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Power Ranking the Patriots' 'Other' Re-signings

When the best player of all time is potentially facing free agency for the first time since being drafted during the Clinton Administration, the prospect of that will suck all the air out of the room. The Tom Brady situation has been a Black Hole of attention, from which no other Patriots personnel news has been able to escape. 

But like it is at this time every year, the Pats have a platoon of key veterans whose contracts are up. Prioritizing the ones you can afford to keep is a never-ending cycle. It's like the Golden Gate Bridge. Once they're finished painting it, they have to go right back to the beginning and start over. Plus, people are always jumping off. 

Last year it wasn't too painful. They lost Trey Flowers but were able to replace him with Martellus Bennett and later Chase Winovich. A couple of years ago they lost Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis to Tennessee. The year before, they almost lost Dont'a Hightower. But even the power of birthday cupcakes from the Jets couldn't lure him away. The point being that every offseason you keep some, you lose some. It's a matter of doing triage and making the tough decisions about which patients are worth saving. 

Here is one man's list of priorities. I'm just a cave man; your modern salary cap numbers confuse and frighten me, so I'll keep that talk to a minimum, while acknowledging they very much enter into the team's thinking. 

9. Phillip Dorsett

I know on its surface it might sound ridiculous for a team that was desperate for wideout production and a deep threat to send a veteran, former first round receiver packing. But after a lot of experience in this offense, Dorsett has proven that he is not the droid we're looking for. Yes, he'll make the occasional splash play. And he stepped up in the 2018 postseason. But this is the NFL in 2020. Any receiver can look great once in a while. The difference makers are the ones who can get themselves open, even against quality defense. Dorsett really only produces when there's a coverage breakdown. They need answers. He is not it. Unless he comes back for minimal dollars as a depth guy, this experiment is over.

8. Jamie Collins

If you told me in the middle of the season I'd be indifferent as to whether Collins stays or leaves, I would've assumed Future Jerry had gotten into legal edibles and was all hepped up on goofballs. Through the first half of the year, he was among the league leaders in every category; interceptions, sacks, TFL, forced fumbles, making impact plays on both sides of the line of scrimmage. But I defy you to name one he made down the stretch. The days of him getting $26.4 million guaranteed like he did from Cleveland are long since behind him. But if some team gets seduced by all that early season production and offers him more than the veteran minimum, I'll help him carry his stuff to the car. 

7. Nate Ebner

He's Nate Ebner, that's why. Core-4 Special Teamer. Goal line safety. Rugby player. The team that prioritizes Special Teams more than any other in the league will pay what it takes to keep him. 

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6. Danny Shelton

I actually thought Shelton was as good as gone last offseason before surprising us as a late re-sign in mid-May. And to me he made a significant upgrade from year to year, with a bigger role in their defensive tackle rotation. As a 2-gapper, particularly at the nose tackle spot, for much of the season he made it possible for the best defense in the league to play a 6-man front and keep an extra safety on the field. Pro Football Focus has him graded as the 39th overall interior defender, but in their top 20 as a pass rusher. Granted, no one on that line covered themselves in glory on that final drive of the regular season against Miami and then getting run over by Derrick Henry in the playoffs. So he'd better be a bargain. But I'll feel better about 2019 Shelton returning than I did 2018 Shelton. 

5. Matthew Slater

Take everything I said about Nate Ebner, subtract rugby stuff, change "safety" to run-blocking receiver, then put an exponent on it, and you'll have the formula for Matthew Slater. The only reason he's not at the top of this list is the ingrained, anti-Special Teams bias that unfortunately permeates our society. I started saying about five or six years ago that he is the best STer in franchise history and got clapped at by Larry Izzo stans and Troy Brownphiles. And all Slater has done is strengthen my argument, week after week. He's so much a part of the culture of this team I can't imagine him leaving. They'll pay whatever it takes. 

4. Elandon Roberts

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Roberts is still living off his sixth round pick rookie contract, and has been overdue for a bump in pay ever since his 670 snap season in 2017. Thanks in part to the returns of Ju'Whaun Bentley and Collins from injury and the Browns respectively, Roberts saw his defensive snaps drop to 202 last year. But more significantly, the reduced playing time was due to the fact he was transferred to another branch, Dunder-Mifflin Fullback. He was a surprise vote for team captain before the season. Did whatever was asked of him. And provided the catchphrase of the season that would've been on signs from one end of the parade route to the other if things had worked out. In interviews he said he's all about staying in New England. I imagine it'll happen.

3. Kyle Van Noy

This is where this gets really interesting. Van Noy is the prime example of a young veteran who comes to New England, fits into the scheme, establishes himself as an integral part of the team, and then has the chance to cash in. He's a guy you can call a System Linebacker and it's a total compliment, because his game is elevated by his understanding of the concepts and the way they make the most of his abilities. It's not something everyone can grasp. He was among the leaders on the defense with 814 snaps, which was almost twice as many as No. 2 edge defender John Simon. He led the team with 15 QB Hits. And he was PFF's 21st highest graded edge player. It'll be a real test of whether other teams see him as a fit for them as well and wave a big fan of cash from the back of their limo. Or even if he's looking to maximize his earnings or just wants to compete for a title every year in the place that's perfect for him. 

2. Joe Thuney

This will be the toughest one to keep. In fact, you can't hear anyone in New England mention 2020 or talk for long about Brady staying without it being taken as a given that Thuney will be gone. The 78th overall pick in 2016 quickly established himself as one of the best guards in football, and his payday has arrived. I'm just not entirely sure why it's fated by the salary cap gods that the team that will pay him is someone other than the Patriots. They value their linemen as much as any team. They've extended Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon. And yet, according to SportTrac, their total expenditure on offensive lineman is just $27.3 million, which is well below the NFL average of $34.4 million and only 28th in the league. Yes, he'll be expensive to keep. But it makes sense to keep a top-tier, versatile interior blocker coming into his prime and who plays 100% of your snaps every year. Besides, they have the Franchise Tag available. And though they rarely pull that club out of their bag, they've been willing to when it comes to the lower cost positions like kicker and guard. Hell, they used it on Logan Mankins in 2011. If they use the non-exclusive tag on Thuney, he makes $14.92 million guaranteed this year, and would likely facilitate a long term, easier-to-swallow deal. The alternative is to replace Thuney with fourth round pick Hjalte Froholdt, who was drafted out of Arkansas for just this contingency.  Stay tuned.

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1. Devin McCourty

A while ago, I gave an interview where I was asked who's been the second best player of the Dynasty era. And I said Devin McCourty. The hosts were surprised. Frankly, so I was I because the obvious choice would be Gronk, but I didn't want to be obvious. And yet the more I expanded upon my answer, the more I realized how good a point I was making. Now I've talked myself into it. A brilliantly as Gronk blazed, we all know how short his career was and how much time he's had to miss. McCourty has been a mainstay for 10 seasons. Actually 11 1/2, if you count his 23 career playoff games. After putting together the best rookie season by a cornerback in franchise history (and I saw Mike Haynes's), he regressed in Year 2 before switching to safety and doing it all. Quarterbacking the defense. Playing centerfield as well as dropping down. Lining up in the box. Run force. Special Teams. And being one of the main leaders on a team that is built with guys who were captains of their college teams. It's hard to believe he's already to the end of his coveted second career contract. Rarely does a Patriots player get a third. That honor only goes to your Bradys and your Vince Wilforks. McCourty deserves it too. As well as his place among the best draft picks of Belichick's career. Plus keeping him means getting the McCourty package deal along with Jason, who was missed down the stretch this year. Like Robert and Van Noy, McCourty has said he's looking to stay. Making that happen is my top 2020 offseason priority.

That is, next to you know what.