By Sterling Pingree
The NFL’s new league year begins on March 14th at 4pm, which is the time when player’s 2017 contracts run out and officially become free agents. The Patriots have a cache’ of players hitting the open market this off season and each year leading up to the start of free agency I group these players into: Returners, Price is Right and No Chance in Hell. Last week I ran down the five Patriots that I think will re-sign with the team and low and behold I’m already 1-1. A scant couple of hours after publishing my returners’ column, Brandon Bolden agreed to a 1-year deal.
Last year, this group had one player out of three return to the team. I categorized Michael Floyd, Alan Branch and Chris Long into this group and Branch was the only player to return. This week I name five more players that could return to New England, if the Price is Right. Rod Roddy, who is the first contestant?
Why he could stay: As with most guys that I think the Patriots will make an effort to re-sign, Flowers makes an impact on special teams. The former Bengal forged a role for himself on teams and did a good enough job that he saw quite a few snaps down the stretch at linebacker. Playing as much in New England as he had in Cincy, Flowers had 32 tackles, 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble which was way above his production level in two years in Cincinnati. Having just turned 26 last month, at a reasonable deal, I think Flowers is a player that they would like to bring back.
Why he could leave: Teams want some of what the Patriots have and Flowers could be a reasonably priced option. A 26-year old linebacker who is coming off of a short season where he had 3.5 sacks will be attractive to teams looking to pick up a player who saw major time (not all of it good) in Super Bowl LII.
Why he could stay: The Patriots need pass rushers like the United States needed a skate sharpener at the Pyeongchang figure skating venue. (That has to be the first time anybody has used a figure skating analogy to make a point about James Harrison. There’s no way those two topics have ever co-mingled.) Harrison showed in 4 games with the Patriots that he was still capable of getting after the quarterback and in the Super Bowl where Nick Foles never got touched, Harrison was close to breaking loose several times.
Why he could leave: Harrison turns 40 on May 4th, which would give the Patriots a player on both sides of the ball that’s 40 or over. There could be other teams interested in Harrison after seeing what he had left, remember 3 of the 4 games that he played were playoff games and the Super Bowl, so you know every team in the league was watching what he did. There could be interest from other teams, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if Harrison went into training camp a free agent and got a call before the season starts somewhere. There’s a lot of possibilities for how this could play out.
Why he could stay: Fleming has been used in almost every way except starting right tackle. Fleming gained some acclaim when the Patriots used him as a 6th lineman against Indianapolis when Jonas Gray ran for over 200 yards and four touch downs in 2014. Fleming has only been the starter when pressed into duty, like this year when Marcus Cannon and LaAdrian Waddle both went down. Fleming hasn’t really gained a foot hold in any way as a player, but these seem to be the guys that the Patriots know how to use more than other teams.
Why he could leave: The market for capable offensive lineman is only going up, hence why you saw the Patriots extend Marcus Cannon before he could hit the open market in 2016. Fleming could also leave by simple reasoning that out of three free agent offensive lineman on the roster, he’d be ranked a distant third in priority.
Why he could stay: Since being drafted in 2011 out of Colorado, Solder has been a stalwart of the offensive line protecting Brady’s blind side. One of the best athletes on the Dante Scarnecchia’s line, Solder has struggled at times the last two seasons. That being said, I still lean towards Solder staying, he was the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year winner in 2017 and for a multitude of personal reasons as to why he’s so connected to the area, I think there’s a good chance he’s back next year.
Why he could leave: The market rises to unforeseen levels and the Patriots can’t match what other teams are offering for Solder. I’m not sure what the market will be for Solder in particular or how other teams will view his two most recent seasons, but teams are always looking to improve in the trenches. Solder would be a big addition to any team outside of maybe Oakland and Dallas.
Why he could stay: Lewis is the Patriots most important free agent and is coming off of a career season where he rushed for 896 yards on just 180 carries and 6 touch downs. Throw in his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and outside of Gronk, Lewis was the most consistent weapon Tom Brady has. There is a lot of top quality running backs on the market this offseason, which will give teams looking to add a featured back a lot of other options.
Another reason that I think he could stay is that after his hot start at the beginning of the 2015 season, the Patriots signed him to a two year contract extension. This is a guy who had been released by the Browns and Eagles, here he comes to New England and after just a couple of weeks with the team, they not only give him snaps in an offense that was coming off of a Super Bowl victory, but they gave him a two-year extension. Lewis strikes me as a loyal guy.
Why he could leave: Two important factors could lead to Lewis playing elsewhere next season: with his performance in the Patriots’ offense, he could command a high salary. The second factor is that if the money gets too big, the Patriots can easily walk away because they have James White under contract, a chance to resign Rex Burkhead and running back is a position that Bill Belichick teams have always been able to find diamonds in the rough. (Except for Steven Jackson in 2015, that was the one time Belichick couldn’t find the back he needed.) Lewis is becoming the prototype runner that teams are looking for in 2018 which is more like Saints rookie Alvin Kamara who is a quick pass catching threat, rather than an Adrian Peterson type power back. Lewis also started employing the stutter step/pause at the line of scrimmage move that Le’Veon Bell has perfected and teams who perhaps make a run at the Steelers franchise back might push their chips all in on Lewis as a top level consolation prize.
Sterling Pingree 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.