Belichick certainly wasn't kidding: No Days Off for the Patriots this offseason. The first week of 2017 free agency has arguably been their most aggressive haul in a decade. They retained key players, signed contributors from rival teams, and made three trades to bolster the roster. On top of it all, they made an unorthodox move and signed one of the big prizes of free agency Day 1 to the biggest contract ever handed out to an outside free agent in Bills CB Stephon Gilmore. However, this move has led to Malcolm Butler's agent to pursue other avenues to get paid via trade. As of today, he looks headed to the Saints. How will his potential departure impact the Patriots free agency as a whole? Let's get to it.
(all cap information courtesy of Miguel Benzan also known as @patscap on twitter. His cap pages can be found at patscap.com)
Patriots Re-sign DT Alan Branch - 2 years 8.45 million
Alan Branch was arguably the Patriots most consistent player on defense during the 2016 season. He proved key in anchoring the defensive line and providing the team with an elite run defense unit. At just 2 years 8.45 million, the Patriots are getting a great player at a relatively low cost.
Patriots Re-sign FB James Develin - 2 years 2.45 million
Develin is arguably the best blocking FB in the NFL & played the 2nd most snaps at the position behind Kyle Juszczyk last season. He's getting paid considerably less than many other FBs who aren't as good & play less snaps in their respective offenses.
Patriots Re-sign S Duron Harmon - 4 years 17 million
Playing upwards of 50% of the snaps each season, Duron Harmon is a valuable piece in Belichick's defense. The Patriots defense often utilizes 3 safety looks with McCourty & Harmon deep with Chung in the box. Harmon received a modest deal and should continue to improve. He may be preparing for a bigger role next season as well.
Patriots Re-sign LB Dont'a Hightower - 4 years 35.3 million
Hightower is the leader of the Patriots defense, clutch, and an All-Pro. He needed to return. While he took visits to numerous teams including the Jets (cupcakes anyone?) he ultimately decided to take less money to stay in New England. The Patriots retained him below his estimated market value of 12 million per season. Patriots fans will never forget his strip sack to shift the momentum in Superbowl 51.
Hightower's passion for the game was evident as he was in a fan's position in overtime:
Patriots sign Bills CB Stephon Gilmore - 5 years 65 million
Considered one of the top two free agent CBs available alongside AJ Bouye, Stephon Gilmore signing with New England certainly came as a shock to many across the NFL. The Patriots rarely spend big money on day 1 free agents. Gilmore struggled in 2016 in part due to Rex Ryan's aggressive blitz heavy defense. Prior to 2016, he was an aggressive press man CB that has the ability to match up with the bigger #1 WRs in the league. Prior to Ryan, the Bills defense was stout with rankings including top 5 in yards & points per game in 2015 in large part to Gilmore.
However, the deal comes with considerable risk. The Patriots are hoping he returns to prior form and projecting elite play in the future. $31 million guarenteed puts him 3rd in the NFL among CBs & 13 million per year puts him among top 10. The team is paying Gilmore as a shutdown CB in the mold of Talib during his run with the Patriots. It will remain to be seen if he performs up to the contract.
Patriots Sign Ravens DT/DE Lawrence Guy - 4 years 13.4 million
Lawrence Guy is a stout run defender that has the versatility to play 3-4 DE & 4-3 DT making him an attractive free agent for Belichick's hybrid defense. He will likely be a productive player for years to come on an affordable deal.
Patriots sign Bengals RB Rex Burkhead - 1 year 3.15 million
Rex Burkhead spent his first 3 years as a special teamer in a reserve role behind Bengals RBs Jeremy Hill & Giovani Bernard. Due to injuries, he seized the opportunity to showcase his skills, gaining 4.6 ypc on the ground as well as 17 receptions through the air in limited playing time.
Analytics are a big fan of Burkhead. Pro Football Focus had him as the #2 graded RB based on a per snap basis. Despited limited action, he was the 16th graded RB on the season right below Devonta Freeman & DeMarco Murray. Moreover, his ability to rarely get stopped for negative yardage is an important trait for a Patriots RB:
Due to his pay, Burkhead is likely to have a prominent role in the offense. He's the highest paid Patriots RB on a yearly basis since Fred Taylor seven years ago. While he certainly didn't come cheap, the team could have a future star & fan favorite on their hands.
Patriots Trade 2nd Round Pick for Carolina DE Kony Ealy & 3rd Round Pick
Kony Ealy has been a disappointment for the most part so far for the Panthers. He's struggled in run defense and been an average pass rusher. However, he did have a monster performance in SB50 vs. the Broncos:
The Patriots acquired a pass rusher that will factor into the 2017 rotation who has flashed in the past for next to no cost. They drop 8 spots in the draft from pick 64 to 72 & Ealy is on the final year of his deal. There is next to no risk involved with this trade.
Patriots Trade 4th Round Pick for Colts TE Dwayne Allen & 6th Round Pick
Dwayne Allen is a complete TE that the Patriots covet in this offense. He is a strong blocker and capable receiver with red zone ability. He is essentially a younger version of Martellus Bennett.
There is a considerable amount of risk to this move as it did cost draft capital and a significant amount of cap over the next 3 seasons (3 years 17.4 million). Allen's injury history has limited his potential with the Colts in the past. He will need to stay healthy in order for this move to pan out in New England.
Patriots Trade First Round Pick & Third Round Pick for Saints WR Brandin Cooks & Fourth Round Pick
The trade that shocked the NFL: Brandin Cooks to the Patriots. It goes without saying that Cooks is one of the most talented WRs in the NFL:
Cooks may arguably be the most talented WR to wear a Patriots uniform since Randy Moss. He has had a great start to his career in New Orleans and is barely scratching the surface at 23 years old.
A first round pick is a steep price to pay for any player in the NFL. It is out of Belichick's character to trade such a valuable draft asset for a player. This is the Patriots most costly trade since acquiring Wes Welker for 2nd & 7th round picks from the Dolphins. While that trade definitely worked out, the Patriots will likely need to pay Cooks big money in order to keep him past 2018. This trade can be categorized as risky & exciting.
Projected: Patriots Trade CB Malcolm Butler for Saints (former Patriots) First Round Pick (#32)
This move would be one of the most controversial in Patriots history. We will go into greater detail if/when it happens.
Offseason Grade: A*
The Patriots replaced & upgraded nearly all of their 2017 free agents. They were out of character in regards to their aggressiveness & handing out big money deals. The team is locked & loaded heading into the draft with one of the most talented rosters in franchise history. Questions surrounding Malcolm Butler & Jimmy Garoppolo remain.
At this point in time, the Patriots still have over 26 million in cap space with the ability to create more through a potential Amendola restructure. Follow Miguel Benzan on twitter at @patscap for cap related updates & information.
*A Malcolm Butler trade would move down the offseason grade to B/B+ range.