Last week, Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter signed a big, fat, five-year, $72 million deal with $40 million guaranteed.
I’m a little ashamed to admit that my first reaction was, “Who he?”
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His name just isn’t on my radar as being a guy who would be pulling down that kind of dough. But he is. A third-round pick from LSU in 2015, Hunter had 12.5 sacks in 2016 and became a starter last season. He’s a good, young defensive end for one of the NFL’s better defenses.
Why is he relevant? Because his contract is now a comp for Trey Flowers to use as he and the Patriots try and figure a way to keep him around past 2018. Flowers – like Hunter – is entering his fourth season. He basically missed all of his rookie season with a shoulder injury after being drafted in the fourth round out of Arkansas.
In 2016, he emerged as a rising star with seven sacks in the regular season and 2.5 more in the playoffs. Last year, he had six sacks. He is the Patriots best young pass-rusher.
But – as the recent past has shown – the Patriots are not afraid to slow play negotiations with their defensive players or turn them into trade pieces.
It wasn’t long ago that a running offseason conversation revolved around how the Patriots would keep Chandler Jones, Donta Hightower, Jamie Collins and Malcolm Butler. They couldn’t keep them all, but a combination of three seemed imperative. The team was squirreling money away.
Then they traded Jones away in early 2016 before trading Collins on Halloween. The team let Hightower test the market as a free agent in early 2017 and he came back for less than what we all figured he’d make. And the Patriots let Butler walk away this offseason.
So one remains and he stayed for less.
Whether that’s a cautionary tale for Flowers or not, we don’t yet know. There’s really nothing not to like about his game. He’s a technician. He wouldn’t say crap if he had a mouthful (that’s an old saying of my mother’s). He’s pretty durable. He’ll be good for a while.
It’s easy to imagine the Patriots getting sticker shock after seeing the money thrown at Hunter. But – bizarre as it sounds - $72M isn’t what it used to be. The salary cap was $120M in 2011 when the new CBA started. It’s now $177M.
So-called “reasonable” contracts are obsolete within a year or two. Consider, Hunter’s teammate Everson Griffen signed a deal that was 4-58-34 last offseason and he’s considerably more accomplished than Hunter.
Time isn’t running out on the Patriots by any means. They can play it out with Flowers all the way through this season and right into free agency next year and then decide if whatever he’s offered is too rich for their blood.
Be certain of this, though. If Flowers has a similar season to his last two, teams will look at his work in the New England defense, compare that to what Jones has been able to do since he’s been untethered in Arizona and then bid accordingly. And it will get steep.
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FOXBORO -- Of all the observations made at Tuesday's OTA practice, one that stood out as sort of an under-the-radar takeaway was that the defensive end position for the Patriots looked nothing like it did back in early February.
Seeing a good deal of the workload on the edges were two players who didn't play a snap for the Patriots last season: Derek Rivers and Adrian Clayborn.
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From this, we can deduce a couple of things.
First, a few of the team's most experienced edge defenders weren't available. Trey Flowers' absence from Tuesday's work is worth monitoring as we progress through the spring and move toward training camp. Arguably the team's top defensive lineman, Flowers is headed into the final year of his rookie contract. Dont'a Hightower, who's coming back from a season-ending pec injury and has on-the-line/off-the-line flexibility, was also missing Tuesday.
Second, the participation level from both Rivers and Clayborn would serve as an indication that both are feeling healthy enough to take on a healthy amount of work at this point in the year. Clayborn reportedly tweaked his quad in workouts earlier in the offseason program, but he appeared to be moving fine. Rivers, meanwhile, is back for his second pro season after missing all of last year following an ACL tear suffered in joint training camp practices with the Texans.
Rivers availability is particularly interesting, if unsurprising, since he could be a stabilizing factor for the Patriots' front in 2018. A third-round pick last year out of Youngstown State, Rivers was used as an end, as a stand-up player on the edge, as a pass-rusher and as a coverage player in camp before getting hurt.
Though he missed all of last season, he was able to maintain a positive approach in the Patriots locker room, attending meetings and working diligently on his upper-body strength while his leg healed.
"Nobody ever wants to have an injury, but praise God. It’s all in his plan," Rivers said Tuesday. "My faith helped me get through it. It was a good rehab process. I was able to learn the defense, and I wasn’t away from the building, so I could do everything but be out here on the field. So it was a blessing. It actually made me a better player."
Rivers played on the left side - opposite Clayborn, a right end - in Tuesday's work. That's a position the Patriots had some trouble filling all of last season following Rob Ninkovich's retirement. It requires good athleticism, an ability to set an edge, an ability to rush...but also an ability to track backs out of the backfield.
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"I’d say it’s different playing on the left than playing on the right from a responsibilities standpoint," Bill Belichick said last summer. "There’s certainly some similarities, but it’s different. Some guys can play both. Some guys, I would say, are better suited at one or the other. Sometimes that’s a comfort thing. Sometimes it’s really a scheme thing and what we ask them to do. They’re the same, but they’re different more so than say right and left corner or right and left defensive tackle or that type of thing. It’s defensive scheme. It’s a little bit different...
"I think it really becomes more of a coverage discussion – how much and what type of coverage responsibilities would you put them in? You know, Chandler Jones versus Ninkovich or Trey Flowers versus Ninkovich. There’s some differences in their coverage responsibilities. Especially most teams are, for us, defensively left-handed formation teams. Not that they couldn’t do it the other way, but more times than not, there’s a high percentage of situations that come up on the left side that are different from the right side, especially with a right-handed quarterback, which most of them are.
"I mean, look, they both have to know them, they both have to do them, but I’d say there’s definitely more – it’s kind of like left tackle and right tackle. You don’t really see the same player at right tackle as left tackle. Some guys can do both, but there are quite a few guys that are better at one or the other, and that’s usually where they end up."
The Patriots used Hightower off the left side early in the season but eventually moved him back to the middle in what looked like an effort to improve the unit's overall communication. Cassius Marsh got a crack at the spot at times. Kyle Van Noy could be seen there. Eric Lee saw work on the left. It was a revolving door.
The rotation was heavy at both edge spots, really. Deatrich Wise saw extensive work as a rookie. Harvey Langi looked like he might earn regular snaps before a car wreck ended his season. Trevor Reilly, Geneo Grissom, Marquis Flowers and James Harris all appeared on the edge as the Patriots hoped to find answers.
In the athletic Rivers, they could have a player who is big enough (6-foot-5, 250) to handle work in the running game on the left edge and athletic enough to both rush (his specialty in college) and cover. It's just a matter of Rivers showing the team he can do it.
"Obviously, coming in here, your rookie year is almost like your freshman year in college," Rivers said. "So now, it’s just listening to the coaches, staying in the playbook and just getting ready to roll for each practice and just try to get better each and every day.”
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