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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Why the Patriots extended Jonathan Freeny, and Barkevious Mingo analysis

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The Patriots linebacker is the defensive equivalent of Brandon Bolden. Think about it.

1. The New England Patriots signed linebacker Jonathan Freeny to a two-year extension, keeping him under contract through the 2018 season. I questioned the move because Freeny is a linebacker that struggles to track receivers in the passing and to maintain gap integrity in the running game.

But that’s just my evaluation, and Freeny has impressed someone infinitely more important: head coach Bill Belichick holds Freeny in much higher regard than I do.

“Jonathan [Freeny] is a very dependable player; he is able to do a lot of different roles for us,” Belichick said during a Saturday conference call. “He can play inside and outside on the line of scrimmage and off the ball defensively. He's been very valuable for us in the kicking game, obviously with some size. A four-phase special teams player and one of our overall top workers in terms of the offseason program, preparation, training; he always does things right. He works hard, doesn't say a lot, but is very dependable and consistent. I think all of the other players - everybody in the organization looks up to him.”

Now I know I’m not the only one that disagrees with Belichick’s assessment of Freeny; Pro Football Focus graded Freeny’s 2015 performance far worse than the Patriots interior offensive line. Just because Freeny offers versatility, doesn’t mean that he does any of it particularly well.

But I think Belichick’s comment speaks to a bigger reason to keep Freeny around, and one that I wholly support. Freeny is a leader on this team and one that clearly fits into the Patriots model off the defensive side of the field. That alone is worth trying to keep him around.

And when we look at the big picture, the Patriots will hopefully retain both Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins at linebacker. They signed Shea McClellin to a three-year deal this offseason. If everything goes according to play, Freeny will be the #4 linebacker- and possibly the #5 linebacker in the passing game if Kamu Grugier-Hill develops as expected- with back-up ability to all the positions.

Think of Freeny like the defensive Brandon Bolden. Bolden is not the strongest runner on the team. He’s not the best pass blocker or receiving back. But he can back up both roles, while serving as a core-four special teams player.

That’s what Freeny brings to the table, in addition to his leadership. He will likely not serve as a starter, but he can be a super-sub and play on special teams. For that, I totally support the extension.

2. The Herald’s Jeff Howe echoed Belichick’s sentiment:

Just more reasons to want to keep Freeny in the locker room.

3. Just remember that this is how the Patriots do business, too. They’re all about keeping role players on board for the long term with these one or two year extensions. They gave Josh Kline a two-year extension last season, when he was a starting guard, and now it looks like he’s expected to be the supersub on the offensive line.

Teams can’t survive without depth, and versatile depth deserves a premium. Perhaps the Patriots value a player that can play at a C-grade level at inside and outside linebacker, more than a player that can only line up at outside linebacker at a B-grade. There’s a roster calculus involved that has been incredibly apparent under Belichick.

The Patriots can’t keep all of the talent on the current roster. The 4th and 5th cornerbacks are going to have to play special teams, and if they can also back up both the slot corner and sideline corner roles, then they have considerable value.

4. Speaking of team building, I’m very curious about the acquisition of linebacker Barkevious Mingo. I think we’ve had some good coverage on our site, including Mike’s thoughts on the Patriots 2-5 defensive front, Ethan’s breakdown of Mingo’s time in Cleveland, and Matt’s look at Mingo’s athleticism.

Mingo fits all the qualifiers that the Patriots want in a reclamation project. He is immensely talented, he was forced into multiple roles in multiple defensive schemes, his growth was potentially stunted due to a coaching change, and he’s in the final year of his contract.

Cornerback Aqib Talib fit the billing and re-upped with the Patriots for another year after his contract ended. He net the Patriots a 3rd round compensatory pick. Players like defensive tackl Akiem Hicks, and linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas fit this mold, too, but they all left after one season.

This is the risk that I think the Patriots want to take. If Mingo thrives with the Patriots, then perhaps he’ll want to stay in New England at a reduced price for another year in order to further increase his potential returns on the market. Belichick wanted Mingo in the door so each could experience the other. We’ll see if it pays off.

5. Next year could provide a very different picture for the Patriots pass rush. With Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, and Chris Long set to be free agents, I could see a world where the Patriots top three rushers in 2017 are Trey Flowers, Shea McClellin, and Mingo. I don’t think it’s out of the question. I have a sneaking suspicion that Long is going to have a great year and sign an extension to stay with the Patriots.

6. The Patriots have acquired the following former 1st round picks this offseason:

ED Chris Long, 2008, 2nd overall
RB Donald Brown, 2009, 27th overall (cut)
LB Shea McClellin, 2012, 19th overall
LB Barkevious Mingo, 2013, 6th overall
OG Jonathan Cooper, 2013, 7th overall

Not a bad haul for a team that was stripped of its first round pick this year.