Lewis, White make their bids to replace Vereen


Lewis, White make their bids to replace Vereen

NEW ORLEANS – When Shane Vereen signed with the Giants as a free agent, concern bloomed about who would replace him as the Patriots’ third down back.

Now, the concern may not be about finding a guy but choosing from a number of quality candidates.

On Saturday night in New Orleans, James White and Dion Lewis carried 12 times for 45 yards and two touchdowns. The pair of sawed-off running backs also added six catches (5 by Lewis) for 56 yards.

By contrast, big backs Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount combined for 20 carries and a meager 37 yards.

Aside from Lewis and White, though, the Patriots also have Travaris Cadet, a free agent from the Saints who was outstanding before going down with an injury that’s kept him on ice for two weeks. And there’s Brandon Bolden, primarily a special teams player who also takes reps in the third down role.

Vereen was (is) a good player and he had a great Super Bowl, but he was not a rare talent. Any of the four players in the mix could approximate Vereen’s output.

What will be interesting is seeing which guy the Patriots choose. White was the presumed successor after a rookie year spent apprenticing. He just needed to get a little stronger and show the ability to run through first contact.

He did his best job of that in two years on Saturday.

“I felt good,” said White, a fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin in 2014. “I wanted to come out here and when I got an opportunity I wanted to play fast, do my job and have fun.”

White had one run in particular when he met contact, got a great body lean to avoid getting his legs wrapped up, bounced off and continued for an 11-yard gain.

“I want to work on all of my game and whatever I can do to help, I want to do,” White said when asked about being able to run with more aggression. “Whether that’s running physical or putting my shoulder down, when that’s what has to be done I’m going to do it.
White had to wait a while for his shot Saturday because Lewis got the early reps at third down back.

Lewis was a brilliant college player at Pitt (second-team All-American in 2009 as a freshman following a 1,799-yard season), but his career got off track when he declared for the draft after his sophomore season.

Drafted by the Chargers in 2010, traded during that draft to the Eagles, later traded to the Browns in 2013, Lewis needs to make an impression fast to gain some momentum in his career.

He absolutely did Saturday. With seemingly shrewd pass protection work, a couple of electric moves in space after pulling in screens and one bullish 11-yard touchdown run, Lewis looked too much like the Patriots’ most famous 33 – Kevin Faulk – to ignore.

“I’m just trying to get better,” said Lewis when it was mentioned he had a style similar to Faulk. “I;m just looking at tape and worrying about myself. He was a great player.”

Lewis did allow himself to give a tepidly positive review of his night.

“I did okay,” he said. “I still got a lot of work to do. I gotta clean up some little things technique and all that. It’s a good start. Just work hard and anything’s possible. People look at me as if I’m just a smaller guy but I worked real hard all season to get as strong as I could and this is something to build on.”

Free agent Trent Brown "would love" to re-sign with Patriots

Free agent Trent Brown "would love" to re-sign with Patriots

The New England Patriots traded for left tackle Trent Brown in a deal with the San Francisco 49ers last April, and it turned out to be one of the best moves off the entire NFL offseason.

Brown had a very good year for the Patriots, and Pro Football Focus graded him as the fifth-best offensive tackle in the AFC East during the 2018 season. The veteran offensive lineman was excellent in the playoffs, too, and he played a key part in Patriots quarterback Tom Brady being sacked only once in three playoff games.

Brown is eligible for unrestricted free agency in March, but he recently said on ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter's "The Road Less Traveled" podcast that he is open to returning to Foxboro.

“That’s definitely something I would love," Brown said when asked if there's any chance he comes back to New England. "But hey, we’re going to cross that bridge when we get there."

It's hard to blame him. Who wouldn't love coming back to a team that has been to three consecutive Super Bowls and won two of them?

Making the money work for both sides can be a challenge. Left tackles are highly sought after, and the Patriots (wisely) let starting left tackle Nate Solder walk in free agency last year. New England has shown a willingness not to overpay to keep free agents throughout the Bill Belichick era, but protecting Brady obviously is very important.

Brown earned a little less than $2 million in 2018 and should get a massive raise in free agency. Whether the Patriots will be the team giving him that raise remains to be seen. 

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As franchise tag window opens, potential Patriots-Flowers marriage about to get complicated?

As franchise tag window opens, potential Patriots-Flowers marriage about to get complicated?

You don't need to be Bill Belichick or Nick Caserio to see that if money were no object, retaining Trey Flowers for the foreseeable future would be in New England's best interests. 

Drafted in the fourth round in 2015, Flowers has been arguably the team's best defensive player since 2016, serving as a key component to two Super Bowl-winning defenses. He doesn't have eye-popping sack numbers (21.0 in three seasons), but he plays the edge just as the Patriots like: He's a more-than-effective run-stuffer when asked; he can maneuver up and down the line of scrimmage in passing situations to win one-on-ones with tight ends, tackles or interior linemen; and he can impact opposing offenses by running two or three-man games up front to generate pressure. He's also established himself as a leader in the locker room and handles himself off the field with the kind of quiet demeanor the Patriots seem to value. 

But, of course, money matters, and as Flowers is set to hit unrestricted free agency, there's only one card the Patriots can pull to truly ensure that he's back for 2019: the franchise tag. 

The window to tag players begins on Tuesday and ends at 4 p.m. on March 5. Based on a $190 million salary cap -- the league projected in December it would fall in that range -- the franchise tag number for a defensive end would be about $17.3 million. 

Would the Patriots ever go to those lengths to keep Flowers for next season?

If you look at the team's history of the tag, it's not something to which they've typically resorted. Since 2002, they've used it just nine times, and only three times did players play out the season on their one-year guarantee: Adam Vinatieri in 2005 (departed as a free agent the following year), Asante Samuel in 2007 (departed as a free agent the following year) and Wes Welker in 2012 (departed as a free agent the following year). The last time the Patriots used the tag was in 2015 on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who signed an extension thereafter. 

Keeping Flowers on a one-year guarantee for $17.3 million (and a $17.3 million cap hit), would give him the second-highest cap hit on the team behind only Tom Brady ($27 million), who could agree to an extension this offseason that would reduce his figure. 

The Patriots might like the idea of locking up their most consistent front-seven player for one more year to make another title run. Or the tag might be an effective way for the team to buy itself more time to eventually come to a long-term extension. But based on that $17.3 million amount -- the second-highest tag number behind only quarterbacks -- it's not unreasonable to assume the Patriots wouldn't go there, especially since the Patriots have only about $18 million in cap space at the moment. While contract restructures, releases and potential retirements would boost New England's cap space, keeping Flowers on the tag might limit what the Patriots can do to address other needs.

Even if the Patriots don't act during the tag window, what transpires around the league with the franchise tag could impact the team's ability to sign Flowers long-term. 

For instance, the defensive end free agent class is scheduled to be one of the most star-studded in recent memory. Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark, Dee Ford, Demarcus Lawrence, Dante Fowler, Brandon Graham and Ziggy Ansah are all at the ends of their deals. Should a handful of those players end up getting the tag to remain with their teams, that could leave Flowers as the most attractive free agent in the class when the new league year begins. 

If the Patriots approach negotiations with Flowers in a fashion similar to those they had with Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty -- allowing him to go to the market to see his value, then taking the opportunity to make an offer of their own -- they may find that he's been offered something exorbitant that would be difficult to match. 

The opposite could be true as well, no doubt. If all of those ends mentioned above end up not being tagged, saturating the market with talent at that position, then Flowers' price tag could become more manageable. 

That's why what happens in the two-week tag window, starting Tuesday, is so critical to the future outlook for the Patriots defense. Even if Belichick and Caserio sit it out, if others don't, that could factor into whether or not Flowers is back.

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