Before free-agency officially kicks off with the start of the new league year on Wednesday, we're answering a series of questions the Patriots could be asking themselves. Last week, we hit on tight end and if Jimmy Graham is a fit. Then we asked if Super Bowl champ Nigel Bradham is just the linebacker the Patriots need. We also asked if Vikings free agent running back Jerick McKinnon could be in the Patriots plans. Today, we look at whether the Patriots can improve on the edge without making an over-the-top investment.
The Patriots found themselves in such dire straights on the edge last season that they traded two picks for Cassius Marsh, they made Bills practice-squad end Eric Lee a starter and they acted fast to sign 39-year-old James Harrison.
One would think they would go out of their way to make pass-rusher a priority this offseason. Why not take a nice big chunk of the $21 million or so they have in cap space and offer to the most explosive edge defender out there?
- MORE PATRIOTS - Pats can't have it all in free agency
Two problems with that line of thinking: 1) The Patriots don't have just one need and will need to address spots like left tackle and linebacker as well as (potentially) cornerback, tight end and running back. Plus, they'll have draft picks to pay. 2) There's not much out there in free agency.
Adrian Clayborn (capable against both the run and the pass) and Trent Murphy (who could handle a variety of roles in New England's multiple fronts) highlight the list of those available, but neither player is an established, dominant player on the outside. The pair has combined for 45 sacks in 10 seasons and neither has a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro nod to his name.
Would the Patriots view Clayborn (at 29) or Murphy (27) as worthy of a significant long-term investment? Because that may be what's required to nab them. The draft isn't thought to be loaded with top-end edge talent - NC State's Bradley Chubb and BC's Harold Landry are the only two widely considered to be rock-solid first rounders - meaning the price tags for free agents at the position could be on the rise.
When thinking about what the Patriots have and don't have on the edge, it's important to remember how they ended up where they did in 2017. Rob Ninkovich retired. Kony Ealy was cut. Shea McClellin and Derek Rivers had season-ending injuries. Harvey Langi was injured in a car accident and Dont'a Hightower suffered a season-ending pectoral injury, making Bill Belichick's roster dangerously thin on the outside.
Some of those players will be back. Rivers was encouraged by his recovery late last season. The same can be said for Hightower. And Langi is expected to be ready for his second season. If those players are healthy, and if Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise continue to grow in the Patriots system, the outlook at this spot doesn't look all that bleak. Flowers, Rivers, Wise and Langi will all be 25 or younger when the 2018 season begins.
What might be the preferred course of action for the Patriots would be to pick up a reliable veteran in free agency, someone who isn't going to command a monster salary but can still be counted on to be in uniform on a weekly basis should injuries strike again. It might be hard to pry 38-year-old Julius Peppers (he hasn't missed a game in a decade) from Carolina on a cost-efficient one-year deal, but what about 31-year-old Connor Barwin?
He's missed just two games in his last seven seasons and is available after spending last season with the Rams.
Patriots fans will want to see their team make a splash - be it through free agency or the draft - but they may still be waiting by the time OTAs roll around. The pool of available talent here is simply too shallow.
Keeping the players they have healthy and making a bargain signing or two feels like it might be Belichick and Nick Caserio's best bet to see the improvements they want on the edge.