Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: One-time Vince Wilfork understudy would be big-time in New England

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: One-time Vince Wilfork understudy would be big-time in New England

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

The Patriots defensive line joked during the 2019 season that they called themselves "the few, the proud" because of the way in which the roster was constructed. With an abundance of talented linebackers, they opted to change how they deployed their front, shifting from more 4-3 looks to a more linebacker-heavy 3-4 scheme.

For the most part, the unit transitioned well, but the change wasn't without its hiccups.

As it turned out, a defense that was built to defend the Chiefs and their explosive passing attack — using their defensive linemen to crush the pocket around a mobile passer rather than rush up the field — had issues against run-happy teams like the Ravens and Titans in critical moments.

The Patriots could build up their wall at the line of scrimmage this offseason with more (and bigger) bodies in order to handle the variety of attacks they'll see in the AFC in 2020.


Lawrence Guy: The team's most consistent and productive defensive lineman, Guy has the ability to play a variety of techniques along the line of scrimmage and hold his own. He's built like a true 3-4 end, but he played as a three-technique and on the nose. He played in passing situations and running situations. He was one of the five best players on the league's best defense last season. He's under contract for one more season and will count about $5 million against the cap in 2020.

Danny Shelton: Still a massive man at 340 pounds, Shelton transformed his body last offseason and molded himself into exactly what the Patriots wanted on the interior. After lingering on the free agent market for a period — he was up-and-down in 2018 in New England — he ended up beating out early Patriots signee Mike Pennel in training camp to serve as the team's top nose tackle in 2019. Shelton is headed for free agency this offseason, but it'd make sense for the Patriots to pursue him to re-sign as a player who understands Bill Belichick's two-gapping system. If the Patriots stick with their 3-4 they'll need someone for the nose tackle spot -- and maybe two players -- in order to maintain their rotations up front.

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Adam Butler: Butler put together by far the most productive season of his young career in 2019 with 6.0 sacks and five passes batted at the line of scrimmage. At his best as a pass-rushing defensive tackle — he's often the lone down lineman when the Patriots utilize their "amoeba" pass-rushing fronts — Butler was forced into more running-game situations in 2019. Butler is a restricted free agent. The Patriots could place a first-round (about $4 million) or second-round (about $3 million) tender on Butler.

If he signs with another club, they'd be awarded a corresponding draft pick depending on the tender. Those salaries aren't insignificant, so the Patriots could simply give Butler a right-of-first-refusal tender, which would give them a chance to match an offer Butler receives from another club via free agency. There would be no picks awarded to the Patriots if he left. It'll be interesting to see how highly the Patriots value Butler with their choice of tenders. Tenders must be submitted by the start of the new league year on March 18.

Deatrich Wise: Wise had what might've been the most difficult transition when the Patriots changed their scheme. He's built as a 4-3 end and yet was asked to play as a 3-4 end as a 275-pound player. Not easy. Asking Wise to play out of position came back to bite the Patriots in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs when they had issues stopping Tennessee's power running game. They simply didn't have enough bodies to hold their ground and clog up Derrick Henry's running lanes.

If the Patriots want to remain versatile with their personnel to play as a 4-3 defense in certain circumstances, Wise could end up a valuable piece. But he's an awkward scheme fit if they run back the 2019 defense in 2020. He's under contract for one more season and will count $2.2 million against the cap. The team could save $2.1 million cap-wise if he's released prior to June 1. 

Byron Cowart: The rookie fifth-rounder out of Maryland saw action in just five games last season, playing 43 snaps. Checking in at 6-foot-3, 300 pounds and possessing what looked like heavy hands at times during his first pro training camp, he could be a low-cost 3-4 end option next season.


D.J. Reader: If it's a nose tackle the Patriots are after — whether to replace Shelton or complement him — the 347-pounder would be an interesting option. Vince Wilfork's understudy for a time in Houston, Reader is a good athlete (he played first base for Clemson in addition to starring on the football team), and the Patriots have plenty of familiarity with him between what they've seen during joint practice time with the Texans and games played against them.

He was the No. 5 interior lineman, according to Pro Football Focus, last year. Michael Pierce of the Ravens — another massive body at 340 pounds — would also be an interesting free-agent fit. He'd likely be cheaper than Reader, yet he could help slow down the run game Baltimore has built up to beat up on the Patriots and the rest of the AFC.

Javon Hargrave: The big-money 3-4 defensive end types will be Kansas City's Chris Jones (who was dominant in the Super Bowl) and New York's Leonard Williams (formerly of the Jets and more recently of the Giants). Hargrave is a lesser-known name but can be every bit the game-wrecker as someone like Williams. The 27-year-old checks in at a squatty 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds and would be ideal in the Patriots defense because of his versatility.

He had the eighth-best PFF grade among interior defensive linemen. And in a league loaded with interior defenders who want to fly up the field, Hargrave knows what it takes to be an effective defender who holds up at the point of attack. He's coming from a 3-4 defense in Pittsburgh where the outside linebackers are the fly-up-the-field types.

Others who could fit the 3-4 end mold in New England? Mike Daniels (of the Packers and most recently the Lions) and Jarran Reed (Seahawks) are penetrating types who have the build to do what they Patriots ask.

Bills WR gives Patriots bulletin-board material after Tom Brady departure

Bills WR gives Patriots bulletin-board material after Tom Brady departure

Is the AFC East officially wide open now that Tom Brady is no longer a member of the New England Patriots? At least one Buffalo Bills player thinks so.

Bills wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie was ecstatic to hear the news of Brady signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That comes as no surprise, as the ex-Pats QB is an absurd 32-3 against Buffalo in his 20-year career and New England has won 11 straight division titles with Brady under center.

During an interview with WROC in Buffalo last week, McKenzie expressed his excitement about Brady leaving while giving the Patriots some bulletin-board material.

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“The Brady situation, I cheered,” McKenzie said. “He’s a great player. Our team is stacked. The last two years we’ve been giving him a run for his money, but now that he’s gone, it’s going to kind of be the Bills’ time to take over.”

McKenzie's confidence isn't unfounded. The Bills made a big splash earlier this offseason by trading for star wide receiver Stefon Diggs, giving Josh Allen another dangerous weapon opposite John Brown. With Brady and several other key contributors leaving in free agency, the Patriots may have their work cut out for them next season.

Bills general manager Brandon Beane sang a much different tune than McKenzie on Thursday, saying it's "funny and comical how people are writing off the Patriots in the AFC East." Still, it's safe to bet McKenzie's words will be remembered in Foxboro when the 2020 campaign kicks off.

Scott Pioli: Why Bill Belichick, Cam Newton are 'like oil and water'

Scott Pioli: Why Bill Belichick, Cam Newton are 'like oil and water'

At various points this offseason, the New England Patriots have been connected to some of the free-agent quarterbacks on the open market. And after they lost Tom Brady to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, speculation increased that they could add a veteran to compete with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer in the quarterback room.

One guy that has been mentioned quite a bit is Cam Newton. The 2015 MVP was released by the Carolina Panthers this offseason but has yet to sign with a team.

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Newton has been tied to the Patriots mostly by betting odds, which does make some sense. After all, Stidham is inexperienced and Hoyer has been an average-at-best starter during his time in the NFL. Newton has a history of high-level play when healthy, so perhaps he'd be worth the gamble for the right team.

But will the Patriots actually pursue him? One of the team's former personnel executives doesn't think so.

In a recent interview with Zach Gelb of CBS Sports Radio, Scott Pioli, who worked in the Patriots front office from 2000-2008, spoke about Newton's connection to the Patriots. And ultimately, he doesn't think that Bill Belichick and Newton would be able to coexist.

"With Cam Newton, the Patriots thing is interesting because I've heard a lot of people talk about that. In my mind, having spent as much time with Bill as I did, I don't see those two coexisting together," Pioli said. "The personalities and beliefs of how the game should be played and is played, it seems like oil and water."

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Pioli joked that the Patriots will probably go right out and sign Newton after hearing these comments. But he ultimately just thinks Belichick and Newton wouldn't mesh well.

"I just see them as being very different personalities and having very different approaches to the game," Pioli said. "Bill believes in football more than entertainment. Cam believes that football and entertainment are almost equal partners. And in this day and age, it is, but Bill has the soul of a football man. I couldn't see that one working out too well. And if I did, it would probably have to be for one season."

Pioli makes some good points and perhaps that is why the team hasn't shown a lot of interest in Newton so far. Given that the team seems to believe in Stidham, it probably wouldn't make sense for them to bring in Newton to compete for the job if they're worried about how he might fit with the team.

Patriots fans should have a better idea of what the quarterback room will look like once the 2020 NFL Draft comes and goes. The Patriots may take another young player at the position to compete with Stidham and Hoyer. If they do, that would likely fully eliminate the possibility of them adding another veteran quarterback, if that option isn't already off the table.