As quietly as the New England Patriots started into the legal tampering period and free agency, as loudly they operated today. The club hosted multiple players for visits before ultimately making five so-far reported signings (in chronological order):
WR Bruce Ellington
CB Terrence Brooks
WR Maurice Harris
DT Mike Pennel
TE Matt LaCosse
While it remains to be seen how exactly the five men will help the Patriots defend their world championship in 2019, the club has been able to add some depth at key positions. Let’s take closer look at what was a busy second day of free agency for New England.
Mike Pennel has the biggest potential to make an immediate impact
With Malcom Brown leaving the Patriots to sign a three-year, $15 million contract with the New Orleans Saints, New England decided to invest in Mike Pennel — a move that has the highest potential for immediate pay-off of the five made today. After all, the 6’4, 330 lbs, interior defender has the size and experience to fill the gap-controlling, run-stuffing role previously held by Brown and fellow free agent Danny Shelton:
Mike Pennel dominated against the run in 2018, earning an 87.0 run defense grade, tied for 14th among interior defenders.— PFF NE Patriots (@PFF_Patriots) March 15, 2019
Pennel recorded a stop (tackle that constitute a loss for the offense) on 9.3% of his plays, tied for 22nd among interior defenders. https://t.co/EWLTdK5me7
It would not be surprising to see Pennel receive starting snaps alongside Lawrence Guy fairly early in his Patriots tenure: the 27-year-old is a force against the run while also being capable of playing in a two-gap scheme like the one New England runs. All in all, he should see regular action as an early-down defender from day one on.
The Patriots may have found their Cordarrelle Patterson replacement
First things first: Cordarrelle Patterson is one of the NFL’s elite return men; replacing the big-play threat he offers on any given kickoff is near impossible. New England did its best to at least mitigate the damage of Patterson joining the Chicago Bears on a two-year, $10 million deal, though, by picking up Bruce Ellington via a two-year contract today. Ellington will never be confused with Patterson, but he has the experience to at least help fill the kickoff return role: over the course of his career, he ran back 50 kickoffs for 1,279 yards and an average of 25.6 yards per runback. Solid numbers.
New England continues bolstering its special teams…
Adding Ellington is not the only move made by the Patriots with special teams potentially in mind: picking up Terrence Brooks also falls under that category. One year after leading the New York Jets in special teams snaps, Brooks now comes to a New England unit that uncharacteristically struggled with kick coverage in 2018. Together with the addition of Brandon Bolden, the move is the latest that should help stabilize the Patriots’ special teams units — especially with Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber potentially leaving via free agency.
…and adds depth to its positions of need
New England’s lightest positions at the moment were all addressed today: the club added two players to its wide receiver depth chart in Ellington and Maurice Harris, brought a big-bodied defensive tackle on board in the form of Pennel, and also signed a tight end — Matt LaCosse — to provide depth alongside Rob Gronkowski (that is, if he returns for 2019). The moves may not qualify as “sexy” but they are classic Patriots signings: bringing tier two players in to solidify their respective positions heading towards the draft, all while keeping an eye on value.
The Patriots will create salary cap space
While none of the five men signed today will break the bank, the Patriots will still need to create additional cap space to fit them all under their current $12.39 million threshold — even more so considering that the deals signed by Phillip Dorsett, Jason McCourty and John Simon are not yet part of the calculations done by the Boston Sports Journal’s Miguel Benzan. So what can the Patriots do? According to Pats Pulpit’s cap wizard Brian Phillips, there are some options:
Worried about the #Patriots’ 2019 salary cap situation?— Brian Phillips (@BPhillips_SB) March 14, 2019
• Covert $8.57M of Gilmores salary to a signing bonus.
• Extend Kyle Van Noy.
• Extend Tom Brady.
Based on my contract projections, these moves free up $11,488,334.
Any or all three of the moves could very well be announced over the next few days; as could additional ones like the aforementioned Rob Gronkowski retiring or additional players being let go. Safe to say that the Patriots will stay busy over the next few days.