With the official start of the NFL’s 2021 league year just a few hours away, it is becoming evident that a large portion of the New England Patriots’ free agency class will be headed for the open market: only six of the team’s 25 free agents are accounted for at the moment, either as re-signings or departures. The rest is scheduled to be free to sign elsewhere once the clock strikes 4 pm on Wednesday afternoon.
Among those is David Andrews. While there is mutual interest between the Patriots and their long-time starting center and team captain, no new contract has materialized as of yet. The expectation is that Andrews will enter free agency, and gauge his market before making a final call about where he will continue his career.
Even though this leaves the door open for him to leave New England after six seasons, taking this course of action is nothing new for the organization. More than once in the past, after all, the Patriots have allowed their marquee talent to dip into the free agency pool while simultaneously keeping an open line of communication.
Just ask safety Devin McCourty and linebacker Dont’a Hightower. They entered free agency in 2015 and 2017, respectively, but were eventually retained by the Patriots.
McCourty entering the open market was sealed after New England decided to use the franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski instead of him in 2015. However, the defensive back’s stint was still a short one: while he received interest from multiple teams during the NFL’s legal tampering period, New England brought him back via a five-year, $47.5 million contract on the first official day of free agency.
The Patriots were able to do that despite McCourty receiving competitive offers from three clubs, the Philadelphia Eagles with the best among them. However, the long-time team captain gave the team that drafted him in the first round in 2010 an opportunity to come up with a counter-offer. New England did just that, preventing their long-time defensive leader from taking his talents elsewhere.
“Financially, they stepped up and hit all the numbers I wanted,” McCourty told reporters shortly after agreeing to his new deal with New England.
Two years later, the Patriots faced a similar situation with Hightower and took the same approach: they did not use the franchise tag to keep him from the open market, and instead allowed him to find out his value. Hightower did just that over a comparatively long period of time, as 11 days passed between the start of the legal tampering period and the linebacker re-signing in New England.
Hightower’s market developed more slowly than McCourty’s two years earlier, in part because the veteran defender took his time to visit the New York Jets, Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers. Throughout the process, however, his representatives remained in close contact with the Patriots’ front office — ultimately resulting in him signing a four-year, $35.5 million deal with the club on March 15.
While it remains to be seen whether or not Andrews’ trip to free agency ends in similar fashion, the Patriots are no strangers to taking a patient approach.
As a result, the 28-year-old will get an opportunity to assess his offers. The Miami Dolphins are expected to be among the teams making a run at him, as are possibly the Green Bay Packers or Atlanta Falcons. New England will sit back and let things run its course, stepping forward when it feels the need to do so.
The McCourty and Hightower examples have shown that this method of negotiation, while risky, can very much work out in the Patriots’ favor. Given Andrews’ status as one of the most valuable free agents left on the list, they will have to hope that it does again.