Redditor /u/slywalkerr posed an interesting question for San Francisco 49ers fans about which former player that is still in the league would they want back in San Francisco. Most 49ers fans mentioned TE Delanie Walker, who left to carve out a nice career with the Tennessee Titans and is still playing at a high level, coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl years with 1,935 yards and 13 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
I thought it’d be interesting to ask the same question for the Patriots because there aren’t many former Patriots that are still tearing up the league.
For the sake of discussion, I won’t look at players that left the Patriots after the start of the 2016 season, which includes free agency departures like CB Logan Ryan and TE Martellus Bennett. These are clearly players still operating at a high level and, sure, of course it’d be great to retain the Super Bowl roster.
Instead, I’ll look at players that have already spent a full year or more with another team to see which ones have excelled away from New England.
For example, RB Shane Vereen left the Patriots after the 2014 season to sign with the New York Giants. He has gained 1,007 yards and scored 5 touchdowns over those two seasons, maintaining a similar pace of production as he had in New England. Of course the Patriots have both James White and Dion Lewis filling in the same role- and I would rather have James White and Dion Lewis in 2017 than Vereen.
This approach also eliminates players coming off of injuries or those past their prime (Ravens TE Ben Watson and Ravens RB Danny Woodhead).
So with this in mind, here are 12 players that could have improved the Patriots for 2017.
OG Josh Kline
That’s it. Seriously. Kline might not be a starter, but he’d be an improvement over Ted Karras as the back-up swing player. There aren’t many tight ends that would be a clear improvement over the current Patriots depth chart, nor are there any former running backs or wide receivers that have escaped the team.
That’s not a dig against the likes of Brandon LaFell- but when constructing a full roster, would you take LaFell over Amendola’s special teams value and ability to back-up Julian Edelman?
Kline might be the only former offensive player that would definitely crack the Patriots roster.
DL Akiem Hicks, DL Chandler Jones, DL Dominique Easley, LB Jamie Collins, DB Darius Butler, CB Aqib Talib, CB Darryl Roberts, CB Sterling Moore, CB Cre’Von LeBlanc, SS Tavon Wilson
There are a handful of defenders that could definitely improve the roster. Chandler Jones (contract notwithstanding) is still searching for greater consistency, but he would absolutely still start opposite of Trey Flowers in this defense. Akiem Hicks would possibly be the best defensive tackle on the roster, while Dominique Easley is perfectly made for the role currently held by Flowers.
Of course, Easley is not an organizational fit in New England and that’s why he was sent away, but he did well as a reserve for the Rams and his production on the field was never in question.
Jamie Collins also had his differences, but there’s no question that he would start next to Dont’a Hightower at linebacker. There are very few players in the league with his ability to defend the run and pass, while also rush the quarterback and the Patriots needed to use a rotation of players to replace Collins.
Prior to the 2016 season, the Patriots made the decision to keep Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones, and Justin Coleman over the likes of Cre’Von LeBlanc and Darryl Roberts. While those three failed to make an impact on defense, LeBlanc and Roberts started for the Bears and Jets, respectively, and held their own. LeBlanc was one of the best slot corners in the league, while Roberts allowed the lowest rate of completion by any cornerback in 2016.
Butler, Moore, and Wilson are bigger surprises, but there’s no doubt they would improve the Patriots. Butler is a solid slot cornerback and was always better suited for physical man-coverage versus the heavy zone used during his time in New England. Butler has actually moved to safety for the Colts where he was one of the best coverage safeties in the league.
Moore has bounced around the league and the Patriots have had multiple opportunities to bring him back, but have decided to go in a different direction. Moore is above average whenever he steps on the field and has 3 interceptions, 19 passes defended, 4 forced fumbles, and 5 tackles for loss over the past three seasons with three separate teams (Cowboys, Buccaneers, Saints).
Wilson found a niche with the Detroit Lions in the Patrick Chung role, where the Patriots envisioned he’d play after drafting him in the second round. Wilson might have just needed a change of scenery to find his footing, but he was the player for Detroit that the Patriots hoped he’d become.
Talib is a superstar and could improve every team in the league.
K Adam Vinatieri
Would Vinatieri beat out Stephen Gostkowski? Doubt it, thanks to Gostkowski’s kickoff ability, but over the past three seasons Vinatieri has connected on 82 of 89 field goals (92.1%) versus Gostkowski’s 95 of 105 attempts (90.5%). Of course, Vinatieri and Gostkowski are two of just three kickers hitting 90+% of their field goals over the past three years (min. 50 attempts), so we’re just splitting hairs.
This is mostly just a chance to highlight that Vinatieri is still in the league and playing at an absurdly high level.
Gostkowski has hit 244 of 257 kicking attempts (94.9%) over the past three years, the most kicks made over that span. Packers K Mason Crosby and Panthers K Graham Gano are tied for second with 210 kicks made. Cowboys K Dan Bailey is fourth with 209 kicks made and Vinatieri is fifth with 208 kicks made.
Gostkowski (244 made, 94.9%), Bailey (209 made, 95.0%), and Vinatieri (208 made, 95.4%) are clearly the top of the league with regards to both volume and efficiency.