Patriots

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Where do Patriots turn if Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins depart?

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Where do Patriots turn if Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins depart?

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.

As the Patriots rolled to one of their best defensive seasons under Bill Belichick, their linebacker group was as deep as it had been in years. So deep was this spot that Belichick and his staff opted to roll with a 3-4 scheme — deploying more 'backers at one time — after having adopted more 4-3 fronts in recent years.

The leader of this group, Dont'a Hightower, will be back. But with some critical pieces set to hit free-agency, there could be another schematic shift ahead should this unit thin out ahead of 2020.

PLAYER-BY-PLAYER LOWDOWN

Dont'a Hightower: Hightower played in all but one game in 2019 and served a critical role as the signal-caller. With an ability to play both at the end of the line of scrimmage and off the line in the middle of the defense, Hightower's football IQ and versatility will make him one of the most valuable players on this side of the ball in 2020. He's going into a contract year. 

Kyle Van Noy: One of the big-ticket free agents the Patriots could see depart this offseason, Van Noy is coming off of a career year. He had 6.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits. Pro Football Focus ranks him as its fifth-best edge defender on the market and project that he could earn over $10 million per year on his next deal. The Patriots haven't paid top dollar to edge defenders in the past — Chandler Jones and Trey Flowers are both playing elsewhere — but Van Noy can play off the line and provides Bill Belichick's fronts some flexibility.

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Jamie Collins: Another free agent from this group, Collins ended up playing off the line of scrimmage more than he served as an edge defender. Getting him in space and allowing him to use his athleticism in coverage and as a blitzer suited his skill set. When the Patriots got gashed against the run against the Titans and Ravens last season, though, Collins was often on the scene. He's PFF's No. 3 off-ball linebacker on the open market. Do teams around the league view him as the disruptive passing-game player he was in 2019? Or is he the player they saw in Cleveland who needed a career revival in Foxboro last season? The Patriots could look to bring him back if he's not going to break the bank elsewhere. 

John Simon: The Patriots could get out from under having to pay Simon in 2020 since releasing him would cost them only $375,000 and save them about $2 million in cap space. But would they? Bill Belichick praised his effort and consistency throughout the season, and his role increased as the season went on. After not cracking 30 snaps in three of the team's first five games, he hit 30 or more in seven of his last nine. He's going into a contract year. 

Chase Winovich: Outside of punter Jake Bailey, Winovich ended up being New England's most productive rookie. Used as a situational pass-rusher, he was in on seven sacks. He also recorded three quarterback hits and 13 hurries. Should Van Noy move on, the Patriots could look to Winovich to increase his role and add more first and second-down duties to his list of responsibilities. 

Ja'Whaun Bentley: Though Bentley played in all 17 games for the Patriots this year, he did so in a reserve role. After a promising rookie year in 2018, during which it appeared he was primed to be a starter, perhaps no player's playing time was more significantly impacted by Collins' addition. If Collins were to depart via free agency — or if this group experiences more injuries in 2020 — he could be in line for more work. He has two years remaining on his rookie deal.

Shilique Calhoun: Another in a long list of outside linebackers coached by Demarcus Covington last year, Calhoun ended up having a greater special teams role than he did on defense. He played 55 defensive snaps in the season opener, but just two in the Wild Card Round. He's set to become a free agent this offseason.

Elandon Roberts: Another free agent set to hit the market, Roberts' case is a fascinating one. He was a captain in 2019 for the first time. He provides a measure of toughness that Belichick appreciates. And he showed a willingness to take on a never-before-seen role mid-season when he was given fullback duties. Will that profile be worth more to another team than the Patriots? Or will they want him back if they appreciated how he handled an unusual contract year? 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES

Jordan Jenkins: Van Noy, because of his ability to play both the run and the pass, might be New England's best option if they feel they need to come away from this offseason with an experienced outside linebacker. Other big-name options — Jadeveon Clowney, Shaq Barrett, Yannick Ngakoue — may end up being even more expensive while lacking Van Noy's experience in the system.

A more cost-effective piece who could potentially slide in? Jordan Jenkins, who has been with the Jets since 2016. The Patriots showed interest in Jenkins, a Georgia product, prior to that year's draft. A team captain for the Bulldogs, the 6-foot-2, 260-pounder has long arms (34 inches) and massive hands (11 inches). He's stout enough to play the run, and he checked in with 8.0 sacks last season.

De'Vondre Campbell: If the Patriots want an off-the-ball type to guard against the potential losses of Collins and Roberts, Campbell is an intriguing talent. A fourth-round pick of the Falcons in 2016, he's not quite as heavy as the Patriots usually like their off-the-ball linebackers — he checks in at 6-foot-4, 232 pounds — but he's a superb athlete who can cover backs and tight ends. He led the Falcons in tackles with 129 last season.

If the Patriots wanted to go smaller and faster with a familiar face, Kamu Grugier-Hill (drafted by the Patriots in 2016) is available after spending the early portion of his career with the Eagles. He'd be an immediate special teams stalwart. If the Patriots wanted to go bigger and burlier in the middle of the field on early downs, former Bills and Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland (a second-round pick out of Nick Saban's program in Alabama in 2016) is also a free agent.

Bills GM very wary of dismissing Tom Brady-less Patriots in AFC East

Bills GM very wary of dismissing Tom Brady-less Patriots in AFC East

The AFC East is wide open this season now that Tom Brady finally left the New England Patriots to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Just don't tell that to the Patriots' competitors.

Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane apparently has heard the chatter that his team is the new AFC East favorite in 2020 -- and doesn't agree with it (publicly, at least).

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"It's funny and comical how people are writing off the Patriots in the AFC East, and even saying how we're the team to beat," Beane said Thursday in a video conference with reporters, via WGR 550's Sal Capaccio.

"Know who the team to beat in the AFC East is? The Patriots. And until we beat them, we've done nothing."

You can make a compelling case for the Bills in the AFC East this season: They added a top-flight wide receiver in Stefon Diggs to catch passes from improving quarterback Josh Allen and boast an elite defense that helped the club go 10-6 last season.

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The Patriots, meanwhile, are expected to roll with second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham in what could be a rebuilding year for head coach Bill Belichick and company.

Yet Belichick has built up enough respect over the last 20 years to make his competitors wary of providing New England any bulletin board material. After all, the Patriots went 13-6 without Brady during the 19 games he missed in New England since 2001.

The Bills likely are very confident bunch entering 2020 and are champing at the bit to win their first AFC East title since 1995.

Just don't expect them to admit that publicly.

NFL free agents 2020: Recapping best available players who could make an impact

NFL free agents 2020: Recapping best available players who could make an impact

We're more than two weeks into NFL free agency, and even though most of the top players available have found new teams, there are many quality players who remain unsigned.

Spotrac tweeted out a list of the best available free agents Thursday, and fans will recognize all or most of these names.

The two most notable free agents are quarterbacks: Cam Newton and Jameis Winston.

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Newton was released by the Carolina Panthers last month after the team was unable to trade him. The former league MVP missed most of the 2019 season with a left foot injury, but if healthy, he's still a very good quarterback and definitely starting caliber. Newton would also be a great option for a team that might be a quarterback upgrade away from being a serious postseason contender, and with the league officially adding a third wild card playoff team earlier this week, more teams should consider signing Newton.

Winston is a different story. It's hard to look past his league-leading 30 interceptions last season. That said, he also led the league in passing yards and ranked second in passing touchdowns. Winston still is better than most backup quarterbacks around the league.

It's a little surprising Logan Ryan is unsigned. The veteran cornerback is a talented player and has loads of playoff experience, including two Super Bowl rings from his career with the New England Patriots. Ryan spent the last three seasons with the Tennessee Titans, with whom he played an important role on some very good pass defenses. He'd be a solid upgrade for any contending team's secondary.

Another intriguing player is defensive end Everson Griffen. He's tallied 26.5 sacks over the last three years, including eight last season for the Minnesota Vikings. Griffen is 32 years old, but 2019 showed he still can be a productive player on a good team.

Unfortunately for the Patriots, they only have about $900,000 in salary cap space. So, unless the team creates more cap space, it's unlikely any of the players listed in the tweet above will be playing in Foxboro next season.