Tom E. Curran's Patriots Free Agent Focus
The franchise tag deadline came without the Patriots slapping, handing, affixing or applying it to anyone. So we now know who's set to hit the free agent market when the league year opens March 13. The Patriots have a big crop of contributors with expiring contracts. Two of them are arguably the best available players at their position - defensive end Trey Flowers and left tackle Trent Brown - and they didn't even make it through the so-called "legal tampering period" which started Monday. In this gallery, we take the measure of the Patriots dozen most consequential free agents, the projected outside demand, projected cost and impact of their departures.
TREY FLOWERS, DE
UPDATE: Flowers agreed to a five-year deal with the Lions on Monday.
ORIGINAL: Four seasons in New England have seen Flowers go from fourth-round project to one of the best home-grown talents the team has had. He’s a technician with the ability to play on the edge or inside and be a factor in the running game. That’s not something a lot of edge defenders do well or willingly. He’s durable (45 of 48 games played over the last three years) and the bigger the game, the better he plays. At 6-foot-2 and 265 pounds, Flowers isn’t the angular, screaming-off-the-edge pass rusher a lot of teams seek. But if you’re looking for versatility at that spot and the ability to get home, he’s the best on the market.
Outside interest: Real high. With other DEs getting franchised, Flowers is looking like the best guy at that position on the market
Projected cost: Last July, I figured Flowers' deal would be similar to Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter (five years, $72 million with $40 million guaranteed) It will be at least that. With the salary cap set at $188.2 million, Flowers’ total value could be in the $80 million range ($16 million per year).
Impact of departure: The Patriots will feel the sting from a homegrown player leaving. With a player like Flowers, they already got a huge return. They shouldn't be resistant to spending market price if they don't have anyone with his particular set of skills coming up behind him in the front seven. And they don't appear to.
TRENT BROWN, OT
UPDATE: Brown is heading to Oakland on the largest OL contract in NFL history.
ORIGINAL: Acquired from San Francisco during last year’s draft in exchange for a third-round pick, Brown is holding a winning lottery ticket. The 2015 seventh-rounder was a right tackle and a disappointment with the Niners. With the Patriots, he had an outstanding season at left tackle as he stepped into the vacancy left by Nate Solder. A left tackle coming off a Super Bowl win hitting free agency? That’s the kind of trifecta that may make several generations of Browns financially secure.
Outside interest: Real high. Brown is the best left tackle on the market and there could easily be 10 teams trying to bring him aboard.
Projected cost: Solder got a four-year, $62 million deal with $34.8 million guaranteed last offseason. Stunning as it may be to consider, Brown has to be asking to exceed that deal. He’s younger and is presumably entering his prime coming off a better season that the one Solder had in 2017 before going to New York.
Impact of departure: They’ll figure it out. First-round pick Isaiah Wynn, who blew out his Achilles in the second preseason game, should be good to go for 2019. He’s six inches shorter than Brown and a different style player but he was impressive during training camp.
STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI, K
The 35-year-old Gostkowski went 27-for-32 on field goals last year and missed one of 50 PATs. He went 5-for-6 on postseason field goals. including the game-sealer in the Super Bowl. Forever underappreciated in New England, Gostkowski is one of the most accomplished kickers in NFL history, and the fact is he became that while kicking outdoors in crap weather.
Outside interest: Modest. If he were serious about relocating and let that be known league-wide, the interest would ratchet up. But at this stage, it feels like it’s New England or retirement.
Projected cost: Gostkowski is coming off a four-year, $17.2 million deal with $10 million in guarantees. Another four-year deal seems unlikely given his age. His salary last season was $3.2 million. A reasonable bump would be two years, $7 million.
Impact of departure: Regardless of how you feel about Gostkowski, consider how Tom Brady feels about him. When the Patriots faced fourth-and-short late in the Super Bowl and had a 10-3 lead, there was a conversation on the Pats sideline about what to do. I presumed it was Brady wanting to go for it. When the mic’d up videos came out, Brady was lobbying for Gostkowski to go out and seal it. Losing him would be a big deal.
JASON McCOURTY, DB
He’ll be 32 when next season begins but the twin brother of Devin McCourty is coming off his best season since he was 25 and playing with the Tennessee Titans. His stated preference is to stay with the Patriots and while the team has some talent coming up in the system (Duke Dawson, J.C. Jackson, Keion Crossen), McCourty is still a more stable player than they are.
Outside interest: High. McCourty was marooned with a bad team in Cleveland in 2017 and being part of that 0-16 debacle put a stain on everyone. But the way McCourty performed for the Patriots in high-profile games, and the need for polished, professional and capable corners, will make him McCourty well-sought despite his age.
Projected cost: McCourty signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Browns in 2017 after the Titans released him well after free agency began. Tramon Williams and Johnathan Joseph both signed two-year, $10 million deals last year when they were 34 and 33, respectively. McCourty may give a discount but he’s not going to turn his nose up to going elsewhere if the Pats aren’t competitive.
Impact of departure: Significant. McCourty stabilized the secondary, allowed the team to let Stephon Gilmore be Stephon Gilmore, and played at a Pro Bowl level. When looking for reasons why the 2017 Patriots defense sucked and the 2018 defense was good-to-outstanding, McCourty was a key factor.
RYAN ALLEN, P
Allen will be 29 this season. The team looked like it had his successor last summer when they signed undrafted Corey Bojorquez in May. Bojorquez was really good and the Patriots tried to hide him all preseason and pass him through to their practice squad. It didn’t work. The Bills claimed him and made him their starter. Allen responded to the challenge with a solid season. He’s been here six years and in big games, he is reliably outstanding.
Outside interest: Low. Allen is more valuable to the Patriots who place all kinds of emphasis on the art of punting and the nuances of placement, plus-50, etc., than most teams. Most of the league just wants a big leg. Allen’s is middle-of-the-pack.
Projected cost: His last deal was three years, $6.1M with $3M guaranteed. Cost of living bump if the Patriots keep him around means he’d be three years and $7.5M-ish?
Impact of departure: The team would lose a better-than-average punter who also does the holding on kickoffs and PATs. Not irreplaceable but, from the outside, he still appears more than capable of carrying out the job unless the team unearths another Bojorquez.
DANNY SHELTON, DL
Shelton played 324 snaps in 2018 and had 21 tackles. He was a healthy scratch three times but actually closed the regular season and playoffs on an uptick. He’s a shorter, wider version of Malcom Brown but he just hasn’t gotten to the point of being reliably outstanding in his four years. Just a clock-puncher at this point.
Outside interest: Low to mild. There aren’t many 6-foot-2, 345-pounders wandering the planet and the majority of them are probably drinking Coke and eating Ring Dings sunup to sundown. Size still matters on defense and Shelton has it.
Projected cost: His rookie deal paid him $11.7M. He didn’t live up to that and shouldn’t expect to make more than a player like Lawrence Guy who is on a four-year, $15.3M deal.
Impact of departure: Though his statistical contributions and playing time was less than Brown’s, he’s a guy that takes up more space. The Patriots always like to have one of these square-shaped humans on the roster so if Shelton goes, they will need a new one.
LaADRIAN WADDLE, OL
Waddle has been a pretty valuable backup player for the Patriots for a few years now. He made three starts in 2018 and has made seven in the last two years. At 28 years old, he’s in a position where he needs to decide whether to parlay his New England experience into something more or be content as a backup in New England. He has value here.
Outside Interest: Mild to low. Last season, interest was tepid. He took a visit with the Cowboys then re-signed with the Patriots on March 22 on a one-year deal.
Projected cost: Waddle’s deal was for $1.5M last season. One would figure the man wants at least a cost of living increase and if not merely that, maybe something in a three-year, $6M deal?
Impact of departure: Not insignificant as it stands in early March. Trent Brown seems headed for the territories. Isaiah Wynn is entering his second year after not playing a snap last year. The Patriots are going to need depth at the spot that’s capable of stepping in and starting if necessary. Waddle’s a proven commodity there.
MALCOM BROWN, DL
Brown played 43.72 percent of the Patriots defensive plays in 2018. He had his least impactful season statistically with a career low in tackles, no tackles for loss, no sacks and just one quarterback hit. He feels like he’s flatlined a bit here. But a 2015 first-rounder that’s 6-2, 320 pounds is going to probably have a market somewhere.
Outside interest: Mild. The Patriots defense is so multiple and game-plan oriented that sometimes it’s hard for other teams to project how a player will perform for them in their system. Brown, who would do well with a change of scenery, is going to be an enticing free agent for someone who needs a run-stopper but he does very little in the passing game.
Projected cost: Brown’s rookie deal was for $7.6M over four years. The cap’s gone up and he’s entering his presumed prime so he’s got to be looking for $4M per year. I can’t even guess.
Impact of departure: Not a big deal but the Patriots will need new widebodies to mix in.
PHILLIP DORSETT, WR
Just a workmanlike player who, when called upon, generally answers the bell. He’s like Hogan with a better feel for playing the position but less run-after-catch ability. Once Julian Edelman returned from suspension, Dorsett saw 11 targets in Weeks 5 through 15 before getting targeted five times in the finale against the Jets. He caught all five.
Outside interest: Moderate. Like Hogan, Dorsett is what he is. A solid route-runner and pass-catcher who can fill a niche. He’s like Deion Branch without the suddenness. Dorsett told Mike Reiss of ESPN that he wants to be a starter. He’ll probably have to go elsewhere to have that happen but it’s hard to imagine a team envisioning him as a No. 1 or No. 2.
Projected cost: A first-round pick in 2015, he’s a three-to-four million per year player, I’d imagine.
Impact of departure: The team would miss Dorsett more than it would Hogan. And with only Julian Edelman under contract for 2019 (I’m not including Josh Gordon right now), Dorsett would be welcomed back here but his role probably won’t be that different.
CHRIS HOGAN, WR
When every other would-be wideout got hurt or washed out before the season began and then Julian Edelman got suspended, Chris Hogan was thrust from a supporting role into a featured role. And it wasn’t for him. He played every game but wound up with just 35 catches. In the Super Bowl, he was targeted six times and didn’t have a catch. In the last regular season game, he was targeted 11 times. He’d been targeted 14 times in the eight games previous. Something went sideways and I’d be surprised if he’s back.
Outside interest: Moderate. There’s enough tape out there to show what Hogan does well and where he’s challenged. He’s a complementary player who – when matched up against a third corner – can make plays. Against top tier secondary players, he has trouble getting separation and doesn’t have a real knack for playing off schedule.
Projected cost: Hogan is coming off a three-year, $12M deal, He’ll be 30 with this next deal and he’ll probably come in at a similar rate on his next deal as well wherever it is.
Impact of departure: The Patriots won’t really miss the 2018 Hogan. The 2016 Hogan, they could use. So if the Patriots can fill out the receiving corps around Hogan (if they bring him back), he’ll make an impact. If not, best for both sides to move on.
CORDARRELLE PATTERSON, WR
UPDATE: Patterson reportedly agreed to a two-year, $10M deal with the Bears Tuesday evening.
Cordarelle Patterson is 28 and coming off a season in which he had his most offensive touches (63) but his second-lowest number of receptions (21). God bless Patterson and the Patriots for finding a way to get past Patterson’s limitations as a smooth and natural wide receiver and find other ways to get him the ball. Patterson’s production from scrimmage – no matter how it came – was a positive. He also brought back 23 kickoffs with an average of 28.8 per return, continuing to excel at a play the NFL seems desperate to make go extinct. But now that Patterson is established as offensive duct tape and not a staple, what do you do with him?
Outside interest: Mild at best. He’s certainly not going to be a priority free agent for teams but there is a market for a young player who can make plays in the kicking game and run past people. But after six NFL seasons, Patterson isn’t going to be any team’s wideout to rely on.
Projected cost: Patterson’s last deal was two years, $8.5M. Last year, he made a $3M salary from the Patriots after he was traded here by Oakland. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Patriots told Patterson to go out and see what he can find and then let the Patriots know what the numbers are to see if they can beat them or say so long. I can’t see him making more than the $3M in salary next year.
Impact of departure: It won’t be massive but it will create a little void. Patterson was durable and – by all accounts – dependable and willing to do whatever. Now the team will need a new kickoff returner. Yes, it’s less than 30 plays a year these days but the Patriots need to find a way to replace those plays.