The New England Patriots are putting a bow on the 2016 season and moving towards 2017 and one of the first stages of the next year is free agency. I asked my Twitter followers to rank the top 7 Patriots unrestricted free agents (so not including CB Malcolm Butler) to get an idea of who Patriots fans wanted back next year.
Rank top 7 Patriots FAs in order of priority:— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) February 7, 2017
Bennett, Blount, Bolden, Branch, Develin, Floyd, Harmon, Hightower, Long, Mingo, Ryan, Sheard
I did not include TE Greg Scruggs. OT Sebastian Vollmer should remain under contract in 2017 after spending the entire season on the inactive list due to injury, but is projected to retire.
The results weren’t surprising, but there are clear tiers of priorities. All but two people responded with LB Dont’a Hightower as their top free agent, and they both had him as their #2 (behind DT Alan Branch and CB Logan Ryan). After Hightower, there’s a distinct group of three players, a distant 5th place finisher, and then everyone else.
I gave scores for each ranking in the top 7, with 10 points going to the first player listed, 8 to the second player, followed by 6, 4, 3, 2, and 1 point to the final player. I tallied the points to come up with the Patriots free agent rankings.
Here are the results:
No one voted for LB Barkevious Mingo, while only a few listed WR Michael Floyd. With Mingo limited playing special teams- and with LB Jonathan Freeny set to return in 2017- there seems to be less of a priority to retain Mingo. Floyd was a healthy scratch at the end of the season and rookie Malcolm Mitchell played like a stud in the Super Bowl.
10. RB Brandon Bolden
Bolden is beloved by those in the locker room and he’s a major contributor on special teams. But with RB D.J. Foster receiving a red shirt season, and Bolden struggling in his limited time on offense, perhaps the team could move on to someone with more offensive upside.
9. EDGE Chris Long
Long ranked anywhere from third to seven on the ballot, but he showed up on less than a third of rankings. He was the team’s most productive pass rusher over the course of the full season, but he was passed and lapped by EDGE Trey Flowers at the end of the year. Long wants to return and could be back with the Patriots on another cheap one-year deal.
8. RB LeGarrette Blount
Blount led the Patriots in yards this year, but he had a key fumble in the Super Bowl and struggled to generate yards on first down late in the season. He turned 30 in December and while he has limited mileage on his legs, he flamed out with the Pittsburgh Steelers the last time he entered free agency and could be back with the Patriots on a cheap deal without much of a rush on the New England end.
7. EDGE Jabaal Sheard
Sheard flashed incredible potential in 2015, but disappointed in 2016. If he could recapture that 2015 flash, he would join Flowers to form a top 5 pass rushing tandem in the NFL, but perhaps Sheard is best off as a rotational pass rusher- where he found himself down the stretch. Some team might outbid the Patriots based on Sheard’s 2015 success.
6. FB James Develin
Develin edges out Sheard and is regarded as the best run blocking fullback in the NFL. He doesn’t add much in the receiving game, which is why other fullbacks garner more attention, but the coaching staff loves Develin and what he brings on offense and special teams. Don’t be surprised if he gets a multi-year extension.
5. FS Duron Harmon
Harmon has been the Patriots 5th or 6th defensive back for the past few years and he’s been outstanding. Good safeties are rare in this league, which is why Harmon could receive starting money for a different team. That said, there is a fair number of pretty good safeties on the market, so maybe Harmon is a surprise return. He’s very important for the Patriots big nickel package.
4. DT Alan Branch
Branch is an elite run defender and has become a leader for the Patriots young defensive linemen (sophomore: Malcom Brown; rookies: Vincent Valentine, Woodrow Hamilton). What is the demand for a 32-year-old run defending defensive tackle? Dont’ be surprised if Branch comes back on a two-year deal.
3. TE Martellus Bennett
Good tight ends are hard to find in the league and the nearly-30-year-old Bennett is the best on the market. Bennett loves New England, and New England loves Bennett. Bennett could chase the money, but it seems like he enjoys winning more than anything else at this stage of his career and if the Patriots offer him a reasonable deal, then Bennett could be back on a three- or four-year deal.
2. CB Logan Ryan
The Patriots prepared for the eventual departure of Ryan and are prepared to head into 2017 with CB Malcolm Butler, CB Eric Rowe, CB Jonathan Jones, CB Cyrus Jones, and CB Justin Coleman as the depth chart. Ryan could receive #1 cornerback money ($8+ million) and leave, but maybe the Patriots will consider using their large amount of cap space to pay Ryan top-#2 cornerback money ($6-7 million) to stay.
1. LB Dont’a Hightower
It was a near-unanimous decision. Hightower must stay with the Patriots. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots designate the Franchise Tag on Hightower, who has been crucial to the Patriots success over the past few seasons. LB Jamie Collins received a $12.5 million per year contract with the Cleveland Browns. Look for Hightower to get a 5-year, $11-12 million per year deal with the Patriots
I go:— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) February 7, 2017
Hightower, Harmon, Bennett, Ryan, Develin, Branch, Sheard https://t.co/kk2g0Ns5ru