The Patriots will certainly have the talent to compete for Super Bowl LII, but at the same time will have a lot of potential free agents on the market. A lot of those free agents are on the defensive side of the ball, although the team does have some long term question marks at certain spots on offense. The team has just under $60M in potential cap space to work with in the offseason, so the team will have room to spend. Given the need to save about $10-15M for the draft and in-season spending, the team does have an operating budget of $45-50M in cap space for 2017.
The team will also be looking at doing long term deals for TE Martellus Bennett, LB Dont’a Hightower, CB Malcolm Butler, and many other players. The team has already fixed their #1 need going into the offseason with a Marcus Cannon 5-year extension in November. The team will also be looking at adding role guys on the defense to replace the ones that could be potentially leaving after the season. Players like Duron Harmon, Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, and Logan Ryan will be heading towards unrestricted FA.
- Edge Rusher: The Patriots only have Rob Ninkovich and Trey Flowers signed past 2016 on the edge, with Nink turning 33 in February. The Patriots can opt to continue to add rental pieces like with 2016, but they should also consider looking at picking an edge guy high. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the Patriots swinging a trade for a highly disappointing edge rusher either. The only three pass rushers that I see being ahead of the Patriots effective draft range (21st overall or later) are Myles Garrett, Carl Lawson, and Derek Barnett. There might be a couple more edge rushers picked between 20 and 30, although the Patriots could be a market for those guys if they’re able to somehow turn Jimmy Garoppolo into a first round pick.
- Tight End: This need can be easily fulfilled by signing their top FA on offense in Martellus Bennett. I’d estimate that it will take $8-9M for at least 3 years to retain Bennett. If the Patriots are unable to retain Bennett, that leaves Rob Gronkowski and Matt Lengel as the two TE on the roster coming out of 2016. Lengel is definitely an interesting player, although he’s a better receiver than blocker even though he plays almost exclusively on run or run-action snaps. Michael Williams played in 2015, but he’s more a blocker that offers little to no value as a receiver and is coming off of an ACL injury. Of all the TE prospects in the draft, none realistically are out of the Patriots draft range although OJ Howard’s lack of usage at Alabama could wind up getting him in Foxborough. Howard or Jake Butt are going to be very popular names circling the Patriots, although the latter recently suffered a nasty knee injury that could cause him to have to start the 2017 season on PUP or NFI. Even though re-signing Bennett would set the top of the TE depth chart in 2017, I don’t mind the team adding Butt in anticipation of Gronk or Bennett breaking down with age.
- Safety: Both starting safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung will be 30 in 2017, so the team has to be starting a possible long term strategy at the position. The Patriots drafted Tavon Wilson in 2012, Duron Harmon in 2013, and Jordan Richards in 2015, but neither Wilson or Richards were able to play better than special teamers. Harmon has been very solid for the Patriots secondary, but he will be a free agent. I’m assuming he’ll end up going to a team that can promise him a full time free safety role even though he’s a quasi-starter in the Patriots defense. The Patriots should look at a long term replacement for Patrick Chung first, due to him playing a more demanding role of playing the box, slot, and manning up against the opponent’s best non-WR pass catcher. The Patriots thought that Richards could do so, but nothing in preseason or his short stints on the field have shown it yet. Jamal Adams is the only safety I don’t expect to be available in the draft though, although we’re probably getting the head-scratcher Day 2 pick again.
- 3rd/Slot Receiver: This depends on whether you think Chris Hogan should stick as a slot or an outside receiver. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will both be over 30 at the start of the 2017 league year and on the final years of their contracts. Even though Amendola’s cap number is too high for the Patriots’ liking, I think he gets a restructure in place because he likes playing in New England. The Patriots certainly should look for a long term replacement for those two, with Drew Morgan from Arkansas as my favorite WR prospect in the draft for that role. In this case, the Patriots could add him or someone with similar traits and put him on a similar development track as Malcolm Mitchell in 2017. I’ll be surprised if the Patriots spend a Top 100 pick at the position, but the 4th round seems very likely.
- Linebacker: This need does hit the back-burner if Dont’a Hightower is signed to a long term deal in the offseason, but if tagged that means Elandon Roberts and Shea McClellin are the only LB signed past 2017. The Patriots typically operate with two off the ball LBs for most of their defensive personnel groupings. In the case the team isn’t able to get a long term deal done with Hightower, they should prepare to groom his replacement. Ultimately, I do think the team does sign Hightower to a long term deal (I’d guess 4/$45-50M with $20M gtd) which is why this need is 5th and not 2nd. Rueben Foster is the only LB I think will be outside of the Patriots draft range for sure, although Zach Cunningham might be as well.
- Thumper RB: LeGarrette Blount is coming off of his best season, but also a season with the most workload he’s ever had in the NFL. The Patriots have a young and solid offensive line, with every player at the position under contract for 2017. The Patriots have traditionally carried two thumpers and two receiving backs, although this year they’ve only carried 1 thumper although Lewis can run inside the tackles well. In terms of the draft, the draft is loaded with potential replacements for Blount with James Conner and D’onta Foreman the most often cited names. I think they should bring back Blount on a 1-year deal and have him compete with his eventual replacement.
- Left Tackle: The Patriots need to either extend Nate Solder or draft his replacement within the 2017 league year. I think an extension is more likely due to the Patriots unlikely to find a better player in the draft anyway. Solder’s most recent extension paid him just above $10M per season, which is where talks for his next extension start. Solder will be 29 at the start of the 2017 season, so I think the team could retain him at 4/$45M. If Solder were to walk, I could see the Patriots potentially either starting Cam Fleming at LT or flip Marcus Cannon over (not a good idea) to the other side of the line. In terms of the 2017 draft, Cam Robinson is probably the only LT with comparable upside to what Solder already gives.
Most of these needs are with 2018 and beyond in mind rather than 2017, so you could also lump this in as a draft wishlist for now. Later in 2017, I’ll probably go into specifics over which needs are more important in the draft and the priority for them. I probably won’t be as accurate in 2017 as I was in 2016 for predicting which players the Patriots would draft. They won’t be the same order as this list. It’s just a list of long term needs they need to figure out for 2017.