ESPN ranked their 25 most important unrestricted free agents of 2017, with a bonus 4 honorable mentions, and the Patriots absolutely crush the list. Note that this doesn’t include restricted free agents like cornerback Malcolm Butler and the Patriots still have four players on the list.
Oh, and former Patriots edge defender Chandler Jones ranked 9th, too. Needless to say, head coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio have done a tremendous job of adding talent over the years.
Linebacker Jamie Collins ranks 6th due to his sheer athleticism. “Collins is among the best coverage linebackers in football, but he also has upside as a pass-rusher (5.5 sacks last season),” ESPN writes. Collins adds so much value for the Patriots 4-2-5 defensive scheme that requires the linebackers to be versatile enough to play on the inside and outside.
Collins is an underrated run stuffer, too, and should receive a top five linebacker deal over the coming months.
Fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower ranks 12th, which is low in my opinion because he’s just as good as Collins. While Collins offers greater upside, Hightower is more consistent and that’s what Belichick appreciates.
“It might be hard for the Patriots to sign both Collins and Hightower,” ESPN notes. “They need to get one of their talented linebackers signed, and the other could be franchised.”
The Patriots added Shea McClellin in free agency and he will theoretically take the place of whichever linebacker does not return to New England.
Edge defender Jabaal Sheard ranks 20th and, like Hightower, I think that’s really low. Sheard’s going to dominate the league in an expanded role in 2016. If he stays healthy, I could see a team offering him an Olivier Vernon-level megadeal that makes Caserio snort laughter into his morning coffee.
“The Patriots were able to trade Chandler Jones because they had Sheard, but Sheard now could be in line for a big payday if he has another productive season in New England,” ESPN correctly notes. The Patriots have contingency plans in place with sophomores Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers, but they really need to take a step forward this season.
Tight end Martellus Bennett ranked in the “best of the rest” category, alongside Giants edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul, Eagles defensive tackle Bennie Logan, and Packers running back Eddie Lacy.
Bennett will turn 30 years old next offseason, but he can still get one final big contract in free agency. Titans tight end Delanie Walker turns 32 in August and he just signed a 2-year, $13.4 million extension. Chargers tight end Antonio Gates just turned 36 and he signed a 2-year, $11 million contract in March. Eagles tight end Brent Celek turned 31 in January and he signed a 3-year, $13 million deal. Browns tight end Gary Barnidge turns 31 in September and he signed a 3-year, $12.3 million extension.
So a good year from Bennett could land him a 2- or 3-year deal for $5 million per season, which is in line with his current 4-year, $20.1 million deal.
I would be thrilled if the Patriots were able to retain all four of these players, but I just don’t know if it’s possible. I could see Sheard and Collins betting on themselves making huge contracts in free agency and taking off. Of course the Patriots typically hand out extensions in August, September, and October, so don’t count out some last minute deals.