Most of the free agency talk in New England is built around one player: Patriots defensive edge Trey Flowers, who will hit the open market next week after the club opted not to place the $17.128 million franchise tag on the 25-year old. While flying relatively under the radar for most of his career, Flowers is expected to generate a considerable interest and will reportedly get a deal worth around $14 million to $17 million annually.
One reason for this is the position he plays: in today’s NFL, edge rushers like the former fourth-round draft pick are among the hottest commodities a team can invest him — especially when a) they are coming from the Super Bowl champions, b) they have a proven track record of production, and c) the market has dried up a bit due to other clubs using the franchise tag to keep their own talent.
In fact, four edge defenders were tagged and thus kept of the market:
DE DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys
DE Jadeveon Clowney*, Houston Texans
DE Frank Clark, Seattle Seahawks
DE Dee Ford*, Kansas City Chiefs
*officially tagged as linebackers by their clubs
This, in turn, leaves Flowers as the consensus top free agency option available at the defensive edge. New England, meanwhile, is banking on him taking the same route Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower took during their stints as unrestricted free agents in 2015 and 2017, respectively. The two defensive leaders both tested the market before ultimately returning to the Patriots on multi-year contract extensions.
But even though New England’s sack leader will right away be a highly coveted player once the NFL’s legal tampering period starts on Monday, the market per se is not as bare as you may think it is. In fact, Flowers is only one of multiple talented edge rushers to be available this offseason not just via free agency but via the draft as well — which, in turn, could help the Patriots’ chances of retaining him a bit.
Take free agency, for example. Anthony Barr (Minnesota Vikings), Ezekiel Ansah (Detroit Lions), Alex Okafor (New Orleans Saints), and Dante Fowler Jr. (Los Angeles Rams) are all in the same basic category as Flowers: they are relatively young, high-upside edge defenders with proven production on their résumé that will all be available this year. If the Patriots’ star is the top option, they are not far behind him.
There’s also a group of veteran players about to hit the market. The Atlanta Falcons’ Bruce Irvin will become available, as will the Miami Dolphins’ Cameron Wake, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Michael Johnson and the Baltimore Ravens’ Terrell Suggs — somewhat older players, yes, but therefore likely available for a fraction of the cost Flowers and company will command. And they are all still capable of playing at a high level in the NFL.
In between, there is a group of developmental but formerly highly drafted options that could benefit from a change of scenery and can likely also be brought aboard at a comparatively cheap price: from Shane Ray (Denver Broncos) to Markus Golden (Arizona Cardinals). And speaking of developing players, the draft is also only two months away — and it is one that projects to be deep along the defensive edge.
From early round-one picks like Nick Bosa, Brian Burns and Josh Allen to fringe first-rounders or mid-round options like Zach Allen, Maxx Crosby and Jalen Jelks, the draft is deep with edge rushers. Needless to say that teams might opt to look for the player selection meeting late next month to fill potential needs, and the Patriots might do the same regardless of what happens with Flowers.
But even if the four-year veteran leaves the team next week, the club still has plenty of options to replace his role and to a certain degree production. While none of the players named — except maybe Barr, Bosa or Burns — are projected to have the same potential impact as Flowers in 2019, the depth of the defensive edge position this offseason is remarkable. One way or the other, New England should be able to take advantage.