As I sit here at 11:34 A.M. on the Sunday after NFL Free Agency began, I am frantically checking Twitter to see if I will have to gut this entire article because of how active the Patriots have been. It has truly been crazy. One would think the team that had just gone 14-2 and won the Super Bowl would just try to bring the same team back in 2017, but that could not be further from the truth. The Patriots have made massive changes at key positions. So lets dive right into it from the top.
The first big news came last Friday, as the Patriots announced they were releasing Sebastian Vollmer. This really did not come as much of a surprise, as Vollmer was on the injured reserve for the entire 2016 season. Vollmer was in the final year of his contract and was slated to make $2.25 million, but it was pushed back to the 2017 season because of his missed time. Rather than keep his money on the books and see if he plays in 2017, the Patriots said thanks, but no thanks, and released the German-born right tackle. Vollmer was a key member of the offensive line for many seasons and played some truly great football as a Patriot. Many have speculated that Vollmer does not truly have a desire to play football anymore and may simply retire. With the emergence of Marcus Cannon, this move made all the sense in the world.
The Patriots again decided to make a move before Free Agency even started, as they traded for former Colts tight end Dwayne Allen for draft picks. After coming to the conclusion that they would be unable to re-sign Martellus Bennett, who subsequently signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Green Bay Packers, the Patriots realized they needed to make another move at tight end in order to make sure their offense flowed like a well-oiled machine. While I don't believe Allen is on the same level as Bennett, he is probably a better blocker and has a unique blend of size and speed for someone of his size (6'3+, 255+ pounds, depending on where you look). One of the biggest question marks of the offseason had been addressed before Free Agency even began.
On the dawn of Free Agency, as grown men woke up like children on Christmas, the Patriots were hard at work to strike a deal with arguably the best defensive player on the market. Early Thursday morning, in a stunning development, it was announced that the Patriots had come to terms on a deal with Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore. While the details of the contract were not announced, as the clock ticked 4 P.M., the Patriots made the deal official, inking Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract with $40 million guaranteed. In fact, this was the largest contract every handed out by the Patriots to a player not named Tom Brady. While this move was and still is quite a shock, if you look at the Patriots schedule for the 2017 season, it is easy to conclude the Patriots want a stout secondary. The Patriots will play Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Derek Carr, just to name a few. While this fueled the speculation that Malcolm Butler's days in New England were numbered, I truly believe Belichick is trying to re-create the 2014 team with an elite secondary against quite a few great quarterbacks.
As we pushed onward, the Patriots were also able to re-sign safety Duron Harmon to a four-year, $20 million contract. This number is actually less than I expected for Harmon, as I thought someone would offer him at least $6 million on the open market. While Harmon may not put up great stats, he played a hell of a lot of good football for the Patriots last season. With a secondary made up of Butler, Gilmore, Harmon and Devin McCourty, the Patriots look to have one of the best defenses in all of football yet again.
On Friday, the Patriots continued their flurry of moves, as they traded for Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Kony Ealy. It appears as if Ealy was on his way out in Carolina, as the Patriots only had to trade a second-round pick for Ealy, and received the player plus a third round pick that is only eight spots lower in return. While Ealy has been inconsistent, his age and ability is something that makes me love this deal. We all remember Ealy's performance in the Super Bowl where, if the Panthers had won, he would probably have been MVP. While Ealy does not possess massive sack numbers (14 sacks in 3 years), Belichick loves getting players that can put pressure on the quarterback, and that is exactly what Ealy does. The Patriots were also able to come to terms with defensive tackle Alan Branch, re-signing the big man to a two-year, $12 million deal. Again, the Patriots are recognizing their needs and addressing them.
The big news of the day broke Friday night, as the Patriots and New Orleans Saints agreed to a trade that would send Brandin Cooks and a fourth-round pick to New England for a first-round pick and a third-round pick. The mutual interest of getting a deal like this done had been reported for almost a week, but, in typical Belichick fashion, most of his moves are unforeseen, so many people wrote this off. Nonetheless, the Patriots were able to get one of the most prolific receivers in the entire NFL without giving up Malcolm Butler, who was apparently close to being traded in this deal. Cooks has outstanding speed and can play all around the field. Last season, Cooks felt he was not getting the ball enough in New Orleans and fell out of favor with head coach Sean Payton. Cooks' bonus kicked into effect on Monday (3/13), so a deal was almost certain to happen this weekend. While the Saints used him primarily out wide, Cooks can play int he slot and may be a massive upgrade over Danny Amendola, who has yet to restructure his contract. The Patriots were looking for a true #1 receiver for almost a year now, as they had been rumored in deals with Texans receiver Deandre Hopkins and then-free agent Desean Jackson. With Julian Edelman getting older and Rob Gronkowski's health a huge question mark, this deal makes a lot of sense.
Yesterday, the Patriots struck a deal with defensive lineman/end Lawrence Guy, who most previously played for the Baltimore Ravens. The deal is reported for four years, with Guy having the ability to make up to $20 million. While this is a large price for a player that primarily served as back-up in Baltimore, I understand why Belichick made this move. The Patriots are trying to get younger on the defensive line, and have done so after the acquisitions of Ealy and Guy. Furthermore, Guy offers the Patriots extreme versatility, as he can line up in the interior or kick out to the edge and put pressure on the quarterback. Similar to Ealy, Guy's numbers are not all that impressive, but he is able to put pressure on the quarterback and disrupt the pocket.
With roughly $34 million in cap space, according to Miguel at PatsCap, the Patriots can still make pretty much any move they want. I would expect to hear news about linebacker Dont'a Hightower in the coming days, and we may even get some resolution on the Malcolm Butler saga, whether that be an extension or perhaps a trade.