The New England Patriots have a lot of cap space this season and they’d prefer to use it on their extensive list of free agents. Head coach Bill Belichick likes to rewards players that have performed in his system because they’re more of a sure thing than adding a player that was developed in another system.
Well, the Patriots will have to open up their check book because they have 6 of the top 50 free agents according to CBS’s Pete Prisco.
3. LB Dont’a Hightower
“He is a big part of New England’s defensive success the past few years and must be kept. He can rush, cover, and hold up in the run game.”
Hightower is one of two stand-up linebackers to make Prisco’s list, along with one-dimensional run-stuffer Cardinals LB Kevin Minter, who ranks 38th. Hightower is one of the top free agents in the entire NFL and it wouldn’t be a surprise if a team like the Jaguars ponied up a large portion of their cap space to try and swipe Hightower from the Patriots.
18. TE Martellus Bennett
“He had a solid season for the Patriots last year, flashing big-time talent at times. He’s also a capable blocker.”
Bennett is joined by Packers TE Jared Cook (44th) and Titans TE Anthony Fasano (48th), so it’s clear that Bennett is the top tight end in free agency. He battled an ankle injury and did everything the Patriots asked of him en route to a Super Bowl title. He might be one-and-done in New England without really ever using a healthy two-tight end package.
32. CB Logan Ryan
“He might not be a Pro Bowl corner, but he’s a productive starter in a good system. That matters.”
Ryan is the 5th ranked cornerback on this list and I think he should be higher up. He’s not a #1 cornerback, but his performances against the likes of DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones, albeit with safety help, and ability to stop the run in the slot makes Ryan an extremely valuable cornerback.
34. DT Alan Branch
“He was a force against the run for the Patriots the past two years, especially last season. At 32, he can still help a team looking for a one-dimensional run defender.”
The Patriots want to keep Branch around, but I will scratch my head if they offer the same 2-year, $10 million that DT Akiem Hicks received to join the Chicago Bears. Hicks wanted to be in Chicago and the Patriots wanted to keep Hicks, but that’s an extremely palatable contract they let walk in free agency.
36. S Duron Harmon
“He has 12 starts in his four seasons with the Patriots, but he’s been a big part of what they do in terms of sub-packages over the years. He can step in and be a nice starter for a team. He just turned 26 in January.”
Harmon is one of the top safety free agents this year in a league that really needs good safety play. Harmon hasn’t started much due to the strength of Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, but he’s been the 5th defensive back on the field for much of the past two seasons and is a valuable contributor. He’s also super young.
40. EDGE Jabaal Sheard
“He had 13 sacks for the Patriots the past two seasons, but fell out of favor some with the staff last season when his production dipped from eight sacks to five. He is only 27.”
Sheard is young, too, and if he can find his 2015 ability, then he’ll put his roller coaster 2016 season in the rearview. He’s a boom-bust candidate for a team, and his “bust” is still a valuable contributor.
Prisco also connects the Patriots to 33rd-ranked Packers DB Micah Hyde, saying that Hyde “can do a lot of things, and there’s great value in that. He would be perfect in New England.”
Hyde is a name that is interesting because the Packers used him in the exact same way as the Patriots utilized Patrick Chung. Hyde spends roughly a third of his time in the slot, a third of his time at linebacker, and a third of his time as a safety. He is also a huge special teams contributor.
Hyde has been laughably consistent in his production in the NFL. He has between 55-61 tackles, between 1-2 forced fumbles and recoveries, and exactly one sack in each of his four years. He has posted 2-3 interceptions in the past three seasons and 6-9 passes defended. The 6’0, 200 pound defensive back is just 26 years old and possesses a 6.78s three cone time and wait a minute, he’s perfect for the Patriots!
Hyde could be a perfect replacement if Harmon leaves in free agency and could be the eventual replacement for Chung assuming Jordan Richards follows along his current trajectory.