Five Patriots listed among Pro Football Focus Top 50 free agents

Five Patriots listed among Pro Football Focus Top 50 free agents

When the free-agency period officially begins on Mar. 9, it looks like there will be several newly-minted Super Bowl champions available for hire. And judging by the list Pro Football Focus published recently, the Patriots seem primed to lose more top-end talent via free agency than any other club in the league. 

Of the Top 50 free agents scheduled to be available next month, according to PFF, five are Patriots: linebacker Dont'a Hghtower (No. 11), safety Duron Harmon (No. 17), corner Logan Ryan (No. 26), defensive end Jabaal Sheard (No. 27) and tight end Martellus Bennett (No. 28).

Though the team doesn't have a single Top 10 player, per PFF, no other club has more than four (Cardinals, Redskins, Packers) in the Top 50. 

And the Patriots probably should have had at least one other player included. 

Not LeGarrette Blount, though he set a franchise record for rushing touchdowns last season. Not Chris Long, though he led the team in total quarterback pressures as he played out his one-year deal in New England. It's Alan Branch, 32, who is coming off of arguably his best season in 10 years as a pro. 

A powerful run defender, Bill Belichick called Branch the team's most consistent interior defensive lineman, and late in the season the coach made it clear just how much value there is in having a player with Branch's stature (6-foot-6, 350 pounds) and athleticism up front.

"Alan has done a great job for us," Belichick said. "And along with his play, which is certainly significant, one of the things that’s really been impressive about him has been his play time. So in addition to his overall production he’s played a lot more than he has in quite a while in terms of number of plays. 

"From a production standpoint he’s got, again, quite a few tackles, tackles for loss. It’s hard to measure the disruptive plays but he’s certainly got his share of those. He’s played very well for us in the running game. He’s given us a presence in the pass rush of a long, physical player in the middle. That’s all been really good, and he’s played more plays so all of that is good. 

"How unique is it? I mean, yeah, guys that weigh 350 pounds and are athletic and long like he is; I mean they don’t grow on trees. They’re hard to find. Ted Washington had that kind of length and size. Ted was 6-5, but Alan moves better than Ted does, or did at that point in his career. We’ve had some other longer guys like Richard [Seymour] or guys like that, but they weren’t 350 pounds. There’s not too many of them."

Though he may not make everyone's Top 50, Branch should certainly be mentioned on any list of impact players Belichick and his staff are at risk of losing in a few weeks. It's a long one.

Patriots To-Do List: Keep chumming the water for Jimmy G

Patriots To-Do List: Keep chumming the water for Jimmy G

With the glow of Super Bowl LI finally beginning to fade -- a little -- it's time to start looking ahead to 2017. Over the next few days, we'll look at the Patriots' to-do list: Things they need to care of as the offseason begins. Today: What to do with backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo.

First, a live look at speculation regarding the eventual landing spot for Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. 

And it’s not gonna slow down. Garoppolo is the best (or at least the most promising) quarterback in captivity without a starting job in the NFL.

Since “I dunno” is an unacceptable answer, all manner of Garoppolo-related speculation has been loosed since the start of the 2016 season.

PATRIOTS TO-DO LIST:

This week, ESPN’s Ed Werder spitballed what he expected, which is similar to what MMQB poobah Peter King spitballed, both of which are different from what former Patriots front office man and Bill Belichick consigliere Mike Lombardi opined  during the season. 

Lombardi’s take, of course was similar to ESPN’s Adam Schefter’s guess, which was reported as fact, causing ESPN’s Trent Dilfer to say that Schefter was getting played by the Patriots, which caused Schefter to get rankled and say that he was just theorizing in the first place. Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, meanwhile, had a measured take during the Super Bowl, which is precisely the same information I’ve been handing you since November.

The Patriots are not going to park Garoppolo on the front lawn with a “FOR SALE” sign tucked under the wiper. If some team wants to walk up the driveway, knock on the door and ask, “How much for the Garoppolo you got parked out there?”, the Patriots may invite said team in for lemonade and a conversation. But he isn’t burning a hole in their pocket.

Let’s talk “value” for a second because it’s what drives every Patriots personnel decision. The value of Garoppolo currently is that he’s a very solid backup quarterback on a team that won the Super Bowl and will challenge for it in 2017. Tom Brady hasn’t missed a game due to injury since 2008, but Garoppolo is insurance that – if Brady gets visited by misfortune – the Patriots won’t be screwed. Jacoby Brissett, the third-stringer isn’t at a point yet to insure success.

Is the security of having Garoppolo around “just in case” more valuable than the first- or second-round pick the Patriots could wring from the Niners, Bears or Browns? That’s a close call. And the indefinite nature of what the compensation might be – is it the 12th from Cleveland? Is it the 36th from Chicago? – means the Patriots can’t fully weigh value until they have a definite offer.

As the draft approaches, the urgency for teams interested in Garoppolo is only going to grow. The water is sufficiently chummed right now so that Garoppolo is the No. 1 offseason story in ClevelandSan Francisco and Chicago.

The collection of Deshauns, DeShones, Trubiskys and Mahomes populating the top of the 2017 draft class are going to make the sphincters of certain GMs tighten as late April approaches. The best offers may not be seen until the week of the draft. Or the weeks following when teams look at what they’ve wrought. Or even in August when, though it would put Garoppolo behind the learning curve in a new system, he might be a better option that the backup if some team’s starter gets broken. (See: Vikings, 2016).   

Even if the Patriots don’t find “value” commensurate with keeping Garoppolo around, there’s always the 2018 offseason. The Patriots could do with Garoppolo what they did in 2009 with Matt Cassel – franchise Garoppolo and try to deal him.

The tag will be (ballpark) $23M in 2018 which means the Patriots would have to carry that amount on their cap until they move Garoppolo. Also, the team that dealt for him would have to have that cap space available prior to the deal being made, since the salary travels with the player. Garoppolo and his agent Don Yee would then work out a long-term deal with the new team.

The Patriots couldn’t pull the tag from Garoppolo after he signed it, so, it would be wise of Garoppolo to sign it the second it’s slid across to him. If that time comes. Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts in that particular scenario but the value in trading Garoppolo at that point – meaning they’re getting something for a guy who would otherwise leave – is clear.

Andrew Brandt of MMQB thinks anyone expecting a first-round pick in exchange for Garoppolo is “delusional.” 

That’s a take. It’s also a fact that since 2003, the only quarterbacks to start in the AFC Championship that weren’t first-round picks were Jake Plummer (2005, a second-rounder) and Brady (’03, ’04, 06, ’07, ’11, ’12, ’13, ’14, ’15, ’16, a sixth-rounder) so valuing first-rounders is important.

But where a guy is taken should matter far less than what you can see (or have seen) he is capable of.

Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers and Mark Sanchez are the quarterbacks other than Brady and Plummer who’ve made it to the AFC title game since 2003. That’s 28 slots filled by eight guys. And there have been 40 quarterbacks taken in the first round since 2003.

Compared to any of the 40 selected (Eli Manning, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan among them), Garoppolo is the only one who demonstrated what he can do in a regular-season NFL game. That’s got to count for a lot.

I’ve been told to “not be surprised” if the Patriots don’t deal Garoppolo. And I won’t be. I also won’t be stunned if New England pulls a heist that has everyone saying, “Who knew?” 

So far, the Patriots are playing a “can’t lose” hand perfectly.
 

Patriots To-Do List: Pats shouldn't over-extend for Bennett

Patriots To-Do List: Pats shouldn't over-extend for Bennett

With the glow of Super Bowl LI finally beginning to fade -- a little -- it's time to start looking ahead to 2017. Over the next few days, we'll look at the Patriots' to-do list: Things they need to care of as the offseason begins. Today: tight end Martellus Bennett.

What will Martellus Bennett do? What’s today? The soon-to-be-free agent has sent all manner of mixed messages about where he wants to play next season and what will inform his decision.

In the “he’s leaving” column are his statement that teams overpay for free agents who are “Super Bowl champs”  and a couple of instances in the Patriots locker room this year when, completely unprompted, Bennett started a soliloquy about not being with the Patriots next season.

In the “he’s staying” column are Bennett’s comments that he loves it in New England, both for football and marketing opportunities for life after football.

PATRIOTS TO-DO LIST:

The Patriots paid Bennett more than $5 million last season and he’s collected more than $25M in his nine-year career. 

For his line of work, resume and skill set, that’s very good but – at 30 – the sand is almost out of the big-earnings hourglass.

What did the Patriots get for their $5M in 2016? Good return. Bennett played every game (many with serious pain), caught 55 balls for 701 yards (the 12.7 YPC average his highest since 2008) and a career-high seven touchdowns. He was a pretty inconsistent blocker but some of that can be linked to playing hurt. He also caught 10 of the 11 passes sent his way in the AFC Championship and Super Bowl. Post-Gronk, the next tight end on the roster behind Bennett was Matt Lengel. And that was it. So the team should be damn happy it traded for him.

Going forward? The team will try to keep the term short and it has to be wary of the Rob Gronkowski landscape. Gronk’s making about $4.75M in salary and bonuses this season (his contracts balloons to salaries of $8M and $9M in 2018 and 2019). The top-tier tight ends are making more than $9M in salary.

With both those situations in mind, the Patriots should slide a three-year, $18M offer across to Bennett with $10M guaranteed and see what happens.  

If a team out there decides it wants to blow Bennett out of the water, c’est la vie. The Patriots can comb the draft and free agency (Eagles RFA Trey Burton would be a very intriguing target since he’s marooned on the Eagles depth chart and is a special teams maven and crisp route-runner).

There should be no hard feelings on either side if Bennett goes someplace else. He was good for the Patriots and the Patriots were good for him. It’s on Bennett to decide if the relationship is more than a one-year stand.