Let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter what the Patriots do this offseason. You know they’re going to go 12-4 again. They’ve finished with that exact record each of the last four seasons. Why would 2016 be any different?
The Patriots didn’t have to do much tinkering but they did anyway. Bill Belichick gave Pats fans their annual panic attack by trading away top pass rusher Chandler Jones to Arizona. Consider it a preemptive strike. Jones was in the final year of his contract and was probably going to ask for a huge extension. The Pats don’t give out many of those. With Jones, Malcolm Butler, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins all in the last year of their rookie deals, something had to give. Jones made the decision easier by losing his mind on synthetic marijuana a week before New England’s Divisional Round playoff game against Kansas City. In Foxboro, it’s one strike and you’re out.
Belichick has never been the sentimental type when it comes to managing his roster. In Belichick’s world, cutting the cord early is always better than too late. The Pats traded Richard Seymour when he was still in his prime and inexplicably swapped Logan Mankins for Tim Wright and a fourth-round pick in 2014. Vince Wilfork was given his walking papers last offseason while Jerod Mayo may have suffered the same fate if he had chosen to play another season. It’s a cutthroat approach but it seems to work. While other teams have faced lean years in the wake of losing superstars, New England has managed to stay competitive.
To land Jones, the Cardinals gave up guard Jonathan Cooper and their second-round pick in this year’s draft. Cooper doesn’t compare to Jones on a talent level but he’s a former first-round pick and a potentially valuable piece on an offensive line that was among the worst in football last season. He can play either guard position and the Cards even thought about putting him at center before trading him. The Patriots were stripped of their first-round pick as punishment for Deflategate, so Arizona’s second-round choice should come in handy.
The Patriots added to their offseason haul by acquiring Bears tight end Martellus Bennett for a fourth-round pick. Chicago sweetened the pot by throwing in a sixth-rounder. Judging by his lackluster numbers relative to his breakout 2014, Bennett had no interest in playing for the Bears last year. Bennett’s dubious season-ending rib injury would suggest Chicago wasn’t in love with him either.
Either way, Bennett should be plenty motivated now that he’s playing for a contender for the first time in his career. On the surface, New England would seem like a poor landing spot for Bennett’s fantasy value. After all, New England is already home to the league’s best tight end, Rob Gronkowski. But that didn’t stop Gronk from coexisting with Aaron Hernandez, particularly in 2011 when they rewrote the records books with 169 catches for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns. With injury-prone Julian Edelman atop the depth chart at wide receiver, the Patriots will probably look to employ more double-tight-end sets this year. The Patriots struck out with most of the wide receivers they pursued in free agency (Rishard Matthews and Mohamed Sanu to name a couple) but Bennett makes for an intriguing alternative.
The one receiver the Patriots did succeed in signing was Chris Hogan. He was a restricted free agent but Buffalo chose not to match New England’s three-year, $12 million offer sheet. The offer was heavily front-loaded, which New England did on purpose to discourage the Bills from matching. Hogan is known as a slot receiver, which means he’ll fit right in with Tom Brady, who has made a habit of destroying teams in the short and intermediate passing game.
Signing Chris Long to a one-year deal was another no-brainer for New England. Long has 54.5 sacks on his NFL resume and would seem to be the most obvious replacement for Chandler Jones at right end. Of course, there’s a reason the Pats were able to get him so cheap. Long has missed 14 games over his last two seasons and lost his starting job to William Hayes in St. Louis last year. If it doesn’t work out, the Pats can feel free to send him packing in 2017. But if Long returns to the form that made him a perennial threat for double-digit sacks, $2 million isn’t a bad finder’s fee.
One vacancy that still needs to be filled is at running back. Dion Lewis is locked in as the passing-down back but there’s no obvious replacement for LeGarrette Blount. Chris Ivory’s physical skill set would have played well in New England but he took more money to be a committee back in Jacksonville. Arian Foster is still available and Donald Brown, who the Patriots signed last week, could be a placeholder for the Patriots while they spend the next month looking at draft prospects. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry makes a ton of sense for the Pats but he’ll be long gone by the time New England steps to the podium at pick No. 60.
The Patriots didn’t spend top dollar on free agents but they addressed most of their needs while leaving enough cap space to sign Hightower, Collins and Butler to extensions. Get ready for another 12-4 year in Foxboro.
Griffin’s Second Chance
Things haven’t gone Cleveland’s way in a long time. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the Browns’ four biggest free agents—Travis Benjamin, Tashaun Gipson, Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz—will all be on different teams next season. Such is life in the rock and roll capital.
But let’s pretend the glass is half full. Of the handful of teams still searching for a starting quarterback, Cleveland might be in the best position. While talks have stalled between the Browns and 49ers, there’s still a good chance Colin Kaepernick will be moved before April 1 when his salary becomes guaranteed. Ryan Fitzpatrick is still out there and could become an option if the Jets hold steady with their current offer. Top quarterback prospects Carson Wentz and Jared Goff will both be available when the Browns pick second in next month’s draft. And if none of that pans out, there’s a former Heisman Trophy winner ready for hire.
The Jets said they were doing “due diligence” when they brought Robert Griffin III in for a visit earlier this offseason, but really, he was just a pawn in the team’s ongoing chess match with Fitzpatrick. But when Griffin III arrived in Cleveland last weekend, the Browns’ interest was genuine. Griffin III has always been a charmer and he worked his magic again last week in winning over Hue Jackson. “I think he's obviously a tremendous talent and a great young man,” said Cleveland’s new head coach. "We're going to be very diligent in what we are doing—trying to make sure that we put the right quarterbacks on our football team and in that quarterback room."
Griffin III left his visit without a contract but the Browns have since made several phone calls to people he’s worked with in the past, trying to get a feel for his character. The Buccaneers did the same thing when they were interested in Jameis Winston before last year’s draft. While Griffin III has been a model citizen off the field, his relationship with teammates and coaches has sometimes been called into question.
But the bigger question is whether RG3 can still play. He rode the bench last year in Washington and has mostly been ineffective since tearing his ACL at the end of his rookie season. But in his prime, Griffin III was an efficient passer and a dominant athlete who could make big throws and extend plays with his feet. With Kaepernick talks at a standstill, he might be the Browns’ best option right now. At worst, he’d be a stopgap for a year or two while the Browns groom whatever quarterback they end up drafting with the No. 2 pick. Josh McCown is still on the Browns’ roster but at age 36, he’s not the long-term solution.
I know Griffin III has rubbed some people the wrong way over the years but I’m anxious to see what he has left. Hopefully the Browns give him a shot.
Quick Hits: Rams GM Les Snead confirmed Case Keenum will be the team’s starting quarterback next year. I hope Los Angeles likes its teams slightly below average because 7-9 is calling the Rams’ name … The Packers reportedly have no interest in re-signing James Jones. The 31-year-old wide receiver led Green Bay in both receiving yards and touchdowns last season … Mohamed Sanu will begin next year as the Falcons’ No. 2 receiver. That role used to be occupied by Roddy White, who was let go earlier this offseason … Titans GM Jon Robinson said it will take “a king’s ransom” for Tennessee to part with the No. 1 pick in next month’s draft. Ole Miss OT Laremy Tunsil is the favorite to be selected first overall … Arian Foster’s recovery from a torn Achilles seems to be going well. He’s been working out twice a day at his brother’s gym in Houston … Russell Okung’s new contract with Denver doesn’t include any guaranteed money. Notably, Okung does not have an agent. Fine negotiating, sir … New England owner Robert Kraft wrote a letter asking commissioner Roger Goodell to return the Patriots’ first-round pick they lost as part of their Deflategate punishment. Good luck with that … Patriots coaching assistant Steve Belichick was promoted to safeties coach last week. Meanwhile, Steve’s pop was hanging out with his best bud Kid Rock … NT Ian Williams agreed to a five-year contract with San Francisco earlier this month. However, Williams failed his physical and now it’s only a one-year deal … The Browns aren’t sure if Joe Haden will be ready for Week 1. The star cornerback suffered two concussions last year and is also coming off ankle surgery … Agent Drew Rosenhaus is now representing Johnny Manziel. Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Greg Hardy and LeSean McCoy are a few of his other clients ... Last offseason, the Cowboys lost star running back DeMarco Murray to NFC East rival Philadelphia. This year, they poached Alfred Morris from division rival Washington on a two-year deal … Peyton Manning returned to Indianapolis last week to have his number retired. Marvin Harrison caught 114 touchdown passes from Manning, a record Peyton says will never be broken … Richard Sherman isn’t a fan of Roger Goodell’s new proposal for ejecting players after two personal fouls. “He’s just a suit,” said Sherman. “He's never stepped foot on the field and understood how you can get a personal foul” … 28 of the NFL’s 32 head coaches posed for a class photo at the NFL Owner’s Meetings in Boca Raton. Clear your schedule so you can spend the rest of your day admiring this work of art … The NFL is looking to expand its international series to China. We could see a game there as soon as 2018 ... We’re still mourning the loss of Ravens cornerback Tray Walker. Our thoughts and prayers are with Walker’s family.