By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots are facing an absolutely fascinating offseason. Because they have some seriously large free agents on track to come off the books and hit the open market, starting at the top of the roster.
Tom Brady quite easily tops the list of Patriots players set to become unrestricted free agents, but he’s not alone. There are veteran players in all three phases who … well let’s be honest, they could all re-sign in the end. But there’s also the potential for major roster turnover, particularly when it comes to leadership.
Anyway I promised this would be a “quick” rundown, so let’s make this quick. Just kidding it’s not that quick. That was a lie. But you can use this as a simple guide to the Patriots’ 2020 free agents as of Jan. 8 in the year of our lord two thousand and twenty.
— QB Tom Brady: The one. Brady certainly sounds like he plans to play in 2020, but there’s no guarantee that it’s in New England. His return would have to take compromises from head coach Bill Belichick, owner Robert Kraft, and Brady himself. Belichick may have the power to make the call on his quarterback to start next season, though. But Brady will also have the ability to decide his own future if it gets to March 18 and he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Would Brady be willing to take less to stay in New England, one more time? Would Kraft and Belichick go the extra financial mile if necessary? Will Belichick prefer to move on to Jarrett Stidham and his $585,000 salary next season, and build around him instead? There remain plenty of key questions that have yet to be answered when it comes to the future of the greatest quarterback to ever play. The important detail to know for now is he expects to play, whether here or elsewhere.
— LG Joe Thuney: The most expensive asset of all the free agents that doesn’t play quarterback. Thuney played remarkably close to 100 percent of snaps as the Patriots’ anchor at left guard over the course of his four-year rookie deal. But that means he could stand to earn himself one of the richest contracts in the National Football League at his position. Thuney is just 27 years old, and remains remarkably consistent, durable, and dependable. Perhaps he wants to stay in New England and accepts a team-friendly deal in the same range as teammate Shaq Mason. But on the open market, Thuney should challenge for the truckload of cash that the Cowboys dumped on Zack Martin: six years, $14 million AAV, $40 million guaranteed. Thuney is as humble and professional as they come, but he probably also wouldn’t mind getting showered with Benjamins while he can.
— C/G Ted Karras: Starting center David Andrews is signed for 2020, and should be back and healthy after blood clots in his lungs forced him to spend the season recovering from the medical emergency. But Karras could end up re-signing and returning to his usual backup guard/center role after stepping in with a decent season as the starter. Karras noted in a press scrum on Sunday that “There’s a lot of unknowns” and “this is a business”, the kind of rhetoric you often hear from players who intend to explore free agency and aren’t dead set on staying. The Patriots should have a chance to make a competitive offer if they wish to keep him. But they do have 2019 fourth-round pick Hjalte Froholdt in the system; he could earn a reserve role on the O-line in 2020 as well.
— WR Phillip Dorsett: The Patriots signed the veteran receiver to a classic One-Year Prove-It Deal™ and he ended up earning over $2.5 million of it. On the field, Dorsett caught just 29 passes but gained 397 yards and scored five touchdowns, both his best marks as a Patriot. But most of his production came in the first half of the season, as Dorsett practically fell off the map after rookie N’Keal Harry returned to the roster. The Pats already have Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, and Harry under contract for 2020, and likely need to make further improvements at wide receiver. If Dorsett can find himself a contract worth more than the $2.5 million he earned in 2019, there’s probably no room for him on the Patriots’ roster.
— S Devin McCourty: The veteran safety and Patriots cornerstone earned the third-highest salary among all safeties in 2019 at $9 million. He also just had one of the best seasons of his career with five interceptions and very few mistakes in the back end of the Patriots’ secondary. He’d be an extremely valuable addition to any team both on the field and in the locker room. The question is whether another NFL team would value him as much or more as the Patriots at this point, and whether he’d be willing to take a pay cut after an excellent season. Everyone loves Devin, though, and he loves it here. So among the veterans set for free agency, he may be the most likely to stay.
— LB Kyle Van Noy: Well, Van Noy has made it clear as he makes it clear with a lot of things. He’s expecting to get paid. His top priority appears to be top dollar, which you can’t blame him for after the improvements he’s made as a player in New England. He’s hitting his last chance to cash in this offseason at age 28. He told NBC Sports Boston’s Tom E. Curran: “Everything’s on the table. I’m looking obviously to get paid a lot. I’ll just leave it at that. I’m blessed in so many ways and I’m excited to play for the Patriots and excited to play with my teammates.” So while he would like to stay in New England, he can probably earn a good amount more on the open market than he would here. After posting a career-high 6.5 sacks and 13 QB hits, he could have a chance to earn at least $10-15 million annually. That’s much more likely to happen elsewhere.
— LB Jamie Collins: The overall numbers were very good for Collins in his second stint with the Patriots. But the veteran linebacker tailed off after an outstanding first half to the 2019 season, so it’s unlikely he would carry the kind of value to Bill Belichick that he would to a team that wants his athleticism at outside linebacker. Collins showed off his versatility and playmaking early in the season and finished with 80 tackles, seven sacks, 10 QB hits, three forced fumbles, and a career-best three interceptions (one of which was a pick-six) and seven pass breakups. So there’s a chance a team falls in love with the highs and doesn’t account for the lows with a player who’s long proved to be talented but wildly inconsistent.
— DT Danny Shelton: The Patriots re-signed Shelton to a one-year deal after an up-and-down first season in New England, which ended with a solid game in Super Bowl LIII. Shelton again had his share of ups and downs in 2019, and if the Patriots want to keep him they should have a chance to make an offer that’s competitive with other teams. The defensive line should be an area to look at for improvements after getting beat up front in losses to the Titans, Ravens, and Texans.
— LB Elandon Roberts: The Patriots team captain added offense to his repertoire in 2019, playing more snaps as a fullback (52) than a linebacker (50) in the final five games of the season, including playoffs. Roberts can be valuable against the run and proved this season that he’s willing to do whatever the coaches ask him to do for the team, which also illustrated why he earned his captaincy. He could draw interest from former coaches like Brian Flores with the Dolphins or Matt Patricia with the Lions, or from a team that would value his selflessness and look to shore up its run defense. But would he price himself out of New England? Roberts is an intriguing one to watch.
— Matthew Slater: The special teams stalwart earned First Team All-Pro honors for the second time in his career this season. He can clearly still be a cornerstone player on ST and made a pair of game-changing plays in two of the Patriots’ closest wins. If he decides to keep playing, there’s a chance the Pats want to keep him around for about the same price. We’ll see if another team values his locker room leadership enough to make him their own ST captain. Joe Judge and the Giants, perhaps?
— Nate Ebner: The eight-year veteran is in a similar position as Slater. Would he draw enough interest around the league and make enough on the open market to make it worth moving away from the Patriots? Are the Pats willing to offer him something close to the $2.2 million he earned in 2019? Is anyone else? Injuries have crept in for Ebner over the past three years, but he did play the final 12 games of the season. The Patriots could be looking at a reset on special teams as much as any other area, with Ebner near the top of decisions to make on that part of the roster.
— Justin Bethel: If Slater retires or plays elsewhere, the Patriots may want to start a new era on their coverage units anyway. Bethel could serve as the perfect bridge. He turns 30 in June and knows his role as a pure special teams ace, so Bethel wouldn’t command huge money and could certainly carry a coverage unit with his speed. If New England moves away from Slater and Ebner, Bethel should remain on their radar.
Restricted Free Agents
— DT Adam Butler: I’d put Butler in the category of a restricted free agent who’s likely to stick around. The Patriots could sign him to a one-year original round tender, which according to Over The Cap would be about $2.1 million. Butler had a career-high six sacks and seven QB hits to go with five pass deflections in 2019. Perhaps he goes on a similar path to CB Jonathan Jones, who played under a $3 million tender in 2019 and tacked on a three-year extension worth $21 million. The Pats could also decline to tender Butler and work out a long-term deal if he intends to stay, but that would also make him a UFA.
— LB Keionta Davis: Speaking of decline to tender, it’s unlikely the Patriots would extend even a minimum offer to Davis after injuries have ravaged his path to an NFL roster. The Patriots have continued to retain Davis as long as they can, but he spent the 2019 season on injured reserve and it may be time to move on.
— OL Jermaine Eluemunor: The Patriots hold the cards for Eluemunor’s future after acquiring him from the Ravens before the season. He could barely get on the field with things rarely opening up at the guard and tackle spots and Marshall Newhouse filling in at left tackle while Isaiah Wynn was on IR. If the Patriots lose Thuney as a free agent, maybe they find a way to keep Eluemunor around as they search for a new left guard. But a qualifying offer feels severely unlikely.
Other Free Agents
— TE Ben Watson: The 38-year-old hasn’t officially retired, but he did say after the Patriots’ loss to the Titans: “Definitely won’t be back here next year probably and probably won’t be playing at all.” So you can safely assume he’s gone without getting yelled at on social media about it.
— K Nick Folk: Stephen Gostkowski is under contract for a $4.8 million cap hit in 2020, but the Patriots could save $3.4 million of that (and over $3.5 million in real money) if they release him before June 1. So if they opt to stick with Folk, who made all of his extra points and went 12-for-13 on field goal attempts not made in a monsoon (2-for-4 in Week 12 vs. Dallas), they could save some cash there. They could also decide to start fresh with a rookie kicker and save even more money that way. For the first time in over a decade, kicker is a real position of interest to those following the Patriots’ offseason moves.
— LB Shilique Calhoun: After playing 15 games (one start) as a reserve linebacker, Calhoun may have proven enough to earn himself a small pay-bump to stay in New England. He also played 237 special teams snaps, fifth-most on the team, and could be a part of the team’s potential transition in that phase. Calhoun would be the type of re-signing that would make those hungry for bigger moves irrationally angry online. But the 27-year-old does carry some value as a depth piece worth keeping around at a minimal price.
— OT Marshall Newhouse: Patriots fans have likely seen all that the journeyman tackle has to offer. Isaiah Wynn immediately took over at left tackle once healthy and the Pats’ offensive line finally jelled late in the regular season. They’d also be better suited signing a tight end who can block and/or a better swing tackle than Newhouse after injuries and surprise retirements depleted that spot on the roster. Newhouse was an emergency signing who ended up playing more than he had since 2014, and the results were spotty at best. It would be surprising if he stayed.
— OL James Ferentz: The son of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz proved to be a serviceable emergency option when he had to play some right guard and center amid injuries this season. If the Patriots value his versatility enough, they should be able to make a good-enough offer to retain him. Froholdt looms behind Ferentz just like he does Karras, so it’s possible the team rolls the dice on him and lets Ferentz see if he can earn a job somewhere else. Ferentz said earlier this season “I’m just happy to have a job” after spending time on a number of practice squads.
Alright, that’s it. Just like 2,200 words. But hopefully this helped you get caught up with everyone on the Patriots’ roster as free agency approaches. If you made it this far I appreciate you. Surely the Angry Internet People will find positively nothing wrong with any of the above statements. Happy offseason!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
* All financial data courtesy Spotrac, unless otherwise noted.