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Patriots must make tough decisions with free agent class

Stephen Sheehan



Jan 13, 2018; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis (33) returns the ball against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a devastating loss in Super Bowl LII, the New England Patriots appeared poised to lose all three coordinators. Throw in rumblings about Rob Gronkowski retiring and Bill Belichick walking away from the organization, and it seemed the walls were crumbling inside One Patriot Place.

Fortunately, the coaching staff will look mostly the same after Josh McDaniels reversed course and turned down the chance to become the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. With both McDaniels and special teams coordinator Joe Judge back in the fold, New England will only have to replace defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who is now the man in charge in Detroit.

While maintaining continuity on the coaching staff represents an early win for the Patriots, the team itself will look much different next season. Belichick, along with the Krafts and general manager Nick Caserio, will be faced with some tough decisions regarding the team’s free-agent class that includes Dion Lewis, Nate Solder, Danny Amendola, Rex Burkhead, James Harrison and Malcolm Butler.

Though Butler is as good as gone after his mysterious Super Bowl benching, the futures of many Patriot stalwarts are completely up in the air. Will Amendola take another team-friendly deal to remain Tom Brady’s trusted target in the playoffs? Will Lewis try to cash in on a career year as he approaches his age-28 season? Is Solder ready to retire and focus on his family?

Don’t forget the Patriots also have to draft and develop the next potential Brady successor and completely revamp a talent-depleted front seven that got exposed against a creative Philadelphia Eagles offense.

It can be assumed that longtime special teams standouts Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner and Brandon Bolden will be back, but in this case, we’re looking strictly at the key members who play offense and defense. Let’s take a closer look at the most important members of New England’s 2018 free-agent class and speculate about who will be back and who will play elsewhere next season.

Note: All blocking and coverage stats are courtesy of Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald

Dion Lewis, RB 

2018 stats: 180 carries for 896 yards and six touchdowns; 32 receptions for 214 yards and three touchdowns

Pro Football Focus position rank: 5th

Analysis: Finally healthy, Lewis didn’t just return to form; he set a new standard. Showing an electric combination of speed, agility and power that’s unusual for a small running back, the 5-foot-8, 195-pounder carried the offense when Brady and the passing game struggled. He also finished among the league leaders in kick return average (24.8 yards) and even took one back 103 yards for a touchdown. Lewis’ successful 2017 campaign comes at a cost: He may have priced himself out of New England’s budget.

Considering his extensive injury history and the fact he’ll be turning 28 in September, this will be his last chance to cash in. Ultimately, he may prove to be too expensive for the Patriots to keep around; another team looking for a dynamite playmaker will offer more guaranteed money.

Nate Solder, LT 

2018 stats: Six sacks, 19 QB hits, 10 pressures allowed, plus seven penalties

Pro Football Focus position rank: 32nd

Analysis: The longest-tenured member of the offensive line, Solder has proven to be a solid first-round selection over the years. Though he never quite developed into an elite left tackle, he has been fairly reliable when healthy. That, however, is a concern when you’re talking about re-investing in the soon-to-be 30-year-old. The 17th pick from the 2011 draft did not look right early in the season after missing most of training camp with an undisclosed injury. While he rebounded later in the year, it’s difficult to see New England paying Solder elite left tackle money based on his performance as a whole.

Meanwhile, Solder’s son has health issues that could convince the blindside protector to walk away from the game entirely. Assuming he does want to play, though, the Patriots should be able to retain him on a two- or three-year deal that ensures he finishes his career in Foxborough before giving way to Tony Garcia, who has to work his way back to NFL shape after battling an illness that rendered him inactive as a rookie.

Feb 4, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New England Patriots offensive tackle Nate Solder (77) walks off the field after losing to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Danny Amendola, WR 

2018 stats: 61 receptions for 659 yards and two touchdowns; 27 punt returns for 231 yards

Pro Football Focus position rank: 25th

Analysis: No player epitomizes the Patriot Way like Amendola. No matter what role he’s asked to play, he gives 100 percent effort, even after taking pay cut after pay cut. To put the cherry on top, the veteran slot receiver put together a ridiculous playoff run that included two critical touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game comeback against Jacksonville. At this point, the 32-year-old should be a lock for the Patriots Hall of Fame.

A McDaniels favorite, it seemed logical that Amendola could follow his offensive coordinator to Indianapolis as a veteran leader for a new regime. However, once McDaniels returned, that possibility is out the window. Amendola enjoys an incomparable relationship with both McDaniels and Brady, so at this point in his career it seems it’s either New England or retirement. The Patriots can once again sign the sure-handed wideout to a team-friendly deal that ensures he and TB12 wrap up their careers together in Foxborough.

Malcolm Butler, CB

2018 stats: 56 catches for 770 yards and nine touchdowns allowed on 105 targets; two interceptions, 14 PBU

Pro Football Focus position rank: 51st

Analysis: Let’s just say that Butler’s 2017 season did not go as planned. After nearly getting traded to the New Orleans Saints, he played out the year under the restricted free-agent tender and the results were not good at all. It’s hard to ignore the Stephon Gilmore signing and not think that had something to do with Butler’s regression, but that cannot be used an excuse. Simply put: Butler, by his own admission, had a bad year by his lofty standards.

Of course, his turbulent 2017 season ended with a bizarre benching in the Super Bowl—the very game that made him a household name three years ago. Whether we ever find out the truth behind Belichick’s decision to leave his most proven corner on the bench, it is abundantly clear that Butler will never suit up for the Patriots again. Despite his down year, he will get paid well in free agency on the strength of his 2015-2016 stretch that included a Pro Bowl berth and a second-team All-Pro selection.

James Harrison, OLB

2018 stats: Eight tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble

Pro Football Focus position rank: N/A

Analysis: Who would have guessed that Harrison would ever suit up in a Patriot uniform? But after sitting on the bench in Pittsburgh for months and subsequently getting released, the former Defensive Player of the Year found his way to Foxborough. The mere fact that New England resorted to signing the 39-year-old should have shown how poorly the front seven was constructed. Surprisingly, the Patriots leaned on the aging veteran heavily once he arrived. In fact, Harrison played a whopping 91 percent of the defensive snaps in the Super Bowl, which trailed only Kyle Van Noy and Trey Flowers among the front seven.

A workout fanatic who keeps his body in impeccable shape, Harrison was quite productive in his short stint with the team. He was easily the most consistent pass-rush threat—which again speaks to New England’s talent deficiency up front. Even at his age, Harrison proved he can still be a valuable contributor, albeit in a reduced role. I could see Harrison signing a one-year deal to get another crack at a ring with the Patriots. If not, I think he will walk away from the game and get back to doing ridiculous things in the weight room on Instagram.

Dec 31, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker James Harrison (92) gets around the block of New York Jets offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum (68) during the second half of New England's 26-6 win at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

 Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

LaAdrian Waddle, OT

2018 stats: Seven QB hits, one pressure allowed

Pro Football Focus position rank: 64th

Analysis: If all had gone according to plan, Waddle would not have seen the field much, if at all, in 2017. The swing tackle ended up starting four games due to Marcus Cannon’s season-ending ankle injury and mostly acquitted himself well. Unfortunately, Waddle’s own injuries caused him to miss time later in the year, forcing Cameron Fleming into the starting right tackle spot.

Entering his age-27 season, the 6-foot-6, 315-pounder should draw interest on the open market as a starter-caliber right tackle who can fill in on the left side if needed. He showed toughness trying to battle through several injuries, which should help his cause when Belichick and Caserio consider re-signing the former undrafted free agent. Unless he gets an unexpectedly rich offer to start somewhere else, he should be back as the team’s top backup tackle, especially if Solder leaves.

Cameron Fleming, OT

2018 stats: Six sacks, QB hit, six pressures allowed

Pro Football Focus position rank: 24th

Projection: Another backup who ended up playing far more snaps than anyone anticipated, Fleming also showed some resilience by stepping up at the end of the year. Despite allowing six sacks, he graded out much higher than Waddle, finishing the year as PFF’s 24th-best tackle. A 2014 fourth-round selection, Fleming had mostly served as a jumbo blocking tight end before putting quality tape together as a traditional tackle.

Considering he’s just 25 and boasts great size for the position (6-foot-6, 320 pounds), it’s easy to see how a team with offensive line needs could offer Fleming a starter-caliber contract. His future with the Patriots really hinges on what the team does with its two other free-agent tackles. If Solder and Cannon are the starters, Waddle and Garcia will be the backups with Fleming the odd man out.


Stephen Sheehan is a displaced Boston diehard who graduated with his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Florida in 2013. One of the original writers for FanRag Sports, Stephen returns after a two-year hiatus. His work has also been featured on Bleacher Report, Rugby Magazine, Foxboro Blog, The Independent Florida Alligator and Sun-Sentinel. The Connecticut native worked as a content editor for a Miami-based Internet marketing company before returning to The Swamp to earn his master's degree in sport management. Following his second walk across the stage, Stephen made his way back to South Florida and worked as an English/journalism teacher and football coach at Everglades High School. An avid rugby player since his days at UF, Stephen is currently working as a Youth Development Officer for the Freeport Rugby Football Club in the Bahamas. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @StephenPSheehan.