seen him run the ball as well as any back in the league when the opportunities have presented themselves. He almost had 900 yards rushing on, I want to say, 170, 180 carries. Five yards a carry -- not that I pay attention to my dog or anything . . . But yeah, he deserves to get paid. I think whatever team he goes to, he definitely deserves a bag.”
We wrote about the "bag" Lewis could potentially receive last month. He won't see the kind of payday received by Devonta Freeman (five years, $41.2 million with $17.3 guaranteed), but he could slot in somewhere near where Latavius Murray (three years, $15 million, $3.4 million guaranteed) or teammate James White (three years, $12 million, $4.7 guaranteed) did with their new deals.
When compared to White, Lewis is the more dynamic of the two players, but perhaps with Lewis' age and injury history, the Patriots could argue their values are similar. What happens with Rex Burkhead -- who has not been durable this season, but, like Lewis, is considered an all-purpose back -- could also impact how the Patriots view Lewis' future in New England.
Here's a list of players, aside from Lewis, who aren't yet under contract for next season . . .
Malcolm Butler, CB, 27: It will be interesting to see how Butler's offseason plays out. Will there be a team out there willing to pay him what Gilmore got ($31 million guaranteed at signing and $40 million guaranteed total), or in that range? He'll be 28 on March 2.
Nate Solder, LT, 29: Asked recently if he had made any decisions about future plans, Solder said no. Would he be willing to go elsewhere to play? Would he opt to stop outright? We'll find out eventually.
Matthew Slater, ST, 32: The special teams ace just made his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl, and after having battled hamstring issues for much of the season, he looks as effective as ever. He's tied with Steve Tasker for most Pro Bowl selections for a special teamer. Whether he ever makes another Pro Bowl or not, and he very well could, Slater's already made a name for himself as one top special-teams players in the history of the game.
Danny Amendola, WR, 32: Nicknamed "Playoff Amendola" and "All-Weather 'Dola" by teammates, Amendola is in the middle of another incredible playoff run. He has avoided the injuries that often plagued him in his career, and he's showing why he still has tremendous value to a team at this stage in his career. The question is, might a team be out there that is watching his performances and willing to pay him this offseason more than what the Patriots might?
Rex Burkhead, RB, 27: The former Bengals back and special-teamer took a chance on himself with a one-year deal with the Patriots last offseason. If healthy, he's proven he provides the Patriots with a talented pass-catching presence, a reliable goal-line back, and a savvy special-teamer. That's been a big "if" this season, though. He missed six regular-season games and one playoff game this year due to injury.
LaAdrian Waddle, OT, 26: One of the team's backup tackles, Waddle was injured in the Divisional Round against the Titans and was inactive last weekend. He's played primarily right tackle with the Patriots and performed well during a difficult stretch this season that had him lined up across from Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, then Von Miller, then Khalil Mack and Cam Wake.
Cameron Fleming, OT, 25: A fourth-round pick out of Stanford in 2014, Fleming appeared to be on the bubble at training camp last summer. The Patriots kept him, and they're glad they did. As the team's third right tackle, he has more than held his own late in the season. He played all 64 snaps against the Jags and allowed one sack.
Nate Ebner, ST, 28: Ebner tore his ACL earlier this season, but there is optimism he'll be healthy enough to start the 2018 season. Will that be in New England? A highly-respected special-teamer in the Patriots locker room, Ebner handles some crucial jobs for the Patriots in the kicking game, including the personal protector role.
Johnson Bademosi, CB, 27: A valuable presence at corner while Gilmore dealt with a concussion, the veteran special-teamer has stepped in to help the Patriots cope with the loss of Jonathan Jones to injury.
James Harrison, LB, 39: He's already made a handful of key postseason plays, and if he has another couple left in the bag, the Patriots will gladly take them.
Rick Jean Francois, DL, 31: More than just an owner of a couple dozen Dunkin Donuts franchises, Francois has been a force in the middle for the Patriots defense of late. Both against the run and the pass, Francois has been effective.
Geneo Grissom, DL, 25: A core special-teamer, Grissom gives those units some size and experience at that those spots.
Marquis Flowers, LB, 25: For teams looking to land versatile pieces with the ability to cover and sack the quarterback, Flowers could be their guy.