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Quick hit thoughts on the Patriots and the first day of NFL free agency 2017

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Let’s take a look at a busy first day of the new league year.

In years past, the New England Patriots have usually entered the new league year by not doing a lot of noteworthy transactions. 2017 is different, though. The Patriots made one of the biggest splashes yesterday and have set themselves up to follow with more blockbuster moves.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves and into speculation, let’s take a look at the facts and analyze what the first day of free agency means for the Patriots.

On paper, the team has one of the NFL’s best secondaries...

Signing Stephon Gilmore to a 5-year, $65.0 million deal came out of the blue, but the move set the Patriots up well to stay deep in the secondary even with Logan Ryan about to leave the team as a free agent. New England’s current top cornerback group now consists of Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe and Gilmore and together with safeties Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon – he of a new 4-year, $20.0 million contract – they instantly form one of the best secondaries in the NFL.

...but it still faces questions

Question number one: Malcolm Butler. After contract negotiations with the restricted free agent reportedly went nowhere, the Pro Bowl cornerback might become part of a trade to acquire New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Losing Butler would leave Gilmore and Rowe as the top two corners on the roster and put more emphasis on the second major question.

Question number two: Slot/depth cornerbacks. Gilmore, Rowe and Butler have all been exclusively used as perimeter cornerbacks over the last two years. This seemingly leaves a void at the slot position. One way to fill it would be moving Butler to the inside in three-corner packages, like the Patriots did in Super Bowl XLIX. If Butler leaves, though, New England might have to turn to Cyrus Jones, move safety Devin McCourty down, or use a draft pick. While the outside is well-manned, for now the inside looks less than settled.

Two core defenders were kept in the fold

While signing Gilmore took most of the spotlight, the Patriots were able to re-sign two major defensive contributors. One of those core defenders that has been re-signed yesterday is Alan Branch. The 32-year old was New England’s best interior lineman last season and was on the field for more than 60% of the team’s defensive snaps. With him agreeing to a 2-year, $12 million contract, the Patriots are able to keep their defensive tackle rotation alive.

For one, the team kept the above-mentioned Duron Harmon. The team’s number three safety played around 50% of defensive snaps in 2016 and allows New England to get creative in their usage of Devin McCourty. While the 26-year old Harmon lacks McCourty’s athleticism and versatility, he is an able centerfielder, has shown a knack for the big play, and has emerged as a team leader – one that has earned his 4-year, $20 million contract.

The Patriots look like the frontrunner for Dont’a Hightower

New England’s biggest name on the free agency market remains unsigned. While the Tennessee Titans and Miami Dolphins both expressed interest in the 26-year old, it seems as if the Patriots are the frontrunner when it comes to signing linebacker. According to a report by Jason La Canfora, the Patriots are making "a concerted effort to re-sign" their 2016 team captain. Despite signing Gilmore, the Patriots still have enough salary cap space to meet Hightower’s reported asking price of $10-$13 million.

While New England’s defensive edge remains thin...

One of the positions the Patriots did not address yesterday was the defensive edge. With Chris Long set to leave the team and no reports about Jabaal Sheard returning, Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich and Geneo Grissom remain the lone edge defenders currently under contract. There are intriguing options available, though, headed by Connor Barwin, who was released by the Philadelphia Eagles yesterday.

...the depth at tight end grows

With Martellus Bennett saying goodbye to New England, so does a quality tight end. The Patriots have bolstered the depth at the position, though, over the last hours. Not only did its trade for Dwayne Allen become official yesterday, the team also re-signed blocking tight end Michael Williams to a one-year contract. Because of the moves, New England currently has five tight ends – plus a sixth emergency option in fullback James Develin – on its roster.

The team might have earned a compensatory draft pick

Yesterday, the Patriots signed one outside free agent – Stephone Gilmore – while losing two of its own in Logan Ryan and linebacker Barkevious Mingo. Ryan signed a 3-year, $30 million contract with the Tennessee Titans yesterday, which should effectively be offset by signing Gilmore in the compensatory draft pick formula. This leaves one player, Mingo, in the equation. The former Cleveland Brown signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts. It might be enough to earn the Patriots one late compensatory pick – at least for now.

New England could create more cap space

The Patriots have spent big in signing Gilmore and re-signing Harmon and Branch. With a potential Hightower-deal still on the horizon as well as other transactions sure to come, the team might be in need for additional salary cap space. In order to create that, New England could look at one of its top wide receivers: Danny Amendola is still on the books for a $7.79 million cap hit – too hefty a price tag for a number three receiver and a potential candidate for a restructure to free up additional cap space.