By Sterling Pingree
It is hard to believe with confetti still seemingly falling from the Houston sky that even in the afterglow of a Lombardi trophy that the Patriots are going to have to make some tough decisions very soon. No days off indeed. We are a little over 3 weeks away from the start of the new NFL league year, which kicks off the start of the free agency. It is with that in mind that over the next three columns I will categorize the top Patriots free agents into 3 groups: Return of the Pats, Price is Right and No Chance in Hell. Today, we break down the Pats that I believe will be priority this offseason and will return to Foxboro next season.
RB- LeGarrette Blount
Blount had the best season of his career in 2016; setting the Patriots rushing touchdown record at 18 and running for a career high 1,161 yards. Blount earned about $1.7 million this year from a very team friendly and incentive laden contract of which he earned almost every incentive attached to his deal.
Why I think Blount will return: Because he’ll turn 31 on December 5th and Blount is one of only 7 running backs in history to be considered the lead back on a Super Bowl champion at age 30 or older. Add in his 6’1, 245 pound build (he’s listed at 245, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was another 15-20 lbs on that frame) and I think teams will be leery of making a financial commitment to him going forward. It must be noted too, that Blount has only found success in New England. He had a tumultuous relationship with Tampa and walked out on the Steelers when he left Foxboro the first time in 2014 only to return. Blount is a complicated guy, but he’s our complicated guy. I think Blount stays on another incentive driven deal, maybe with a team option for a second season.
RB- Brandon Bolden
Brandon Bolden is listed at running back, but for the first time in his career he only lined up for a hand full of offensive snaps. It was right before Super Bowl 49 that the Patriots signed Bolden to a somewhat surprising extension, given that at the time, with the aforementioned return of LeGarrette Blount, Bolden had seen his usage inside the offense dwindle down to nothing. This was a textbook example of Bill Belichick’s emphasis on special teams play.
Why I think Bolden will return: Bolden’s days as a featured or back up running back are behind him and after two years of lining up almost exclusively on “teams”. Much like Matthew Slater, who is every bit as much of a wide receiver as Brandon Bolden is a running back, Bolden could continue a solid career on New England playing special teams on a special team. There is nothing wrong at all with job security and rings. I think Bolden comes back on a team friendly 2 year deal.
FB- James Develin
A hallmark of Belichick teams is using a full back. Develin is the next in the lineage that was started by Marc Edwards, Heath Evans and then any defensive player Belichick wanted to line up in the back field. (Remember when Dan Klecko played a couple snaps on defense and then Belichick turned him into a full back/receiver and the Jets signed him? I’m pretty sure they thought he was Mike Vrabel, but I digress.)
Why I think Develin will return: I just don’t think there is much of a market for fullbacks anymore and it is a position that the Patriots have used more than just about any team in the NFL. I’m not sure what kind of deal that Develin would get, my gut says probably a one year deal. I just can’t imagine him not coming back for next season. (Though Glen Gronkowski was signed to a futures contract this week, he lacks the size and experience that Develin has.)
LB- Dont’a Hightower
Hightower is a captain and one of the most valuable players on the Patriots roster, full stop. He wears the “Green Dot” on his helmet and has had a knack for making big plays in big games. Just like special teams’ aces and fullbacks, Belichick has always had a reliable, coach on the field type of linebacker dating all the way back to Carl Banks with the Giants.
Why I think Hightower will return: The Patriots have the 3rd most cap room in the NFL. The top two are the Browns and 49ers. The Browns already signed one Patriots linebacker in Jamie Collins and the 49ers are being run by a lunatic. Hightower has become the Patriots priority by process of the eliminations of Collins and Chandler Jones. This might be a spot for the Patriots to use the Franchise Tag as a placeholder until they can work out an extension or they may just sign him like they did with Devin McCourty. I think Hightower signs a 4 –year deal with incentives. This works for both sides, if Hightower produces he will get paid at market value and if the nagging injuries that have sidelined him in the past crop up again, the Patriots get him for something that doesn’t hit their cap has hard.
TE- Matt Lengel
He’s the tall guy who wore a lot of eye black, went to Northeastern and caught a touchdown against the Jets.
Why I think Lengel will return: He’s been around for almost a full season, seems to have the size Belichick likes in a primary blocking tight end and could be had for the minimum on a one year deal. (The Patriots are definitely drafting two tight ends this year, you watch.)
CB- Malcolm Butler
Butler is a restricted free agent. That means that if a team were to sign Butler, they would forfeit their first round pick to the Patriots. (After Deflategate that last sentence is a little weird to read, I’m not going to lie. If the 2016 season were a sports movie, wouldn’t Belichick and Kraft have made a bet with Goodell for something like, if the Patriots win they get their first round pick back and if they lose Kraft sells the team or something crazy?) That kind of signing seems highly unlikely, because I don’t know how many teams would give up a first round pick for Butler in a flat out trade. Also making Butler leaving a free agent more improbable is the fact that the Patriots get the chance to match any offer sheet from other teams.
Why I think Butler will return: He is the best cornerback on the team and they’ve had him for an incredibly cheap contract after they signed him as an undrafted free agent. Not only that but cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon are both free agents this same off season and not to spoil anything, but my courage isn’t very good that either will return next season. Butler will end up getting the rookie deal that his talent says he should have gotten two years, but that his play since Super Bowl 49 has earned. Butler comes back on a 3 year deal.
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.