The New England Patriots are going to be at the heart of free agency by virtue of winning the Super Bowl. Teams are always going to pay extra for players that were a part of the reigning champions and the Patriots have a long list of key players about to hit the market.
While the Patriots have a lot of sexy names, PFF gives the Patriots a player that finished the season on the injured reserve- but one that could really help out the team’s pass rush:
Karl Klug, DL | Position rank: 22nd
The Super Bowl LI champions love to tap into the veteran market to fill holes along the defensive line, and Klug brings the versatility they covet up front. Klug is capable of playing on the interior or the edge while producing in multiple fronts, and he's an efficient pass-rusher, finishing at 78.3 [PFF grade] in that department last season with the Titans. Klug hasn't played more than 400 snaps since his rookie season in 2011, but he's a valuable addition as a rotational piece with the ability to rush the passer from multiple positions.
The 6’3, 275 pound defensive lineman was originally drafted as a defensive end in the 5th round of the 2011 NFL Draft out of the University of Iowa. He has racked up 20 sacks in six seasons as a defensive tackle and is a strong run defender, despite his size.
Klug could easily slide into the Trey Flowers- or Dominique Easley-type role in the Patriots defense as a 4-technique defensive tackle in the Patriots base defense and as a nose tackle in the 3-man front on passing downs. He could rotate with Flowers to give the rising star a breather, and would also allow Flowers to play more on the edge to help mitigate a potential loss of Chris Long or Jabaal Sheard in free agency.
Klug is in the middle of recovering from an Achilles injury, but older players like Vince Wilfork and Cameron Wake have returned from the same injury to perform at their level. Klug suffered his injury in December and should be ready to play in September.
While the Patriots should look at bolstering their defensive front, five Patriots- past and present- represent the ideal free agent for teams around the league.
Jabaal Sheard, DL | Position rank: 36th
The Ravens aren't fortunate enough to have much salary-cap room, so even if some of the top pass-rushers hit the open market, it's unlikely Baltimore will be in position to make a big splash for them. What does make sense, though, is adding a veteran pass-rusher to bolster a defense that saw just one player, Terrell Suggs, register at least eight sacks and 45 total hurries in 2016. Sheard will be 28 years old when the 2017 season begins, and he registered six sacks, six hits and 31 hurries on 380 pass-rushing snaps (including the playoffs) for the Patriots in 2016. He is just a year removed from registering 65 total pressures on 397 pass-rushing snaps, so he can definitely help the Ravens in an area of need.
Sheard could end up back in the AFC North after starting his career in Cleveland and could be a nice fit in the Ravens defensive front. Sheard’s value is lower than it was at the end of 2015, but perhaps a team will pay the pass rusher based off his previous potential instead of his 2016 performance.
Chandler Jones, LB | Position rank: 7th
With more cap room than any other team in the NFL, the time for the Browns to make a splash in free agency is now. What better way to make that splash than to go after the top pass-rusher on the market? The fifth-year veteran has registered at least 15 quarterback knockdowns (sacks and hits) every season since he entered the league, and that number jumps to 22 when looking at the past two seasons alone. He registered 66 total pressures on 565 snaps, which works out to a pressure once every 8.6 pass-rushing attempts. Jones is almost certain to stay in Arizona -- either on the franchise tag or a long-term deal -- but Cleveland should jump at the chance to sign him if he makes it to the market.
The Cardinals have made it clear that they’re not going to let Jones walk, but the Browns are totally the team that could pay mega-millions to swipe Jones and pair him with his former teammate LB Jamie Collins.
Dont'a Hightower, LB | Position rank: 12th
Even after a spending spree last offseason, the Raiders have a ton of cap space and can use it to address easily their biggest position of need: linebacker. The cream of the crop this year in free agency is easily Hightower, as he has been a top-10-graded linebacker for PFF each of the past three seasons for New England. The most impressive facet of Hightower's game comes as a blitzer. He has racked up 18 sacks the past three years, while the Raiders' off-ball linebackers didn't have a single one in 2016. Hightower will likely return to the Patriots, but he'll have many suitors if he makes it to the open market.
The Patriots shouldn’t let Hightower walk and have more cap space than the Raiders to play with. Still, Hightower could bolster a young Raiders team that is looking to make a push in the AFC, while weakening the Patriots.
Logan Ryan, CB | Position rank: 16th
Chicago at heart loves physical cornerbacks who will play the run and make an impact, and Ryan is a fantastic representation of that. He had the league's third-best run-stop percentage among all cornerbacks, at 2.6 percent of run snaps, and the 24 defensive stops he notched over the regular season for the Patriots were fourth best at the position. Ryan won't ever be an All-Pro corner, but he can be a solid starting option for a team that needs an overhaul at cornerback.
The market for Ryan will be bigger than many expect because Ryan represents a lot of impressive qualities for a corner. He can stop the run. He has ball skills. He can play on the sideline and in the slot. He can go toe-to-toe with and even erase the best receivers in the league (if given safety help). He might not be a #1 cornerback, but you’ll struggle to find a better complementary #2 corner.
Martellus Bennett, TE | Position rank: 10th
For a team that uses a tight end as such a crucial part of its offense, the Cardinals might want to fix the revolving door of inadequacy that they've managed in recent years. For Arizona, it's a blocking-first position, and New England's Bennett has been one of the top blocking tight ends over the course of his career. The journeyman also adds some playmaking ability after the catch, as he led the league in broken tackles in 2013 and 2014.
The tea leaves are pointing to a departure for Bennett at a price the Patriots can’t match and the Cardinals have always been aggressive at getting the players they want to sign.
Clearly this isn’t how free agency will play out and it’s just an exercise in matching players with teams, but I was still surprised that RFA CB Malcolm Butler was not listed. The Eagles are slotted RFA WR Adam Thielen, so leaving Butler off is pretty curious.
Looking at the free agents of other teams, who do you want the Patriots to sign?