The 2016 NFL season is over and it ended in victory for the New England Patriots. However, the time to celebrate has to be short; after all, professional football never sleeps and the new league year will start next month. This, in turn, means that the Patriots will have a lot of decisions to make in the upcoming weeks – and most of them will have to do with free agency.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the team’s 2017 free agency class to find where there might be potential turnover compared to the 2016 world champions:
Unrestricted free agents
TE Martellus Bennett
RB LeGarrette Blount
RB Brandon Bolden
DT Alan Branch
FB James Develin
WR Michael Floyd
FS Duron Harmon
LB Dont’a Hightower
DE Chris Long
DE Barkevious Mingo
CB Logan Ryan
TE Greg Scruggs
DE Jabaal Sheard
Overall, 13 members of the 2016 Patriots are scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency in March. And all but tight end Greg Scruggs, who spent the majority of the season on injured reserve, and in-season acquisition Michael Floyd have been major contributors on the team that won Super Bowl LI.
New England’s defense in particular sees a lot of players headed for the open market. While team captain Dont’a Hightower is the biggest name and a candidate to receive the franchise tag to keep him from hitting free agency, he is far from the only contributor whose contract ends soon.
Overall, five of the seven defensive free agents have played more than 50% of defensive snaps: Branch, Hightower, Long, Ryan and Sheard. They and their production – as well as Duron Harmon's, who played slightly less than 50% – either have to be re-signed or replaced one way or the other.
The same goes for offense and special teams, where six of New England’s unrestricted free agents play important roles. While their price tags will likely not be as steep as the defenders’ – with the likely exception being Martellus Bennet –, the Patriots still need to find a way to either keep or replace them.
Restricted free agents
Players with three accrued seasons by the time the contract ends:
CB Malcolm Butler
OT Cameron Fleming
TE Michael Williams
By far the biggest name on the list of restricted free agents is Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler, and the Patriots are expected to tender him at the highest level. New England would then be able to match every offer sheet by another team and if the team elects not to, receives a first round draft pick in return for letting Butler go.
The Patriots are also expected to tender Cameron Fleming, their third offensive tackle, but likely at the lowest level. Accordingly, the Patriots would receive a fourth round pick if they do not match an incoming offer sheet.
Michael Williams, on the other hand, appears to be headed to unrestricted free agency. As patscap.com noted, the blocking tight end is currently not listed on the team's website; not that good a sign for his future prospects in New England.
Exclusive rights free agents
Players with two or less accrued seasons by the time the contract ends:
CB Justin Coleman
SS Brandon King
TE Matt Lengel
Brandon King, one of the best special teamers in the NFL, is a guarantee to be tendered. Lengel and Coleman, despite being only depth options, are also expected to be tendered and enter the offseason training program as members of the Patriots.