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Sunday NFL Thoughts: 16 Patriots that could be playing their final regular season game for New England

Are these players going to take the field for the last time in a Patriots uniform?

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

1. The New England Patriots have 14 unrestricted free agents and that means any combination of those players could be suiting up for their final regular season game in a Patriots uniform. Some players are bigger names than others, but I think it’s a good exercise to see who these players are and whether or not the Patriots should be interested in their return for 2018 and beyond.

The first player to discuss is the one that drew the most headlines last offseason: cornerback Malcolm Butler. Butler wanted to be paid like one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL after an All Pro season in 2016, but the Patriots decided to instead pay Stephon Gilmore in free agency and allow Butler to test the market in 2018.

The Patriots bet that Butler would regress in 2017 and they placed their chips on Gilmore- and New England won both bets. Gilmore has definitely outplayed Butler and while Butler hasn’t been bad, he certainly hasn’t played at a level that warrants a top dollar contract.

Will Butler get that big money deal in 2018 free agency? Or will he test the market and find that the Patriots offer is fair? I would expect Butler to join a new team in 2018, but it won’t be because he got a $14 million per year or more deal.

2. Running backs Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead have been the top two backs for the Patriots, with Lewis picking up 977 yards from scrimmage and 7 touchdowns through 15 weeks and Burkhead gaining 518 yards from scrimmage and 8 touchdowns in 10 games. Lewis is at the end of a 2-year extension, while Burkhead was a one-year rental.

I would expect the Patriots to try and sign both to an extension, although they won’t break the bank simply due to the nature of the position. Lewis is a truly special running back and he should be the top priority.

Top dollar running backs are in the $8 million per year range, but Lewis’ injury history and Burkhead’s lack of resume will prevent them from coming close to that range. The next tier is roughly $6 million and those are players with multiple 1,000+ yard seasons that neither Lewis, nor Burkhead can claim.

I would expect both to fall into the $4-5 million per year range, with the Patriots trying to extend Lewis before Burkhead, but happy if they land either. Remember that James White is earning $4 million per year with incentives that add up to $5 million per year and Lewis has definitely outplayed him; $5 million base certainly isn’t out of the question with incentives to reach $6 or $7 million.

3. Tackles Nate Solder, Cameron Fleming, and LaAdrian Waddle are all free agents and I would expect Solder to be the clear priority and just one of Fleming or Waddle returning in 2018.

Solder is a player that, like Butler, the Patriots bet on regressing a little in 2018 and New England was correct on that front. Solder is an average starting tackle, which is valuable but should prevent him from getting top dollar. He’s playing on a 2-year, $20 million deal that was almost fully guaranteed and I wouldn’t be surprised if he received the exact same contract for two more seasons.

Fleming and Waddle could both receive starting offers elsewhere because of the lack of quality tackles in the NFL and I would expect them to fall in the $2-4 million per year range. The Patriots put a priority on the tackle position so I can see them extending one player, providing the Patriots with a depth chart of Solder, Marcus Cannon, one of Fleming and Waddle, and Tony Garcia for 2018.

4. Special teamers Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden, Johnson Bademosi, and Marquis Flowers are all core special teams players that the Patriots would love to extend. I would expect the Patriots to offer all of these players deals from $1 million (Bolden) to $2 million (Slater), with the others falling in between.

I think Bademosi and Flowers showed enough defensive upside that the Patriots could throw in some healthy playing time incentives and I wouldn’t be surprised if Flowers pulled a Kyle Van Noy and earned a key role in the Patriots defensive front seven in 2018.

5. Stopgaps James Harrison and Ricky Jean Francois should not be expected to return in 2018. They are simply late-year additions that can contribute due to their veteran experience and if they return in 2018 it will be the result of unforeseen injuries.

6. Wide receiver Danny Amendola is playing with a larger role due to the injury to Julian Edelman and he’s made the most of his opportunities. Amendola has 616 receiving yards in 2017, continuing his bizarre odd-year production trend.

Amendola had 634 yards in 2013, 659 yards in 2015, and is on pace for 660 yards in 2017. He gained a mere 200 yards in 2014 and 243 yards in 2016.

He is playing on a 1-year, $1.7 million contract and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots signed him to a similar deal for 2018 to serve as insurance while Edelman regains his football legs.

7. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are two other Patriots that could be suiting up for their final regular season games as they’re the top two head coaching prospects for 2018.

Patricia is “considered the leading candidate” to be the head coach of the Detroit Lions and would be expected to pair with offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. The Lions are led by general Manager Bob Quinn, who used to be a Patriots executive, so there’s a high level of familiarity.

McDaniels is the favorite for multiple head coaching jobs, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. The Titans are interested in McDaniels if they miss the playoffs so he can help get quarterback Marcus Mariota back on track, while the Colts want McDaniels to work with Andrew Luck.

McDaniels is also one of the top options for the Giants job, although Pro Football Talk is apparently hearing that some believe Bill Belichick is trying to recommend Jim Schwartz for the gig to retain McDaniels for another season. While the Patriots defense has Brian Flores waiting to take over after Patricia’s inevitable departure, the offensive coaching cupboard was left bare when Brian Daboll took the offensive coordinator job at the University of Alabama and there isn’t an obvious heir in house.