Friday, March 31, 2017

Patriots Should Be Looking For Tight Ends In Draft

With a name like Rob Gronkowski running routes, one would think that the New England Patriots would be all set on tight ends, particularly having just signed high-upside tight end Dwayne Allen to compliment the massively talented Gronkowski.

But they would be wrong.

Like it or not, Gronkowski's body has more holes in it than your typical voodoo doll, and Allen did very liitle in his first - and only - season as the man in Indianapolis, and was actually passed on the depth chart by undrafted free agent Jack Doyle, and dumped onto New England's roster for a fourth round draft pick, the Colts even sweetening the deal by adding on a sixth round draft pick of their own.
Ole MIss' move tight end Evan Engram

The only other options on the roster are Matt Lengel, who is used primarily as a blocker, and Rob Housler, who doesn't know what a block is - both one dimensional entities that probably will not make the 53 man roster coming out of training camp, leaving the monstrous-yet-fragile Gronkowski and the tantalizing-yet-unproductive Allen as the top two options.

Both are signed through 2019, but while Gronkowski is a real difference maker when he is healthy and on the field, Allen has only shown glimpses of his potential - and at 27 years old and entering his sixth season in the NFL, he needs to prove that he can be an integral part of the offense and not just a complimentary player whose best season was a 45 catch, 520 yard effort in his rookie year.

What's makes Allen's situation even more tenuous is the fact that he has no guaranteed money left on his contract after this season, meaning that the Patriots could dump him onto the free market or trade him after the season if he doesn't pan out, making the deal to bring him in a low risk proposition that cost New England a fourth round pick.

Though he has plenty of speed for the seam, the Colts used him primarily on the deep slant and short crosser to make it easier for him to break off his routes and show his numbers to quarterback Andrew Luck as a safety valve in the event Luck was chased from the pocket, which happened frequently - and rarely was he the first option in the pattern... some would say that he was miscast in an offense that had enough of a downfield element to take the top off of a defense, but didn't have the offensive line to protect the passer long enough to fit the ball down the seam or on the deep post.

Conversely,  the Patriots not only have the downfield element in Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, but also the underneath game with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and a stable of young pass catching greyhounds coming out of the backfield - and while the offensive line is still a work in progress, quarterback Tom Brady has the sharpest football mind and quickest release in all of football, and is able to set his protections and put his receivers in position to cause mismatches with defenders by simply yelling out a single word from the shotgun.

Notice how Gronkowski isn't even mentioned, as he takes a potent Patriots offense and makes them absolutely ridiculous - so Allen is in the right place to showcase his skills in a system designed to take advantage of a player's strengths and to mask their weaknesses by simple omission - not to mention that these players are so dangerous after the catch that they can open up the field for their teammates just by being on the field.

In short, if Allen doesn't produce at least to the level of his rookie season, the Patriots are going to be hard-pressed to pony up $5 million next season and $7 million in 2019 when they can theoretically get the same production from a younger player whose salary is dictated by a rookie cap.

So with the ambiguity surrounding both players, it would behoove Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick to seek out another option in the draft.

Impeding the progress of doing so is the fact that New England doesn't have a selection due in the first two rounds of the draft, which puts them out of the market for an "elite" prospect, but as Patriots' fans have seen time and again, players who fit in well with the Patriots are not always the elite talents in the top rounds - and even though the tight end class is talented and deep, every player at the position has a weakness to their game.

For example, Alabama's O.J. Howard has elite playmaking ability, yet is passive and doesn't display full effort if the play isn't designed for him, and blocking is an issue.  Miami's David Njoku may be the most complete tight end in the class, but gets alligator arms when crossing the seam and loses focus on the ball when tightly covered.

This is not to discount these top two specimens, but the Patriots are not in desperation where they need to spend top draft capital on a position where they can afford to draft a relative project in the middle or late rounds and bring him along in the the prominent shadow of Gronkowski.

Like most athletically gifted tight ends coming out of college, Virginia Tech's Bucky Hodges is in reality just a really big (6' 6" 260) wide receiver who has fantastic hands and terrific speed to bust the seam, but is relatively inexperienced at the position after making the transition from quarterback to tight end upon his arrival on campus.

The Hokies rarely asked him to be an inline blocker - nor did they center their offense around his massive skill set - but on the few occasions that they did he showed a competitive burst and nasty mean streak when sealing the edge.

A Jordan Reed clone, South Alabama's Gerald Everett  has the perfect combination of size (6' 3" 240) and speed (4.60) to attack the seam or sideline, but like all of the tight ends in the class, is a work in progress. An accomplished inline blocker, he is the kind of three-down dual threat as a "move" tight end that causes defenses to have to defend the entire field...

...while like-sized Evan Engram out of Ole Miss is even faster - a blazing 4.42 at the combine - and has elite short area quickness that is very difficult for safeties to handle, and impossible for linebackers.  He is considered a perfect Patriots due to his versatility, blocking prowess and an innate ability to get open in a phone booth.

Ashland University's Adam Shaheen (6' 6", 280) has the potential to be a dominating tight end on the professional level, just as he dominated small school competition.  A high school and college basketball player, he is surprisingly nimble in pass protection and in the pattern, and is a solid red zone threat - the marks against him are few, but include a need for better technique in run blocking and the obvious major jump from Division II to the professional game.

Jake Butt of Michigan is a solid all-around tight end who headlines a late-second day, early third day project list - a literal jack of all trades type, but truly a master of none.  He doesn't have the speed to separate from safeties and really isn't big enough (6' 5" 250) to dominate linebackers at the pro level, yet he seems to always be open underneath to move the chains...

...which is the same for similarly-sized Jeremy Sprinkle, who is a fearsome blocker with enough speed and route running skill to be a true combination tight end at the professional level.  Playing at Arkansas, he did his best work against some of the best defenses in the country and shouldn't need much more than a good strength and conditioning coach to coax a starting talent out of him.

At 6' 4" and 250 pounds, Iowa's George Kittle doesn't check the boxes for a good inline blocker, yet adds a physical dimension to a team's running game, and has plus-speed to develop into a seam buster.  Add Florida International's Jonnu Smith to that category as well - and even though Smith has decent size and plenty of speed for a "move" tight end, he has a compact body that works well as an inline blocker in a zone scheme, much like New England runs.

Late round prospects that could be nice draft and stash projects include Toledo's Michael Roberts, who is perhaps the best run blocker of the class and has been super productive in the red zone, and Clemson's Jordan Leggett has all of the tools to be a much higher selection, but his dedication to football in general, and his craft specifically, throw up some red flags.  To his credit, he seems to save his best for the brightest lights.

Sleepers that could surprise include Canadian Antony Auclair (Laval College) who does everything well but has been seen only against lower-level competition, along with Louisville's Cole Hikutini, who may be the most naturally talented pass catcher among move-tight ends, but offers little in early down blocking assignments.  Lightning fast pass catcher Darrell Daniels of Washington is a work in progress, but could contribute immediately in that role.

All told, the Patriots have a virtual plethora of tight ends to consider in the middle to late rounds of the draft who could contribute immediately and not waste a roster spot as a draft and stash entity - and last season all of New England saw what happens when the Patriots are afforded that luxury, as second-year defensive end Trey Flowers grew into an elite presence right before our eyes, and rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell became a trusted option in a passing attack that already had so many.

There are other examples - from Edelman to James White to Duron Harmon - but you get the point, and as long as Belichick is able to maintain the formula that allows him to develop mid-round players like these, they will always have the talent on the roster ready to go in any circumstance.

That's how they win year in and year out - and 2017 isn't looking any different.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

New England Patriots Big Board - Updated

In light of New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis stating that his team is indeed still in the process of "kicking the tires" on New England Patriots' restricted free agent corner Malcolm Butler, a preemptive expansion of the Patriots draft day "Big Board" is probably not a bad idea, though the exact compensation that the Patriots are to receive is cloudy, at best.

But we can guess.
Virginia Tech tight end Bucky Hodges

It goes without saying that the Saints won't be open to giving up their 11th overall selection in the first round - as verified by Saints' coach Sean Payton on Wednesday - and the 32nd overall selection that the Patriots sent them in exchange for wide receiver Brandin Cooks is too valuable as a bargaining chip to secure more picks on the second day...

...which is exactly where Patriots' head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick does his best work - but nothing is going to happen until Butler signs his first-round tender, something that Payton reiterated on Wednesday.

"Currently, to my understanding, he hasn't signed his tender" Payton said when asked about the progress with Butler. "It is just that.  We can sign him to an offer sheet (once he signs the tender), but I don't think were going to do that and give up the number 11 pick - in fact, I know we're not going to do that."

That's a smart move by Payton and Loomis, as it would have amounted to an outright fleecing by Belichick along the lines of when he gave up a fifth-round draft pick for wide receiver Randy Moss prior to the 2007 season - and it goes to figure that the 32nd overall wouldn't be in play, either, as it provides Loomis with too much leverage in draft day negotiations.

That said, the best the Patriots can hope for in exchange for Butler is that the Saints send Belichick their second round pick, 42nd overall, along with their 3rd round compensatory selection, 103rd overall.  In this scenario, New England would gain a second round pick that is just ten spots shy of their original first round pick, two third round picks - 72nd and 103rd overall - to go along with their fourth, two fifth rounders, a sixth and a seventh.

The benefit to the Saints is that they can turn one of their first round picks into selections on the second day to recoup the compensation to New England, plus they get a Pro Bowl quality corner, which eliminates their need to use one of their draft picks on a top corner, and can concentrate instead on safeties or linebackers, both of which are in short supply in New Orleans.

Of course, all of this is assuming a deal gets done at all before the draft...

First Day (Just in case)

Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee 6' 3" 270
    Can't miss brawling edge-setter who broke Reggie White's school sack record - in three seasons
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford 5' 11" 200
    Perfect gameplan-specific back, who can carry it 25 times a game or catch the ball 10 times, invaluable Patriots-esque weapon
Garett Bolles, OT, Utah 6' 6" 300
    Athletic and mean, needs a year to develop, but is worth the first round capital as potential Solder replacement
Marcus Maye, S, Florida 6' 0" 210
    Combination safety with sideline-to-sideline speed and instincts, cover ability and downhill run support

Second Day

T.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin 6' 4" 252
     High effort edge setter with premier NFL bloodlines to draw technique from
Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan 6' 3" 205
     A full grown man among boys in college, expert route runner and red zone threat
DeMarcus Walker, DE, Florida State 6' 4" 280
    Powerful edge setter with versatility to rush QB from three-technique as part of rotation
Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech 6' 7" 255
    Athletic and fast receiver who is more of a tall wideout than bulky tight end
Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan, 5' 10" 190
    Tough and physical press-man slot corner that could start immediately
Josh Harvey-Clemons, FS/OLB, Louisville 6' 4" 220
    Huge box safety with range and speed, elite tight end coverage
Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma 5' 11" 235
    Creative power runner with violent finish, will not be denied in short yardage
Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy 6' 6" 300
    Scrappy, athletic former hoops star who could handle blind side with a little coaching
Adam Shaheen, TE, Ashland College 6' 7" 278
     Big, fast pass catching tight end in an in-line tight end's body.  Sleeper pick that could pan out
Obi Melifonwu, FS, Connecticut 6' 4" 225
    Coverage "linebacker" who handles tight ends and contributes in run support
Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State, 6' 7" 300
    Athletic, long-limbed blindsider that is already tough run blocker and adequate pass blocker
Quincey Wilson, CB/S, Florida 6' 1" 215
    Press-man corner with plus-skill in run support - may be better safety or slot man
Chidobe Awusie, CB, Colorado, 6' 0" 200
    Versatile with deep speed, could hold off veteran for nickel back or even challenge for outside starter
Jeremy McNichols, RB, Boise State 5' 9" 214
    Committee power back that can contribute on all three downs
Marcus Williams, FS, Utah 6' 1" 200
    Intriguing centerfielder who could become a Big Nickel man
Tarell Basham, DE, Ohio 6' 4" 270 (Rush end)
    4-3 base end who sets a mean edge and can collapse pocket with pass rush
Derek Rivers, DE, Youngstown State, 6' 4" 250 (Rush end)
    Cat-quick rush end who could find a spot as a rotational rusher
Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson 6' 1" 200
    Tall corner at his best blanketing tight ends and taller receivers
Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo 5' 11" 215
    Big, decisive but plodding back with outstanding vision 
Rasul Douglas, CB, West Virginia 6' 2" 209
    Zone corner who plays like a safety in coverage
Avery Gennesy, OT, Texas A&M 6' 3" 318
    Project tackle with exceptional feet to both mirror and pull
Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE, Villanova 6' 7" 290
    Edge defender with potential in pass rush - excellent on special teams blocking kicks
Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson 6' 0" 215
    Intriguing potential as lead back, has nose for chains and end zone
Bryan Cox Jr, DE, Florida 6' 3" 265
    Strong fighter as an edge defender with potential as interior pass rusher
Howard Wilson, CB, Houston 6' 1" 190
    Project ball hawk that could surprise with immediate contribution
James Connor, RB, Pitt 6' 1" 233
    Short yardage specialist that could double as hback
Shaquill Griffin, CB, Central Florida 6' 0" 195
    Speedy press corner who is a bit of a project but with great upside
Darrell Daniels, TE, Washington 6' 3" 247
     Project as a converted receiver.  Elite speed but raw route runner

Third Day:

Julie'n Davenport, OT, Bucknell 6' 7" 320
    Draft-and-stash athletic tackle who could challenge for starting position in 2018
Aviante Collins, OT/OG, TCU 6' 4" 295
    Another draft-and-stash players who needs coaching up on technique, but is very athletic
Nate Hairston, CB, Temple 6' 0" 200
    Project corner that could play in zone fit now, but needs coaching in press-man
Christopher Carson, RB, Oklahoma State 6' 0" 220
    One-speed hammer back who never fumbles but does find end zone
Cooper Rush, QB, Central Michigan 6' 3" 225
    Cerebral, accurate passer whose marshmallow body structure resembles a current Patriots' quarterback...
Jylan Ware, OT, Alabama State 6' 8" 295
    Lengthy project that may have more upside than most projects, and may be ready to contribute
Dare Ogunbowale, RB, Wisconsin 5' 11" 215
    Passing back with upside, good, willing pass protector
Channing Stribling, CB, Michigan 6' 0" 200
    Project corner who contributes in run support and has upside at deep cover
Brian Allen, CB, Utah 6' 3" 220
    Draft-and-stash corner who looks like Brandon Browner, but with speed
Weston Steelhammer, S, Air Force 6' 2" 200
    Great football name and a ballhawk as a cover safety, needs a couple of years but worth the wait

This list is subject to change, and will be updated frequently...

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Jimmy Clipboard: The Pros And Cons Of Dealing Garoppolo

If obscure media reports are to be believed, the Jimmy Garoppolo-to-Cleveland rumors will be addressed this week at the NFL's Owner's meetings.

For a moment, let's assume that officials from both the New England Patriots and the Cleveland Browns will be in the same room as each other at least a couple of times, and that the subject of the Browns being seemingly incapable of drafting and developing their own franchise quarterback comes up over hors d'oeuvres, and that Patriots' defacto general manager Bill Belichick has had a few martinis.

Does Belichick even drink alcohol?  Only his house boy knows for sure, but let's flirt with a scenario where Belichick is half-crocked and the Browns officials approach him to broach the subject of him loosening his grip on Garoppolo long enough for the Browns to make a completely outrageous, typically overpaying scenario that would compensate the Patriots handsomely.

Is there such a scenario?

It is said that every man has his price, but when it comes to the well-being of the future of an entire franchise, can anyone in the league even begin to approach that number?  For the long-term sake of the Patriots, let's hope not.

Quarterbacks rarely come into the National Football League straight out of college and become the savior of a franchise - they must be groomed in a particular system to become successful - and the Browns haven't allowed the same system to remain in place in Cleveland for more than a couple of years, changing general managers and coaching staffs before they could ever gain any traction...

...the longest tenured head coach being former Patriots' defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's four seasons, his longevity trumped by the fact that he employed four different offensive coordinators and started seven different quarterbacks in those four seasons.

That, more than anything else, is the reason that the Browns have been the doormat of the NFL since the modern version of the Browns entered the league as an expansion franchise in 1999.  That's a long time to suck and a harsh reality to Browns' fans that their front office is the issue, not giving one offensive system enough time to develop, which puts anyone under center in the perfect environment to fail.

In short, it really didn't matter who they brought in to quarterback the team, because they were destined to fail.

Conversely, take a look at Tom Brady and the Patriots.

An afterthought in the 2000 draft, Brady was able to show enough potential during training camp to become the third quarterback for New England behind Drew Bledsoe and Michael Bishop, then showed enough in the 2001 training camp to become Beldsoe's primary backup - and even when Bledsoe was almost killed by Mo Lewis and Brady took over, the team groomed him in an on-the-job scenario that at times was painful to watch... evidenced by the fact that only once did the second-year man top the 300 yard plateau - in overtime, no less - and suffered through an erratic 2002 season before finally gaining some traction in 2003.  The rest, as they say, is history.

There are some serious doubts that Brady could have duplicated his success were circumstances any different, and that is important to remember when it comes to Garoppolo.  For instance, the stability of the coaching staff, including having the same offensive coordinator for the first five seasons in Foxborough, can not be overlooked, nor can the fact that Belichick kept the same philosophy for his offense throughout his formative years.

Peyton Manning, his brother Eli, Ben Roethlisberger, they all enjoyed the benefit of having a solid and consistent coaching staff to groom them into the position of franchise quarterback, but the best example for the scenario presenting itself to Belichick and the future of the Patriots is the way that Mike McCarthy and the Green Bay Packers treated their turnover from Bret Favre to Aaron Rodgers.

Drafted in 2005, Rodgers learned the ropes of the Packers' system while watching Favre from the sidelines - and when Favre announced his retirement after the 2007 season, McCarthy was ready to move forward with Rodgers, but became instead embroiled in a controversy when Favre decided to unretire, assuming that he would be handed the starting job - but instead McCarthy offered him a backup role under Rodgers.

Of course, Favre wouldn't hear of it and he was promptly traded to the New York Jets - but the Favre mind-changing saga is the only thing about the scenario in Green Bay that wasn't amazingly similar to what is happening in New England at present with Garoppolo.

Just before the 2007 draft, the Packers engaged in discussions with the Oakland Raiders in regard to trading Rodgers in exchange for a wide receiver named Randy Moss - but on the second day of the draft the Raiders instead traded Moss to New England and Rodgers remained with Green Bay, signed a contract extension designed to pay him as a tenured backup the first couple of years, then as a starter once Favre had retired, which he eventually did.

Now, imagine what would have happened to the Packers had they been able to complete the trade for Moss and Rodgers ended up in Oakland - the Raiders most likely wouldn't have hit the skids in their Cleveland Browns-style quarterback merry-go-round and the Packers would have been stuck with the vastly overrated Matt Flynn, and for certain would not have won a Super Bowl with him at the helm.

Perhaps the way that the Packers dealt with Rodgers should serve as a blueprint for Garoppolo, who is entering his walk-year with New England, because the pieces are in place both in the coaching ranks and in the locker room for continued success in Foxborough, and Garoppolo has proven that he has a fine grasp of the scheme.

The criteria that exists in making a decision on Garoppolo is more than just salaries and X's and O's, however.

Sure, New England could offer Garoppolo a contract extension much like what the Packers paid to Rodgers - somewhere around $5 million a season to wait his turn, and then once Brady retires or is forced out due to father time catching up with him, kick in team options to pay him righteously for his patience - but what's more is to keep Garoppolo in the position to succeed and away from the failure sure to come if he is dealt to Cleveland.

That is not a certainty, especially given the money they've spent upgrading their offensive line, but history certainly suggests such an outcome, and if current head coach Hue Jackson is treated like all of the others before him, the chances of failure increase exponentially - and if the Patriots feel that strongly about Garoppolo and have his best interest at heart, at the very least they would want to make sure that his career takes a better path than going through Cleveland... matter the compensation package, which would have to be over-the-top substantial for Belichick to consider moving the future of the franchise anyway, and there is no guarantee that the Browns' management is doing anything but wasting their time in chasing Jimmy Clipboard in the first place.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Understanding The Patriots Cap Space

The salary cap for all National Football League teams in 2017 is a mammoth $167 million, though some, like the New England Patriots, have rolled over cap space from 2016 and have a nice layer of frosting to coat their 2017 cake.

The Patriots current salary cap stands at $173,298,888, of which their current roster absorbs $146,840,777.

One doesn't have to be a math professor to calculate that the Patriots have just shy of $26.5 million of cap space left to work with, a number that has some fans of the team salivating at the possibilities for adding impact players, while others count that as a sizable "rainy day fund" which will come in handy for signing draft picks and other vital role players in the coming months..

...and still others see an opportunity to roll that money over into 2018, when that money will be a huge kicker to offset the contracts coming due on some key players to prevent them from hitting the open market - for certain, the only limitation foreseen by any dreamer is by their imagination.

The very first scenario that comes to the mind of most Patriots' fans is the ongoing Malcolm Butler saga, who was negotiating with the New Orleans Saints in an effort to obtain a huge payday in restricted free agency - but that appears all but dead in the wake of a couple of different factors.

First, the Saints have a grand total of $12.5 million left in cap space for this season, and, secondly, being that they have two first round draft picks, they will need almost $8 million of that total to sign their rookie class after the draft in late-April - and even if they do manage to unload one of their high draft picks to New England, it will relieve only a minute amount of available cap space.

For sure, there are other teams who have much more capital and leverage to work with than the Saints, but no team other than the Saints were willing to satisfy the first-round tender that Patriots' head ball coach and defacto general manager placed on Butler - and even that was in anticipation of making Butler part of a package to entice the Saints to send wide receiver Brandin Cooks to Foxborough.

In the end, the Patriots ended up sending a first-round pick to New Orleans in exchange for Cooks, which combined with deals that they made with Indianapolis for Dwayne Allen and to Carolina for Kony Ealy, made the projected amount that the Patriots will need to sign their own draft picks a number so meager that it is below the average mean wage for a middle class laborer in the United States.

But how does that work?  Essentially, the salary cap is the combined salaries of the top 51 players on a team, known simply as the "Rule of 51", with several players toward the bottom of that list making the league minimum, dependent only on the number of years the player has accrued.

For example, defensive back Justin Coleman's cap hit for 2017 is $615K, which makes him the 51st player on that list.  The Patriots' first draft pick is actually in the third round, the standard contract for the draft spot being $643k, which would replace Coleman in the top 51 - so if you were to drop Coleman's salary from the list, even though he is still on the team, and replace his salary with the 96th overall draft pick, the salary cap would take a hit of only $28k.

Going down the list, we find that the 103rd overall pick in the third round (compensatory pick) will cost the team $640k in cap space the first year, which would replace Brandon King's salary on the list and cost the Patriots a mere $25k.  The 183rd overall pick would cost the Patriots $515k, so that salary plus any subsequent salaries would not displace a current player on the list of 51, meaning that the total cap hit for New England to sign their entire draft class would amount to $53k.

Belichick spends more than that bringing players in for a workout and a cup of coffee.

It would be different had Belichick not shipped his top three draft picks off to other teams, but what he got in return was a deep threat that will take the top off of opposing defenses in Cooks for $1.5 million this season with a club option for 2018, a thus far underachieving edge rusher with a ton of potential in Kony Ealy for $903k and with an expiring contract, and an athletic "move" tight end in Dwayne Allen for $5 million...

...proving once again that Belichick is the master salary cap manipulator and roster builder, known for bringing is players who have either been misused by or represented a salary burden to their former team and plugs them into his system and adjusts his playbook according to their skill set and with next to no guaranteed money left on their deals.

In this light, Belichick is the consummate scavenger, picking clean the bones of cap-strapped teams and putting those players in a position where they are assured of success so long as they do their job.

So with all of the cap space available to the Patriots and the free agent market as dry as a popcorn fart, what is left for Belichick to do with all of that money?

Well, there are those who believe that there are still major players to be signed, players such as Adrian Peterson, Victor Cruz, Jonathan Hankins or even old friend Darrelle Revis - but if the Patriots needed them or wanted them, there are still former Patriots floating around in free agency that are rated above these name players, and are already familiar with the schemes - not to mention that any player brought in is a risk in that they may indeed be washed up.

Peterson wants a ton of money and his off-the-field name isn't the best in the NFL.  Cruz has all the explosiveness of a can of flat soda, Hankins has alienated his potential base by insisting on a multi-year contract with a lot of guaranteed money and Revis fell off the face of the planet last season and has insulted safeties everywhere by telling the world that he's "willing to move to safety", as his cover skills have eroded... if Belichick were even tempted at this point to bring in players at those positions, he has only to use the speed dial function on his phone to call LeGarrette Blount, Michael Floyd, Vince Wilfork and offer Butler a long-term contract.  It's a simple as that.

Of course, Belichick most likely isn't done wheeling and dealing, but barring a major deal that brings either a tenured veteran or a high-round draft pick into the fold, Belichick will again hold a serious amount of leverage at both the 2017 trade deadline and the start of free agency in 2018.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Slot Corner Becomes Need In Wake Of Ryan's Departure, Butler's Ambiguity

What makes an effective slot corner?

A better question may be, do the New England Patriots have one?

Also known as a nickel back, a slot corner is best described as a press-man cover who works best in tight spaces, plays the run like a linebacker, is more agile than fast with long arms and cat-quick reflexes and the instincts of a hammerhead shark. A slot corner must be dexterous enough to change direction in time to mirror shifty garden gnomes like Julian Edelman and T.Y. Hilton...
Jones' skill set makes him a viable slot candidate despite issues as rookie

...while being long enough to get their arms around taller men playing out of the slot to knock the ball away from them - it is truly a combination of athleticism and physical make up that is rare - and even more rare is the guy who can play inside out, pressing from the slot and playing trail technique, vertically, to the sidelines.

In many ways, a slot corner's job is more difficult than a traditional outside-the-numbers corner, and the 2014 post-season gives us decent example of how rare this cover corner truly is.

In the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts, then-Patriots' slot corner Kyle Arrington shut down the Colts' speedy slot man T.Y. Hilton, allowing just one reception on six targets by jamming Hilton at the line and not allowing him to release to the inside where he could rub out Arrington by taking him through traffic.  Instead, Arrington man-handled to demure Hilton and took him to the outside where the sidelines and over-the-top safety help were available.

But in the Super Bowl two weeks later, Arrington was absolutely abused by Seattle Seahawks' depth receiver Chris Matthews, as Matthews had seven inches in height and nine inches in reach on Arrington, who again played inside technique, but got toasted by the much bigger Matthews when the Seahawks had him release to the sidelines where he easily won 50-50 balls on his sheer height advantage.

So badly burned was Arrington that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick removed his charred remains at halftime and inserted a little known undrafted free agent named Malcolm Butler in his stead.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In reality, Belichick switched things around after inserting Butler, and put uber-physical and much taller corner Brandon Browner on Matthews and lined Butler up with Jermaine Kearse on the outside where they both could match up better, though Browner and Butler would switch up on the last defensive play of the game, Browner jamming Kearse at the line of scrimmage to allow Butler to break on slot receiver Ricardo Lockette, intercepting the pass intended for Lockette and saving the Super Bowl for the Patriots.

Butler said in the weeks following that game that he didn't want to be remembered just for being the guy that made that play - that he didn't want to join the ranks of the "one hit wonders" that seem to make a play in the biggest of games, then fade in obscurity.  For sure, that has not been the case, as Butler has become one of the best corners in football, and is now embroiled in a contract dispute with New England.

Butler stands even shorter than Arrington, but has the fiestiness and competitiveness required of a press corner, and the requisite springs in his legs to challenge along the sidelines.  In that manner, Butler is the perfect slot corner, and it is that same nastiness and athleticism that makes him a pretty damn good wing corner as well - and maybe that's what Belichick was thinking when he brought in lengthy corner Stephon Gilmore from the Buffalo Bills.

Together with like-sized (6' 1") third-year man Eric Rowe, the Patriots suddenly have two big, capable fly corners, and having Butler play in the slot - the Patriots are primarily is a base nickel or Big Nickel about three-quarters of the time - would give New England one of the best, if not the best, corner tandems in the NFL.

Of course, having Butler in the slot plays right into his strengths, and would produce some eye-popping numbers insofar as passes defended, interceptions and tackles - he has the physicality, quick-twitch athleticism and jack-in-the-box springs to cover taller receivers without breaking stride, though many only look at his work on the outside as dismiss him as a capable - perhaps elite - slot corner.

Last season, the Patriots had Rowe and Butler on the outside with Logan Ryan in the slot to form one of the better secondaries in the league, but now that Ryan has gone on to play for the Tennessee Titans for $10 million a year, the cupboard is bare of proven slot corners.

The list of candidates that currently reside on the roster hardly causes opposing offensive coordinators sleepless nights, as names like Justin Coleman and Jonathan Jones are mainly special teamers and former second-round pick Cyrus Jones melted down like the wicked witch of the west in his rookie campaign, though his skill set matches exactly what New England looks for in their slot men.

And that may be the plan, as Butler's resistance to playing nice with his restricted free agent tender has cast some ambiguity on the depth chart, due to his insistence on getting paid big bucks now instead of waiting until 2018, when he could rake in millions on the open market.

Cyrus Jones started slowly at Alabama and gradually became one of the best shutdown corners in college ball, not to mention it's premier punt returner.  Patriots' fans will all tell you that Jones started very slowly in his professional career as well, particularly as a return man, fumbling away five of his 18 touches in the kicking game and eventually being benched by Belichick.

But if history holds, Jones should begin to display his wares in season two.  Jones' background in football was as a wide receiver, making the transition to cornerback in his sophomore year with the Crimson Tide and contributing in his Junior season after a frightful sophomore campaign, so a blueprint for Jones does exist.

Coleman (5' 11", 185) is slightly under-sized for the slot on the professional level, but gets by on hand fighting underneath and touch tackling in run support, while Jonathan Jones is even smaller but with elite speed that makes him a core-four special teamer.

Neither of those guys are the long-term answer, and if Cyrus Jones doesn't lick it into high gear, he won't be either - but Patriots' fans needn't fret, as Belichick does have a couple of options, the first of which is to retain Butler by either matching any offer sheet that comes his way or to offer his a long-term contract themselves, though Belichick is not the kind of guy to surrender leverage to a player just for the sake of keeping him around...

...nor is he the kind of guy that signs someone in free agency out of desperation, which is what it would appear to be if he did something weird like offer a deal to apparently washed up fly corner Darrelle Revis, as media-generated rumors have been suggesting.

Revis has the size and the length to compete in the slot, and was thought of as a nickel back coming out of college and some even suggested that he would make a better safety due to his innate instinctual ability to visualize a play unfolding in front of him - but Belichick nixed that notion after the 2014 season when he told Revis that his skill set didn't translate to safety in the Patriots scheme.

That doesn't mean that his skill set wouldn't translate to safety elsewhere, just not in New England where the predominant defensive look is in the nickel package, usually with a third safety instead of a third cornerback - a scheme that calls for a box safety to become, essentially, a weakside linebacker, a free safety to become a slot corner and a combination safety to become the football equivalent of a centerfielder.

Of course, Belichick could have just been telling Revis that because he didn't want to re-sign him to a big-money contract just to convert him to safety when his value had always been as a shutdown, fly corner - so Revis went onto his original team in New York, who signed him to a five-year, $70 million contract only to watch his skills diminish to the point that there are now general managers around the league who claim that they wouldn't sign him for free.

The draft offers a few names that may help, such as Michigan's Jourdan Lewis, Florida's Quincey Lewis and Colorado's Chidobe Awusie, though Belichick is far more likely to draft a box safety like Louisville's Josh Harvey-Clemons to compete with the disappointing Jordan Richards or to prepare for the end of the line for long-time starter Patrick Chung.

So what would be the best scenario for the Patriots would be to get restricted free agent Butler to sign his first-round tender that will guarantee him $4 million for this season, then work towards a long-term deal during the season or prepare a rookie to take his place if he hits unrestricted free agency after the season.

Judging from the lack of movement towards a rumored deal with the New Orleans Saints for Butler - due to what can only be described as either a disagreement between the teams for compensation for the corner or a lack of salary cap space in New Orleans, or both - it appears that the Patriots will have the proper leverage to coax another year out of Butler...

...but wouldn't preclude a pre-draft or even a mid-season deal between the teams for Butler's services - but Patriots' fans can rest assured that Belichick won't leave his secondary devoid of a proper slot corner, whatever happens.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Butler, Agent Playing Hardball With Belichick A Losing Proposition

Thursday came and went.  So did Friday, and still, there was no deal in New Orleans for Malcolm Butler. Saturday and Sunday didn't look any different, either.

The Butler to the New Orleans Saints saga has been dragged out into a new week with the teams reportedly not even close to finalizing anything - which is to be expected since the teams can not legally discuss so much as what's for dinner as long as Butler is involved, since he hasn't signed his first-round tender in some sort of preternatural power play that can't be sitting well with Patriots' head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick.

Of course, Belichick has seen this before and took the appropriate measures to have himself covered in many ways long before the free agency period began - as Patriots' fans will remember another disgruntled employee by the name of Wes Welker whose monetary demands - not to mention his big mouth - leading up to the 2013 free agency period were met with disdain by Belichick, who opted out of the whole mess by signing Danny Amendola and closing the door on Welker.

But Welker was a soon-to-be 32 year old unrestricted free agent who over-estimated his value on the open market and burned every bridge he could find on his way out of New England, while Butler is a 27 year old restricted free agent entering the prime of his career - so like it or not, Belichick has been forced to deal with Butler and his weird, part-time agent, and it's been somewhat of a bumpy ride... fact, it's been a tangled, roundabout deal that has had all of the drama of a mid-afternoon soap opera mixed with a smattering of Jerry Maquire - and just the fact that the New England Patriots are involved made football fans across the globe crazy with intrigue, if not disgust.

Intrigue, because the Saints have been pulling all of the wrong strings on defense ever since winning their first title back in 2009, and have committed to addressing their deficiencies by trading away their top skill position player on offense to make it happen.  The disgust?  That comes from the Patriots maybe losing their top cornerback from their championship season, and still got stronger on both sides of the ball at the same time...

...and if the Butler to New Orleans deal somehow happens to go through, Belichick will have shiny, new draft capital to spend in Philadelphia in late April.

Originally, in the days leading up to the new league year, the Patriots placed a first-round tender on their restricted free agent cornerback, which mandated that any team that wished to sign Butler to an offer sheet had to do so with the knowledge that the Patriots had ten days to match the offer and keep Butler, or decline to match any offer and let Butler walk away, but at the price of his new team's first-round draft pick.

Depending on how you look at it, that's either a steep price to pay - in that a first round draft pick it the top capital that any team possesses to select players coming out of college - or it's worth giving up that high in capital for a young, proven player that comes with little ambiguity, a view of the situation that comes straight from the Bill Belichick book of team building.

Belichick has long been the alpha scavenger, feeding on players that other teams have trained to be football players in the league - bringing them in, making them professionals, and adding their distinctiveness to the collective, which allows him to open up his playbook in a way that no other team can, and the results are impossible to argue with.

He's not used to other teams trying to pull the condor gambit on his own players, however, but just like with any negative scenario - whether on the field or off - has a plan in place to twist the advantage back around to his own team.

Just the fact that he tendered Butler at the first round level makes one wonder if Belichick had already caught wind that the grumblings from the Butler camp were going to cause waves, something made even more sensible considering that on the first day of free agency he went deep into the vault to bring in ex-Buffalo Bills' corner Stephon Gilmore...

...a move that many are claiming was the impetus for Butler's frustration, when in reality, Belichick was just covering his own ass in the event Butler did blow up in his face.

Ever the leverage junkie, Belichick now has Gilmore under contract to pair with 2016 pickup Eric Rowe, both softening the blow of potentially losing Butler as well as hammering home the idea that if Butler wanted to remain with New England, he was going to do so on Belichick's terms, not his own.

Nobody holds Belichick hostage, at least not without paying a price, but while Butler and his agent would like the appearance of having the upper hand over Belichick and the Patriots - what with their refusal to sign the first-round tender - it is really Belichick who holds the cards, and Team Butler is eventually going to have to submit to Belichick's will.

There are four things that can happen, and Butler controls none of the outcomes:

First, and most simplistic, Butler can sign an offer sheet from the Saints after signing his first round tender, and the Patriots can either match what is certain to be a long-term deal, or, second, they can decline to match the offer and let Butler walk in exchange for the Saints' original first round draft pick, which is 11th overall in the 2017 draft.

Third, Butler and the Saints can work out a contract and eschew protocol by working out a trade with New England which will almost certainly contain either the 32nd overall pick in the draft, or a combination of the Saints' second rounder (41st overall) and third rounder (76th overall).  The 32nd pick originally belonged to the Patriots, who sent it to New Orleans for wide receiver Brandin Cooks.

Fourth, Butler can continue to play hard ball and refuse to sign his tender while seeking a long-term contract, in which case Belichick would just leave him to stew in his own juices, secure in the knowledge that even though Butler is not under contract, his 2017 rights belong to the Patriots, meaning that he would have to sit out, which would destroy his market value, not to mention he wouldn't accrue a fourth league year and would be right back where he started at the beginning of this mess.

There are advantages to the first three scenarios, but nobody wins if the fourth plays out - except the Saints, that is, as they still would have two first round picks.

The second of those two first-rounders, incidentally, was the price that New England paid to acquire third-year speedster Brandin Cooks from the Saints, capital that Belichick really didn't want to part with, and wouldn't have had to had Butler played nice and signed his tender as the original plan was to send Butler and a third-round pick to New Orleans for Cooks...

...and there is still hope that the Patriots can recoup that pick, number 32 overall, but it's going to take Butler and his agent playing ball and agreeing to an offer sheet that the cap-starved Saints can work under their ceiling and still leave enough room to sign their draft picks, which under the current rookie wage scale is going to cost them around $4 million in 2017.

But where there's a will, there's a way - and Belichick's will is stronger than anyone else's in the league.

In the end, Belichick will either end up with Butler and Gilmore manning their starting cornerback spots or they will have fleeced the Saints into giving them a top-end deep threat for what amounts to a third round draft pick.

Either way, Belichick - and the Patriots - win.  Again.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

New England Patriots Mock Draft 1.0 - The "Make The Third-Rounder Count" Edition

The New England Patriots are absolutely loaded - and there is no lack of folks feeling some kind of way about that.

For Patriots' haters, they sit slack-jawed on bar stools, slobbering in mugs and complaining bitterly about the world champions constantly reloading, year after year, for title runs while every other team in the NFL is just hoping to be the ones who can beat the Patriots on any given Sunday.  They go so far as to accuse Belichick of somehow cheating the system to keep bringing in impact players, when in reality he is just very patient, knows what he wants and jumps when the time is right.
Ohio's Tarell Basham (93)

Patriots' fans know this all too well, but usually would be bitching and whining about having just six draft picks, and none in the first two rounds - not this time however, as even the most casual of Patriots' fans now recognize Belichick's style, and know that he gets his best value in the middle rounds.

And that's where we start.

In reality, Belichick could somehow finagle some earlier draft picks by the time the selection process starts in late April, but at this point, he has what he has, and with all things being equal - as in spotting the other 31 NFL teams two rounds worth of draft picks - the Dark Master will make his mid-round picks count.

His needs are few, though some would argue that a lead running back would be nice, and others will say that depth along the defensive line - especially at defensive end - is lacking, and they would be right, so those things are sure to be addressed in the draft.  But in my mind, there is a need for a hybrid strong safety / coverage linebacker who can stick with tight ends...

...and also for a developmental left tackle who can plug-and-play in the event Nate Solder gets hurt or leaves in free agency after next season - and a team can never have enough cover corners.

Those things being said and ultimately true, here is our initial mock draft of the 2017 season:

3rd Round (72nd Overall ) - Brian Hill, RB, Wyoming

For the Patriots' purposes, one would be hard-pressed to find a better fit as a lead runner than Hill, especially considering their draft position.

At 6' 1" and 220 pounds, Hill is a slashing downhill runner who possesses tremendous balance and a powerful lower body to keep piles moving, yet is lithe and deft in the pass patterns and a willing blocker in pass protection.  If there is a downside, it would be that he has a tendency to bounce outside if the running lanes are clogged instead of taking what's there, but his lateral movement and explosion through the hole - not to mention a dose of subtle elusiveness - makes Hill a great fit for New England's running game.

3rd Round (96th Overall) - Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech

Belichick traded to the Indianapolis Colts for Dwayne Allen to bridge the gap left by the departure of Martellus Bennett, but his contact is guaranteed for 2017 only, though the Patriots own his rights through 2019 - and while Allen has the athleticism to contribute in the offense, Hodges could break it wide open.

4th Round (131st Overall)  - Josh Harvey-Clemons, SS, Louisville

It was no secret that both Jordan Richards and starting strong safety Patrick Chung declined in production last season, so the Patriots should be prioritizing box safeties.  But Harvey-Clemons is no ordinary box safety.

Of course, he checks all the boxes as a strong safety, but he is also a natural at diagnosing plays from the box, taking on tight ends and using his huge wingspan to shield them from the ball, and plays downhill with violent intent in run support.

5th Round (163rd Overall) - Tarell Basham, DE, Ohio

A three-down defensive end that is a better edge-setter than pass rusher, but his high-motor and relentlessness as a pass rusher will do exactly what Belichick likes from his rush ends, and that is to collapse the pocket and get the quarterback off his mark.

In the running game, he is a stack-and-shed edge-setter with the lateral agility to get to the sidelines, if need be - and seems to genuinely dislike tackles and tight ends, and makes sure they know it on the field.

5th Round (183rd Overall) - Howard Wilson, CB, Houston

A project corner who could contribute immediately and really surprise despite having only one season as a full-time college starter.  Checks the boxes on height, versatility in different techniques and in violent run support, but not in weight or experience.

At 6' 1" and only 185 pounds, Wilson plays without fear but is liable to incur injury with his reckless playing style.  A year in the system and with a strength and conditioning staff, and Wilson could force his way into a starting role.

6th Round (200th Overall) - Jylan Ware, OT, Alabama State

Huge, powerful hands and excellent placement define Ware.  Has a decent slide step to mirror speedy defensive ends but will struggle with elite ends that can convert speed to power - but then again, who doesn't?

Possesses the height that the Patriots prefer in their bookends at 6' 8", but played in college at less than 300 pounds and needs some time in the weight room under the tutelage of a professional strength coach - that said, Ware is a natural left tackle and could work his way into being a major contributor as a draft-and-stash project for Dante Scharnecchia.

7th - 239th -  Weston Steelhammer, FS, Air Force

Belichick is a sucker for military academy guys and for safeties over all, so he should love Steelhammer.

Known as a route-breaker, Steelhammer's game is cutting off receivers routes by reading the quarterback's eyes and getting to the point of the reception before the receiver.  Not particularly fast, and relatively skinny (6' 2", 200), he nevertheless is worth a seventh-round flyer, particularly because he has a four-year commitment to the Air Force, and with proper weight room instruction could become a stashed force.

New England Patriots' Big Board - First Peek...

The New England Patriots' Big Board for the 2017 NFL draft has an obvious mid-round tilt to it - and for good reason, as the Patriots first pick in the draft is not until the top of the third round.

Head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick used his first and second round draft capital to acquire a speedy wide receiver (Brandin Cooks from New Orleans) and a potentially impactful edge rusher (Kony Ealy from Carolina) - and then in free agency kept his Big Nickel defense together by re-signing Dont'a Hightower, Duron Harmon and Alan Branch while bringing in cornerback Stephon Gilmore and edge setter Lawrence Guy.
Michigan's Jourdan Lewis is ready to contribute right away

Those moves more than offset any losses incurred by New England in free agency, leaving the team with fewest draft picks they've had in the Belichick era wanting for very little.

So the focal point of the draft for the Patriots should be with an eye to the future, as they have just as many expiring contracts at the end of the 2017 season as they did after winning their fifth trophy in February, though the impact of the players whose contracts are up is not as wide-spread as the 2016 class.

Still, Patriots' fans probably shudder every time they look at the list.  For example, all three of their primary running backs - Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead - are in the final years of their respective contracts.  Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Ealy are as well.  Nate Solder and Cam Fleming are in line for new contracts after the season, as are wide receiver Julian Edelman and linebacker Kyle Van Noy.

The luxury that the Patriots enjoy is that they can draft with their eye to the future while still enjoying a championship caliber team ready to defend their title.

Naturally, the Patriots are not in line for any of the talent at the top of the standard big board unless they make deals between now and late-April to gain some more capital on the second day, or even in the first round - but until that happens, this Big Board will contain only players whom I expect could slide into the third round and beyond, and consist mostly of players who are depth candidates or are developmental projects...

...which is not to say that none of them could contribute immediately, but that's not the mindset going into the selection process, as the Patriots should be looking at defensive ends, running backs, offensive tackles and - as always - safeties (as Jordan Richards and Pat Chung took back-steps last season) as well as coverage linebackers and developmental corners:

Second Day

DeMarcus Walker, DE, Florida State 6' 4" 280
    Powerful edge setter with versatility to rush QB from three-technique as part of rotation
Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech 6' 7" 255
    Athletic and fast receiver who is more of a tall wideout than bulky tight end
Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan, 5' 10" 190
    Tough and physical press-man slot corner that could start immediately
Josh Harvey-Clemons, FS/OLB, Louisville 6' 4" 220
    Huge box safety with range and speed, elite tight end coverage
Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma 5' 11" 235
    Creative power runner with violent finish, will not be denied in short yardage
Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy 6' 6" 300
    Scrappy, athletic former hoops star who could handle blind side with a little coaching
Obi Melifonwu, FS, Connecticut 6' 4" 225
    Coverage "linebacker" who handles tight ends and contributes in run support
Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State, 6' 7" 300
    Athletic, long-limbed blindsider that is already tough run blocker and adequate pass blocker
Quincey Wilson, CB/S, Florida 6' 1" 215
    Press-man corner with plus-skill in run support - may be better safety or slot man
Chidobe Awusie, CB, Colorado, 6' 0" 200
    Versatile with deep speed, could hold off veteran for nickel back or even challenge for outside starter
Jeremy McNichols, RB, Boise State 5' 9" 214
    Committee power back that can contribute on all three downs
Marcus Williams, FS, Utah 6' 1" 200
    Intriguing centerfielder who could become a Big Nickel man
Tarell Basham, DE, Ohio 6' 4" 270 (Rush end)
    4-3 base end who sets a mean edge and can collapse pocket with pass rush
Derek Rivers, DE, Youngstown State, 6' 4" 250 (Rush end)
    Cat-quick rush end who could find a spot as a rotational rusher
Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson 6' 1" 200
    Tall corner at his best blanketing tight ends and taller receivers
Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo 5' 11" 215
    Big, decisive but plodding back with outstanding vision 
Rasul Douglas, CB, West Virginia 6' 2" 209
    Zone corner who plays like a safety in coverage
Avery Gennesy, OT, Texas A&M 6' 3" 318
    Project tackle with exceptional feet to both mirror and pull
Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE, Villanova 6' 7" 290
    Edge defender with potential in pass rush - excellent on special teams blocking kicks
Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson 6' 0" 215
    Intriguing potential as lead back, has nose for chains and end zone
Bryan Cox Jr, DE, Florida 6' 3" 265
    Strong fighter as an edge defender with potential as interior pass rusher
Howard Wilson, CB, Houston 6' 1" 190
    Project ball hawk that could surprise with immediate contribution
James Connor, RB, Pitt 6' 1" 233
    Short yardage specialist that could double as hback
Shaquill Griffin, CB, Central Florida 6' 0" 195
    Speedy press corner who is a bit of a project but with great upside

Third Day:

Julie'n Davenport, OT, Bucknell 6' 7" 320
    Draft-and-stash athletic tackle who could challenge for starting position in 2018
Aviante Collins, OT/OG, TCU 6' 4" 295
    Another draft-and-stash players who needs coaching up on technique, but is very athletic
Nate Hairston, CB, Temple 6' 0" 200
    Project corner that could play in zone fit now, but needs coaching in press-man
Christopher Carson, RB, Oklahoma State 6' 0" 220
    One-speed hammer back who never fumbles but does find end zone
Jylan Ware, OT, Alabama State 6' 8" 295
    Lengthy project that may have more upside than most projects, and may be ready to contribute
Dare Ogunbowale, RB, Wisconsin 5' 11" 215
    Passing back with upside, good, willing pass protector
Channing Stribling, CB, Michigan 6' 0" 200
    Project corner who contributes in run support and has upside at deep cover
Brian Allen, CB, Utah 6' 3" 220
    Draft-and-stash corner who looks like Brandon Browner, but with speed
Weston Steelhammer, S, Air Force 6' 2" 200
    Great football name and a ballhawk as a cover safety, needs a couple of years but worth the wait

This list is subject to change, and will be updated frequently...

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Butler, Agent's Impatience Could Mean Patriots' Secondary Looking Much Different

Malcolm Butler was Pro Football Focus's number three-rated coverage cornerback in the entire National Football League last season, and with him in the lineup, the New England Patriots' secondary was rated the third-best in the National Football League.

Coincidence?  Hardly, but one also has to take into account that free safety Devin McCourty earned the title of top coverage safety in the league, while centerfielder Duron Harmon ranks second only to Seattle's Earl Thomas as the best single-high safety in professional football - not to mention that erstwhile slot corner Logan Ryan graded out as a top-ten coverage man at that spot.

But while Ryan has moved on to play with McCourty's twin brother in Tennessee, the remainder of the aforementioned top-three secondary is intact, with former Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore adding his press-man ability to that mix, a move that was underwhelming Patriots' fans, given the money he was offered and the potential backlash in the locker room.

That backlash comes in the form of Butler, who has been rumored by one source to be terribly frustrated by the Gilmore contract, and said to be looking forward to working with Gilmore by another.  It all has all the sounds of either a megalo-maniacal agent gone rogue or a collective of mother hen beat writers trying to generate page views - or both.

At the center of all of the madness is Huntsville, Alabama attorney Derek Simpson, who considers being a sports agent a hobby and a part-time job and whose only client is Butler.  The two have formed a fast friendship, which is fortunate for Simpson, because if he didn't have Butler as a client, he would have lost his certification as an agent this coming summer as NFL rules specify that an agent must have at least one client in the NFL for three consecutive years.

Simpson once gave Butler some advice, telling him to take two post-it notes and fix them to his bathroom mirror - one had the number "3" written on it to represent the average length, in years, of an NFL career, and the other had the floating decimal "78.8", which represents the percentage of former NFL players who eventually file for bankruptcy.

Sage advice to be sure, but Butler's path to the big time dictated that he had to start small, as in rookie minimum salary, and work his way into a bigger contract that could be the start of life-long financial security, a start that began with the Patriots placing a first-round tender on the restricted free agent, a marker that was scheduled to pay him just shy of $4 million in 2017.

That may have been enough for Butler had the Patriots not opened the vault for Gilmore, who earned his bones through five years in Buffalo as a first-round draft pick who had to wait for the Bills to pick up his fifth-year option in 2016 before he made any heavy money.

And that's the rub.  Rookie salaries are capped in the NFL, and depending on where a player is drafted, the cap is either higher or lower - and as the tenth overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, Gilmore was capped at a four-year total of $12 million, fully guaranteed, with most of that ($7.2 million) locked up in a signing bonus which made him an instant millionaire.

Last season on the fifth-year option, which is available only to players who were selected in the first round of the draft, Gilmore made transition tag money, totaling just over $11 million, all the while holding out of OTA's in protest of not being signed to a long-term extension by the Bills.  As it turns out, the Bills offered Gilmore a five-year deal worth $10.5 million per season, but he turned it down, wanting "Josh Norman" money...

...and while he fell short of Josh Norman's contract, what he got from New England was close enough to what the Bills offered him to wonder if Gilmore didn't just want to get out of the losing culture in Bufalo.

Lesson being, although he bitched and railed about money, Gilmore had to wait to get the contract he desired, while Butler and his agent seem to not want to take things as they come - which is unfortunate, as a Butler-Gilmore-Rowe trifecta in the standard nickle package probably would have been the top unit in all of football.

But pending a trade being worked out between the Patriots and Saints, the question looms: what's next for the Patriots' secondary?

Assuming that Butler will be gone and knowing that Ryan already is, the top two corner spots will go to Gilmore and Eric Rowe, twin 6' 1" press-man corners with deep speed - though Rowe, a former college safety,  is equally impressive in zone and is better in run support than Gilmore.  Who plays in the single slot is up in the air, but after a disastrous rookie campaign, Cyrus Jones could be the man.

Jones had his issues with ball security and decision making in the return game, fumbling four times and inexplicably failing to dodge a bouncing punt that hit him in the leg - but early trouble seems to be a staple of Jones' game, as are miraculous recoveries.  He's been a cornerback for just three years - his last two seasons in college after making the transition from wide receiver and his rookie season in Foxborough - and has always embraced adversity...

...and lord knows he had plenty of that last season, so Patriots' fans are about to witness either a complete turnaround as a slot corner or a colossal bust.  Beyond Jones is his college nemesis from Auburn, Jonathan Jones, who has blazing speed (4.33) and specializes in -you guessed it - press-man coverage and does his best work in a phone booth, making him a perfect slot man despite his demure (5' 8") frame.

There's also Justin Coleman who has shown promise in limited action, but if none of these three make the nut, the Patriots could spend mid-round draft capital on a corner in the draft.  Free agency?  Well, three of the top corners remaining have played for the Patriots in the recent past as there's no reason to believe the team is interested in bringing any of them back.

The Patriots spent a second round pick on Darius Butler back in 2009, but was waived tow seasons later and after an initial stop in Carolina eventually found a home in Indianapolis.  Sterling Moore had his 15 minutes of fame as a safety, stripping a potential game-winning touchdown out of Baltimore's Lee Evan's hands, helping to send New England to a Super Bowl...

...and Darrelle Revis won a Super Bowl with the Patriots in 2014 - but while many Patriots' fans are ecstatic about Revis beating the rap and becoming available on the open market, the fact of the matter remains that both Malcolm Butler and Brandon Browner had more success in Matt Patricia's  defense down the stretch than the fading Revis did.

He has since put on about 25 pounds and at age 32 is looking for a switch to safety to try and revive and extend his career, but the price tag is too steep even if he was still the owner of the mythical "Revis Island', and he's made a direct pitch to play for his hometown Steelers, putting the Rooney's on the spot.

In short, there are no decent options on the open market other than Gilmore's battery mate in Buffalo, slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, who was recently released by the Bills.  Familiarity between Gilmore and Robey-Coleman wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, and would give the Patriots a young (25), coachable slot corner with four years of experience in a phone booth.

But, of course, this is all dependent on Butler leaving for New Orleans as seems destined to happen - whether it does or not, Patriots' fans should know better than to doubt the team building skills of Belichick.

"T-Rex" Joins "Sweet Feet" and "Little Dirty" To Form Intriguing Backfield For Patriots

"Sweet feet", "Little Dirty" and now "T-Rex" - It seems you can't be a New England Patriots' running back without having some sort of cheesy nickname.

Sweet Feet is, of course, fourth-year passing back James White, who absolutely abused the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 - while Little Dirty is Dion Lewis, an all purpose back with video game moves in the open field.  Hell, Patriots' fans may even see "Blount Force Trauma", aka LeGarrette Blount, back in uniform before the spring is out.

One never knows, but if there is one thing that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick values in a player, it is versatility - and while Blount's skill set isn't what one would necessarily call versatile, there is still something to be said for being able to line up and run the ball directly into the teeth of a defense.

To many, few things are more satisfying than the ability to run the football with success when the defense knows it is coming, but is powerless to stop it - and with the Patriots' offensive line's collective skill set being more in tune with the running game than the passing game, one would think that New England would be able to move the chains on the ground with more ease than their 3.9 yards per carry average would indicate...

...but versatile backs with the ability to haul the mail in the running game and to contribute in the passing game have eluded the Patriots for the most part and have had to rely on passing backs mixing it up in the ground game to keep defenses guessing.

Lewis is the closest the Patriots have to an every down back, while White showed enormous flashes in short yardage situations in the Super Bowl, but at 5' 8" and 195 pounds.  There are those who doubt Lewis can manage 20-plus carries per game over a full season - and White has never had to, splitting duties all the way through high school and college.

Blount has carried the load, for the most part, during the past three seasons and is certainly the default candidate in the event of injury, though he is one-dimensional which puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line to open holes when the defense is stacking the box to stop Blount.

That is where "T-Rex" comes in.

Rex Burkhead rode the pine as a Cincinnati Bengal the past four seasons waiting for an opportunity behind the likes of Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill, playing mostly special teams but on sparse occasions - such as the 2016 season finale - he grasped the opportunity to show what he can do, and all he did against the Baltimore Ravens and their league-best run defense was hammer out 119 yards on the ground.

On the surface, Burkhead appears to be a redundant talent on a team that already has White and Lewis, but what makes the Nebraska product more of a dynamic weapon is his running style.  Where Lewis is a sneaky runner with controlled moves that gain yards by bursting out from behind his linemen and White a balanced runner featuring a subtle elusiveness with hesitation and a wicked stutter step, Burkhead is more of a helter-skelter, knees-and-elbows back...

...his manic running style looking more like a newborn fawn trying out its legs for the first time - that is until just before contact with a defender, when the pads go down and he finishes the play by punishing the tackler.

And just the fact that Burkhead becomes the Patriots' highest-paid running back in nearly a decade - what with his one-year, $3.15 million contract - suggests that he is coming into New England not just to play special teams (he was a regular on the Bengals' core-four), and not to become a clone of White or Lewis, but to compete for the Patriots' lead back duties.

He will be competing for that spot with Lewis - whose ACL tear in late 2015 sapped some of his open field maneuverability - and with perpetual practice squad entity Tyler Gaffney, who hasn't had a regular season NFL carry in his three seasons.  Blount appears to be the odd man out in this scenario, and his series of one-year, incentive-laden deals appears to over.

But signing Burkhead for just one season put the Patriots' backfield in flux, as it makes him an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, joining both White and Lewis in that capacity.  Of course, the Patriots could negotiate extensions for one or all during the season, but the feeling is that Belichick is waiting to see if Burkhead is indeed the underrated lead back he apparently envisions...

...and if Lewis regains his repertoire of moves and if White can build upon his 2016 season when he was second in targets and receptions only to wide receiver Julian Edelman, he could sign all three, relatively inexpensively, but it would appear that because Burkhead has been signed for just one season, that Belichick may not be done collecting running backs.

Pending the outcome of any deals involving the New Orleans Saints and Patriots' cornerback Malcolm Butler, New England is devoid of top draft capital - their first pick currently isn't until the third round - so a mid-round running back could be in the offing.

Leading that pack is an immature but fully capable and talented Joe Williams.  Blessed with blazing speed and a ripped torso, he wasted his first couple of years in college on suspension from Connecticut for a theft charge, spent a year at the JC level, then signed with Utah and played behind Devonte Booker in 2015, briefly 'retiring" from the game early in 2016 before returning and blowing up the PAC-12 with his elite running skills.

But he is far from a complete back and with ball security and pass protection being issues, Belichick would have his hands full making a pro player out of him - so perhaps he would feel more comfortable with a kid like Samaje Perine out of Oklahoma, who is nothing but a bulldozer that could complement the style of any of the Patriots current backs.

There are other names, and it could be that Belichick is happy with what he has, particularly knowing that he has Blount on speed dial.

Besides, neither of those college kids have cheesy nicknames.

Patriots' Prodigal Son Returns - Hightower Re-signing Example Of Belichick Letting Market Set Price

"He arose and went to his father. But when he was still far off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion, and ran towards him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." - Luke 15:20

Bill Belichick may be a fatherly figure to some players on his team - and a harsh taskmaster, to be sure - as he genuinely cares about his charges, but when prodigal son Dont'a Hightower returned to Foxborough from his free agency tour, it's hard to imagine that Belichick ran to him, and even harder to imagine him falling on his neck.

For certain there was no kissing involved.

What was involved was $43.5 million - $19 million guaranteed - that will keep the heart and soul of the Patriots' defense in New England for the next four seasons and, at the same time, solidified the middle of a unit that led the league in scoring defense in 2016 and has, by all accounts, become even better while he was being wined and cupcaked by potential suitors.

But to assess how happy Belichick should be to have Hightower back in the fold, one only has to entertain the thought that the Dark Master eshewed the franchise tag for his defensive signal caller and told him to go see what he could find on the open market.  He did the same thing for Julian Edelman a few years back and, to a different degree, Wes Welker a few years earlier than that.

Letting the market set the price for players has long been a tactic utilized by Belichick, as he puts into play advanced metrics, gaining objective knowledge of a player's productivity, multiplying that by age and experience and injury history to form an estimation of that player's future production - then he factors in outside elements such as what the player's fit is in other programs.

Almost always, a player that is in the Patriots' program is there because it is his best fit, as Belichick's philosophy in regard to team building is to bring in players who can expand his options in the playbook rather than players whom he can mold into it.  It's not a subtle difference, but at times players become enamored with the notion that they can take their talent anywhere and be successful...

...and while that has been true for a handful of former-Patriots, it is the extreme exception rather than the rule.  Hightower probably could have gone to some other team - particularly one that runs a 3-4 base defense - and put up huge numbers in that the formation actually takes advantage of the downhill playmaking skills like his.

But so does the Patriots' philosophy in their 4-2-5 approach, a philosophy that helped Hightower to be recognized as the best blitzing linebacker in the NFL.

In the 4-2-5, also known as the Big Nickel, Hightower becomes a chess piece that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia can move around to present matchup problems for the opposing offense.  He can do this because both of his defensive tackles demand double teams which occupy four of the five offensive linemen, allowing Hightower to reduce down to what amounts to a stand-up defensive end with no one but a strong-side tackle to contend with.

The results are often game-changing plays, such as his strip sack of Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl, when neither the tackle nor the running back who stayed in for pass protection knew what to do with him lined up on the edge.

And that, as much as anything else, was due to the Patriots utilizing Hightower's skill set to open up plays in the defensive philosophy - and anyone who doesn't think the Big Nickel is such a big deal only has to look at the deals given to both defensive tackle Alan Branch and centerfield-safety Duron Harmon to know exactly how crucial the formation - and Hightower - is to the scheme.

Other teams realize this as well, but other teams didn't spend top draft capital collecting college players known to be "marginal" talents by expert evaluators in a general sense, but possessed the skill sets to implement a defensive philosophy not seen in the league in almost five decades, and never with the success in which Belichick has run it.

Part of that included Hightower, who was seen as a perfect fit as a "Will" linebacker in a 3-4 due to his ability to scrape off of blocks taken on by the "Mike" and quickly get to the ball, but what was so intriguing about Hightower was that he was just as successful with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end, and had the lateral range to set the edge in the running game and blow up screen plays in the passing game.

So, in reality, there really isn't a linebacker quite like Hightower anywhere else in the league, as evidenced by his market forming slowly, and only the dysfunctional, cupcake-wielding Jets and the desperate "we-can-never-stop-the-Patriots-offense" Steelers showed interest, both of whom recognized - like every other team in the league - that he wasn't going anywhere but back to where he truly fit...

...and also evidenced by the fact that the deal Hightower eventually ended up signing was essentially the same one that Belichick offered him at the start of last season, tacking on an extra $750,000 a year to show his appreciation for a man that had done so much for the success of the New England Patriots - and this after showing Hightower the ultimate respect of allowing the market dictate what his worth was, and where he should be.

After all, in professional football, prodigal sons of Hightower's talent don't always return home - but Belichick knew this one would.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Gilmore Banks, Butler About To Break For "Greener" Pastures

When former Buffalo Bills' cornerback Stephon Gilmore signed a major free agent contract with the New England Patriots, the deal did more than just break the bank.

Precedence is one other thing that was broken, as the Patriots typically don't offer big money contracts to free agents on the open market - though when they do, it's usually for defensive backs.  Like back in 2014 when general manager and head ball coach Bill Belichick signed cornerback Darrelle Revis for an outragious sum - though it turns out that fellow corners Malcolm Butler and since-released Brandon Browner ultimately had a greater impact.
Heroics aside, Butler appears to be on his way out of New England

The declining Revis and his fat wallet were sent packing for New York after one season with a Super Bowl ring and the tarnished reputation as a hired gun, serving as a reminder that Belichick doesn't pay players for their past accomplishments - rather, he pays for players based on what he perceives their future production will be.

The Gilmore deal made the Pro Bowler the eighth-highest paid corner in the league at what is typically one of the most expensive positions in football, and the fourth-highest paid Patriots behind quarterback Tom Brady, left tackle Nate Solder and safety Devin McCourty, with both Brady and Solder the thirteenth-highest paid at their respective positions, and McCourty fifth.

So, Gilmore's numbers certainly aren't out of line, when speaking generally about the Patriots considering that they are paying exactly half of the players on their roster at least seven-digits, 17 of them on offense and 14 of them on defense - but the numbers are skewed towards the offense when considering highest paid at their positions, as right tackle Marcus Cannon (5th overall) and tight ends Rob Gronkowski (5th) and Dwayne Allen (10th) rank towards the top in the league at their positions...

...while beyond McCourty, only defensive tackle Alan Branch (17th) and defensive end Lawerence Guy (21st) rank in the upper-quarter of the league at their respective positions - so Gilmore's contract brings the disparity closer to center.

Still, there are deserving players that are due for pay increases that may see the Gilmore deal as a sign of disrespect for their own efforts - which is exactly the sort of thing that New England's fiscal philosophy is intended to prevent, and one of them is apparently disgruntled restricted free agent Malcolm Butler, whose agent has opened negotiations with the New Orleans Saints.

The Patriots had set a first-round tender on Butler before the start of the new league year, which meant that Butler was free to negotiate with any other team and collect offer sheets from them - the kicker being that if the Patriots declined to match the offer, the team that signed Butler to an offer sheet would have to relinquish their first-round draft pick to New England.

The tender also set Butler's 2017 salary to just shy of $4 million in guaranteed money if he remained with the Patriots - but Butler reportedly refused to sign the tender.

Butler has an argument.  His numbers are virtually the same as Gilmore's so far as passes defended, and earned Pro Football Focus's number two "shutdown" corner for the 2016 season, while Gilmore didn't crack the top 25 despite making the Pro Bowl.  Part of the reason for this was scheme, as Buffalo used plenty of zone coverages in their secondary with Gilmore (and Butler) much better at press man.

Originally linked to reports that he would be dealt along with a third-round draft pick to the Saints in the deal that brought Brandin Cooks to Foxborough, his refusal to sign the tender nixed him being included in the trade deal and the Patriots instead sent their first-round pick, 32nd overall, to the Saints.

Of course, the Patriots still own the rights to Butler, and if Butler's agent can work out an offer from New Orleans, two things could happen.  First, the Butler could sign his tender, accept the offer from New Orleans which the Patriots could then refuse and collect the Saints' original first found pick, which would be 11th overall...

...secondly, and more likely, the Patriots could rescind the tender and simply trade Butler to New Orleans, with the likely compensation being either shipping the #32 overall back to Foxborough, or a package deal which would include the Saints' second-rounder (42nd overall) and ship New England's original compensatory pick (109th overall) back to them.

Early on Tuesday, it has been reported that the Houston Texans are about to enter the fray for Butler, reportedly willing to offer up their second-round pick, which stands at #57 overall - but that seems low for what the Patriots could potentially get from the Saints.

Either way - and even though New England will have lost their top two cornerbacks from last season - the Patriots would be fine in the secondary as Gilmore would team with emerging third-year corner Eric Rowe to form a competitive and perhaps even better corps than they had in 2017 - with youngsters Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones in the mix for nickle back.

On the down side, the free agent cornerback market has been picked clean with only marginal talent still available - which means that the Patriots would likely be reduced to spending draft capital to bring in a rookie to compete for a nickle slot.

Of course, this is all just conjecture at this point, but it seems clear that Butler's days in New England are numbered - but his place in Patriots' lore will last forever.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Hightower's Fit In New England Isn't Necessarily His Fit Elsewhere

The first big wave of free agency has crested and broken on the shore, yet Dont'a Hightower is left waiting for another big breaker.

Chances are, what he's going to get is being caught in a rip tide that brings him back to Massachusetts.

The New England Patriots' wayward son was given the opportunity to seek a blockbuster deal on the open market, looking to cash in on what has to be the most under-the-radar elite tenure in the National Football League for the past couple of seasons, but has thus far not found the kind of money that some of his former teammates have.

For example, former Patriots' defensive end Chandler Jones just signed a monster deal with the Arizona Cardinals - a five-year, $83 million contract with $53 million guaranteed - to remain in the desert, while former teammate Jamie Collins signed a mega-extension (four-years, $50 million with $26 million guaranteed) with Cleveland to anchor their linebacking corps.

But the Patriots dealt those two away, not wanting to deal with attitudes or protracted negotiations for the type of money that they could possibly command in free agency.

The Patriots feel differently about Hightower.

Surely, Hightower is worth at least what Collins got, yet he remains treading water - and Bill Belichick remains waiting to reel him in when the time is right.

The Alabama product is already a legend in New England, making game-saving plays in two different Super Bowls, plays that were directly responsible for two of the five Lombardi trophies now residing at One Patriots Place in Foxborough - and both plays demonstrate what makes Hightower the best big game linebacker in the league.

In Super Bowl 49 against Seattle, the Seahawks were down by four to the Patriots with under a minute left in the game, but had driven down to the New England five-yard line and were poised to take the lead.  The Seahawks had the leagues best rushing attack and two time outs working in their favor, and on first and goal from the five, the handoff went to the league's best running back, Marshawn Lynch...

...and "Beast Mode", as Lynch is called, cut through a hole between left guard and left tackle and appeared to have a clear path to the end zone, but Hightower, who was met by Seattle's massive left tackle Russel Okung at the three and seemed to be pinned to the inside, instead fought through the block and got a shoulder on Lynch's right thigh, dropping him at the one.

The rest, as they say, resides in Patriots' lore as on the very next play cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted a Russell Wilson pass to preserve the Patriots' Championship - and his strip sack of Atlanta's Matt Ryan in Super Bowl 51 set in motion the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

But as we know so well, head ball coach Bill Belichick doesn't pay players based on past accomplishments, he pays them for what the market will bear in time with his future value to the team - so based on Hightower's age (27), experience in the system and leadership qualities, shouldn't them value him enough to lay out huge money for the guy?

The Patriots have plenty of cap space remaining ($34 million as of this writing) to make a deal with Hightower, as numbers being thrown around by football experts estimate that a fair deal for the linebacker would be in line with Luke Kuechly money, five years worth $61 million with half of that guaranteed - or roughly $12.2 million per year.

That's a significant increase in the extension proposal that the team offered Hightower at the start of the 2016 season, rumored to have been in the neighborhood of $10 million per season, but nearly as much as they would have paid him on the franchise tag, which would have been a little over $15 million - a little pricey considering that the tag includes the top average salaries for both inside and outside linebackers, of which outside linebackers make significantly more money.

That said, why didn't the Patriots just franchise him, or at least use the transition tag to make sure that they would be given the chance to match anyone else's offer?  Part of that has to do with Belichick's well-known respect for his players, combined with his desire to stay away from situations that take away his leverage in negotiations.

Belichick's respect for his players prompted him giving Hightower the opportunity to offer his services on the open market and to collect offers for said services.  Placing him on the franchise tag would have prevented him from doing so and may have lead into some acrimonious feelings between player and management - end even though the transition tag would have been feasible as well...

...but that could have ended up costing the team more in the long run, as to retain Hightower, the Patriots would have been forced to match any offer put on the table by another team.  Another way Belichick could have gone would have been to place him under the non-exclusive franchise tag, in which Hightower could have negotiated with another team and the Patriots would have the right to match the offer.

The limitations of the non-exclusive tag are binding in favor of the Patriots in this case, as if a team made an offer and the Patriots refused to match, New England would receive the team's first round draft pick, plus the following year's first-rounder.

So allowing Hightower to reach the open market was the only way to keep everyone happy.  Belichick could let the market dictate Hightower's worth and also give him the opportunity to make a counter offer without being locked into a certain dollar amount - but the situation remains fluid as Hightower is still out there, and being courted by a few teams.

But for a player as dynamic and versatile as Hightower is, why hasn't he signed elsewhere?

The popular opinion is that he's biding his time and waiting for a bidding war to start, while still others believe that Hightower has over-estimated his worth on the open market - ala Wes Welker - and wants to give the market more time to develop.

The truth is probably in the middle somewhere, but at least one AFC general manager has said that he expects that Hightower will return to New England on a team-friendly deal - not because the market isn't there for him, but because he fits in with what New England does on defense, and that wouldn't be true for many other teams.

Coming out of college, Hightower didn't have a true position.  Some saw him as strong-side linebacker, some as a defensive end - but Nick Saban, his coach at Alabama considered him a pure inside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment, playing the "scraper" position.  The scraper will be the more athletic of the two inside linebackers and by definition will plug the gap left by the "Mike" linebacker in the running game, and will blitz in the gap left by double teams on defensive linemen in the passing game.

They also will shadow mobile quarterbacks.  Hightower does all of these things, but does so from the weird variety of alignments that Belichick and his defensive coordinator Matt Patricia dream up - but he is most effective when the defense is aligned in what is known as the Big Nickel, which uses an extra safety that reduces down onto the second level and becomes, essentially, a weakside linebacker, taking on the "scraper" duties and allowing Hightower to flow to the football unabated.

Through the usage of this alignment, Hightower has become one of the best blitzing linebackers in football and almost always seems to be in the right place at the right time - one only has to revisit Super Bowls 49 and 51 to see prime examples of this.  But the Patriots have incorporated his skill set into their defensive scheme in order to free him up to do the good work that he has...

...and the fact of the matter is that there are very few teams, if any, who can plug Hightower into their defense and count on the same sort of elite production, given the fact that he will most likely be exposed to more obstacles on his way to the football.

To further elaborate, in the past few days since the start of free agency, the Patriots have re-signed two of their most important core players in order to keep the Big Nickel viable - safety Duron Harmon, who has proven himself to be one of the premier centerfielders in a league full of single-high safeties, and defensive tackle Alan Branch, who commands double teams and creates gaps for linebackers to flow to.

The Big Nickel is not possible without Harmon's sideline-to-sideline agility and instinctive angles to the play, nor is it possible without Branch taking on double teams.  In Belichick's philosophy, every player is asked to do one job - maybe two - and most players are versatile enough to be schemed into the game plan differently each week, and that goes for Hightower as well.

There is no doubt that Hightower deserves a pay raise, but in the end, he is part of a winning formula on a New England that will figure out a way to go on without him.  They value him enough to have offered him eight figures annually as part of an extension, then showed him enough respect to let him hit the open market to discover what his value was around the league.

A few years back, the aforementioned Wes Welker over-valued himself on the open market and ended up burning enough bridges to make his return to New England impossible - a sentiment echoed by Patriots' owner Robert Kraft who stated that if it was just a matter of a million or two to keep Welker in the fold, that wouldn't have been a deterrent to bringing him back, but his mouth and attitude were.

It looks as if Hightower's value is well below what he could have made with the various tags, but possibly more than the $10 million a year he was offered last offseason, and Hightower hasn't burned any bridges and has, in fact, kept in close contact with the team as he travels about - so the possibility of him landing back home appears to be very good... if New England ponies up a Kuechly-like contract that will give him $12 million annually, it should satisfy all concerned, then Hightower and the Patriots can get on with the business of football, and leave all of this money nonsense in the past.