Thanks to a flurry of moves late last week, the defending Super Bowl champs will look dramatically different at a few key positions in 2017. The Patriots centered two trades around their first and second round picks respectively in order to bring former Saints receiver Brandin Cooks and former Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy to Foxboro. They also sent their forth round pick to Indianapolis for tight end Dwayne Allen, while they spent a hefty sum to lure one of the top defensive backs on the market, Stephon Gilmore, away from Buffalo.
New England needed reinforcements. It was expected before the signing period began that they would part ways with a number of their free agents; and in less than a week that has been the case. Cornerback Logan Ryan has signed with the Titans, defensive end Jabaal Sheard has joined the Colts, and the best number two tight end we’ve had since Hernandez, Martellus Bennett, went to Green Bay to play with Aaron Rodgers. There may even be a few more casualties: LeGarrette Blount (please stay), Malcolm Butler (please stay), and Dont’a Hightower (PLEASE stay) all potentially could be playing elsewhere next season.
Nonetheless, Belichick is not normally this aggressive. Sure, he’s made big moves before (e.g. Darrelle Revis in 2014). But not since 2007, when the Pats brought in Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Adalius Thomas, has New England been the league’s most active team during free agency. Before getting into my opinion on the Patriots’ biggest remaining personnel question, here are my thoughts on the four additions.
How can any Pats fan not love the Cooks deal?
The stat that everyone has been throwing around in the wake of this move is this: Cooks is one of only three receivers–Odell Beckham and Antonio Brown being the other two–to total at least 75 receptions, 1,000 yards, and eight touchdowns each of the past two seasons. That’s pretty good company. The better news? The former Oregon State product is only entering his fourth season and is currently just 23 years-old. So he’s productive, young, and it also should be mentioned that he is very dynamic. It may take time for him to build a rapport with Brady, but Cooks should be New England’s best receiver next season, which is a scary thought considering how great Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Malcolm Mitchell were at times in 2016. The possibilities are also endless in terms of where Josh McDaniels might deploy him. Of course he’ll play in the slot, but I also see him lining up at times in the backfield in a Dion Lewis-type role. Regardless, Cooks should be a matchup nightmare for defenses that already have to account for playmakers like Rob Gronkowski, Lewis, and the aforementioned Edelman and Hogan.
Ealy a necessary addition
Ealy is tough to get a read on. As I wrote in an article last month about the most valuable non-MVP’s of recent Super Bowls, he was sensational for his former team in a losing effort against Denver. But has that game inflated everyone’s expectations? Ealy’s been pretty inconsistent over a larger body of work; he even had a tough time starting consistently for Carolina over the past two years. The good news, though, is that like Cooks, Ealy will only be 26 by next season. New England also only sacrificed their second round pick to acquire him, and they even got a third round pick back in return. Plus, given the losses of Sheard and Chris Long on the defensive line, Ealy should be at least a serviceable replacement, and at best a massive upgrade, for New England up front.
Allen acquisition largely insignificant
Dwayne Allen should resemble Scott Chandler or Tim Wright more than he will Martellus Bennett–at least in the passing game. The former Clemson product’s numbers have dipped since his rookie season in 2012 in which he caught 45 passes for 521 yards (both career highs). It appears Allen’s value could come more as a run-blocker because the Patriots apparently value him as one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. Nonetheless, the hope is that Gronk will be healthy and that Allen will only be relied on to catch the occasional touchdown pass and support the running game.
I’m most conflicted about Gilmore
I figured I would save my thoughts on Stephon Gilmore for last because I have the most to say. For starters, I love that he’ll be in a Patriots uniform next season. A very simplistic reading of this signing is that our secondary is now stronger while Buffalo’s is weaker. I also have always viewed Gilmore as one of the more imposing players the Patriots have consistently competed against recently. Pro Football Focus (PFF) can help confirm this sentiment, as they rated Gilmore as the 14th best cornerback in 2015.
Only problem is that I think Belichick overpaid. Signing Gilmore for such a hefty price–5 years for $65 million–is risky on multiple fronts. First, while he was great in 2015, Gilmore’s performance dropped last year. Yes, he did go to the Pro Bowl (that’s usually what happens when you have five interceptions), but he was rated as only the 61st best corner in the league last season by PFF, mainly due to a horrific first half in which he allowed a staggering 17.8 yards per reception.
Plus, if this move signifies that Gilmore may be Malcolm Butler’s replacement, which some believe to be the case, I would’ve rather have seen Butler get paid that kind of money because he’s the better player: In contrast to Gilmore, Butler was a First Team All-Pro according to PFF in 2016. Moreover, these moves in general tend to be hit-or-miss. We saw the Giants hit on multiple of these big ticket free agents last year, but teams like the Jaguars and Redskins have consistently whiffed on similar signings. Even Belichick knows this feeling: He’s probably the first one to admit he regrets paying Adalius Thomas $35 million over 5 years.
In short, I’m happy that Gilmore is a Patriot so long as I don’t think about what it took to get him here.
But amidst all this upheaval, the biggest domino has yet to fall. What will come of the Jimmy Garoppolo saga? We know the Patriots have previously stated that they don’t want to trade the twenty-five year-old. But the market is still ripe. Cleveland still needs a quarterback (they’re likely to dump Brock Osweiler, who they just acquired in order to secure another high draft pick). Either the Redskins, who are having tenuous negotiations with Kirk Cousins, or San Francisco, a potential trade partner, could use someone like Garoppolo. And even Houston could be a destination if they fail to acquire Tony Romo.
If they’re inclined, the Patriots can completely restock their draft haul by trading Garoppolo. The ideal suitor, in that case, is Cleveland, given their desperation for someone remotely competent at the game’s most important position as well as their plethora of draft picks. However, if Belichick decides to hold on to Garoppolo, I won’t be upset. After all, Brady will be 40 by next season, so he’s certainly qualified to be labeled as a guy that’s “one hit away.” Plus, it seems like the Patriots view this as a Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers-esque situation. Not saying that Garoppolo will turn out like Rodgers, but it does appear to be beneficial for a young QB to wait in the wings for a few seasons. And if last year was any indication, Garoppolo is absolutely ready to become a top-tier quarterback once he’s placed in a starting role.
What I’m concerned about is Garoppolo leaving when he becomes a free agent after 2017. Assuming Brady’s play doesn’t dramatically decline next season and the Patriots still have little pretext to ditch Brady in favor of Garoppolo (which is unlikely, given what we all witnessed this past season), Garoppolo could walk and the Pats would get nothing in return. I’d love to see Garoppolo stay as the heir apparent to Brady; but I have to imagine that a) the Patriots will be unable to allocate a disproportionately high amount of cap space to two quarterbacks and b) Garoppolo might be itching to take the reigns of his own team rather than continue to sit behind the GOAT.
It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Again, I’m all for Garoppolo staying, but my gut feeling is that if he is a Patriot next season, he’s likely to leave when he becomes a free agent. Maybe the Patriots think so highly of him that they will sign him to a lengthy extension despite Brady’s continued presence. Or, perhaps this is all a ruse. Maybe Belichick is holding out for a trade in order to drive up Garoppolo’s market value. I’m actually hoping that this is the case because I think it would be smart to trade a quarterback with only six true quarters of experience in return for a mighty haul of draft picks. At that point, all New England can hope for is that Garoppolo’s flash of brilliance in a Patriots uniform was just that–a flash.