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How will the Patriots 2017 free agents affect compensatory picks in 2018?

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The Patriots could receive a lot of early picks in 2018.

The New England Patriots have 13 unrestricted free agents which will affect the compensatory pick math for the 2018 season. Teams generally receive compensatory draft picks in rounds three through seven if they lose more unrestricted free agents than they sign, up to a maximum of four compensatory picks. Teams that lose the most “value” in free agency receive the best compensatory picks- and now that compensatory picks are tradeable, they’re more valuable than ever.

There are a few stipulations. Players that are released do not affect the compensatory calculations and players must be signed roughly before the start of training camp. A player’s “value” is determined by a mix of their contract, playing time, and postseason accolades, such as Pro Bowl and All Pro distinctions. Players with 10 or more seasons can only accrue a maximum of a fifth round compensatory pick, according to OverTheCap, regardless of actual value; Patriots DT Alan Branch is the team’s only unrestricted free agent that falls into this category.

The Patriots received a fifth round pick for losing DT Akiem Hicks to the Chicago Bears in free agency, while losing S Tavon Wilson to the Detroit Lions canceled out the signing of LB Shea McClellin. The Patriots also received a third from the Cleveland Browns as a result of the Jamie Collins trade.

Looking at OverTheCap’s figures, we can come up with a rough estimate for the contract value of players and how they will impact future compensatory picks. This isn’t an exact table, but simply a rough outline and a way to evaluate the Patriots upcoming free agents.

Third round: $9 million or more per year

Candidates: LB Dont’a Hightower, TE Martellus Bennett, CB Logan Ryan

Hightower is a lock for this tier, while Bennett and Ryan could hit the lower limit if some team goes crazy in free agency. $9 million per year is the same as TE Rob Gronkowski and represents the fifth highest annual cost for a tight end in the NFL. It also represents the 14th highest cost for a cornerback, which is why Ryan is a stretch for this tier.

Fourth round: $6-$9 million per year

Candidates: Bennett, Ryan, EDGE Jabaal Sheard

Bennett and Ryan could also (and maybe more probably will) slot into this range. Sheard is a player that might not receive consideration for this range at first glance, but if you heard that Sheard signed a 3-year, $18 million contract, would you even think twice about it? Sheard’s coming off a contract where he averaged $5.5 million per season, so a $6 million per year deal under an increased salary cap is actually pretty reasonable.

Fifth round: $5-6 million per year

Candidates: Sheard, S Duron Harmon

Sheard could land in this range, too. If teams project Harmon as a starting safety, he could easily earn a contract at this level. $5-6 million is the 15th-to-23rd ranked safeties, so a slightly above-average safety could sign at this level.

Sixth round: $3-5 million per year

Candidates: Sheard, Harmon, DT Alan Branch, WR Michael Floyd, EDGE Chris Long, RB LeGarrette Blount

Who knows what Sheard is worth? I could see both he and Harmon falling anywhere from $4-6 million per year. Branch is coming off a 2-year, $4.3 million contract, so this would represent a big pay bump. It’s hard to see the team paying Branch $5.0 million per year when that is what they allowed Akiem Hicks to sign for with the Chicago Bears. I think a 2-year, $7 million deal makes sense for Branch.

Floyd will sign at a discount because of his off-the-field problems, but he would probably demand upwards for $8 million on the open market. Don’t be surprised if he signs a cheap 1-year, $4 million prove-it deal with the Patriots to rehabilitate his image.

Long is coming off a 1-year, $2.375 million contract and will probably sign a similar deal this offseason. The same applies for Blount and his 1-year deal with a $1 million base and $750,000 in yardage incentives; look for the reigning rushing touchdown leader Blount to sign a $1-year, $2 million contract with the Patriots. Both of these players fall into this category because it only takes one team to with an open checkbook to write down a crazy contract.

Seventh round: $1-3 million per year

Candidates: Floyd, Long, Blount, FB James Develin, RB Brandon Bolden, LB Barkevious Mingo

Floyd, Long, and Blount could easily fall in this category, too. The only fullback to play on a contract greater than $2.5 million per season over the past three years was Raiders FB Marcel Reece, who signed a 4-year, $12.45 million contract. Develin hits the fullback market alongside Falcons FB Patrick DiMarco and Ravens FB Kyle Juszczyk, the three best fullbacks in the entire league, so we could be entering new territory for lead blockers. Smart money is on Develin signing a deal in the $2-3 million per season range.

Bolden and Mingo are pure special teams players, but Bolden is coming off a contract that averaged $1.16 million per season, while Mingo is a former first round pick with tremendous athletic upside; he could easily get a deal valued at greater than $1 million per season.

No picks: <$1 million per year

Candidates: Bolden, Mingo, TE Greg Scruggs

All three players could get the league minimum, too.

If the Patriots sign an unrestricted free agent- someone that wasn’t released by their previous team- then the new player cancels out whatever compensatory pick the Patriots were set to receive from that tier. For example, if the Patriots sign RB Le’Veon Bell for $8 million per season, then the Patriots would no longer receive a 4th round compensatory pick if they lost Bennett to another team for $8 million per season.

What is the most likely scenario for the Patriots? Assuming New England finds a way to retain Hightower, the Patriots could net two fourth round picks for Bennett and Ryan and two fifth round picks for Sheard and Harmon. Since the maximum number of compensatory picks is four, this is all the Patriots would receive, regardless of the other players.