Patriots

Uncertainty reigns: Butler headlines list of Patriots impending free agents

Uncertainty reigns: Butler headlines list of Patriots impending free agents

MINNEAPOLIS -- The aftermath of Super Bowl LII was highlighted by a whirlwind of puzzling responses to relatively direct questions. 

Following New England's 41-33 loss to the Eagles, Rob Gronkowski wouldn't completely rule out retirement. Tom Brady was asked if he would be back next season after throwing for more than 500 yards on the game's biggest stage, and he said, "I certainly hope so." 

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Matt Patricia wouldn't discuss his future as a head coach in Detroit (though he was introduced as Lions head coach on Monday). Josh McDaniels wouldn't discuss his future as a head coach, likely in Indianapolis. Bill Belichick wouldn't reply to repeated questions about his future, saying he'd addressed those queries already. 

Malcolm Butler, benched in a move that Belichick called "best for the football team," told ESPN he couldn't predict his future whereabouts

Inside the bowels of US Bank Stadium and the Patriots locker room, the feeling of uncertainty was as palpable as any feelings of sadness or anger experienced by players occupying those spaces Sunday night.

What is clear is that the coaching staff will have a different look in 2018, as will the roster.  Below is a list of Patriots entering into free agency, according to Spotrac, headlined by the corner who is the talk of the town at the moment . . . 

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Malcolm Butler, CB, 27: How Butler's Super Bowl benching impacts his offseason pay day will merit very close attention. He knew he had an opportunity to partially wipe away what he considered a down season by having a good Super Bowl. He didn't have that opportunity. Now will there be a team out there willing to pay him what Gilmore got ($31 million guaranteed at signing and $40 million guaranteed total), or in that range? He'll be 28 on Mar. 2.

Nate Solder, LT, 29: Asked recently if he had made any decisions about future plans, Solder said no. Would he be willing to go elsewhere to play? Would he opt to retire? We'll find out eventually. Solder arguably had the best game of any Patriots offensive lineman in the Super Bowl, allowing three hurries, no hits and no sacks. Dante Scarnecchia loves the big left tackle, and if he stays, he could buy the team some time to find his successor. The Patriots have three right tackles on the roster, but Solder is the lone player with NFL extensive experience on the left side. Last year's third-round pick Tony Garcia may need more time to develop after an illness caused him to lose a significant amount of weight. 

Matthew Slater, ST, 32: The special teams ace just made his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl, and after having battled hamstring issues for much of the season, he looked as effective as ever late in the season. Whether he ever makes another Pro Bowl or not, and he very well could, Slater's already made a name for himself as one top special teams players in the history of the game. Would having a captain and emotional leader in the locker room back in New England help provide a sense of stability on a team where there will be change?

Danny Amendola, WR, 32: Nicknamed "Playoff Amendola" and "All-Weather 'Dola" by teammates this postseason, Amendola saved his best for last. He had eight catches for 152 yards against the Eagles. Amendola has avoided the injury bug that has plagued him in his career, and he showed why he still has tremendous value to a team at this stage in his career. The question is, might another team out there be willing to pay him this offseason more than what the Patriots might? He's said that at this point in his career he wants to win, and so that may give the Patriots an advantage when it comes to keeping one of their most clutch performers.

Dion Lewis, RB, 27: Coming off of the best (and healthiest) season of his career, Lewis has an opportunity to cash in as a free agent. He's proven that despite coming back from a torn ACL in 2015 and a fractured patella at the start of last season, he's still lightning quick and one of the most versatile backs in football. In the Super Bowl, Lewis had nine carries for 39 yards (a 4.3 yards per carry average) against the top run defense in football. 

Rex Burkhead, RB, 27: The former Bengals back and special-teamer took a chance on himself with a one-year deal with the Patriots last offseason. If healthy, he's proven he provides the Patriots with a talented pass-catching presence, a reliable goal-line back, and a savvy special-teamer. That was a big "if" this season, though. He missed six regular-season games and one playoff game this year due to injury. In the Super Bowl, he showed he had plenty of gas left in the tank, but he wasn't used all that often. He carried three times for 18 yards and picked up 10 total yards after contact. 

LaAdrian Waddle, OT, 26: One of the team's backup tackles, Waddle was injured in the Divisional Round against the Titans and was inactive in the AFC title game. He's played primarily right tackle with the Patriots and performed well during a difficult stretch this season that had him lined up across from Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, then Von Miller, then Khalil Mack and Cam Wake. Healthy for the Super Bowl, he served as the backup to starter Cameron Fleming.

Cameron Fleming, OT, 25: A fourth-round pick out of Stanford in 2014, Fleming appeared to be on the bubble at training camp last summer. The Patriots kept him, and they're glad they did. As the team's third right tackle for much of the year, he more than held his own late in the season. He played all 64 snaps against the Jags and allowed one sack. Against the Eagles, he played all 75 snaps, allowing one quarterback hit and three hurries. 

Nate Ebner, ST, 28: Ebner tore his ACL earlier this season, but there is optimism he'll be healthy enough to start the 2018 season. Will that be in New England? A highly-respected special-teamer in the Patriots locker room, Ebner handles some crucial jobs for the Patriots in the kicking game, including the personal protecter role.

Johnson Bademosi, CB, 27: A valuable presence at corner while Gilmore dealt with a concussion, the veteran special-teamer has stepped in to help the Patriots cope with the loss of Jonathan Jones to injury in the AFC title game and the Super Bowl. Bademosi played 10 defensive snaps against the Eagles as the team's No. 3 corner -- one spot on the depth chart ahead of Butler, surprisingly. 

James Harrison, LB, 39: The veteran linebacker made a handful of key postseason plays, and he may have had his best game as a pass-rusher in the Super Bowl. He recorded two quarterback hits and a team-high six hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. 

Rick Jean Francois, DL, 31: More than just an owner of a couple dozen Dunkin Donuts franchises, Francois was a force in the middle for the Patriots late in the season. Both against the run and the pass, Francois was effective enough to make Alan Branch a healthy scratch in win-or-go-home matchups.

Geneo Grissom, DL, 25: A core special-teamer, Grissom gives those units some size, athleticism and experience at that those spots. 

Marquis Flowers, LB, 25: For teams looking to land a versatile linebacker with the ability to cover, occasionally get after the quarterback, and play in the kicking game, Flowers could be their guy. 

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Will Britt put 'dependability is more important than ability' adage to the test?

Will Britt put 'dependability is more important than ability' adage to the test?

FOXBORO -- Kenny Britt was among the most impressive Patriots during OTAs. Then, on the first day of minicamp, he pulled up lame. Hamstring. 

At the time, it wasn't considered overly serious, according to ESPN's Mike Reiss. Yet more than two months later, Britt still isn't able to participate fully in Patriots practices. 


On Sunday I asked Britt if he'd had a setback at some point between then and now. He said, "not really," which makes his inability go all-out in practice even more curious. 

“I expected to be out there,” Britt explained. “But my hamstring told me something different.”

He added: “You never know with a hamstring. One day you’ll feel good, and then it's up in the air and popping. And other days, you might feel bad and then get the fastest time you ran out there. So it’s really a feel thing, day in and day out.”

Britt has taken part in individual drills during training camp, and we've seen him work in side sessions with Tom Brady and other veteran pass-catchers. He was on the field for Sunday's workout, though we don't know the extent to which he participated. 

What we do know is that the 29-year-old (Britt turns 30 next month) has yet to participate in the more competitive 11-on-11 fully-padded practice periods, and he hasn't played in either of the team's first two preseason games. 

With every day missed, the memories of Britt's impressive spring fade ever so slightly, and an old Bill Belichick adage seems to become ever more appropriate. "Dependability is more important than ability," Belichick has told reporters on more than one occasion in the past. 

Britt didn't have the benefit of a full offseason with the Patriots when he arrived late last season. This year, after the Patriots picked up their option on his two-year deal, he had the opportunity to be in Foxboro in the weeks and months building up to the fall, but his hamstring got in the way of his progress within the offense. 

“I definitely feel like I’m behind," Britt said, "because I’m not out there with the guys, getting the chemistry that I need with the quarterbacks and just with everybody on the same page with what we do."

There may have to be some complicated calculus involved when assessing Britt's ability to contribute to the Patriots this season, particularly with a few weeks to go before cuts from 90 to 53. 

Helping Britt? Though he hasn't been participating fully this summer, he has been generally dependable over the course of his nine-year career; he's played less than 12 games just once (three in 2011). 

Working against him? His recent availability. The Patriots have done their best to approach Britt's ailment reasonably. Hamstrings, as he noted, can be finicky. It's not something that can be pushed without risking an exacerbation of the injury, and Britt made it sound as though the team has been conscious of having him advance cautiously. 

"I'm doing what they ask me to do," Britt said, "and I'm doing what I can do . . . I'll be out there when I can."

Britt has benefitted by the fact that the receiver position as a whole seems shallow for the Patriots at the moment. They'll be without Julian Edelman for the first four games of the season, and the only real certainty on the roster after that is Chris Hogan.

Britt provides the Patriots with a body type and an ability level that will be hard for them to find elsewhere. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, there are few targets in the league with his frame and athleticism.

Though Britt's spring in New England was a reminder of his rare traits, even he can admit he needs to show his team more with just two preseason games remaining and summer winding down.

“Coming into spring, (was) focused, ready to go out there and prove myself mentally and physically,” he said. “But that was in the spring. I can’t hold onto that. Know what I mean? It is what it is. Right now, I’m just focused on trying to get back out there.”

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