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2018 NFL free agency: Previewing potential Patriots targets

Previewing potential targets for the Patriots in the 2018 free agency class.

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NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, the Patriots were one of the most aggressive teams at the start of the league year when they inked cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a massive contract and traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks.

Those two additions helped reboot the 2016 Super Bowl Champions and got them a few plays away from repeating in the big game. This year, the Patriots don’t have the same luxury when it comes to salary cap space.

As it stands right now, after a few roster cuts, the Patriots have $22,671,063 in salary cap space according to cap guru Miguel Benzan (aka @patscap). They also have key free agents to re-sign such as left tackle Nate Solder, wide receiver Danny Amendola, and running backs Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead.

With that said, although we probably won’t see the same fireworks as last offseason, the Patriots still have the cap flexibility to add talent to the roster in free agency.

Pipe Dreams

Cornerback Trumaine Johnson (Expected APY: $13.6 million)

Out of everyone on this list, Johnson is the least likely to land on the Patriots next season, but he’s also the best fit in this class. At 6-2, 213 pounds, Johnson’s body type and playing style resembles that of Stephon Gilmore’s. Johnson is a great fit with the Patriots because he has the ability to play press-man coverage at a high level. Johnson graded out as the top press-man corner in the NFL last season with an 84% “in position” rate according to cornerback wiz Ian Wharton. Johnson’s play dipped a bit last season when his overall PFF grade dropped to 74.3 from 80.5 in 2016, but he allowed a lower passer rating into his coverage last season than in 2016 (79.8 vs. 89.4). A cornerback duo of Johnson and Stephon Gilmore on the outside would be among the NFL’s best tandems.

Wide Receiver Sammy Watkins (Expected APY: $11 million)

Sticking with the former Rams theme, the market for Sammy Watkins is well below his talent level because of back-to-back disappointing seasons. Since 2016, Watkins has just 1,023 receiving yards and ten touchdowns. However, when you turn on the tape, you’ll find that Rams quarterback Jared Goff cost Watkins an unfathomable amount of receiving yards due to a number of inaccurate deep throws last season. In 2017, Goff was accurate on just six of 20 passes of 16-plus air yards that went in Watkins’ direction, according to Johnny Kinsley (aka @brickwallblitz). I expect teams to realize this and pay Watkins accordingly. However, if his market remains soft, the Patriots’ quarterback will have no problems throwing deep to Watkins. Wide receiver may not seem like a need for the Patriots this offseason, but they’ll need to get a few guys under contract for 2019 and beyond:

Top-End of Patriots’ Market ($6-$10 million range):

Linebacker Preston Brown (Expected APY: $8.5 million)

The Patriots have made a habit out of poaching players from the Bills, and Preston Brown may be the next Buffalo standout to join the enemy. Since his rookie season in 2014, only Seahawks All-Pro Bobby Wagner has more tackles than Brown (504), and Brown has already expressed interest in joining the Patriots. In 2017, Brown had his best season in coverage in his four-year career, receiving a 71.4 coverage grade from PFF. The Pats will likely look to the draft to add youth, talent, and speed to their off the ball linebacker group, but Brown would be a plug and play starter if they want to go the free agency route.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro (Expected APY: $7 million)

Vaccaro and the Patriots have long had mutual interest dating back to the 2013 draft. Vaccaro’s role in the Saints defense last season was similar to Patrick Chung’s role in the Patriots defense, primarily playing as a slot defender. Vaccaro struggled in coverage but ranked fourth among all safeties in run stop percentage last season (5.3%), and brings another athletic, physical player to the secondary. Vaccaro would be a bit redundant to Chung, but the Patriots need more talent in the secondary, and they’ve shown interest in Vaccaro in the past.

Tight End Jimmy Graham (Expected APY: $7 million)

A Jimmy Graham-Rob Gronkowski tight end duo for the Patriots would be all kinds of fun. Graham’s production dipped in Seattle, but the Seahawks struggled to figured out how to use the five-time Pro Bowler. In New Orleans, Graham had 60 catches of 20-plus yards in five seasons. With the Seahawks, Graham wasn’t targeted on big plays in the passing game despite being a big play machine in New Orleans, and he only had one reception of 20-plus yards last season. The Seahawks did figure out that Graham was one of the NFL’s best red zone threats when he hauled in a league-leading ten red zone touchdowns in 2017. The Patriots could use another pass-catching tight end with Dwayne Allen managing just ten receptions a year ago and Martellus Bennett likely out of the picture. Having two 6-7 tight ends with ball skills and leaping ability would be a nightmare for opposing defenses.

Linebacker Nigel Bradham (Expected APY: $6 million)

The off the ball linebacker class isn’t great in free agency this offseason, but Bradham would be a massive upgrade for the Patriots at the position. Bradham posted back-to-back seasons of strong play with an overall PFF grade of above 80 and earned an 86.9 coverage grade in 2017, which ranked sixth among all NFL linebackers. Bradham isn’t much of a run stopper, but he’d be the best coverage linebacker on the Patriots right away. There will be a lot of teams vying for Bradham’s services in free agency, but he’d help the Patriots immensely if they can get him in the building.

Cornerback Patrick Robinson (Expected APY: $6 million)

At age 30, Patrick Robinson had a breakout season manning the slot for the Super Bowl Champion Eagles. Robinson finished the season with a 90.7 overall PFF grade, which ranked sixth among all cornerbacks last season. He also allowed a passer rating of just 65.2 into his coverage out of the slot, which ranked fifth among qualified slot corners. The Patriots struggled mightily to find a consistent slot defender last season. When healthy, they tried Eric Rowe in the slot which yielded mixed results, and safety Patrick Chung had to take on some of those responsibilities as well. Adding Robinson would stabilize things in the slot for the Patriots, and allow them to focus on finding a boundary corner in the draft, or leave Eric Rowe on the outside where he’s a more natural fit.

Cornerback E.J. Gaines (Expected APY: $6 million)

Gaines has had an up and down career since entering the league in 2014, but he was terrific last season playing outside cornerback opposite of Bills rookie Tre’Davious White. Gaines received an 86.6 overall grade from PFF last season which ranked 13th among all cornerbacks. He also allowed a passer rating of just 74.8 and one touchdown into his coverage all of last season. The only hesitation with Gaines would be that the Bills are a heavy zone coverage team and the Patriots usually play man coverage. But he quietly put together one of the better seasons for a cornerback last season and would be a reliable option to start alongside Stephon Gilmore.

Cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman (Expected APY: $5 million)

Robey-Coleman is another potential free agent that could play slot corner for the Patriots next season. The former Bill has been a productive slot corner throughout his career and received a career-high 84.9 overall grade from Pro Football Focus in 2017. Robey-Coleman spends most of the time in the slot, but he also played a career-high 184 snaps outside for the Rams last season. He will be a reliable and affordable option if the Patriots don’t make a big splash to acquire a cornerback this offseason.

Low-End of Patriots’ Market (Under $5 million):

Running Back Jerick McKinnon (Expected APY: $4 million)

The market for Vikings free agent running back Jerick McKinnon could get pricey due to his age (25) and a breakout season in 2017 (career-high 991 scrimmage yards), but his fit with the Patriots is obvious. McKinnon had his best season rushing the football setting career-highs in rushing yards in 2017 (570). He ran behind one of the league’s worst run-blocking offensive lines and yet remained efficient due to his ability to make people miss and run through contact. He forced a missed tackle every five carries, which ranked eighth-best in the NFL a year ago. McKinnon has always been a capable receiver and you could see him taking over Dion Lewis’ role in the offense.

Defensive End William Hayes (Expected APY: $3.5 million)

Over the last six seasons, Hayes has been one of the best kept secrets in the NFL. He received a career-high grade of 85.6 from Pro Football Focus last season, and ranked fifth among 4-3 defensive ends in run-stop percentage (11.7). The Patriots already traded for nose tackle Danny Shelton to improve their run defense, and Hayes is another potential steal on the defensive line.

Wide Receiver Albert Wilson (Expected APY: $2 million)

Albert Wilson is underrated. Yes, I know he only has 1,544 receiving yards in four seasons, but when you turn on the tape, you see a very skilled receiver. Wilson is a devastating route runner who consistently creates separation and is also terrific after the catch with 317 of his 554 receiving yards coming after the catch last season. Wilson would provide solid depth at the position and could serve as a backup plan if Danny Amendola does leave in free agency.

(h/t Pro Football Focus)