1. Back in December, I wrote two Sunday Thoughts covering the New England Patriots’ biggest draft needs (1. Linebacker; 2. Quarterback; t-3. Offensive tackle and Pass rusher; t-5. Defensive tackle and Defensive back) and the 14 players that were set to be free agents at the end of the season.
I had very little say about Marquis Flowers as he had just started to play noticeable snaps on the Patriots defense at this point, but since the start of December he’s played 241 snaps, racking up 27 tackles and 4.5 sacks as a versatile linebacker that the defense needs in today’s NFL.
Flowers can rush the quarterback, he can drop back into coverage against running backs, and he offers enough upside, athleticism, and size to suggest he can develop as a run defender to become a three-down player for New England.
His trajectory really reminds me of Kyle Van Noy, who didn’t join the Patriots until halfway through the 2016 season as a rotational player asked to replace Jamie Collins. Van Noy proved he could fill a role the team had in mind for the rest of 2016 and proved that he could do more, so when he had the full offseason to settle into the Patriots defense for 2017, he was able to emerge as the team’s most consistent linebacker.
I think Flowers can do the same for New England and I think the Patriots should sign him to a two- or three-year deal that would let him settle and flourish in the defense. He’s a great complement that can play the side opposite of Kyle Van Noy and that would allow Dont’a Hightower to move back to his best spot in the middle. All three can be three-down plays and the team could use a rotation as they see fit.
Alternatively, all three could be 100% snap players and the Patriots could take off a defensive tackle to add a defensive back in the nickel. Whatever the plan, Flowers could be a strong part of it.
2. Linebacker would no longer be a seriously pressing need if the Patriots extend the almost-26-year-old Flowers to play with the almost-28-year-old Hightower and almost-27-year-old Van Noy.
They would be joined by the 28-year-old Shea McCellin, 25-year-old Harvey Langi, and almost-24-year-old Elandon Roberts to form a pretty great and versatile linebacker corps that is full of both proven talent, upside, experience, youth, and versatility.
3. I also wouldn’t be surprised if DL Ricky Jean-Francois returned in 2018, a big change in my opinion from December, and that he ultimately takes Alan Branch’s roster spot. The 31-year-old Francois has been a stout run defender and has really picked up what the Patriots need him to accomplish on the defensive line.
New England might not have to draft a defensive tackle with Malcom Brown still having two years left on his deal, Lawrence Guy having three years left, and Vincent Valentine still full of potential.
The Patriots only keep three defensive tackles active on game day, so a fourth defensive tackle would simply be a luxury, but Francois and Valentine should be allowed to vie for the last gameday roster spot.
4. I’m curious about the future for Malcolm Butler because while he’s been an outstanding player for the Patriots, I wonder if teams will hesitate after his up-and-down 2017 season and wonder if his 2016 season was as good as it gets. He still has his same flaws that have been around since day one (double moves) and teams have found a way to pick on that to a certain extent.
I think he’s in the mid-tier #1 cornerback, or high-level #2 cornerback, and I’m not sure how high that market will go for him. The one team that showed interest in him last offseason, the New Orleans Saints, addressed the position and no longer have the need.
Butler will be 28 years old and should still be in his prime for the next four years or so, but that prime doesn’t look the same this offseason as it did last year. He’s probably not going to be that All Pro cornerback that he was in 2016, but I also think he’s better than what he did in 2017. He’s probably that Pro Bowl cornerback from 2015, falling in the 10-20 range when ranking players at the position.
That said, I’d be shocked if some team didn’t give him a $10 million deal, similar to the one that Logan Ryan received last offseason. Butler is better than Ryan and should come in the $10-12 million range.
I would expect Butler to test the market, see what teams are offering, give the Patriots a final chance to make a counter-offer, and then likely sign elsewhere if New England won’t match within reason.
5. I’m also extremely intrigued with what Dion Lewis will receive in free agency. When healthy, he’s a top 5 running back in the NFL and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. The problem is that he’s struggled to stay healthy and so that will affect his value.
That said, I really think we’re about to witness a resurgence in the running back position. Not necessarily from a contract value perspective, because the position is more fungible than most and a higher injury risk, but I do think Lewis should still get a deal in the $5-7 million range. I’d be surprised, but not overly shocked, if it were less than that.