Where there is smoke, there is fire.
By adding former Browns behemoth Danny Shelton to their defensive line last weekend, the Patriots acknowledged the unit’s desperate thirst for an infusion of talent. And next on the front-seven to-do list — even more before discussing flashy off-ball linebacker names like Avery Williamson and Preston Brown — are the edge and interior pass-rushing roles.
However, times are a bit tight. New England’s current cap space figure sits at a shade over $21 million, and as you may have heard, pass-rushing talent doesn’t come cheap. With that in mind, let’s take a gander at three free agent bargains that come with some risk, but also check a few of the proverbial boxes the Patriots are looking to check.
DT Denico Autry
Size: 6’5”, 273 lbs.
NFL Exp: 4 seasons
The former teammate of Benardrick McKinney, Darius Slay, and former Patriots linebacker Deontae Skinner at Mississippi State, Autry went undrafted in 2014 before signing with the Raiders. After being elevated from the practice squad in October of his rookie season, he saw action in 10 games in 2014. He missed just two contest over the following three seasons, while starting 18.
Long-armed and efficient with his power, Autry makes his living as a three-tech sub-rusher in passing situations — although he was asked to contribute in a variety of ways in 2017. He was on the field for 593 plays a year ago — 57% of Oakland’s defensive snaps. He earned five sacks, and swatted away seven passes at the line of scrimmage. Autry has some quickness off the snap, is adept at executing his stunt and game assignments to free up his colleagues, and has even developed a bit of nuance with his interior pass rush.
After playing last season on a low-round restricted free agent tender, the native North Carolinian hits the open market as a bit of an unknown from a dollar value perspective, as his size and skill set render him a bit scheme-dependent. Regardless, his length and slippery nature on the inside would do wonders for the Patriots.
Patriots’ value threshold | Estimated comparable contract: Lawrence Guy, New England
Four years, $14.9 million with $4.9 million guaranteed at signing.
DE Tank Carradine
Size: 6’4”, 276 lbs.
NFL Exp: 5 seasons
Carradine is your prototypical “if he can put it all together for one season”-type player. Unfortunately, he simply hasn’t been able to. But the talent is unquestionably there — and it always has been. In fact, Carradine had so much of talent coming out of Florida State that 49ers selected him with the 40th overall selection in the 2013 draft, even though his entire pre-draft process was compromised by a torn ACL a few months prior in 2012.
After numerous injuries, scheme changes, and positional switches, Carradine signed a one year extension in the winter of 2016 before his rookie deal was up. Evidently, San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had a plan for him.
“I think he’s damn near an elite six-technique.” Saleh told reporters in training camp last summer, according to Ninersnation.com’s James Brady. “To be able to create pocket push from an edge, I think that’s where his home is. There’s no shame in that, I think he’s pretty freaking good at it. That’s where Tank’s strength is. Will he get some inside rush? Yes. He had some success with it.”
In the midst of snap-share battle with third overall pick Solomon Thomas, Carradine suffered a high ankle sprain in 2017 and was placed on IR temporarily before being reinstated. His 214 snaps last season were nearly an even split between between run and pass-rushing plays, and according to PFF, his run defense graded out at 82.6, while he logged a 71.8 grade when rushing the passer.
The massive investment of draft capital the 49ers have poured into their front seven has yielded a handful of young, talented players like the aforementioned Thomas, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner — making Carradine’s departure this offseason a very realistic possibility. From a physical and athletic standpoint, he fits the Patriots’ ideal profile, and could be a viable option if he comes at the right price.
Patriots’ value threshold | Estimated comparable contract: Cornelius Washington, Detroit
Two years, $5.825 million with $1.5 million guaranteed at signing.
DE Pernell McPhee
Size: 6’2”, 272 lbs.
NFL Exp: 7 seasons
For a two month stretch in the fall of 2015, and with the ink barely dried on a new three-year, $24+ million free agent contract, Pernell McPhee was quickly ascending to “elite” status among NFC edge defenders with his powerful, pocket-collapsing bull rushes. However, injuries and a bevy of missed games stand between that player and the guy cut last week by the Bears.
Having been selected by the Ravens in the 5th round of the 2011 draft, the former college teammate of KJ Wright and Fletcher Cox was immediately inserted into Baltimore’s crowded rotation of big-bodied edge-setters and pass-rushers. Over the course of his four years in black and purple, that talented personnel group included names like Terrell Suggs, Paul Kruger, Courtney Upshaw, Albert McClellan, Jameel McClain, Chris Canty, and Dannelle Ellerbe. After missing just four games in four seasons, and racking up 7.5 sacks in 2014, McPhee hit the open market and landed in Chicago.
Never a burner off of the edge, McPhee has always relied on his power and nearly 35” arm length to gain leverage on blockers. Exactly how much of that power he still possesses remains to be seen. Certainly the likelihood is that there isn’t a ton left in the tank. Nonetheless, if a healthy McPhee can provide stout edge-setting and sound tackling in the run game, it can’t hurt to take a flier on him as a potential third down sub-rusher from the interior.
Patriots’ value threshold | Estimated comparable contract: Chris Long, Philadelphia
Two years, $4.5 million with $500,000 guaranteed at signing.