With the start of the league year quickly approaching (March 9th at 4:00pm ET), teams are moving quickly to position themselves for free agency, while others are merely looking to keep their heads above the rising waters of the salary cap.
Here are four defensive veterans who, if handed their walking papers, could be worth a look for the Patriots.
Kyle Williams - DT - Buffalo Bills
Current 2016 cap figure: $8.3 million
Dead Money: $1.5 million
Gross Cap Savings: $6.8 million — Net Cap Savings: $6,335,000
Buffalo’s current cap space: $19.8 million
Current situation: The former First-Team All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler is entering his 12th NFL season in 2017, and the final year of his contract. He’ll be 34 years old in May, and carries a hefty cap figure for an organization that not only finds itself tight on space, but that also has a disproportionate amount of resources invested in their defensive line. The combined 2017 cap charges of Williams, Jerry Hughes, and Marcell Dareus are $35.15 million, or 23.3% of Buffalo’s current contracts.
Cap charge aside, the fact is that Williams can still play. The former 2006 fifth-round pick from LSU continues to be a handful upfront, and is coming off of a season in which he missed just one game, and was on the field for just over 74% of the team’s defensive snaps. He finished 2016 as the team’s highest graded interior defender according to Pro Football Focus.
However, with a new inbound coaching regime, talented second-year player Adolphus Washington looking ready to make the jump to a starting role, and a the $6,335,000 in net cap savings,
Having wasted a fantastic career (and one third of his natural life) mired in the consistent disappointment of Buffalo’s 17-year playoff drought, if asked to take a pay cut this offseason, who could blame Williams for saying no?
Patriots’ perspective: Bill Belichick is batting 1.000% when signing aging defensive tackles discarded by the Bills. Should Williams be cut, Belichick could enjoy extracting that last bit of value from a player he has watched dominate the interior of his offensive lines for over a decade. The question would then be; what kind of deal Williams would sign to potentially join Chris Hogan and Alan Branch as former Bills to earn rings in Foxborough?
Brian Robison - Edge - Minnesota Vikings
Current 2016 cap figure: $6.8 million
Dead Money: $1 million
Gross Cap Savings: $5.8 million — Net Cap Savings: $5,335,000
Minnesota’s current cap space: $21.4 million
Current situation: Robison enters his 11th NFL season, and like Kyle Williams, he will turn 34 this spring. Robison has also spent his entire career with the team that drafted him, and although he has played in a handful playoff games, has yet to reach.
The similarities between Robison and Williams’ cap situations bear mentioning as well. The Vikings, like Buffalo, are in the bottom third on the league in terms of current space, and they too have considerable 2017 resources invested up front in Linval Joseph and Everson Griffin, as well as Sharrif Floyd’s $6,757,000 fifth-year option that was picked up last May.
Over his career, Robison’s best ability has been his availability, as he's missed just two career regular season games, the most recent coming in 2012. He has amassed 56 sacks over his career, including 7.5 in 2016 as part of a lethal edge rotation with Danielle Hunter and the aforementioned Griffin.
Patriots’ perspective: Rob Ninkovich and Geneo Grissom are the only two true edge players currently on the 2017 roster. Trey Flowers could be considered a third of course, although his positional versatility along the entire defensive line has been well documented. If cut by Minnesota, Robison could potentially serve as a low-risk, cost-effective option.
Connor Barwin - Edge - Philadelphia
Current 2016 cap figure: $8.35 million
Dead Money: $600,000
Gross Cap Savings: $7.75 million — Net Cap Savings: $7,285,000
Philadelphia’s current cap space: $9.8 million
Current situation: There is no way to sugar coat Barwin’s play in 2016. He was bad. Really bad. And according to PFF’s Nathan Jahnke, he was nearly the worst.
Connor Barwin had a pressure on 1 in every 14.1 pass rushes last year; third worst rate for edge rushers(4-3 DEs/3-4 OLBs)— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) February 21, 2017
Even though the drop off in production is concerning for a player who is just two seasons removed from a 14.5 sack campaign, Barwin continues to display durability, even as he enters his ninth year in the league. The only games the former Cincinnati Bearcat has missed in his career came in 2010, his 2nd season in the league, after injuring an ankle in week one and being placed on IR.
Aside from his regretful 2016 performance, the largest factor looming over Barwin’s potential release is Philadelphia’s bloated salary cap. Eagles are even tighter on cap space than the Vikings and Bills, and they too have a large portion of their cap resources committed to their front seven. The 2017 cap charges of Barwin, Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, and Brandon Graham total $33.25 million. Making matters worse for Barwin is that he's the oldest of the group (he turns 31 in October), and his $600,000 dead money cap charge falls woefully short as a deterrent to his release.
Patriots’ perspective: Barwin’s situation seems to be right in Bill Belichick’s wheel house, especially with the previously outlined deficiency of currently rostered edge defenders. Adding a veteran like Barwin to the mix in training camp on deal comparable to Chris Long’s 2016 pact could be a feasible goal should he become available, but it is unlikely that New England would be his only suitor.
David Harris - LB - New York Jets
Current 2016 cap figure: $6.5 million
Dead Money: $0
Gross Cap Savings: $6.5 million — Net Cap Savings: $6,035,000
New York’s current cap space: $1.4 million
Current situation: Patriots fans have become well-acquainted with this former Michigan Wolverine, who enters his 11th season. Despite the wretched play of his supporting cast in 2016, Harris finished the season as PFF’s 35th ranked linebacker, sandwiched between young stars Ryan Shazier and Lavonte David on the list, who have eight years of combined NFL experience.
The Jets’ hysterical cap situation is likely the worst in football. Harris, along with veteran wide receiver Brandon Marshall and center Nick Mangold, are presumably the most likely casualties.
Patriots’ perspective: With Dont’a Hightower’s 2017 return uncertain, the linebacker position should be a point of emphasis this offseason. Even with the return Hightower in 2017 via a new contract or the Franchise Tag, adding a smart, savvy veteran with something left in the tank couldn’t hurt.
There likely isn’t a coach in football more familiar with David Harris’ game than Bill Belichick, having studied and game planned for him at least two times a year for over a decade.
From Harris’ vantage point, being released and subsequently approached by New England could pose a genuine if you can’t beat em’, join em’ type of scenario. Perhaps the mental push Harris could need to make the jump to Foxborough could come from reflecting on the years of league dominance achieved by his division rival while his club continuously toiled in it’s own ineptitude. Just a thought.
*Numbers compiled utilizing overthecap.com*
Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @b7phillips