The Patriots will have two high-profile free agents hit the market next week as edge rusher Trey Flowers and left tackle Trent Brown were not franchise tagged. The Patriots typically don’t employ the franchise tag unless they’re close to reaching a long-term extension (e.g. Vince Wilfork 2010, Stephen Gostkowski 2015) or are willing to pay a long term deal with an average yearly salary near the tag value (e.g. Logan Mankins 2011, Wes Welker 2012).
The fact that both Brown and Flowers did not receive the tag suggests the Patriots are not willing to pay top of the market prices for both players. As a result, the Patriots do stand to risk losing both players in the free agency process but at the same time I believe they have long thought out contingency plans to replace their production.
Replacing Trey Flowers
Deatrich Wise Jr. sees a bigger role
In his first two seasons, Wise has been deployed as the third defensive end in the rotation, playing 51% and 41% of the snaps in his first two years in the defense. If Flowers ends up walking, Wise likely becomes the #2 player in the rotation with him and Adrian Clayborn likely playing 70-80% of the snaps in games. In his first two seasons, Wise has produced 9.5 sacks and 35 QB hits so I believe he’s the biggest piece of the puzzle when it comes to replacing Flowers on the field.
Further development of Keionta Davis and Derek Rivers
This is more of a shot in the dark due to the fact that both players were given chances early on to contribute, but eventually took a back seat late in the season. Rivers would be two years removed from an ACL injury, so his athleticism and explosiveness should be 100% back. Davis and Rivers are both entering Year 3 with the team, although both players spent their rookie year on injured reserve, so it’s time for them to prove their value to the team in camp.
Re-signing John Simon
While Simon isn’t in the same tier a player as Flowers, keeping him in the fold adds some stability to the position by adding a veteran presence. Simon was used sparingly in New England after the Patriots picked him up in Week 3, playing in 27% of snaps although having a second year in the system should see a jump in playing time. Despite the small overall usage in the regular season, Simon put on an impressive show in the Super Bowl itself as an end of the line rusher in both the run and pass game. Simon is a guy who fits the scheme very well and should not break the bank to bring back.
Other free agent options
Dante Fowler Jr. and Preston Smith are very unlikely to be targeted by the Patriots because their market value is up there with Flowers’ anyway. I had already mentioned John Simon as a re-sign option due to his knowledge of the system. Simon alone is not going to be the answer at the position, although the team can add another mid-tier free agent such as Benson Mayowa, Wes Horton, or Anthony Chickillo. These guys would be camp competition mostly whereas the better solution is the draft or hope either Rivers or Davis figures it out in Year 3.
The Patriots aren’t afraid to trade although finding a match for the position might not be easy. The Patriots would be most likely looking for someone on an expiring rookie deal so they can get a comp pick back in the near future. They’re not going to get anyone of significant production back although they could take a chance on a role player and working out a rotation. The Patriots did this in the past with Akeem Ayers, Cassius Marsh, and Kony Ealy, with only Ayers being the success story as part of the Patriots’ run to winning Super Bowl XLIX.
How free agency shakes out will depend on how urgent the Patriots will be to target the position overall, but the team does not have a long term replacement available. Clayborn will be a free agent after the season, Simon is a band-aid option at the position, and Derek Rivers has not proven he’s part of the plan at the position yet either. Most likely I see them looking at high or mid-round prospects at the position, although they would not hesitate to address the position early if a player they value falls into their laps.
Replacing Trent Brown
Had Wynn not suffered an Achilles injury in the preseason, this would be the most logical choice. The Patriots spent a first round pick on Wynn with the intent of him replacing Brown at left tackle after 1 year. The injury plus Antonio Garcia’s episode with bloodclots the previous season has resulted in bad luck in terms of developing young players at the tackle position. Despite his lack of height, Wynn played very well at tackle in both college and early on in the preseason before the injury. If Wynn is 100% recovered from his Achilles injury, he should challenge for a spot on the offensive line.
The Patriots are not going to put the left tackle position in the hands of a rookie or a second year player coming off a season-ending injury. Last year with the same dilemma, the Patriots swung a trade on draft day to pick up Trent Brown. It seems rather likely the Patriots try to swing a trade for a more developed player to serve as a plug and play starter while Wynn finishes recovering from his injury. A player like D.J. Humphries, who is on the final year of his rookie deal with the Arizona Cardinals, is an idea to consider.
This is a very unlikely option, but perhaps they attack the second tier market for tackles. Given that left tackles are getting paid a premium these days, the Patriots don’t have a lot of options. The left tackle market is basically Trent Brown, with no other options with quality starting experience. Cedric Ogbuehi is the only major name at the left tackle position hitting the market, but he stunk for the Bengals before getting benched last season. Expanding the field to right tackles, Ja’Wuan James from Miami is interesting although the conversion from right tackle to left tackle is not always 100% clean. Given the lack of quality options available in free agency, the Patriots will be more likely to swing a trade.
The Patriots could try moving Cannon to left tackle, although it’s a pretty far fetched idea considering it has the potential to disrupt chemistry on the right side of the offensive line. The only way this would make sense is if the medical staff tells Belichick that Wynn will have to start the season on the PUP list and the team passes on a tackle in the draft or can’t strike a deal.
This would meant the team will have spent a third round pick or higher for a left tackle for the 3rd consecutive year, which speaks to the bad luck they’ve had at developing a young player at the position. A rookie coming in and instantly taking over the left tackle spot is probably unlikely, the last time it happened was 2001 with Matt Light who started 12 games that year. If the Patriots believe Wynn is ready to go, the urgency to take a tackle is pretty low and the idea being a long term replacement for Cannon instead of Brown.