The New England Patriots have one of the most promising defenses in the league and the franchise hopes to keep the group together for the foreseeable future.
Pass rushers Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard are under contract through the 2016 season and both are considered priorities for the team to retain. Jones was one of the players the team preferred to retain instead of signing cornerback Darrelle Revis to an extension after the 2014 season, and Sheard looks to be the ultimate replacement for Rob Ninkovich once the latter retires.
The Patriots have invested their past two first round picks on defensive tackles Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown, and Akiem Hicks is the team's top (only?) free agent. If Hicks remains in New England, the defensive tackle spot will be set for years to come.
Linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins will be free agents after the 2016 season and they are the top two players that have to be retained- ahead of either Jones or Sheard. The expectation is for one to be extended before the end of the season, although the team could copy their 2012 plan when they extended the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez over the same offseason.
Safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung create one of the best tandems in the entire league, perfectly complementing each other's strengths and weaknesses. McCourty will be a free agent in 2020 and Chung will be a free agent in 2018, so they will play together for a minimum of two more seasons.
Hightower, Collins, McCourty, and Chung are top ten players at their positions, while Sheard and Jones are in the upper-tier quality of player. Easley, Brown, and Hicks are full of promise and a good offseason could keep all of these players in New England for the next three or four seasons.
The cornerback position is the only group in the Patriots defense without a tandem of high-quality, or at least high-upside players. The sky is the limit for Malcolm Butler, and Logan Ryan is pretty good- but the depth is lacking and Ryan will be a free agent after the 2016 season.
It's important for the Patriots to retain their top players, as well as their cost-effective players (no one complains about Rob Ninkovich at his price and ability), but it's also important to see if the team can improve for the long run.
Ryan is a great and versatile player that can handle larger receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Brandon Marshall, but he struggles against shiftier receivers. If the Patriots could sign a player that would mask this deficiency, then the defense would take another step towards dominance.
There are two cornerbacks in free agency that could really help out the Patriots if the team is willing to pay for the one top tier free agent that would fit within the salary cap.
Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith fits the perfect profile of what the Patriots did in 2014. Smith is 6'3, 215 lbs, which is roughly the same size as Brandon Browner (without the penalties), and will turn 29 this offseason. Smith will likely command $8 million per season on the open market, which is hefty, but he complements Malcolm Butler very well as the two could replicate the Revis-Browner tandem from 2014.
Smith has also found a way to dominate the Patriots in his two games against New England in the 2014 regular season and the 2015 postseason, which must have caught the attention of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
A multi-year deal for Smith would likely make Ryan expendable after the 2016 season. Ryan could likely see $5 million per year on the market, so the question is whether Smith is worth $3 million more than Ryan.
Packers cornerback Casey Hayward offers a slightly cheaper option, and could be an even better fit for the Patriots. Hayward is 26 and has been phased out of the Green Bay secondary after the team invested their first two picks in the 2015 draft on cornerbacks.
Hayward is a dominant slot corner who is also extremely capable of covering shiftier receivers on the outside. He will likely fetch somewhere between $6-$7 million per season on the market and will be easier to fit under the 2016 cap limit. A deal with Hayward could even increase the odds of the Patriots retaining Ryan for the future since Hayward's price tag should be less than Smith's.
A trio of Butler, Hayward, and Ryan could cover every possible blind spot in the secondary. Ryan and Butler can cover the larger receivers on the outside. Hayward and Butler can cover the shiftier receivers. Hayward can cover the slot. All three can shadow and defend out of every position, while Smith needs to be closer to the sidelines.
If the Patriots are more willing to sign players in free agency, then adding a player like Smith or Hayward could bolster the defense for the next five years and put a high quality starter at every single position.