Potential Targets For The #Patriots in 2017 Free Agency

With 21 total free agents most of the attention for the Patriots has been around re-signing their own players this offseason, and rightfully so with key starters such as Dont’a Hightower and Martellus Bennett set to hit the open market on March 9th.

However, with roughly $60 million in cap space according to @patscap and the inevitable departure of some of the Patriots unrestricted free agents; Bill Belichick and the front office will have some money to spend to add to the 2016 Super Bowl champs.

Let’s take a look at some names that may be on the Patriots radar when free agency officially gets underway on March 9th.

Offense

Mike Gillislee, running back: Gillislee is a restricted free agent and the Bills tendered the talented 26 year old with an original round tender, meaning the Bills would receive a fifth round pick from Gillislee’s new team if he were to walk in free agency. It doesn’t seem like a high price tag for a solid running back, but it is significant enough that it could keep some teams away. The Bills have a history of undervaluing their role players. It was just last year that they tendered Chris Hogan at the lowest level, allowing him to walk to the Patriots for no draft pick compensation (Hogan was a UDFA). If it were me, I would be more than willing to give up a fifth round pick for what is a very talented running back. In fact, according to PFF, Gillislee led all qualified running backs in yards after contact per rush in 2016 (3.4), slightly edging out Dolphins tail back Jay Ajayi. Gillislee also led qualified running backs in yards per rush (5.7), although the Bills rushing attack was one of the best in the NFL in 2016 as teammate LeSean McCoy also averaged an impressive 5.4 yards per carry last season. Either way, Gillislee easily could have been tendered by the Bills at the second round level, and failing to do so leaves the door open for Gillislee to be snatched up by another team.

Adrian Peterson, running back: With Peterson’s release and the Patriots history of taking on aging veterans chasing a ring, Peterson to the Patriots became an obvious connection. From a fit standpoint this move makes sense for both sides. For the Patriots, they are obviously in need of a between the tackles running back to hopefully upgrade over LeGarrette Blount. For Peterson, at this stage of his career he’s likely a two-down running back as he will come off the field on passing downs. Many teams would shy away from Peterson for that reason, but the Patriots have shown in recent years that they’re happy with specialty running backs instead of the all around horses such as Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson. Peterson is not known for his receiving skills, and luckily for him the Patriots have two receiving backs on the roster that can fill that role. What they don’t have is a game changing ball carrier, which is what Peterson still has a chance to be. If LeGarrette Blount can rush for over 1,000 yards and a franchise record 18 touchdowns last season, imagine what Peterson could do in the same backfield as Tom Brady. There’s an obvious red flag with signing Peterson, and it’s plausible that Bob Kraft wouldn’t want a player with Peterson’s legal history on the Patriots. 

Jared Cook, tight end: Credit to my man @TMurph207 for suggesting Cook as a possible Martellus Bennett replacement for the Pats. Cook had an enormous impact on the Packers offense a year ago, as the Pack were just 2-4 in the six games Cook missed with an injury (10-3 with Cook in the lineup). Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was also much better with Cook on the field in 2016 with six of his nine interceptions coming in games without Cook in the lineup. Furthermore, Cook took his game to another level in the playoffs averaging just over 76 receiving yards per game for the Packers, compared to 37.7 receiving YPG during the regular season. As the season progressed and Cooks role in the offense started to make more sense he was as good of a tight end as any in the NFL last season. Cook also has the ability to move around the formation, something the Packers did with him a lot last season, which would give Josh McDaniels the formational flexibility that the Patriots love to have. With Bennett likely to receive a massive payday in free agency, Cook should come at a cheaper price and may give the Patriots the same Gronk insurance that they got from Bennett in 2016.

Jack Doyle, tight end: Doyle exploded onto the scene in 2016 as the tight end became an extremely reliable target for Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, dropping just three passes on 75 targets last season. What makes Doyle an interesting target for the Patriots is his ability to block as well as catch passes, and the Colts moved Doyle around the formation, even lining him up at fullback at times where he was extremely effective as a lead blocker. Doyle also is sneaky good in the open field, breaking 11 tackles on his 101 career receptions according to PFF. Doyle might not be the sexy name that Patriots fans are looking for, but he’d be a solid veteran backup to Rob Gronkowski if Martellus Bennett were to leave in free agency.

Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver: Patterson isn’t going to give you anything as a receiver, that ship has sailed, but where he can help the Patriots mightily is on special teams. Kick returns were an absolute disaster for the Patriots in 2016. They ranked 25th in the NFL in kick return yards and lead the league on fumbles on kick returns with four. With the new kickoff rules it may seem like a wasted play, but Patterson is anything but a waste when you put him back there to receive a kickoff. In fact, he totaled more kick return yards (792) than the entire Patriots team in 2016 (542) ranking third in the NFL in that category, and was one of seven players to return a kickoff for a touchdown in 2016. Patterson’s freakish speed and athleticism could bring some much needed explosion to a Patriots team that is typically quicker than it is fast at the skill positions. Anything they get out of Patterson on offense would be a bonus.

Pierre Garcon, wide receiver: File this one away as unlikely, but if the Patriots wanted to hand out some money to a wide receiver there may be no better value than Pierre Garcon. Garcon quietly is one of the better wide receivers in the NFL with the ability to beat coverages with speed and power, and can pick up yards after the catch. In fact, Garcon ended the 2016 season with the eighth highest grade among wide receivers according to PFF, and dropped just one pass on 114 targets. If that doesn’t sell you on Garcon, take a look at the company he’s in in terms of receptions over the last four seasons:

With the emergence of Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell in 2016, wide receiver isn’t as much of a need as it has been in the past, but if the Patriots were looking for another playmaker on the outside Garcon might be their man.

Isaiah Crowell, running back: One of the most underrated players throughout the 2016 season was Browns restricted free agent Isaiah Crowell. The Browns put a second round tender on Crowell and it sounds like he’ll be back in Cleveland, but adding the running back would still be tempting. Crowell was a bright spot, along with fellow free agent Terrelle Pryor, on what was a terrible Browns team. Despite running behind a shaky offensive line and a terrible passing game, Crowell’s production was surprisingly efficient ripping off 4.8 yards per carry in 2016, which was top 10 in the NFL among qualified players, and even more impressive was his 2.8 yards after contact per rush, which ranked 3rd in the NFL among qualified players. Crowell is a restricted free agent and based on his 2016 production the Browns may want to match any reasonable offers that he receives in free agency, but if Crowell can do what he did on the lowly Browns in 2016, imagine what he could do on a productive offense.

Defense

Calais Campbell, defensive end: By the time free agency officially gets underway Campbell might be at the top a lot of experts rankings. With that said, it may be difficult for the Patriots to afford Campbell, who at age 30, will certainly be looking to cash in one last time in the NFL. However, Campbell just strikes you as a Patriots type player. A veteran who can play multiple spots along the defensive line, and is a high character guy that brings his leadership along with playing at a high level. From a measurables standpoint, Campbell would seemingly be the ideal defensive end in Bill Belichick’s defense standing at 6’8 at nearly 300 pounds. Belichick prefers his defensive ends to be bigger as they are asked to play inside mostly in 3-technique and their first task is always to stop the run. Campbell is a beast against the run and adds enough of a pass rush (56.5 career sacks in 138 games) to be a dominant player at his position. If the Patriots were to scoop up Campbell it may be one of the bigger moves of the offseason.

Kevin Minter, linebacker: Another free agent from the Arizona Cardinals that could bring some much needed depth to the Patriots linebacker group. Minter has prototypical size at the position and also graded out very well in coverage in 2016 according to PFF. If the Patriots were to lose Dont’a Hightower in free agency, Minter would be a nice veteran signing that could soften the blow. If the Pats are able to keep Hightower, adding Minter would put them back in the conversation of the best linebacker duos in the NFL. Minter could play a more traditional inside linebacker role allowing Hightower to move around the defense, and would be a huge upgrade in coverage over Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy.

Jared Odrick, defensive end: This one already has some legs as many have reported that Odrick has already met with the Pats and passed a physical with the team after his release from the Jaguars. Bill Belichick praised Odrick for his versatility and high motor prior to the Patriots matchup with the Jaguars in 2015, as it seemed like the hoodie held Odrick in high regard due to his production on what has been a struggling defense for years in Jacksonville. Much like Campbell, Odrick seems like an ideal fit to play defensive end in Bill Belichick’s defense with similar measurables to past players at that position and a great understanding of the game. Odrick is a rare addition to the Bill Belichick mutual admiration society, but believe it or not the former Jag finds himself in that group along with some of the greats that Belichick has coached against in his career.

John Simon, edge rusher: Simon is one of the most underrated free agents set to hit the open market and is a darling of the analytics crew. Despite only playing in roughly 50% of the Texans snaps on defense in 2016, Simon showed flashes of being a very productive edge rusher when given the opportunity. Simon pressured the quarterback 18 times on just 103 pass rush snaps, a very impressive rate, and can be moved around the defense to fit whatever role the Patriots coaching staff can think up. Simon has Patriots written all over him, as he’s a potential bargain at the position, and with more snaps on defense could become a very productive player in New England. Although Simon is a different type of player, adding him to the mix would be similar to when the Patriots signed Jabaal Sheard away from the Browns a few years ago. An under the radar signing that could end up having a major impact.

Zach Brown, linebacker: The man that racked up the second most tackles in the NFL in 2016 (149) is set to hit free agency after by far his best year as a pro. Brown started his career as a fringe starter with the Tennessee Titans, but broke out last season with the Bills as a sideline to sideline monster capable of running down just about anybody to make the tackle. Brown seems like the type of linebacker Bill Belichick would be high on with his high football IQ and lunch pail type attitude. Brown also destroyed the Patriots in both games in 2016 with a combined 28 total tackles, 2 sacks, 4 tackles for a loss, and 2 forced fumbles. There’s some history of Belichick going after free agents that have killed the Patriots in the past, and Brown would certainly fit that mold. It will be interesting to see what Brown’s market is as one of the top inside linebacker on the market, but he should be a tier below Dont’a Hightower and could conceivably replace Hightower in the middle of the Patriots defense.