David Andrews brings a lot more to the table than just being one of the NFL’s better starting centers. He’s a team captain and one of the most respected figures in the Patriots’ locker room. As the rest of the Patriots offensive line reshuffles around him, he represents the proverbial glue that holds it all together.
But there’s another big reason why the Patriots are better off paying Andrews than letting him leave as a free agent: they have no replacement internally – more specifically, they’ve tried to find a replacement and failed.
The Patriots drafted a center just last year, selecting Dustin Woodard out of Memphis in the seventh round (230th overall). Not significant draft investment. But clearly, Woodard was at least Andrews insurance, if not a potential replacement. Woodard retired from football altogether last August.
A more significant draft pick went to 2019 fourth-rounder Hjalte Froholdt, who played both center and left guard at Arkansas. Froholdt played special teams for eight games in 2020, but only saw the field on offense in Week 5 against the Broncos and Week 6 against the 49ers. The Patriots waived Froholdt in November.
Most notably, Ted Karras played the entire 2019 season as the Patriots’ starting center before departing to the Dolphins via free agency, as the Patriots preferred to bring Andrews back for the final year of his contract. It was a bad sign for other potential centers in the system that James Ferentz, who has split time between practice squads and main rosters throughout his career, jumped them on the depth chart for starting snaps.
Ferentz isn’t a long-term answer, and journeyman Marcus Martin doesn’t figure to be that guy either. It’s not exactly hard to find a center in the draft, but it won’t be easy to find someone who immediately replaces Andrews as both a player and a leader. Belichick has already tried to get ahead of Andrews a year early rather than a year late. That quickly fell apart. Now he may be backed into a corner.
There’s a precedent for the Patriots retaining – and really paying – valuable pieces in the absence of viable long-term replacements. In 2010, they made Vince Wilfork one of the highest-paid nose tackles in football with a five-year extension that included $18 million guaranteed. But that deal might not have happened if draft picks like Ron Brace (second round, 2009) or Kareem Brown (fourth round, 2007) panned out. Similarly, they signed guard Logan Mankins to a top-of-the-market five-year extension in 2011 – after 2009 fourth-round pick Rich Ohrnberger couldn’t stick around.
Conversely, it would make relative sense for the Patriots to let Joe Thuney sign elsewhere as a free agent, because they hit on 2020 sixth-rounder Michael Onwenu. He is a logical in-house replacement for Thuney. The Patriots have no such luxury at center.
Andrews should have interest from other teams around the league, and the Patriots may have to pay up in order to keep him around. The going rate for a top-of-the-market starting center is around $10 million annually. Andrews has said he’d love to stay in New England, but the sense is that the Patriots’ offer will have to be highly competitive.
Does Bill Belichick put Andrews in the same, indispensable class as Wilfork or Mankins?
The Patriots head coach/GM historically drafts and develops well on the offensive line, so he can be trusted to eventually find a long-term starter at center if Andrews ends up departing. But the search will have to start immediately, because there’s nothing promising in the organization right now. If the Patriots lose Andrews, they take a hit both on and off the field.
MORE: NFL Free Agency Tracker
Andrews isn’t the only key internal free agent for the 2021 Patriots. Scroll down for the most important names to know.
Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster 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? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at email@example.com.