By Sterling Pingree
My deal was picked up for a 4th year on The Drive, so with me returns my 3-part Patriots free agency preview. Each part represents a different portion of the Patriots internal free agents, broken up by the probability that they will return to the team. Next week I’ll release the Price is Right group aka those who could stay or go and will largely be dictated by money, followed by the “No Chance in Hell” group, those who have already returned their leased vehicles and packed up their condos. This week, it’s the group that I believe most ardently will return to Foxborough: the Returners. (For the record, my ratio last year in this category was 4-1 with the only departure that I called returning was Danny Amendola. Do I get credit if he were to sign back with New England this year? Retroactively and because I make the rules, I say that statute of limitations hasn’t run out and that I’d be gifted a 5th win from 2018. Great job by me!)
- Punter- Ryan Allen
The Patriots value special teams more than any other team in the league and last year during the regular season the Pats were amongst the bottom of the NFL in overall special teams production. That was in no way indicative of Allen’s performance in 2018 as he still ranks among the league’s top punters. Plus, Allen’s left footed, Belichick loves left footed punters because it’s unusual and that’s something else that other teams have to prepare for.
- Kicker- Stephen Gostowski
This is the all kicker preview. By hook or by crook, Gostowski will be back with the Patriots. You see how a bad kicker can submarine a good team (Bears: Parkey, Cody) it just doesn’t seem like the time to move on from Gostowski unless there is a stud is college somewhere we’re not seeing. The only thing that gives me pause is that this is about the same career point that the Patriots let Vinatieri walk to Indy. Would Belichick do the same with Gostowski? I don’t think so, even after his shaky Super Bowl performance. (I’m not just talking about the missed FG, but the two that #3 did make were both by tissue thin margins.)
- Cornerback- Jason McCourty
With Devin McCourty announcing that he will be coming back next season, I can’t see Jason McCourty playing anywhere else in 2019. McCourty got his first taste of the postseason, not to mention winning a Super Bowl and it was evident from their interviews together that they understand how truly special what they are doing right now really is.
McCourty was one of the Patriots best pickups last off season but it wasn’t always so. During the preseason there was some talk that perhaps Jason would be cut before week 1, especially after he was moved to safety at times during the final games of the preseason. Jason McCourty didn’t assimilate to the Patriots offense very quickly and where there was once a lot of optimism that Belichick could scheme some unthinkable things with twins in his secondary, by the final roster cutdown, some thought Jason might get the axe. Little did we know that playing safety had more to do with finding out if he could contribute to the secondary in other ways.
By the end of the year, Jason McCourty was playing, well, like a guy who was in the playoffs for the first time. Never more was this ethos more prevalent than on his incredible break up of Bradin Cooks sure touchdown in the Super Bowl. I’d be stunned if Devin returned and Jason McCourty was allowed to walk away. Devin has one year left on the deal that he signed after Super Bowl 49, so I fully expect for Jason to be back on a one-year deal.
- Defensive end- Trey Flowers
I see this going very much like the courting of Dont’a Hightower went two years ago: Flowers will test the market, take visits with other teams and then come back to see if the Patriots will match other offers. Flowers is an interesting case because he isn’t your prototypical sexy edge rusher who racks up double digit sacks. Flowers said he has nightmares about not setting the edge effectively, that’s the best description of Flowers I’ve ever heard. Trey Flowers does the little things that don’t necessarily show up in the stat sheet, but he does set the edge of the defensive as good as any end in the league, he’s a sure tackler who stalks running backs and has a knack for punching the ball loose. Look no further than this year’s divisional round against the Chargers where Flowers skills were on full display, forcing fumbles and pressuring the quarterback. The latter might be Flowers’ greatest skill, in a league that is all about getting pressure, quarterbacks are highly aware of where #98 is lined up.
Dating back to Belichick’s days with the Giants, he has had an affinity for defensive linemen and linebackers who have distinct physical characteristics like long arms, big hands, lateral quickness, etc. One talent evaluator wrote that Flowers has got giant mitts and his arms are so long that on the snap his hands can reach the tackle but not always vice versa. Other teams don’t necessarily value the assets that make Trey Flowers a target, especially in a market that is flooded with top defensive talent and the kind of edge rushers that make GMs swoon. Demarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Grady Jarrett, Frank Clark and Dee Ford are all on the market this season, several could be slapped with the franchise tag, but will make for a competitive market for edge rushers. There were rumors that the Patriots planned to put the franchise tag on Flowers this year, but I can’t see Belichick doing that precisely because of the contracts that will be signed this offseason, especially with the cap increasing for 2019. If the Patriots franchised Flowers they’d be getting him at a hefty price for just one year which doesn’t fit the Patriots M.O.
John Simon- Low budget pass rusher the Patriots seemed to pick up from the dollar store but was productive in the latter stages of 2018. Essentially this year’s version of Marquis Flowers (who a year ago I put in the Price is Right group but signed very quickly elsewhere). I’d be surprised to see him sign elsewhere as the Pats know more about Simon’s skill set. Simon will get overlooked but could produce for the Patriots.
Albert McClellan- McClellan is such a Belichick guy. Undrafted in 2010 out of Marshall, McClellan has carved out a nice niche for himself in the league as a special teamer/linebacker spending 8 years in Baltimore. In 2017, McClellan tore his ACL during camp and missed the entire season only to be released by the Ravens last September. The Patriots signed Albert McClellan on November 6th exclusively as a special teamer and he immediately paid dividends, blocking two punts in Miami against the Dolphins. McClellan also famously recovered a muffed punt on the sideline against the Chargers in the divisional playoffs. A veteran and a dedicated special teamer seems like something that Belichick would value and look to bring back, especially having the impact that McClellan made in limited time with the team this past season.
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.