By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
It feels like NFL free agency has already started, but it technically hasn't. But really, it has. Thanks to the blistering Twitter news cycle and the whirlwind of big contracts littering the league since Monday at noon, it feels like Bill Belichick has spent a century diving off docks in Barbados during the league's comically frenzied "legal tampering" period.
But Belichick rarely splashes into the free agent waters as early as everyone else. Signings like Stephon Gilmore are exceptionally rare. So it's wholly unsurprising that the Patriots head coach is taking a patient approach while other teams dump-truck cash into the laps of the most valuable free agents.
Belichick and the Patriots know that their superior coaching can get a better return on their investments than any other club. So they rarely spend top dollar or buy the best players. Maybe the Hoodie surprises people and springs for Justin Houston, or extends himself to add Golden Tate to Tom Brady's receiver corps.
The likelihood, however, is that the Patriots fill out their roster with relatively affordable veterans, or players at the end of their rookie deals who have lost value. They're at a discount for a range of reasons (often injuries) but they have the skill sets that could fulfill the Patriots' needs. What they lack in name recognition they can overcome by delivering Belichickian value on untapped potential. With that in mind, here are some names to know as NFL free agency officially begins on Wednesday.
DE Markus Golden, Cardinals. Arizona could still try to re-sign Golden after signing Terrell Suggs to a one-year deal. He probably won't command more than 1-2 years for under $10 million a season. Golden finished with just 2.5 sacks in 11 games in 2018, after generating 12.5 sacks and 22 QB hits in 2016. A torn ACL limited him to just four games in 2017. The last two years sapped Golden of his value, but he's shown he can be disruptive off the edge and could be rejuvenated under Belichick for a good ROI. (UPDATE: Golden has signed with the New York Giants.)
Honorable mention: Vinny Curry could fill a need as an edge-setter, but isn't much of a pass rusher these days...The Packers released former first-round pick Nick Perry, who could provide situational pressure at a bargain-basement price...You think Belichick still likes
-- WR Bruce Ellington. He most recently played with the Lions, and he also played for two other teams with Patriots connections in the 49ers and Texans. Belichick will have no shortage of people to call on Ellington, a slot receiver who's not afraid to catch over the middle and make plays after the catch. He's been praised for his intelligence and work ethic. His main problem has been injuries, particularly his hamstrings - in fact, he doesn't have one of the three muscles that make up his hamstring. He also dealt with back issues last season. All the more reason why he'll cost the Patriots next-to-nothing with lightning-in-a-bottle potential. (UPDATE: Ding ding ding! The Patriots have indeed signed Ellington to a one-year deal.)
Honorable mention: Randall Cobb could prove more affordable than expected anyway and he's always felt like a Patriots kind of player...With Julian Edelman the only receiver under contract for 2019 who's caught a regular season pass from Brady, the Patriots should look at just about everyone. In the bargain bin, remember the following names: Kevin White, Chris Conley, Aldrick Robinson, Rishard Matthews, Rod Streater.
-- DT Corey Liuget, Chargers. L.A. is not exercising its option on the 28-year-old interior lineman. Liuget only played six games in 2018, sitting the first four due to a PED suspension and missing the rest with a torn quad. It may be a while before he signs anywhere after offseason surgery, but Liuget would be a welcome addition to the Pats defense as a legit run stopper up the middle. He's not as much of a pass rusher by comparison, but he's a smart veteran who can be schemed into some pressure.
Honorable mention: Timmy Jernigan could bring some untapped potential to Foxboro as an all-around threat in the middle...Keep the names Mike Pennel and Tyeler Davison in mind in the run-stuffing department. (UPDATE: Ding ding ding! The Patriots have signed Mike Pennel to a two-year deal.)
TE Demetrius Harris, Chiefs. There's pretty much no one at tight end who's going to excite you in free agency. That's also why it's not likely Belichick bothers chasing the next Rob Gronkowski, because there will never be another. But Harris can at least replicate Gronk's size at 6-foot-7 and has red zone experience in Kansas City. A unique prospect upon entering the league, Harris played basketball in college and hadn't played football since high school before the Chiefs signed him in 2013. It's understandable that he'd be on an unusual learning curve with no college experience. Perhaps Belichick can scoop Harris up just before he starts to realize his potential. (UPDATE: Cross him off the list! Adam Schefter reports that Harris is expected to sign with the Cleveland Browns.)
Honorable mention: Tyler Eifert would be Gronk-like, if you mean having chronic back issues...James O'Shaughnessy is a former Patriots acquisition who actually flashed as a pass-catcher for the Jaguars in 2018, so he'd be an unsurprising add for a reasonable deal.
-- RB Alfred Morris, 49ers. Morris was supposed to be for the Niners what the Patriots ended up needing more of in their running game, a short-yardage and goal-line hammer. He didn't really pan out in that department - in fact, he fumbled from the 1-yard line in Week 1 - but he exploded for 111 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown out of nowhere in the final game of the season. Assuming Morris does continue playing, could he be better than Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead in those short-yardage situations?
Honorable mention: There's always a retread like LeGarrette Blount if the Pats make it worth his while...but at this point, bringing Jeremy Hill back after an ACL injury might be better. (UPDATE: I should have acknowledged the possibility of the Patriots bringing back Brandon Bolden, and that's exactly what's happening, per Ian Rapoport.)
Note: This story will be updated as it pertains to every player mentioned.
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].