The New England Patriots have 10 key free agents, according to a recent poll of my Twitter feed. In reality, the Patriots are likely to retain, or at least are capable of retaining, over half of these players. But in a worst case scenario, the Patriots will lose out on a bidding war for every one of these players- and the Patriots are prepared for that occasion should it arise.
When we look at the Patriots roster, there appears to be a back-up plan for each one of the pending free agents. Here are my thoughts as to who could step up if necessary, in alphabetical order of free agent.
TE Martellus Bennett: TE Rob Housler. The Patriots signed Housler to a futures contract; Housler was actually a short-term teammate of Bennett in Chicago at the end of 2015. The 6’5, 250 pound Housler is a former 2011 3rd round pick by the Arizona Cardinals, where he recorded 105 receptions for 1,133 yards over four seasons. Housler had cups of coffee with the Browns and Bears over the past two years. If Bennett is a self-identified road grading, blue collar tight end, Housler represents a more athletic, but less physical mold.
RB LeGarrette Blount: RB Tyler Gaffney. Part of me thinks the Patriots wish this transition could have happened before the 2016 season. Blount is the Patriots between-the-tackles runner with a league-high 18 rushing touchdowns in 2016. Gaffney was the same type of player as Blount in college, albeit at a weight roughly 25 pounds lighter. Neither are really a factor to catch the football.
RB Brandon Bolden: RB D.J. Foster. Bolden is a special teams ace with limited upside, while Foster earned a red shirt year in 2016. If the Patriots value Foster’s upside on offense more than Bolden’s special teams ability, then this is a change that could happen even if Bolden is re-signed.
DT Alan Branch: DT Woodrow Hamilton. Branch is coming off his best season in the NFL and has been a stalwart on the Patriots defensive line. It’s hard to ask anyone to fill Branch’s 6’6, 350 pound shoes, but the 6’3, 320 pound Hamilton played extremely well in limited time this year and the Patriots paid him an active roster salary despite finishing the year on the practice squad. The Patriots like Hamilton a lot.
FB James Develin: FB Glenn Gronkowski. Develin is one of the best fullbacks in the league, but Gronkowski adds a receiving ability that Develin lacks. If some power-running team offers Develin a lot more money than the Patriots are willing, then Gronkowski could be asked to step into a lead-blocking role in 2017, and could also see some time at tight end.
FS Duron Harmon: FS Devin McCourty. Wait, let me finish! McCourty will continue to be the starter next to SS Patrick Chung, but Harmon’s primary role came in the Big Nickel package with three safeties. This is future, McCourty assumes the free safety role in the Big Nickel vacated by Harmon, while S Jordan Richards will take McCourty’s spot closer to the line of scrimmage and in coverage of tight ends.
LB Dont’a Hightower: LB Elandon Roberts. Roberts has a long way to go in coverage ability before he can match Hightower, but the Patriots have already given Roberts experience with the communication helmet in the heart of the defense and he’s a devastating run defender and blitzer up the middle. It’s a transition that could work.
EDGE Chris Long: EDGE Geneo Grissom. Back in the 2015 NFL Draft, the Patriots viewed Grissom as an ideal EDGE player that can stop the run, kick inside, and drop back into coverage. He’s just been unable to put it all together. Grissom has a chance to expand his role in year three and he could serve as the #4 player in the Patriots edge rotation.
CB Logan Ryan: CB Cyrus Jones. Ryan developed into one of the most important defenders on the Patriots for his ability to match up against elite #1 receivers and to defend players in the slot. Jones has a long hill to climb, but he was drafted with the eventual replacement of Ryan in mind.
EDGE Jabaal Sheard: EDGE Geneo Grissom. Just like with replacing Long, Grissom has a clear path to the pass rush rotation if either edge defender is not re-signed by the Patriots.