Ranking New England Patriots' Best Remaining Free-Agency Options
The New England Patriots typically emphasize middle-class value over upper-tier flash in free agency. With less cap space than desired, the Pats figured to stay relatively quiet this year.
Instead, the Patriots have bucked all expectations with one unexpected body blow after another. The secondary's reformation after the signings of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner stand out as high points, while the Vince Wilfork saga ranks as an equally stunning low.
Going forward, Pats followers should not expect such drama. Nonetheless, via Spotrac, New England does still have an estimated $10.9 million remaining in cap space, a number that could jump $8 million with Wilfork's potential release. The team will need to save a good chunk of that for draft picks and in-season flexibility, but the Patriots still have some flexibility to make moves.
The Patriots are by no means a complete team, though at this early point of the team-building season, they have plenty of time to construct the roster they envisioned at the beginning of the process. Week 1 is still roughly six months away, and the secondary waves of free agency represent the next step toward shaping the team that will take the field on September 7.
With that in mind, here's a look at seven remaining free agents who would be the best schematic and financial fits in Foxboro.
7. Jerricho Cotchery, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Patriots are unlikely to draft another wide receiver, given the youth at the position. But even after retaining Julian Edelman and inking Brandon LaFell, the Patriots might still need a reliable veteran presence if they deem Danny Amendola expendable after re-signing Edelman.
While the Pats recently met with talented but troubled ex-Tennessee Titans receiver Kenny Britt, per NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport, the best fit for their circumstances might actually be old AFC East foe Jerricho Cotchery.
The 32-year-old had 46 catches for 602 yards last season, including a career-high 10 touchdowns. As Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus notes, Cotchery could be one of the best receiver bargains in free agency:
Perennially undervalued, and now on the wrong side of 30, Cotchery is unlikely to command too hefty an asking price this offseason. That’s fantastic news for whoever picks him up, because his career body of work suggests he should have earned a lot more throughout his career.
Sporting a pair of reasonably safe hands, Cotchery dropped four of the 50 catchable passes thrown his way in 2013, good for a Drop Rate of 8.00 which was 44th amongst the 94 receivers with enough qualifying snaps.
At 6'1", Cotchery brings the big outside presence the Patriots need. Bill Belichick has gone after players who have burned the Pats before, and in 15 career games against New England, Cotchery has 56 receptions for 786 yards and eight touchdowns. That includes the three-touchdown day he had during Pittsburgh's Week 8 meeting with the Pats last year.
According to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Cotchery is scheduled to meet the receiver-needy Carolina Panthers but has not had much interest to date. Given that he is not likely to command much more than the veteran's minimum, Cotchery would be a nice veteran addition to the young Patriots receiving corps.
6. Yeremiah Bell, S, Arizona Cardinals
With Steve Gregory's release, the Patriots have a bit of a void at safety. It's not a pressing one, with Devin McCourty locked in at free safety and second-year strong safety Duron Harmon currently slated to step in after flashing some promise during his rookie season.
Still, with Adrian Wilson's roster status uncertain and a bevy of special teamers behind him, depth is an issue. Ideally, the Patriots would look for a veteran with the size to play in the box, as well as the ability to cover tight ends.
Enter Yeremiah Bell, someone the Patriots had interest in signing two years ago. Bell might not help much in the latter department, as the 36-year-old has showed significant regression in his coverage ability. Last year, opposing quarterbacks completed 36 of 58 passes thrown in Bell's direction, compiling seven touchdowns to just two interceptions.
So why would the Patriots want Bell, who is clearly on the downside of his career? Despite his coverage limitations, Bell is still an above-average run defender capable of playing in the box on a regular basis. On running plays, Bell played 56.1 percent of his snaps within eight yards of the line of scrimmage, illustrating how he is more of a hybrid linebacker-safety type at this point in his career.
Consequently, he could be the early-down run-stuffing presence the Patriots sought from his ex-Cardinals teammate Wilson last year. With Revis in the fold, the Patriots can afford to shift their safety help elsewhere, and that does not necessarily have to exclusively entail help for other receivers. A safety like Bell can now drop down into the box and offer extra run support.
The Patriots have already finished the majority of their secondary overhaul. Bell, who might sign for only the veteran's minimum, adds one of the few skill sets the unit still lacks.
5. Brian de la Puente, C, New Orleans Saints
Starting center Ryan Wendell is a free agent, and there has not been much urgency from New England to lock up their starter from the last two years.
There is certainly good reason for the Patriots' demurral. After an excellent 2012 season, Wendell devolved into one of the league's worst centers last year. His minus-14.0 overall rating was 33rd out of 35 qualified centers, as his previously stellar run blocking was merely neutral last year.
The Patriots do not necessarily need to sign a replacement, as right guard Dan Connolly started at center in 2011, and Marcus Cannon was originally drafted as a guard. However, a solid long-term solution could be ex-Saint Brian de la Puente, who has been one of the league's most consistent centers over the last three seasons.
De la Puente was the league's second highest-rated center in 2012, and while he was not nearly as spectacular in 2013, his plus-4.0 grade was still among the ranks of a solid starter. At 29 years old, he is also in his prime and should provide at least above-average production over the life of his next contract.
Consequently, however, de la Puente will not be cheap. Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News reported that the New York Giants had interest, one that should only be magnified after New York released longtime starter David Baas.
Indeed, ESPN.com's Mike Triplett speculated de la Puente would receive at least a three-year, $10.9 million contract, likely more because of positional scarcity. His price tag knocks him a couple spots down on this list, given the Patriots' cap restraints, but de la Puente would be an excellent option to anchor the middle of the offensive line.
4. LeGarrette Blount, RB, New England Patriots
Now that Edelman has re-signed, LeGarrette Blount is arguably the Patriots' biggest in-house free-agent priority remaining.
Most remember Blount for his spectacular end to the season, in which he compiled a franchise-record 334 total yards in Week 17 against Buffalo, then ran for 189 yards and four touchdowns in the playoff victory over Indianapolis. Some may point to that spectacular stretch as an outlier and resist the notion of paying Blount for those two games.
In reality, however, Blount was an indisputably capable running back before then. Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, he averaged 4.5 yards per carry in the 15 games before the end of the season, 10th-best in the league among backs with at least 120 carries.
When Stevan Ridley's chronic midseason "fumbilitis" thrust the Patriots' run game into chaos, Blount was the stabilizing force who not only took over top rushing duties but also turned the unit into New England's greatest offensive strength by the end of the season.
With a depressed running back market, there has not to date been any reported outside interest in Blount. ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss reported there was a "mutual interest" between Blount and the Pats in a reunion, so he does not figure to break the team's tight budget.
Blount is not necessarily a must-sign, as the Patriots do have a trio of returning running backs in Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. Nonetheless, Blount provided valuable depth for the Pats last season and is a known commodity the team can lean on if needed again in 2014.
3. James Harrison, OLB, Cincinnati Bengals
No, James Harrison is not the same star who won Defensive Player of the Year back in 2008. But make no mistake, this would not be a signing based on name recognition, as the 35-year-old Harrison proved he has plenty left in the tank last season in Cincinnati.
Harrison is no longer the pass-rushing monster he was during his Pittsburgh heyday, but he remains one of the league's best outside linebackers in run support. Last season, Harrison's plus-10.7 run defense grade was fourth-best at the position, a cumulative tally which is especially impressive when noting that he played just 37.2 percent of the Bengals' defensive snaps last year.
I harp on run defense because that is the blatant weakness of the Patriots defense at the moment. While most Pats followers understand the team's issues at defensive tackle (more on that in a second), the linebacking corps looms as a potential problem as well.
The projected starting trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins is a solid foundation. But with top run-stuffer Brandon Spikes gone and Dane Fletcher signing with Tampa Bay, per Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk, there is virtually no depth in the event that one of the starters suffers an injury.
The Patriots do not need a game-changer, but they need a reliable linebacker for depth, and preferably one who could replace some of Spikes' presence in the run game. Harrison fits that description perfectly, as his experience and skill set dovetail with New England's needs.
However, there is still at least one other free agent who could buttress the run defense even more.
2. Pat Sims, DT, Oakland Raiders
If the Vince Wilfork saga ends in the 32-year-old's release, then the Patriots will have a gaping hole in the middle of their defense. While no one can replace the leadership Wilfork commands in the locker room, the Pats could replace a portion of his ability in the run game.
Without Wilfork for the majority of last season, the Patriots' run defense was actually not considerably worse on a down-to-down basis, contrary to popular belief. However, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, New England gave up 22 runs of at least 15 yards after Wilfork went down, fifth-most in the league.
That number inflated the yards-per-carry average and reflected the lack of a defensive tackle who could effectively control his blocker on a consistent basis. One potential solution could be Pat Sims, a 28-year-old ex-Raider who is one of the league's underrated run defenders.
Last season, Sims finished with a plus-9.5 run defense grade, 12th-best in the league among defensive tackles. At 6'4" and 312 pounds, Sims possesses the size to anchor the middle of the line, unlike most of the players the Patriots lined up inside last year.
After playing in Cincinnati the first five seasons of his career, Sims thrived in Oakland's 4-3 scheme last year, racking up a career-high 40 tackles. That included 24 tackles for losses in the run game, 13th-best among defensive tackles. While he has never been much of a pass-rusher, with just seven sacks in six seasons, Sims brings the exact dimension the Patriots would need without Wilfork.
Other teams have recognized Sims' breakout 2013 campaign, as Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean notes that he has already met with the Titans. But his price tag should not be exorbitant, and though he might not make fans forget Wilfork, Sims would be an excellent remedy for an area that currently stands out as the Patriots' most glaring defensive weakness.
1. Shaun Phillips, DE, Denver Broncos
On the surface, the Patriots were a decent pass-rushing team last season. Per Team Rankings, they sacked opposing quarterbacks on just over seven percent of dropbacks, tied for ninth in the league.
However, as many Pats followers understand, the pass rush was heavily reliant on the defensive-end tandem of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. According to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss, Jones and Ninkovich played a whopping 98.1 percent and 95.6 percent of regular-season snaps, respectively, indicating the Patriots lack of depth behind their two workhorses.
That particularly manifested itself in the pass rush, for when Jones and Ninkovich wore down or went through a dry spell, as both did in the AFC Championship Game, the pressure totally dissipated. New England desperately needs another defensive end who cannot only spell the two starters but also minimize the drop-off when he enters.
Denver's Shaun Phillips is a strong candidate to fill that role on a short-term deal. The 32-year-old Phillips was excellent in the first half of the season, notching 10 sacks and 20 hurries through the first 10 games. He subsequently tailed off, possibly from his unexpectedly heavy early workload, but he demonstrated that his pass-rushing skills are still intact.
In a reduced situational role, Phillips could thrive for the Patriots. New England has not been connected to Phillips yet, and according to The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt, the Titans have expressed interest. Thus, his services are unlikely to come too cheap.
But Phillips will not be exorbitantly expensive either, making him an ideal one- or two-year target. Even though some of the aforementioned names on this list could step into starting roles, a strong part-time pass-rusher is a piece that could push the Patriots defense to elite levels.
*All stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
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