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2018 NFL free agency: Finding the next underutilized backup for the Patriots to sign

Who’s the next end of the depth chart player to get transformed by the Patriot Way?

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Green Bay Packers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Every year, the Patriots bring in new players, either via trade or free agency, from teams that underutilized their skill sets. Just in this past year, the Patriots have turned Marquis Flowers, Johnson Bademosi, Rex Burkhead, Eric Lee, from fringe roster players into guys that made contributions for the team outside of special teams. Before that, the Pats did the same thing with the likes of Chris Hogan, Dion Lewis, Alan Branch, Akeem Ayers, and Sealver Siliga. Here are 6 guys that are free agents this offseason that I believe fit this criteria and the Patriots should target.

Jeff Janis

Jeffery Ronald Janis, perhaps best known for his two miracle Hail Mary plays against the Cardinals in the 2015 playoffs, is more than just a wide receiver. To me, this looks awfully similar to the Chris Hogan situation. Janis is a big receiver at 6’3 219, and he’s an athletic freak. Janis ran a 4.42 at the combine with a blistering 6.62 3 cone time that has Belichick salivating.

Jeff “Chris ‘Randy Moss’ Hogan” Janis

Of course Janis was a huge project, playing D-II football at Saginaw Valley State and not knowing how to run routes very well. His rawness and inexperience showed in Green Bay. Janis has never played more than 22% of offensive snaps in a season and this past year, he was passed on the depth chart by Geronimo Allison, Trevor Davis and Michael Clarke. Janis played just 50 offensive snaps in 2017, less than 5%.

On the other hand, Janis was a huge contributor on special teams (like Chris Hogan was in Buffalo) and was active for all 16 games last year for the 3rd consecutive year. Janis has played over 60% of special teams snaps the last 3 years and has experience as a kick returner. He was the Green Bay finalist for a special teams spot in the Pro Bowl last year as a gunner, and has 22 special teams tackles over the last 3 years.

To me this is a match made in heaven for the Patriots. Janis embodies everything Belichick likes, from his athletic measureables, to his special teams prowess and gritty work ethic coming from humble beginnings at a D-II school. Janis will not be expensive and the Patriots could groom him as a potential Matt Slater replacement or even give him another shot on offense.

Kareem Martin

Kareem Martin will probably be the most expensive player on this list. Originally a 3rd round pick by the Arizona Cardinals back in 2014, Martin struggled to see the field in the 3-4 the Cardinals ran during his first 3 seasons. Built like a tank at 6’6 272, Martin was a college defensive end that tried to transition to outside linebacker in the NFL, similar to the strategy the Dolphins tried with Dion Jordan before he ran into off the field issues.

Martin played just 360 defensive snaps his first 3 years in the NFL, including just 33 in a 13 game campaign in 2016, before playing 457 defensive snaps (43%) in his contract year. Martin probably fits best as a 1st and 2nd down defensive end in a 4-3 and a 3-4 defensive end in sub packages, but his time as a linebacker has made him a strong coverage defender for such a heavy position. The Patriots had several packages this year where guys like Cassius Marsh, Trey Flowers, and Eric Lee dropped into coverage on running backs or in shallow zones. Martin would be a definite upgrade in that role.

Martin turns 26 tomorrow and has just entering his physical prime. Having a large and physical edge player that has outside linebacker experience is right up Bill Belichick’s alley. He played in a 3-4 his entire Cardinals career after playing 4-3 DE in North Carolina, Martin should be able to grasp the concepts of the Patriots’ hybrid scheme. Martin finished 2017 with a PFF grade of 75 and was productive throughout. He’s probably looking at a deal in the range of Shea McClellin (3/9.1) to John Simon (3/13.5) but that could end of being a bargain if utilized correctly. As always, it’s also worth noting his special teams contributions, where he’s played over 65% of snaps over the last 3 years. Martin even performed double duty last year, playing 64% of special teams snaps while starting 10 games.

Zach Zenner (RFA)

Zenner, a big running back (6’0 220) out of DI-AA South Dakota State was an electric college player. With the Jackrabbits, Zenner rushed for over 2,000 rushing yards in each of his final 3 years at school. He finished his college career with 6,548 rushing yards, 11 shy of the DI-AA all time record.

Scouts in the 2015 draft were split on whether Zenner would be a running back or a fullback at the next level. Zenner ran a 4.6 40 yard dash at the combine to go with a 6.88 3 cone and was ultimately signed to play running back for the Lions as an UDFA. So far in his career, Zenner has been buried on the depth chart but has seen time on the field as a goal line/short yardage back (5 TDs in 119 career rushing attempts) and actually saw extensive time as a 3rd down back in 2016 when Theo Riddick was injured because he was the best pass protecting running back on the team.

Zenner played a much bigger role on special teams in 2017, playing 61% of the snaps as the starting personal protector on punts. Nate Ebner, Jordan Richards, and Brandon Bolden have filled that role in the past and Zenner figures to be an upgrade over the latter two. Zenner could also fit into the equation if the Patriots cut Mike Gillislee or fail to re-sign Dion Lewis.

As a restricted free agent, Zenner has a chance to receive an original round tender prior to free agency (~1.85 million), but the Lions are pretty cap strapped and may want to spend that money on someone other than their 4th string running back. I could also see a scenario similar what unfolded in Seattle last year, when they gave Garry Gilliam an original round tender (1.79 million) and then just let him go when another team offered him a modest raise. A 1 year/2.2 million dollar offer sheet was enough for the 49ers to pry him away, and the Seahawks received no compensation. Even as a RFA, the Patriots will be able to sign Zenner if they want him badly enough.

Will Clarke

Clarke is a former 3rd rounder from the 2014 NFL Draft. Spending his first 3 years in Cincinnati as a seldom used backup, Clarke was released during the final cuts but was signed by the Buccaneers immediately after clearing waivers. Clarke was a backup early in the 2017 season- he played just 6 defensive snaps when the Patriots and Bucs played week 5- but his role on defense grew steadily as the season went on. From weeks 12-17, Clarke played over 50% of defensive snaps. He led the Buccaneers in sacks amongst defensive ends, although that says more about the sad state of their pass rush than Clarke’s actual production (2.5 sacks).

Clarke is a big defensive end and has a similar body type as Chandler Jones at 6’6 270, long arms and all. He’s entering his age 27 season and will likely be able to be signed for not much more than the vet minimum. He was serviceable according to PFF and also played 47% of special teams stats. He fits what Belichick values in a rotational EDGE player.

Bonus mildly interesting fact: In 881 career defensive snaps played and 344 special teams snaps played, Clarke has never had an accepted penalty.

Troy Niklas

Troy Niklas is what the worst case scenario for Rob Gronkowski was. A hyped 2nd round pick out of Notre Dame in 2014 and standing tall at 6’7 270, Niklas fit the mold of the next dominant two-way tight end. Unfortunately, he just couldn’t stay healthy and he couldn’t find a rhythm when he did see the field. His first three seasons in the NFL, Niklas started seven games and had six surgeries, a less than ideal ratio.

Nicklas had his most productive season in 2017 as the number two tight end behind Jermaine Gresham, but he still failed to put up big numbers, catching only 11 balls on 23 targets, playing 37% of offensive snaps. Still, the man is 6’7 270 and in a more productive offense he could be a dynamic option in the red zone. With both Dwayne Allen and Martellus Bennett about to be cut this offseason due to their contracts, there is a definite need for a number two tight end. Niklas is a clear low risk/high reward player.

Corey Nelson

Corey Nelson might be my favorite option out of these six for the Patriots. An inside linebacker that has spent his entire 4-year career with the Broncos, he has filled in admirably when injuries forced him into a starting role. Originally a 7th round pick, Nelson immediately found a role on special teams. He was active for all 48 games from 2014-16 and played over 65% of special teams snaps.

In 2016, Nelson got extensive playing time for the first time in his career, starting 6 games and playing 48% of defensive snaps at linebacker when Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall missed time due to injury. Nelson was a very solid contributor, especially in pass coverage. The Patriots sorely missed having an inside linebacker that could cover this season after Hightower was lost for the season.

When Nelson returned in 2017 his starting job was given back to Davis and his season ended after only 5 games when he tore his bicep. That injury will depress his value when looking for his next contract, but I have no doubt that Belichick will look into him. From a interview that he gave in 2015, Nelson specifically mentioned the Patriots as one of the few teams that was interested in him coming out of school. Denver ended up selecting Nelson in the 7th round with the 242nd pick, two spots before the Patriots picked at 244.

Nelson says it was a crazy process. First, he partially tore his pectoral muscle as a senior at Oklahoma. He says as a result many agents weren’t interested in him. “But one agent, Kelli Masters, said ‘You know what, I’m going to take a shot on this guy.’ And she took care of my training, took care of my recovery.” He wound up having a good workout at Oklahoma’s Pro Day, and his agent was in talks with the New England Patriots to possibly sign there as a free agent after the draft. But the Denver Broncos had other plans.

Nelson’s special teams background, his depressed value going into free agency, the Patriots’ long held interest, and his effectiveness as a coverage linebacker checks off all of Bill Belichick’s boxes. Look for the Patriots to target Nelson, especially if Marquis Flowers takes a larger contract offer from another team in free agency.

In the NFL, there are more backups on rosters than starters, it’s just simple math. For many that are buried on the depth chart, they still have the talent to become contributors, they just need a change of scenery and for some team to give them that opportunity. Year after year, the Patriots try to identify these guys and use it as a market inefficiency. And this offseason, they have a healthy bunch of candidates.