Could Barwin, Peppers be answer on edge for Patriots?

Could Barwin, Peppers be answer on edge for Patriots?

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?

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.

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What now for the Patriots with Richard Sherman off the board?

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What now for the Patriots with Richard Sherman off the board?

The Patriots lost out on the Aqib Talib sweepstakes. It looks like they were never in on the Richard Sherman sweepstakes. And the Vontae Davis sweepstakes came and went seemingly without Bill Belichick so much as looking up from his morning cup of OJ.

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So what now? We ranked the Patriots need at corner at a 7 out of 10 earlier this offseason. That's not insignificant, but it's still lower on the chain than spots like left tackle, quarterback, edge defender and linebacker . . . in our opinion.

Here's a quick-hitting look at where the Patriots go from here now that they know they won't be welcoming either Talib or Sherman to Gillette Stadium.

WHAT THEY HAVE: They have their No. 1 in Stephon Gilmore. He didn't play like a top-tier cover man early in the season, but as the Patriots went to more and more man-to-man looks, he thrived. Eric Rowe looks at times like a very capable No. 2. (Remember when he started over Malcolm Butler in Week 2 and then looked like Gilmore's replacement in Week 4 until injuring his groin?) Rowe can also play in the slot. As can Jonathan Jones, who early in the season drew more praise from Belichick than any of his teammates at the position. Cyrus Jones lost his sophomore season to a knee injury and will need earn a role defensively. He won't be handed one. Ryan Lewis and Jomal Wiltz were practice-squadders who re-signed following the Super Bowl.

WHAT'S OUT THERE IN FREE AGENCY: Trumaine Johnson's fate was sealed when the Rams picked up Talib. He'll hit free agency, and he'll likely slot in as the highest-paid corner in the class if he can beat out Sherman's reported $13 million average annual value on his new deal with the Niners. Jeremy Lane, another victim of Seattle's recent purge, is available. Same goes for EJ Gaines, Prince Amukamara, Adam Jones and Morris Claiborne. If the Patriots want a slot corner, they could look at Patrick Robinson (who they just saw in the Super Bowl) or Nickell Robey-Coleman. With needs at other positions, they may have to tread lightly here.

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WHAT'S OUT THERE IN THE DRAFT: Let's put a few names aside here since they'll be long gone by the back half of the first round. Alabama's Swiss Army-knife type Minkah Fitzpatrick could be the first defensive back off the board. Ohio State's Denzel Ward will give him a run for his money there. Iowa's Josh Jackson will likely be off the board at some point midway through Day 1 as well. Still, there are some intriguing athletes at this position this year. Maybe there are enough to entice the Patriots to dip their toes in at some point on the first two days of the draft. Auburn's Carlton Davis (who has drawn
comparisons to Sherman because of his length and ball skills) and Colorado's Isaiah Oliver (a one-time Pac-12 decathlete with a 6-foot-1 frame) could be available. Louisville's Jaire Alexander (who lit up the three-cone drill at this year's combine) might be a steal at the back end of the first round after the 5-foot-11, 192-pounder played with some injuries in 2017 that might prevent him from going higher. Central Florida's Mike Hughes should be taken right in the same range.

BOTTOM LINE: The Patriots have pieces at the position, and it'd come as no surprise if their focus was elsewhere as they get ready for the NFL's legal tampering period and the official start to the new league year and free agency next week. While it was fun as all get out to entertain the idea of Sherman or Talib making their way to Foxboro, we now know that's not going to happen. Whatever move they make to add depth at corner -- whether in free agency or the draft -- won't be anywhere near as flashy.

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Could McKinnon fill the Lewis role for Patriots?

Could McKinnon fill the Lewis role for Patriots?

Before free-agency kicks off with the start of the new league year on March 14, we're answering a series of questions the Patriots could be asking themselves. On Wednesday, we hit on tight end and if Jimmy Graham is a fit. On Thursday, we asked if Super Bowl champ Nigel Bradham is just the linebacker the Patriots need. Today, we're looking whether there are any viable running back options for the Patriots on the open market? 

Dion Lewis played it perfectly. He stayed healthy for the first time in his career and had the best season of his career in a contract year. Had the Patriots opted to use him as their No. 1 back through the first month of the 2017 season - a job that was handled by Mike Gillislee - Lewis could have hit free agency with even better numbers. 

Now, the Patriots have to be prepared to take on 2018 without their dynamic dual-threat back. They could also find themselves without fellow all-purpose runner Rex Burkhead, who is also scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency next week. 

The Patriots still have Gillislee under contract. They have James White and Brandon Bolden under contract as well. But those backs don't provide what Lewis provided consistently, what Burkhead provided when healthy last season: unpredictability. 

With Lewis on the field, the Patriots could run or pass. They could align in the I-formation, then split all parties out wide and still strike fear into the hearts of opposing defensive coordinators.

This begs the question, if Lewis and Burkhead are gone, how would the Patriots go about filling that multi-purpose void? The free agent market will boast a good-but-not-great group of backs.

With Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell playing on the franchise tag, San Francisco's Carlos Hyde is the best of the bunch. Frank Gore won't be retained by the Colts, but he wants to keep playing. DeMarco Murray ran into a similar situation in Tennessee, where he was let go in favor of younger options. Doug Martin, Jonathan Stewart, Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount, Darren Sproles and Isaiah Crowell are also available.

The most intriguing fit, though, might be Jerick Mckinnon of the Vikings. He helped form a committee backfield in Minnesota in his first four seasons, but the 25-year-old has proven to be an effective receiver out of the backfield (51 catches in 2017), improved in pass-protection, and a capable runner when given the opportunity. 

McKinnon averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in 2017, but Pro Football Focus gave him the sixth-best overall grade of any running back last season. He forced 30 missed tackles, which was more than Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara (28), and his average yards after contact per carry (2.6) was the same as Bell's.

Because of the timeshare he dealt with as a member of the Vikings, and because his numbers aren't exactly eye-popping, McKinnon shouldn't command a huge contract. A deal in line with what White received from the Patriots last offseason -- three years at $4 million -- would seem reasonable. 

Would the Patriots be willing to go there? 

The answer will depend on how highly they value McKinnon's tape. This is thought to be a draft class deep with running backs, and so perhaps Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio feel as though they can find their next all-purpose runner somewhere in the middle rounds. Or perhaps they'd be happy bringing back Burkhead and hoping he stays healthy. 

Because the Patriots may have to stretch in order to find the money to pay a left tackle, a corner, a pass-rusher and provide their All-Pro tight end with a raise... going with a cost-effective option in the draft and re-signing Burkhead on another short-term deal might be their best bet. Even if an enticing talent like McKinnon won't exactly break the bank. 
 

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