The Patriots might be in the thick of the 2017 season, but Nick Caserio is undoubtedly looking towards the future. Just like last season and the season before that, the Patriots will confront impending free agent decisions shrewdly, eyeing both short and long-term ramifications.
Let’s take a look at the 2015 draft class, whose draftees will be entering the critical fourth year of their rookie contracts in 2018. While the 2015 class might not have the star power of the 2010 Gronk/McCourty draft, it has produced productive players whose contributions were critical in last year’s Super Bowl.
Malcom Brown is perhaps the most underappreciated Patriot on the roster, Trey Flowers is the best pass rusher on the team, and Shaq Mason has turned into one of the best guards in the NFL. Early round draft picks Jordan Richards and Geneo Grissom haven’t materialized on defense, but have contributed consistently to New England’s elite special teams. A.J. Derby, cut recently by the Broncos, turned into the fifth-round draft pick that was used to sign Mike Gillislee. Joe Cardona is the long-snapper for the foreseeable future. New England also acquired two players via trade, Phillip Dorsett and Eric Rowe, who were drafted in the first two rounds in 2015. Both players are still on rookie deals.
Rather than go into detail on every player from the 2015 draft, let's focus on the three players who will likely create the largest demand in free agency: Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, and Shaq Mason.
Malcom Brown (1st Round #32): Brown’s durability, power, and athleticism has solidified the defensive interior over the past few seasons. Brown plays across the entire interior, lining up everywhere from nose tackle to 3-technique. He’ll be asked to blow up the center on one play and then line up over the guard with 2 gap responsibilities the next.
Brown has quietly been one of the most consistent players from entire 2015 draft and it will be interesting to see how the next few years unfold between him and the organization. The Patriots typically ask their interior linemen to get hands on the blocker and control multiple gaps as opposed to just penetrating the backfield. I think this scheme lowers the ceiling for stats like tackles-for-loss and sacks, which might hurt Brown’s demand. His role falls somewhere in between the positions that get paid the big bucks: He’s not a massive nose tackle like Damon Harrison or a disruptive penetrator like Aaron Donald.
Brown has one more year on his contract and a team option in 2019 for $7.6 million. Given his durability (he’s played in 41 out of 44 possible games in his career), versatility, and skill level, I’d bet the Patriots pick up the option. My assumption is that the Patriots are trying to lock up Brown with an extension before he would hit free agency, but any offer would most likely be lower than what Brown would hope for on the free agent market. If New England can’t extend Brown early, I assume they’ll treat him like Hightower/McCourty: let him explore the market and if they feel like matching any offers they’ll sign him to his second contract. How high the Patriots will be willing to pay for Brown might revolve around how they the feel about the development of Vincent Valentine or any future DT draft pick.
Trey Flowers (4th Round #101): Trey Flowers gets more hype than Brown in part because of his heroics in the Super Bowl. Flowers fits the mold of the perfect Patriot defender: tough, versatile, smart, and selfless. Flowers is one of the most versatile players on the entire defense, often lining up as a traditional DE on run downs and shifting to the interior on passing downs (although the Patriots can put him everywhere on any down). His versatility was on full display in the Super Bowl, beating left tackle Jake Matthews on a third down for his first sack and then beating center Alex Mack for the critical fourth-quarter sack.
Flowers’ stats don’t jump off the page; he finished with 7 sacks in 2016 and is on pace for 8 in 2017. He also missed his entire rookie season with an injury. Pro Football Focus grades him favorably but not elite; he’s currently ranked 32nd among all edge defenders. Nevertheless, Flowers is perfect for the Patriots’ scheme and is more important to Matt Patricia than traditional stats indicate.
Like Brown, I’m sure the Patriots are trying to sign Flowers to a favorable extension before he hits free agency. Flowers was a 4th round pick, so there is no option for a 5th year, he’ll be a free agent in 2019 if the Patriots can’t extend him. Even without the gaudy stats, Flowers could be in high demand. If he has another strong postseason and manages to finish with double digit sacks next year (or this year), there will be plenty of suitors. His value might always be higher in New England’s scheme than in other places, but the Patriots’ management diaspora (ex: Detroit, Tennessee) could be landing spots.
The franchise tag is steep for defensive ends (2nd highest behind quarterbacks in 2017). I don’t see the tag as an option. The Patriots do have a Flowers doppelganger in Deatrich Wise, and his development could be a key component in any Flowers deal. Ultimately, Flowers fits the mold of a long-term Patriot, they’ll want to re-sign him. His market could fall anywhere between Stephon Tuitt on the high end (5 yrs, 12MM per yr) or Jabaal Sheard on the low end (3 yrs, 8.5MM per yr), depending on health and production. But if Flowers has a huge postseason and a huge 2018 season, that number could go higher.
Shaq Mason (Round 4 #131): The Patriots doubled up on guards in 2015, drafting both Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason in the 4th round. Jackson is out of the league with knee issues, but Mason has emerged as one of the best guards in the NFL. Pro Football Focus has Mason currently ranked 9th among all guards. In 3 years, Mason has gone from an option offense with virtually no pass blocking experience to one of the most dependable linemen on the team.
The top of the guard market isn’t as high as other positions, the Browns signed Kevin Zeitler this past offseason to the largest deal worth 60 million over 5 years ($12MM per yr), but there is a large cluster of contracts in between $7MM and $11MM per year. Rich wrote a great breakdown of comparable contracts here, so I won’t go into too much detail.
Mason doesn’t fit the mold of highly paid offensive lineman. He’s short (6’1) with short arms. Although he’s improved as a pass blocker, his expertise is still in the run game. The Patriots’ system under Dante Scarneccia undoubtedly played a role in Mason’s development, so teams could view him as a “system guard.” We’ve been surprised by lukewarm markets for productive Patriots before (nobody wanted Julian Edelman in 2014). Mason’s physical makeup could limit his demand, but a team that needs to stabilize their line could throw money at him. It’s a true coin flip.
The markets for previous free agents have been fairly predictable. We knew guys like Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Devin McCourty would get deals on the top end of the market. Even though Jones and Collins were traded, their ensuing deals were in-line with market expectations. On the other hand, Brown, Flowers, and Mason are a bit less predictable. Whether it’s physical limitations or schematic limitations, none of these players fit a traditional, “big-ticket” prototype. Versatility and consistency don’t generate the same buzz as size, speed, and stats, but all three players have been very productive.
Luckily for Brown and Flowers, defenses are spending more time in nickel and dime packages than ever before. Versatility among defensive linemen has never been more valuable and both Brown and Flowers can play in multiple spots. Mason might not look like previously high-priced free agents like Kelechi Osemele or Kevin Zeitler, but he’s an elite run blocker who the Patriots trust to protect Tom Brady. It is entirely plausible a few teams will covet these players and out-bid the Patriots should they hit free agency. They will be fascinating free agency test cases for the New England system.