Shock. I honestly think that is the best way I can describe my investigation of the Patriots roster situation in 2019. My cursory examination earlier this year was fairly optimistic. The Patriots would have only two priority free agents in the form of Shaq Mason and Trey Flowers. I essentially considered Shaq a lost cause. The Patriots cannot afford to spend a mountain of money on a fringe top 10 RG who will always be a better run blocker than pass protector. I thought if they gave up on Shaq they would have a chance to pay for Flowers because he's never gotten close to being a double digit sack artist. That offseason did not seem like a very intimidating one.
Boy was I wrong. Upon reviewing the roster for my Morning Musings article I realized I had underestimated the extent of our 2019 off season challenges. That realization prompted this investigation. Fair warning: it's not doom and gloom but it ain't warm and rosy either.
Projecting a roster one year out is going to be inherently flawed to an extent. Some of these projections will change based on player performance this year. Some of that will be goods news but some of that will absolutely be bad. I believe there is enough of a foundation here to realistically project into the future and provide a beneficially foundation to inform roster debate throughout the 2018 season.
This article will examine projected roster needs, the state of the franchise core, it's cap situation and make an analysis of the 2019 draft season based on those variables.
Projected Roster Needs
The entire wide receiver core
Cordarelle Patterson, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Riley McCarron, Eric Decker and Devin Lucien will all be free agents. 33 year old Julian Edelman will be the only legitimate wide receiver remaining on the roster. The only other WR will be 7th round bubble player Baxton Berrios, who may not even make the roster in 2018, and "wide receiver" Mathew Slater.
That's not good fellas. The only legitimate wide receiver on the roster is 33. And anyone (if there is anyone) who actually steps up and performs as a legitimate WR2 during the regular season will have to be brought back on a legitimate WR2 contract. The market for wide receivers was blown open in 2018. Part of the reasons we traded Cooks is that we knew we could not afford him in 2019 because of how many ridiculous 2018 contracts were signed. But that exploding market will not stop with WR1's and will trickle down to WR2 contracts. The basement for that future contract is almost certainly in the 6.5 million dollar range. That is the value of the contract signed by top tier WR3 free agent Taylor Gabriel this year. Yes, yes, Brady will always make lemonade out of lemons but it's not a coincidence that the last 4 years of Brady career revival have coincided with consistency and talent with his wide receiver core.
Observation: My assumption for next years strategy is a repeat of this year. Sign a slew of cheap one year prove it deals on WR3's and down on their luck WR2's and hope for the best. I also expect the Patriots to draft a wide receiver, potentially high, in the 2019 draft. There is a rumor the Patriots considered drafting Calvin Ridley at 23 overall. My assumption is the positional value and overall talent of Wynn outweighed Ridley. But given how bad the roster projection for 2019 looks, I think that rumor is believable.
The starting left tackle
Trenton Brown is going to be a free agent next year and signing him will probably cost a fortune. Jake Mathews, Nate Solder, and Taylor Lewan all signed new contracts this year. Their average annual salary was 14.5, 15.5 and 16 million respectively. All of them are decent to good but none of them represent elites talent at their position. I would guess Trenton Brown falls in a similiar talent range this year. Let's assume Trenton Brown could be signed to the cheapest of those new contracts, it would still represent half of the Patriots total cap space for next year. Now it's possible the Patriots sign him anyways. Bill has historically treated the left tackle position with high deference. Bill has never let Brady enter the season with a less than decent left tackle. But if we sign Brown it's almost assuredly going to result in difficult filling holes elsewhere on the roster.
Observation: Wynn would be a better G in the NFL than a LT. Replacing Thuney with Wynn at LG would make the offensive line better this year. But I am starting to think they will keep Wynn as a swing tackle. I think they know they probably cannot afford to sign Brown and will need to replace him. Trading for Trenton Brown was a masterstroke but one Bill is unlikely to be able to mimic. This team probably cannot afford to pay a free agent left tackle but it definitely cannot afford not to have a starting caliber left tackle. Wynn appears to be the obvious solution to this conundrum. They could put him at LG in 2018 and convert him to LT in 2019 but that doesn't appear to be the case so far.
Half of the cornerback core
Eric Rowe, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones and Ryan Lewis will all be free agents next year. The Patriots will have a big hole at CB2 and will have to find a legitimate outside cornerback to play opposite Gilmore. They will also need to find a backup outside cornerback and a backup slot receiver. This assume Dawson proves to be a legitimate slot cornerback. If not the Patriots will have to replace this position as well. Like finding a second outside receiver, finding a starter quality outside cornerback will not be easy. It will require a decent amount of cap space or a mid level draft pick. This is one of the reasons I believe the Patriots review of Breeland was more than a generic covering of the bases. My bet is they want to try and lock him up with a two year contract that will give them security for next year. We will have to see how that develops but the signing would eliminate at least one of the major roster holes for 2019. Given how long Breeland has remained unsigned, it would also likely come at a significant discount.
Observation: Based on my review of the roster I am absolutely convinced JC Jackson makes the roster over Ryan Lewis. Jackson is under contract through 2020 while Lewis is a free agent after this season. The best case scenario here is for JC Jackson to follow in the footsteps of Malcolm Butler and ascend to starting status after this season. The good news for Jackson is that the presence of Gilmore will mean that he doesn't need to be a CB1. This is obviously a massive projection and not one that should be depended on. But I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility for a variety of reasons I will address in a different article.
The starting defensive tackle
Neither Danny Shelton's or Malcolm Brown's 5th year options were exercised last year. This was a smart decision. Both are good but not elite run stuffers who offer little value as a pass rushers. The Patriots are not going to pay them 7 million when they can go find a less talented but far cheaper option like Lawrence Guy elsewhere. Unfortunately this also means the Patriots are slated to suffer another down year at defensive tackle. Like the WR2 or CB2 position a quality DT will require decent cap investment or draft capital. It cost the Patriots a basement 3rd to bring in Shelton. It will probably take a similar investment in 2019.
Observation: I actually have two separate observations here. It's possible the Patriots would try another go at Ndamukong Suh if the Rams fail to capture a ring. Suh has openly stated that he is hunting for a ring and will be a free agent next year. Suh may be dirty but he is also a very intelligent football player, who I think would do very well with Belichick. This signing is improbable given all of our potential holes. But given the reports that we attempted to sign him this year, I wanted to put in on the radar. The second observation is that unless you are a top twelve DT with pass rushing potential, you aren't going to make a lot of money as a DT. Sheldon Richardson clocks in at 12 and makes 8 million. From there the price skyrockets and peaks with Fletcher Cox's monster 17.1 million average annual salary. But below Richardson the price plummets. There isn't a single DT in the NFL making more than 5 million annually outside of the top 12. That bodes well for the probability of a decent free agent signing or a trade. Perhaps Shelton or Brown on a 4-5 million dollar deal?
The starting right guard
I think people are fairly familiar with this situation so I will not belabor the point. Colleges have continued to produced players capable of generating interior pressure but few quality offensive lineman. That has resulted in offensive line players getting paid like never before. Shaq has probably played himself out of New England which leaves a hole at right guard. There is a slight chance that the large influx of interior offensive line talent this last draft could mitigate his potential earnings but probably not enough to keep him.
Observation: Ted Karras means we probably have an on the roster solution for Mason but it's going to be a downgrade. This is just another reason the team will probably be weaker in 2019 than this year.
The best defensive end
Trey Flower is the second best player on the front seven. The league pays pass rushers. If Flowers has a career year and gets within a sack or two of ten sacks, while continuing to play well against the run, he could easily play himself out of New England. That will leave the Patriots with only one significantly talented player in the front seven, Dont'a Hightower. But Hightower's health is hardly reliable. The 2019 front seven could easily be one of the worst front sevens in the NFL on paper, with or without Hightower.
Observation: We really need Wise, Claiborne and Rivers to pan out. If they don't we really could have a disgustingly inept front seven. If they do pan out it could do a lot to to mitigate Flowers loss. I think the best case scenario would be for Flowers to have a career year and to see Wise and Rivers take the sophomore leap. Flowers departure, which could easily occur without a career year, will at least yield a decent compensatory pick. Rivers and Wise development, in conjunction with Claiborne remaining under contract, will leave the position with depth if not a lot of high end talent in 2019.
A coverage linebacker
I don't think a coverage linebacker exists on the 2018 roster. If it does it will come in the form of Marquis Flowers. If Flowers performs well he will almost certainly play himself out of New England, if he is resigned, it will be costly and make it that much more difficult to fill the other holes on the roster.
Observation: I think we just pray Flowers can deliver some coverage capabilities in 2018 and acknowledge this will almost certainly be a hole in 2019. I don't see the solution on the roster and we won't be able to afford a coverage linebacker in free agency. The best we can hope for is to draft one in 2019.
Gostkowski and Ryan Allen will both be free agents in 2018. While not terribly expensive positions they are two more holes in an already gaping roster.
Observation: Bringing in competition for Ryan Allen suggests they view him as replaceable. The lack of kicking competition for Ghost means they probably plan on extending him and I guess that occurs sometime this year. They could also draft to fill both positions but that leaves a huge unknown hanging over two critical special teams positions.
A swing tackle
A necessary position for any roster but even more so for a team whose starting right tackle is a prolific injury risk. There will be no starting caliber tackles on this roster outside of Wynn and Cannon next year. We can see from the Cameron Fleming contract that even decent back up tackles can command a serious price. Bill will get the job done here but it's going to eat up valuable cap.
Observation: Finding a quality swing tackle is more difficult than ever given the squeeze on tackle talent. It's possible they just resign Waddle because I do not see another good option on the roster currently.
A backup tight end
I am placing this on the list as a bit of a projection. Unless Dwayne Allen turns into a legit TE2 who is a excellent receiver threat on top of being a blocker he must be cut from this roster. He will be the teams 7th highest paid player. If he produces like he did in 2017 that will be an automatic roster cut. No debate. No discussion.
Observation: Keep your eyes on Izzo and Hollister who are both on dirt cheap contracts and locked up through the 2019 season. Either of them could potentially replace Allen as the backup tight end. I think any time you depend on UDFA's for progress it's a problem. But considering Gronk is our starting TE I don't want to overvalue the negative impact of having to search for a backup TE. We've conducted that search for years and the team has managed to survive and thrive without a reliable backup to Gronkowski.
In addition to all of these roster holes there is a second and potentially even more severe problem.
Limited cap and an ancient core
The Patriots are not going to have a lot of cap resources to address all of these holes which is why some of these holes present such a challenge. We actually do have the cap to fill one or two of them with quality players but the sheer volume of holes will mean we will likely pad them out with cheap free agents with little upside. To make matters worse our championship core is on their last legs. Dont'a Hightower and Gilmore will both be in their prime. Every other core member of this team will be in their 30's and several will be on expensive contracts. McCourty will be 32 with a 13.5 million dollar contract. Gronk will be 30 with a 12 million hit. Brady will be 42 and will probably have a 27 million dollar hit. Marcus Cannon will be 31 with a 7.5 million dollar hit. Edelman will be 33 with a 4.6 million dollar hit. Chung will be 32 with a 3.6 million dollar hit. To put that in perspective our starting free safety, our starting strong safety, our number one wide receiver, our number one offensive playmaker, and our starting right tackle will all be well in the 30's. And our quarterback will be in his 40's.
What Conclusions Can be Drawn from all this?
The roster in 2019 is going to have more holes than a block of swiss cheese. The situation demands to question to be answered. How did we get here and where do we go from here?
How we got here
We have been selecting in the top four of the draft for eight years. Eight years. That is an incredible run of success that may never be repeated in the NFL ever again. But the core of that run was built on four years of fantastic drafting from 2010-2013. Go back and look at our draft record during those four years. We nailed every top pick during that four year run and often nailed our top two picks. We drafted eight pro bowlers in than four year span and five of those pro bowlers would have at least one season as an all pro. In addition to a slew of pro bowl talent we also drafted valuable starters in the later rounds. During that run we drafted a minimum of three quality starters every year. Best of all we drafted a Hall of Fame talent Rob Gronkowski.
Compare that to the last four years. The Patriots have not drafted a single pro bowler from 2014-2017. The highlight of this period was 2015 which yielded Malcolm Brown, Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason. But the highlight of 2014-2017 doesn't measure up to the worst year of 2010-2013. There is a good chance that three of the best players from that period, Flowers, Brown and Mason, won't even be on the roster in 2019. The best players currently on the roster, with the exception of free agent Gilmore, are exclusively from drafts prior to 2014. Let that sink in.
Give Bill his due. Belichick does more with less than any coach. The draft is far from the only mechanism the Patriots use to build a team. But it is the most important way to build a team. Blame it on the crapshoot that is the draft, blame it on always selecting so low, blame it Goodel for stealing our draft picks, but the fact remains this team simply hasn't been able to draft well enough to construct a roster that isn't overly reliant on Brady magic.
Where do we go?
Since most of the article has been negative I want to take the opportunity to inject a little optimistic fortune telling. What's a reasonable best case scenario for 2019? I think it's reasonable that Wynn can turn into a quality left tackle. He will be a downgrade from Trenton Brown but play at the level of a fringe top ten left tackle with the ceiling to get better. I still think Sony Michel can be a dynamic weapon out of the backfield and pro bowl running back. Dawson could turn into an above average slot corner. Wise and Rivers could easily show meaningful improvement. Claiborne could continue to be a slightly above average edge defender. Bentley could push out Roberts. We could resign Shelton or Brown and Ghost. Let's also assume we are able to fill out all the backup positions and the swing tackle position for a modest sum and a few draft picks outside of our top four picks. Let's assume Brady had another great year and incurs his extra incentives. How does this reasonably positive team compare to the 2018 team?
Even with a fairly rosy projection we will have a significantly weakened offensive line, a weakened defensive line, and probably have serious needs at outside cornerback and wide receiver. Quality depth is an issue all across the roster from the receiving core, linebacker core, the offensive line, cornerback and safety cores, and the defensive tackle position position. Our entire core gets a year older. We have limited cap space. The bright spots are we continue to have an excellent special teams and running back core. We have four picks in the top 100.
This the heart of the problem in a nutshell: even a reasonably positive projection for 2019 will probably mean a team significantly weaker than in 2018.
And here is my worry: Bill will see it that way too. Win or lose in 2018 there is going to be a lot reasons to initiate a rebuild. Even if that doesn't mean Bill drafting a quarterback it could easily mean trading Gronkowski and Devin McCourty. And the worst part is I'm not sure it would be the wrong decision. 2019 could be the last year Gronk and McCourty are tradeable for decent draft picks. Trading Gronk and Devin would not only garner the team at least two more top 100 picks but it would free up almost twenty million in cap space. That obviously creates two more holes but it also free up valuable cap to address the teams litany of issues or to lock up a talented young free agent. Unfortunately it would also essentially close the window on a probable Super Bowl run.
You may think of this as being alarmist. And I suppose it is. I am not trying to say the Patriots will be bad. Barring a steep Brady decline I would still expect us to make the playoffs in 2019. That is really good for most teams. But the Patriots haven't been most teams for almost two decades. What will separate 2019 from recent years is the level of reliance on Brady magic. It's not a coincidence that the Patriots incredible 2014-2017 run has coincided with the most sustained talent this franchise has had since their 2001-2004 run.
I could be wrong about the roster. Rivers and Wise could turn into well above average players that lock down the edge defender position for three years. The old core could remain defiant of time and continue to play at a high level. Michel and Wynn could both become pro bowlers and Dawson could turn into a lockdown slot cornerback. A slew of UDFA like Hollister and JC Jackson could grow into quality starters. A couple of random middle class free agency signings could turn into studs like Alan Branch. We could reverse fortunes for a second year in a row and blow the 2019 draft out of the water with two all pro players like Gronk and Devin McCourty in 2010. It's possible.
But believing all these things will happen seems as naive as relying on 42 year old Brady magic to carry us to a Super Bowl. The truth is that it will probably take a few good years to restock the shelves, years Brady may not have. This team will always be a contender with Brady under center but I honestly believe 2018 could be the our last best chance at winning a Superbowl.