Young, talented safeties available for Patriots entering 2018

Young, talented safeties available for Patriots entering 2018

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we put the safety position in focus keeping in mind that this is one position that’s morphing as quickly as any in the NFL.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


Fine. OK. Pretty good sometimes. But certainly nothing that can be confused with dynamic. In a league stocked with playmaking safeties. They are in the right place and – aside from Jordan Richards - are sure tacklers. They communicate well. They get the concepts of the defense and do their bit on special teams. But the safety group combined for six picks and four of those came from Duron Harmon. Patrick Chung was murder on tight ends in coverage but the third-down performances in some of the team’s biggest games was abysmal. The Steelers and Eagles were both 10 for 16 on third down and the Jags were 4 for 6 in the first half of the AFCCG. Devin McCourty played with an injured shoulder down the stretch that has since been surgically repaired but he just didn’t have a lot of impact plays in 2017. Richards, after three seasons in the league, has a handful of nice tackles as a box safety. Other than that, he’s got a very long way to go in a very short amount of time to approach the level of play expected from a second-round pick. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Devin McCourty, David Jones, Damarius Travis

WHO ISN'T?
Nate Ebner

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Not dire at all. But looming. McCourty is signed through 2019 and has a $13.4M cap hit next season when he’ll be 31. Chung is 30 and entering the last year of his deal. Harmon is signed through 2020 and is just 27. Unless the team thinks Richards is the heir apparent to Chung – which would be alarming – they need to get back in the draft pool to find someone at what I believe is one of the NFL’s most important positions. The team puts so much on both Chung and McCourty that it will take years for a new player to gain the depth of knowledge and nuance at the spot. And then there’s the versatility and kicking game expectations they deal with. Whether its in the draft or in free agency, spending needs to be done. But for this year, the need is a 5.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY


This is a position stocked with talented young players. Here are some of them: Green Bay’s Morgan Burnett, the Rams’ LaMarcus Joyner, Kenny Vaccaro from the Saints, San Fran’s Eric Reid and Tre Boston from the Chargers. Vaccaro’s coming off an injury. Burnett and Joyner are both going to be high-cost options. Reid is already anticipating some teams steering clear of him because of his outspoken support for Colin Kaepernick.  Further down the free agent chain are players like Boston who was outstanding in 2017. Reid, Vaccaro and Boston are players the Patriots could target. Boston is the youngest and healthiest of the group and already theorizes that he will probably move on from the Chargers.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


Alabama has a pair of safeties who’ll be coveted, the first being Minkah Fitzpatrick who is a top-10 prospect. The other is Ronnie Harrison. Stuck in between those two as a top-20 prospect is Derwin James from Florida State. The reason I could see the Patriots taking a safety in the first two rounds is because the right one can address myriad needs – coverage at the linebacker level, run-support and playmaking. Stanford’s Justin Reid (6-1, 204 pounds) and Va. Tech’s Terrell Edmunds (6-2, 220) are bookends to the type of safety builds the Patriots could use. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS CAN ADDRESS IT?


Make a run at Tre Boston. If the price is too high, settle on Edmunds or Reid.

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Patriots can't overlook needs on special teams

Patriots can't overlook needs on special teams

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent to that area, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a spot where the Patriots are constantly looking to add: special teams. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


Lucky for us, and for anyone who cares about assessing special-teams performance, Rick Gosselin of the Talk of Fame Network (formerly of the Dallas Morning News) compiles kicking-game rankings every year. Gosselin calculates scores for every NFL team by ranking them in 22 special teams categories and assigning points to their standing. Fewer points the better. The Patriots, according to Gosselin, ranking third in the NFL this year (231.5 points), just behind the Chiefs (229.5) and a ways off from the runaway winner Rams (196.5). The Patriots were excellent in terms of covering kicks, achieving the best mark in football for opponent starting field position. They were the only team in the league that, on average, had teams starting drives behind their 25-yard line. The average starting field position for New England's offense, meanwhile, was middle of the road (18th in the NFL). Stephen Gostkowski was once again highly effective on kickoffs and on field goals, ranking fourth in the league in kicks made and kick percentage. He didn't miss from inside 40 yards, and he was perfect on kicks of 50 yards or more, including a career-high (in Mexico City) of 62 yards. The operation among Joe Cardona, Ryan Allen and Gostkowski was generally very good all season, but in the Super Bowl, they faltered on their first field goal attempt. Gostkowski then missed an extra point at the end of the first half. Allen finished the season strong, with several well-placed kicks inside the 20, but he finished the regular season with 23 kicks downed inside the 20 (tied for 26th in football) and his net per punt was 40.5 (22nd). 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Gostkowski, Brandon Bolden, Allen, Cardona, Jordan Richards, Geneo Grissom, Nicholas Grigsby, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones

WHO ISN'T?
Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, Brandon King (restricted free agent), Marquis Flowers, Johnson Bademosi 

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


If you're looking purely at the three specialists here, the need isn't all that significant. People may want the Patriots to start sniffing around for a new kicker after Gostkowski hooked an extra point against the Eagles, but the reality is he's still one of the most accurate kickers in football, and his ability to place kickoffs is highly valued by the Patriots coaching staff. Cardona isn't going anywhere. Allen will also be back, in all likelihood. Belichick is a fan of some of the big-legged punters around the league, and Allen hasn't proven to be that kind of punter. But the fact that Allen was able to rebound from some eyebrow-raising punts early in the season to finish strong should have him back in 2018 without issue. The need here is in the kick-coverage and kick-returning areas. The Patriots are scheduled to have both of their returners (Amendola on punts and Lewis on kicks) hit free agency. Where will they end up? How much can Cyrus Jones take on after tearing his ACL last season? There are legitimate questions there. And when it comes to kick coverage, Belichick's two best players in that regard -- Slater and Ebner (coming off an ACL tear of his own) -- are slated to hit free agency. The Patriots have re-signed Bolden but other core kick-coverage players like Flowers, King and Bademosi are also scheduled to hit the market. Several could be back, but right now the core coverage units which served them so well in 2017 could have a significantly altered look next season. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


Arguably the best non-kicking, non-punting special-teamer in the game last season, Miami's Michael Thomas, is slated to be an unrestricted free agent. Arizona's Justin Bethel - in the top-10 in the league in terms of special teams tackles every year since 2012, according to Pro Football Focus - is also set to hit the market. Rontez Miles of the Jets and Nick Dzubnar of the Chargers, both among the league leaders in special-teams tackles, are restricted free agents. At kicker, there's plenty of experience out there. The Raiders have parted ways with Sebastian Janikowski. Graham Gano, praised by Belichick in the regular season before New England's matchup with Carolina, is a free agent. Same goes for Atlanta's Matt Bryant, Seattle's Blair Walsh, Washington's Dustin Hopkins, Tennessee's Ryan Succop and Philly's Caleb Sturgis. Punters available include Dustin Colquitt of the Chiefs, Houston's Shane Lechler and Cincy's Kevin Huber. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


Glad you asked! We've got multiple draftable punters coming out of the college ranks this year. Michael Dickson of Texas is already getting some Day 2 (!) draft buzz for his combination of power and control. An Australian Rules Football guy who won the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter last season, Dickson would be just the second punter taken inside the first three rounds in the past 10 years if it happens. Alabama's JK Scott (6-foot-6) and Bowling Green's Joseph Davidson (6-7) could also hear their names called on draft weekend. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Davidson is left-footed and could pique Belichick's interest, but Allen's finish to the 2017 campaign should earn him the chance to pick up where he left off. The Patriots will surely be looking to bolster their kick-coverage and return units throughout the draft so don't discount a player's ability to perform in those phases when looking for potential Patriots fits. The quickest way to ensure immediate contributions here would be to re-sign players Slater, Amendola and King. Ebner could also be back following his ACL tear, which was relatively clean and uncomplicated. One late-season injury that could impact whether or not the Patriots make a move for a special-teamer in free agency was the one suffered by Jonathan Jones. It was of the non-contact variety on the Gillette Stadium turf. The severity of his injury is unclear, but if he won't be ready by the time the season begins, the Patriots would have to find someone who can handle his myriad duties in the kicking game. Bottom line: With everyone focused on the offensive and defensive holes on the Patriots roster that need to be addressed, there are others in the kicking game that will also require attention this offseason.

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Branch's uncertainty may lead to another big body up front

Branch's uncertainty may lead to another big body up front

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent to that area, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a spot where the Patriots are always on the lookout for power and athleticism: interior defensive line. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


Depends on who you were watching. Malcom Brown may never live up to the impossible expectations some set for him as the team's first-round 320-pounder brought aboard immediately after Vince Wilfork left, but he put together his most consistent season as a pro and was the team's top defensive tackle. It would not be a surprise if the Patriots opted to pick up his fifth-year option for 2019. Lawrence Guy was absolutely solid as the team's other primary interior defender and ended up playing more defensive snaps than anyone not named Trey Flowers or Kyle Van Noy. Adam Butler, the undrafted rookie out of Vanderbilt, showed promise as an interior rusher, and Ricky Jean Francois came through with valuable contributions late in the season. Alan Branch, meanwhile, struggled to find his footing after signing a new deal last offseason, and this group struggled against the run. They allowed opponents to average 4.7 yards per carry, which was the second-worst mark in the league. Having another body inside to improve the rotation and help eat up blockers - such as Vincent Valentine, who spent the season on injured reserve - would've helped. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Brown, Guy, Valentine, Butler, Branch

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENT 
Francois

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


The need here hinges on a couple factors: 1) Can Branch be a dependable option in 2018, and b) how does the team feel about Valentine's odds of becoming a regular after missing the entirety of his second season? Hard to believe the answer to that first question would be a resounding "yes." He was a healthy scratch down the stretch in the team's biggest games of the season and could be a cap casualty. The perception of Valentine is a little murkier. The Patriots should feel good about what they have in Brown and Guy, and Adam Butler showed flashes of his potential as a sub rusher. An important factor in the equation here is just how frequently Bill Belichick likes to use his edge defenders inside. Flowers has been especially effective in that regard, and Deatrich Wise the ability to beat interior offensive linemen as well. Still, the Patriots could use a player here to help bolster their big-bodied depth up front. They simply can't have another year where they're near the bottom of the league against the run. Some of that falls on linebacker play, but another competent space-eater would help. Let's put this spot at a 6 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay Memorial "How Concerned Are You?!?" Meter.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY


A handful of big names hit the open market in March at this position. Carolina's Star Lotulelei may be the best of the bunch (even though he's coming off of a down season) and Atlanta's Dontari Poe isn't all that far behind. There are a few under-the-radar names who could be contributors even if they aren't huge names. Shamar Stephen of the Vikings, Justin Ellis of the Raiders and Bennie Logan of the Chiefs are intriguing options. From a Patriots perspective - and we've suggested this kind of move multiple times in this series - finding an accomplished veteran near the end of his career could pay dividends. Buffalo's Kyle Williams and Detroit's Haloti Ngata are both into their mid-30s, but maybe they could be coaxed into a season in New England as the No. 3 guy on the inside. We all saw just how much it meant to Williams to make the playoffs last season. He may want to ride it out in Buffalo as one of that team's unquestioned leaders, but a season playing under Belichick could be enticing. One more name: Sheldon Richardson. The Patriots are plenty familiar with the former Jets defender, and he'd be a fine on-the-field fit, with a couple of caveats. Is his head is on straight? And what's his market? His talent level and age (27) would suggest he commands big bucks. But if the market is suppressed because teams are worried about whether or not his head is screwed on correctly, does he end up being a relatively low-risk signing? Doesn't seem like someone the Patriots would gamble on, but never say never. Would he take a short-term deal to rebuild his image and then hit the market while he's still in his late-20s?

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


The name everyone will be watching, particularly at next week's combine, when his next-level athleticism will be on display for all to see, will be Vita Vea of Washington. He's 6-foot-4, 344 pounds, and he was much more than a clog-the-middle man for the Huskies. He rushed the passer. He even covered punts. He's expected to run a sub 5-second 40...and he'll be long gone by the time the Patriots pick. For a team like the Patriots that may be looking for help against the run? Alabama's Da'Ron Payne is enticing as a run-stuffer and he's a good enough athlete to potentially make some noise as an interior rusher. Michigan's Maurice Hurst and Florida's Taven Bryan have the kind of quick get-off that could make them first-round interior disrupters. One name to keep an eye on because of his rare combination of size and athleticism: Virginia Tech's Tim Settle. He's 6-3, 335 pounds, he's shown great quickness for a player with his frame, and he's only 20 years old. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


The Patriots don't have to do anything drastic here with Brown and Guy in the fold, but another dependable contributor could alter the look of their front-seven and provide a lift against the run. Players like Lotulelei and Poe - and Richardson if another team gets desperate -- could be too pricey to make Belichick and Nick Caserio bite. Williams or Ngata would be solid in the locker room and legitimate top-three options inside if healthy. And someone such as Ellis, in his fifth year out of Louisiana Tech, probably won't break the bank but could be what they need. He's played 16 games in three of his four years in the league. Settle, because he looks like a tremendous athlete with NFL size who's still growing as a player, could be tough to pass on at the end of the first if he's available. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compares him to Vince Wilfork.