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What Could The Patriots Do In The Secondary With Big Names Off The Board?

The Patriots lost out on big-name cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Richard Sherman over the weekend. And it doesn't look like the Pats were very interested in those guys anyway. But if they still want to add a high-end defensive back in free agency, potential prizes are still expected to be out there.

Important reminder: it's still extremely early in the offseason. The league year and free agency still don't start until Wednesday. But Monday officially marks the start of the so-called "legal tampering" period, so expect plenty of rumors to fly back and forth about all kinds of players and teams. The Patriots and their players are already popping up.

Could they be in on a likely free agent like the Arizona Cardinals' Tyrann Mathieu? The 25-year-old is expected to be released and become a UFA before the end of the week, prior to a guaranteed $18.75 million kicking in over the next two years, according to ESPN's Dan Graziano. That came on the heels of a report by the NFL Network's Gregg Rosenthal that the Cardinals asked Mathieu to take a pay cut.

Tyrann Mathieu of the Arizona Cardinals (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Tyrann Mathieu of the Arizona Cardinals (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Mathieu agreed to a five-year, $62.5 million extension with the Cardinals prior to the 2016 season. But apparently, the Cards are already willing to move on from him if he isn't interested in restructuring. Mathieu is primarily a safety and the Cardinals are very happy with 2017 second-round pick Budda Baker at that spot.

However, Mathieu has the versatility to play cornerback, particularly in nickel packages. That certainly would've helped the Patriots in Super Bowl LII - and Bill Belichick has raved about Mathieu in the past.

"Very productive player," Belichick told reporters about Mathieu before the Pats played the Cardinals in the 2016 season opener. "Very athletic. Loves football. Competes hard. He’s a tough kid. He’ll strike you, for his size. He’s not a big, imposing player, but he plays with good physicality and toughness. Likes football. He’s impressive."

That being said, perhaps Belichick would be more interested in a traditional corner for the No. 2 spot next to Stephon Gilmore. But Mathieu would certainly bring playmaking and versatility to the secondary.

On The Market...

E.J. Gaines and Lafayette Pitts of the Buffalo Bills attempt to tackle Dion Lewis of the New England Patriots on December 3, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

The question, however, for that No. 2 corner spot is this. Who could the Patriots sign at this point that would be a marked upgrade over Eric Rowe, the projected No. 2 guy next season? Based on recent history, there's still a chance that Belichick upgrades the defense elsewhere and goes with Rowe and Jonathan Jones as his No. 2-3 cornerbacks next season. He made a similar change  at 1-2 when he went from Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in 2014 to Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan in 2015, and the decision definitely worked out better than many expected at the time.

So it should be accepted as a real possibility that high-priced cornerback reinforcements are not coming via free agency. At least not with a big-name addition, like Talib or Sherman would've been. You can probably cross Trumaine Johnson off the board. Prince Amukamara will be out there, but he's missed 17 games over his last four seasons - and while a physical player, he isn't particularly skilled compared to other players who would command his price tag.

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If Belichick wanted a similar player to Butler, he could look within the AFC East to the Bills' E.J. Gaines. Acquired as part of the Sammy Watkins trade with the Rams, Gaines had a solid year for the Bills and may have earned himself a decent-sized free-agent contract. He showed during his time in Buffalo that he's adept at playing zone and is a solid tackler for a corner, which could be attractive to Belichick. But at the same time, the question would be whether Belichick believes he could get the same results from Jonathan Jones that he could get from him.

Bashaud Breeland has been productive, competitive, and confident in 60 career games for the Redskins, 57 of them starts. The 2014 fourth-round pick has out-performed his draft status and could earn solid value as a free agent. He can play man-to-man or zone and has missed just three games in the past two seasons.


Patriots Free Agency Previews:
Tight End | Linebacker | Defensive Line | Cornerback


Another name that recently hit the open market is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, whom the Giants released on Sunday. Maybe Belichick takes a chance on DRC, who turns 32 years old on April 7. But it's unlikely that he would bring anything more to the table than what the Pats already have at corner. Put him in the same group as Johnathan Joseph, Brent Grimes, and Tramon Williams as a cheap veteran flyer that would be no guarantee to make a real impact on the roster. (UPDATE: Grimes is re-signing with the Bucs.)

Bill Belichick reacts after the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl LII. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Bill Belichick reacts after the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl LII. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The odds remain low that the Patriots make a play for one of the most expensive defensive backs in free agency. If they do add one, expect them to be in the middle tiers at best. Ultimately, the Pats also need to improve their front-seven and could be allocating top-of-the-market money to left tackle Nate Solder.

Ultimately, if and when the Patriots make their next investment at cornerback, it doesn't look likely that it's a big one.

-- By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].


Sources:

-- Salary information via Spotrac
-- Mathieu reports via Gregg Rosenthal, Dan Graziano
-- Rodgers-Comartie news via New York Giants