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Curran: Five bold predictions for Patriots in free agency

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In the NFL, every player would prefer to have a shot at winning a championship.

But do you know what every player NEEDS to do? He needs to make as much money as he can in a finite period of time. If he does that in this physically brutal profession, he’ll at least have a nest egg to rely on when the game spits him into civilian life and he embarks on the next 50 years (or so) of wandering the planet.

Free agency starts Wednesday. The Patriots are no longer a destination franchise for a player who wants a title to cap his career. Bill Belichick can flash rings all he wants. But he’s also going need to flash cash if the to make the Patriots' necessary talent influx happen.

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The Patriots have the space to do so. Almost $70 million, according to OverTheCap.com. That’s second-most in the league. And while they have neither a bona fide quarterback nor an imposing roster, they do have the greatest coach in NFL history, a storied franchise and more brand recognition than the other jamokes with plenty of space.

 

Consider this: The four teams with the largest amount of cap space – the Jacksonville Jaguars, Patriots, New York Jets and Los Angeles Chargers – combined for 15 wins last year. The Patriots had seven of them. Of the top 16 teams with the most cap space, only four (Indianapolis Colts, Washington Football Team, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens) made the playoffs in 2020.

The Patriots have both money and reputation to sell. And they’re expected to do so.

Because of COVID-related cap constraints, there’s a lot of talent on the open market right now.

Here are a few bold (actually, semi-bold) predictions for what we see unfolding for the Patriots this week.

The Patriots will come out hot. Real hot

Belichick is unaccustomed to the level of criticism he got in 2020. Assorted topics? The Brady succession strategy, heat for draft picks that never worked out, confusion over a lack of resources invested at wide receiver and tight end and obvious questions about how long he could keep rolling Cam Newton out as his starter.

Belichick’s coaching idol, Paul Brown, once said, "When you win, say nothing. When you lose, say less." Still, Belichick endeavored to explain the team’s 2020 shortcomings when speaking to Charlie Weis last October.  

"We were pretty heavily invested in our team the past few years," Belichick said. "From a salary-cap standpoint, we didn't have much flexibility at all. I think that was obvious on the Cam Newton contract. Then we had some opt-outs, so we lost some players there that would normally be giving us a significant amount of playtime. And then like every year, a couple guys are banged up and we've missed some guys here and there in certain games. I think when you combine it all together, there is opportunity there, and some of that opportunity has gone to younger players."

Curran: It's time for Belichick to step to the mic

Well, with cap constraints and COVID pretty much out the window, the stage is set for Belichick to go on a tear. A lot of Belichick’s early free agency moves have revolved around the defense. The Rodney Harrison-Rosevelt Colvin double shot in 2003, Adalius Thomas in 2007, the trade for Darrelle Revis in 2014 and dealing for Stephon Gilmore in 2017 spring to mind.

Perhaps Belichick’s busiest recent offseason was 2016 when he grabbed Chris Long, Shea McClellin and Terrance Knighton for the defense then signed Chris Hogan and traded for Martellus Bennett to help the offense.  

The team’s different now. It’s not a veteran player or two away from a Lombardi. There’s a greater need for young depth because of the diminishing returns in the draft. There is no Brady. And they’ve never had more space nor more positions open for competition. Everything’s set up for Belichick to shut up his second-guessers for a bit.

 

Don't hold your breath for a big-time wideout

The ballyhooed high-end talent at wideout we’ve been hearing about hitting the market? It’s overrated. And one thing you won’t catch Belichick doing no matter how desperate things get is splurging at wideout on top-of-market receivers.

For instance, Kenny Golladay is generally regarded as the best option. He was hurt in 2020 and played five games. In 2019 and ’18 he had 135 catches for 2,153 yards and 16 TDs. The folks at Pro Football Focus figured he’ll get about four years and $85M. Maybe he will. But don’t expect that to be here.

Curran's free-agent wish list for Patriots doesn't start at WR

The Patriots are more likely to call on the 30-somethings (Emmanuel Sanders, Golden Tate, Adam Humphries, John Brown, Marvin Jones) who may have something left in the tank than second-contract guys like Golladay, Curtis Samuel ($12.4M projected AAV) or Corey Davis ($9.8M).

The Patriots have ducked the cost of doing business at that position for most of the Belichick Era. It’s a philosophical thing for Belichick and the combination of Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels made it work. If Belichick makes a pivot, it would surprise a lot of people.

Patriots binge on the front seven ...

Donta Hightower is returning in 2021. Great news for the front seven. But Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise and John Simon are all free agents. Those four accounted for 10.5 of the team's tepid total of 24 sacks (26th in the NFL). The team was also 26th in rushing yards per game allowed (131.4), 20th in YPC allowed (4.53), 27th in percentage of red zone touchdowns allowed (65.3 percent) and 29th in goal-to-go touchdowns allowed (83.3 percent).

There’s a whole lot of focus on who’s going to catch and throw passes and score touchdowns for this team. But the defense’s desperate straits have been overlooked. Bill Belichick couldn’t have missed it.

So the Patriots pony up for Guy and Simon and also add free agents Dalvin Tomlinson from the New York Giants and Trey Hendrickson from the New Orleans Saints to shore up both the edge and the defensive line. Both of them are going to top out over $10M AAV but when it comes to spending, Belichick is most comfortable doing it on the side of the ball that’s been his specialty: defense.

... and at tight end

Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Matt LaCosse. Troy Niklas. Scott Chandler. Benjamin Watson. Those are some of the tight ends the Patriots have brought aboard since 2015 via free agency. Watson – who was 39 when the Patriots brought him back in 2019 – was probably the best of the bunch.

The tight end market is flooded right now. Hunter Henry, the best of the class, told SiriusXM NFL Radio, "I want to play somewhere there’s a good quarterback. That’s huge for our position. It makes things a lot easier." 

Hard to say whether or not Newton qualifies but Henry’s comment does underscore the importance of being able to sell a prospective employee on who his co-workers are.

 

But even if Henry isn’t interested in coming to New England, players like Jared Cook, Jonnu Smith, Jesse James, Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Gerald Everett, Richard Rodgers and many, many more may be.

Red alert

Patriots' NFL rank in red-zone TD scoring percentage (2020)
24th
Patriots' NFL rank in red-zone TD scoring percentage (2019)
26th

In 15 games, Newton was 19 for 36 with five touchdown passes and a pick in the red zone and 7 for 14 with four TDs on goal-to-go. He was 30th in red zone passing attempts. He was 32nd in goal-to-go attempts. He was 33rd in goal-to-go TD passes.

By contrast, in six games, Jimmy Garoppolo was 12 for 18 with five TDs and no picks in the red zone and 5 for 9 for with four TDs on goal-to-go. That’s not all Newton. That’s a lack of people who can win 1-on-1 in small spaces.

More comparison? Brady was 21st in goal-to-go TD passes in 2019 with nine. He threw a league-high 91 times inside the 20 with 13 TDs and two picks. He wasn’t so hot either. Stats like that buttress the Patriots’ belief that Cam wasn’t all to blame for the lack of passing punch.

It needs addressing.

There will be some big goodbyes

Joe Thuney is a layup to sign somewhere else. The team dealt Marcus Cannon on Sunday. Who else makes sense to go?

Let’s be bold and say Stephon Gilmore. His late-season knee injury makes it a gamble for any team to take a chance on him before he’s back full-go, but if the Patriots can get a player or a second or third-rounder back for him (his contract is up at the end of the year and he’ll want a big, big raise), that’s a win.

Curran: Predicting where Patriots' offensive free agents will land

Who else goes? Butler, Wise and James White. The scattershot accuracy of Newton last year made it hard for White to do his job effectively. While guys like White, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, Dion Lewis and Kevin Faulk were able to get the ball and go with Brady, Newton made short throws to his backs a bit of an adventure.

If White can be reunited with Brady in Tampa or head back to South Florida to play for Miami and be near his mother after the tragic loss of White’s father in a car accident during last season, that may have great appeal to the highly-respected veteran.