Change is coming for the Patriots this offseason. Every day this week, we'll react to one area of the team that either has already undergone a shift, is in the process of shifting, or will be shifting soon. We continue today with how the Patriots might handle their top two free agents.
You're probably old enough to remember a time when anyone who followed the Patriots wondered how they might recover from the losses they suffered in free agency last year.
The Patriots could see the same number of starting-caliber players walk out the door at the start of the new league year in 2019, if not more. They'll once again be faced with tough choices on valued pieces set to experience the allure of free agency.
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Let's take a look at a couple of those choices, starting with the player who may end up being their most difficult, depending on how the market falls...
Trey Flowers has been in many ways the perfect Patriot. He's done everything asked of him and more. He's produced on the field despite not having overwhelming individual numbers. He's produced under pressure. He's said little. He's taken on a leadership role, providing for younger players an example worth imitating.
Should the Patriots work to retain Flowers' services for 2019 and beyond, they'd be accomplishing a couple of goals.
First, they'd be holding onto their best front-seven defender, someone who can impact the game on all three downs, stop the run, and create havoc for opposing quarterbacks whether he's matched up one-on-one or working as part of a two- or three-man game.
Second, in paying Flowers, Bill Belichick would be sending a message to the younger players in his locker room: Do what he's done, and you'll be rewarded.
The question is, will the Patriots be willing to reward Flowers with a top-of-the-market deal?
Flowers is part of a free-agent class loaded with edge defenders. That could go one of two ways for the Patriots. Those other pass-rushers -- guys like Demarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Ziggy Ansah, Brandon Graham, Frank Clark and Dee Ford -- could all hit free agency, saturate the market, drop Flowers a few rungs at the position, and put a cap on his value. On the other hand, if a handful of those players are slapped with the franchise tag (about $17 million in 2019) and kept from free agency, Flowers could shoot to the top of the list of ends available, inflating his price tag.
According to Pro Football Focus, Flowers finished the 2018 regular season with the third-best grade of all edge defenders, ahead of players like Olivier Vernon (signed a five-year, $85 million deal in the 2016 offseason) and Danielle Hunter (signed a five-year, $72 million deal last offseason). Both of those players had double-digit sack seasons on their résumés prior to signing, something Flowers has not had in New England's system. Still, the 6-foot-2, 265-pounder established that he's more than an edge-setter. Per PFF, Flowers racked up more quarterback pressures in 2018 than Vernon, Clowney, Lawrence and Chandler Jones.
How the rest of the league views Flowers will dictate his value. As a homegrown product, someone who fits a variety of roles up front, someone built to execute the Patriots plans to crush the pocket against mobile quarterbacks, Flowers may be worth more to the Patriots than any other team, and how willing they'll be to extend to keep him will be one of the most fascinating questions of their offseason.
The man who looks like he'll be the second most highly-priced free agent from the 2018 Patriots will be left tackle Trent Brown. As much as the Patriots value tackle depth, as much as they needed it last season and in Super Bowl seasons prior, the determination on Brown feels simpler.
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The class of capable free-agent tackles available is thin, with Brown residing right at the top. With rare athleticism for his size, Brown made the shift from right tackle to left without issue last season, jelling with a group of linemen who've played together for years and providing enough protection on Tom Brady's blind side to keep him upright all the way through Super Bowl LIII.
While Brown made impressive leaps throughout the season to keep Dante Scarnecchia's offensive line a cohesive unit even after Solder's departure, it seems unlikely the Patriots will be willing to pay him what he'll be worth to tackle-starved teams elsewhere.
There will be questions at tackle for the Patriots if Brown departs, no doubt. Last year's first-round choice Isaiah Wynn is coming off a torn Achilles, and swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle is set to hit free agency this offseason as well. Still, as valuable as tackle depth may be from year to year, it looks like Brown played himself into a deal that will exceed what the Patriots would be willing to give him.
Once decisions are made on Flowers and Brown, things won't necessarily slow down on the free-agent front for Belichick, Nick Caserio and their front office. Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen are set to hit free agency. Jason McCourty's contract is up, as are the deals for defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton and receivers Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson.
The changes that could be coming on the edges of New England's offensive and defensive lines, though, have the potential for the greatest ripple effects on the team's run in 2019.
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