The new NFL year begins Wednesday, March 14, and with it, the advent of 2018’s free agent marketplace. Leading up to that first day, we’ll examine the landscape from a Patriots perspective, continuing with a grouping of potentially important positions for New England: quarterback, running back, and specialists.
PATRIOTS FREE AGENTS
Rex Burkhead (RB), Dion Lewis (RB), Matthew Slater (special teams captain)
OTHER NOTABLE NFL FREE AGENTS
Quarterbacks: Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints), Kirk Cousins (Washington Redskins)
Running Backs: LeGarrette Blount (Philadelphia Eagles), Frank Gore (Indianapolis Colts)
Fullbacks: John Kuhn (New Orleans Saints), Anthony Sherman (Kansas City Chiefs)
Kickers: Chandler Catanzaro (NY Jets), Cody Parkey (Miami Dolphins), Ryan Succop (Tennessee Titans), Chris Boswell (Pittsburgh Steelers, restricted free agent)
Punters: Dustin Colquitt (Kansas City Chiefs), Shane Lechler (Houston Texans)
Long Snappers: Jon Condo (Oakland Raiders), John Denney (Miami Dolphins), Andrew DePaola (Chicago Bears), J.P. Ladouceur (Dallas Cowboys), Jake McQuaide (LA Rams), Don Muhlbach (Detroit Lions)
Running Backs: Burkhead, Lewis, Kenjon Barner (Philadelphia Eagles), Alfred Blue (Houston Texans), Isaiah Crowell (Cleveland Browns), Orleans Darkwa (New York Giants), Carlos Hyde (San Francisco 49ers), Jerick McKinnon (Minnesota Vikings), Damien Williams (Miami Dolphins)
Long Snappers: None
All the potential drama surrounding New England’s QB position – which many of us thought might surface this offseason – evaporated when the Patriots dealt Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco on Halloween. Tom Brady will remain the starting quarterback here for the foreseeable future, and given the crop of mediocre passers on the market this month, New England will likely stick with solid veteran backup Brian Hoyer and possibly select a rookie in the April NFL Draft.
Things could get interesting at running back, however. Lewis and/or Burkhead could be back in Foxborough, but their return is far from guaranteed. If they elect to sign elsewhere, New England might look to replace their production with the likes of Barner (who also doubles as a kick and punt return specialist) or McKinnon.
Last offseason, the Patriots also tried to insert Mike Gillislee in Blount’s former role, but the results didn’t turn out quite as expected when the regular season arrived. If New England wants more out of the “big back” position, they might look to younger players like Crowell (5-11, 225), Hyde (6-0, 235), or Darkwa (5-11, 220), but they’d likely have to shell out some significant cash to get them here. Blue (6-2, 225) might be a more affordable, though less potent option.
Another name to consider is Williams (5-11, 225), a player the Patriots expressed interest in a year ago when he was a restricted free agent. Even though he recently underwent shoulder surgery (for an injury suffered against the Patriots last season), New England might choose to revisit their courtship of Williams now that he’s unrestricted.
Meanwhile, with well-liked James Develin fresh off his first Pro Bowl recognition, the Patriots would appear not to have any need to bring in another fullback.
On special teams, co-captain Slater will likely return for at least another season, but there’s some intrigue at the other positions. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski seemed to regain his confidence and form for most of the 2017 season, although occasional misses still plagued him. Punter Ryan Allen didn’t have his strongest campaign, and long snapper Joe Cardona had some shaky moments, including a significant one that led to a missed Gostkowski field goal in Super Bowl LII.
If the Patriots choose to bring in competition for any or all of these three spots, more than likely it would come in the form of a draft choice or undrafted player, not a higher-priced veteran. Although, DePaola’s Rutgers roots might be enough to interest at least a look by Bill Belichick. Otherwise, I wouldn’t expect much activity by the Patriots in the special teams veteran market this year.