The New England Patriots’ 2019 season came to a premature end when the team was eliminated in the wild card round of the playoffs. In order to return to the top of the NFL mountain, the organization will therefore have to turn the page and build a competitive roster to get back into a position again to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. A big part of building that roster is successfully maneuvering through free agency.
If judged by the list of free agents to be, New England’s front office will be busy over the next few days before the new league year and free agency are officially kicked off on March 18. Also over the next few days, we will take a look at each individual position on the Patriots’ current roster to find out which players are headed for the open market, whether or not they should be expected back, and who might be brought in from the outside.
Today, the series continues with the defensive tackle position.
Current position group
Under contract: Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise Jr, Byron Cowart, Nick Thurman
Free agents: Adam Butler (RFA), Danny Shelton (UFA)
Free agency profile: Adam Butler
Opening day age: 26
2019 salary cap hit: $646,668
2019 statistics: 17 games; 18 quarterback pressures (6.0 sacks, 4 hits, 8 hurries); 3 run stuffs; 18 tackles (4 missed tackles)
Experience: The Patriots added Butler as an undrafted rookie free agent, and the Vanderbilt product quickly made a name for himself by carving out a role on the team’s 53-man roster. He was used in a rotational role in each of his first three seasons in New England, but improved every year to become more than “just” an interior pass rusher and also see regular snaps as a run defender. In 2019, Butler had his best campaign to date and served as a core member of the team’s three-player rotation along its interior defensive line.
Contract status: Set to enter restricted free agency on March 18.
As a restricted free agent, Butler can be tendered at one of three levels by the Patriots: the first-round tender worth an estimated $4.7 million, the $3.3 million second-round tender or the $2.1 million original round tender. In case another team then signs the 25-year-old to an offer sheet, New England would have five days to match or receive the draft pick appropriate for the tender as compensation.
Given Butler’s role in 2019 and growth over his three seasons in the NFL, it would not be a surprise to see New England use the second-round tender on him. After all, he has served as a core member of the team’s defensive tackle rotation in 2019 and has proven his value to the defense. Tagging him appropriately would shy away teams from attacking him, without giving up proper compensation for Butler.
Free agency profile: Danny Shelton
Opening day age: 27
2019 salary cap hit: $1.0 million
2019 statistics: 17 games; 17 quarterback pressures (3.0 sacks, 7 hits, 7 hurries); 4 run stuffs; 1 forced fumble; 64 tackles (3 missed tackles);
Experience: Shelton entered the NFL as the 12th overall selection in the 2015 draft but failed to live up to his status during his first three years with the Cleveland Browns. The team therefore decided to trade him to New England, where he served as a rotational run-stuffer on a Super Bowl-winning team. Shelton was re-signed by the Patriots the following offseason before delivering arguably the best campaign of his career in 2019.
Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 18.
As opposed to last year, Shelton is entering free agency with some momentum on his side after a rather successful 2019 season: he proved himself capable of being a stout and reliable defender up front. That being said, a return to New England is not guaranteed considering that the market will dictate where he plays next year. The Patriots will likely not be opposed to the 26-year-old returning to secure the stability along the defensive line, but not if they have to win a bidding war to do so. That was not the case last year, but it would not be surprising if 2020 is different.
Outside free agents
Michael Brockers, Los Angeles Rams (UFA): The former first-round draft pick can line up as an end in three-man fronts or as a 3-technique tackle if the defense switches to looks with four down-linemen. Brockers should therefore see considerable action as a presence against the run with upside in the passing game wherever he goes.
Mike Daniels, Detroit Lions (UFA): Daniels’ age, inconsistent play over the last few seasons and injury history all work against him, but the 31-year-old is a technically sound player that should still be able to produce against both the pass and the run. He should therefore become a cost-effective investment for a team looking for experienced depth and not necessarily an every-down defender.
Marcell Dareus, Jacksonville Jaguars (UFA): The third overall pick of the NFL’s 2011 draft never has had some solid years in Buffalo but never duplicated his success after getting traded to Jacksonville in 2017. Coming off season-ending core muscle injury and turning 30 later this week, his market does not project to be a strong one — but one teams looking for a stout run defender might take advantage of.
Damon Harrison Sr, Detroit Lions (UFA): Harrison is a stout run defender capable of filling an early-down role and being used in short-yardage situations. While 2019 was a down year for the 31-year-old, injuries may have played a role in this and limited his production. When healthy, however, he can still be a stout presence up front.
Shelby Harris, Denver Broncos (UFA): Harris was used primarily in a rotational role over the course of his six-year career but performed well whenever on the field. While he had some ups and downs with a bigger workload in 2019, he brings considerable value as a package-specific defender to the table and offers upside against both the pass and the run.
D.J. Reader, Houston Texans (UFA): While his size — 6-foot-3, 350 pounds — makes him look like a prototypical big-bodied run-stuffer, Reader has more to offer than just run defense: he also is a strong interior disruptor that knows how to push the pocket in the passing game. The 25-year-old improved every year in the league and appears to be on the cusp of becoming one of the league’s elite interior defenders.
Michael Pierce, Baltimore Ravens (UFA): A stout run defender that offers limited upside against the pass, Pierce is a role player that does his job at a high level: he is able to occupy double teams and hold his own in a two-gap scheme. While not an every-down player, the 27-year-old has been a reliable and durable defensive tackle for the Ravens over the last four years.
Leonard Williams, New York Giants (UFA): Williams entered the NFL as the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft but never quite lived up to his hype with the New York Jets. The team still picked up his fifth-year contract option, but decided to trade him to the in-city rival Giants last season. Williams was solid with his new team, but may benefit from a change of scenery by going to a club that knows how to properly use his elite athleticism.
If the Patriots want to tackle their defensive tackle position this offseason, they have to start in-house: with Adam Butler and his restricted free agency. Tendering the former undrafted rookie has to be a priority for the team — as noted above he appears to be a second-round level candidate — before looking at other options available on the open market, from New England’s own Danny Shelton to outside options of all different kinds and shapes.
In case New England lets Shelton go, big-bodied defenders such as Michael Pierce, Marcell Dareus or Damon Harrison make sense to bolster the team’s run defense in a rotational role alongside Butler and Lawrence Guy. If the Patriots are looking for more upside against the pass, however, they might want to explore D.J. Reader, Shelby Harris or Leonard Williams. Either way, there are plenty of options that should become available next week.
What will New England therefore do? Tendering Butler seems like a no-brainer, but any additional moves likely depend on Shelton’s market and how the team views its depth at the position against the run — an area of inconsistency in 2019 — and pass.