Bill doesn’t take time off, then I don’t take any time off. If he’s working while his smoking girlfriend is luxuriating on the beach, than I’m working. Every year the Patriots off-season is a month shorter than most other teams and so there is not a second to lose. The Combine starts this week. Free agency a short time after that. They have a first round draft pick for the first time in a couple of years. So there’s is work to be done. It’s time for me to stop sifting through the wreckage of Super Bowl LII, locate the black box, retrieve the data to find out if the reason 2017 crashed upon landing was mechanical failure or pilot error and make sure it we don’t see another tragic loss of ring in 2018.
It’s time to rank the Patriots top off-season priorities. Because as someone once said: No. Days. Off.
1. Bring Back Bill Belichick.
Oh, wait. The rumors that he was leaving, innuendos that he and Mr. Kraft were in a titanic power struggle, suggestions there was a “rift” between him and his quarterback and even published reports that was going to the Giants for Christ’s sake because he’s pining for the days of coaching Harry Carson and Pepper Johnson, were all bullshit. It’s business as usual for the GOAT. Moving right along …
2. Find a No. 2 Cornerback.
Almost any other year, Priority One is open to debate. But not this year. This year the need for a starting corner is the biggest no brainer since Barstool took Michael Rappoport’s career to the vet so he could send it to a farm to play with all the other has-been’s careers. Cornerback would have been the top concern even if Malcolm Butler didn’t get put in the time out chair in Minneapolis. There were just too many break downs. Too many times he looked around after a completion for someone to blame. I think his contract situation was on his mind and the coach soured on him. According to Pro Football Focus, Butler’s passer rating when targeted went from 78.2 in 2016 to a Darius Butlerish 103.3. So there’s no reason to think he was ever coming back. I think they genuinely like Eric Rowe, who’s bigger than Stephon Gilmore, was the 47th overall pick in 2015 for a reason, comes cheap and is only 25. But he is not the answer. I can actually hear eyes rolling as I type this sentence, but I wouldn’t rule out Cyrus Jones, whose “bust” status is all predicated on two season ending injuries and the fact he handles punts like a bear trying to grab a salmon out of the air. He still carries the Nick Saban gene and can maybe cover somebody. Still, you can’t go into the season relying on either of them as anything more than depth guys.
3. Add an Inside Linebacker
I’ll credit Evan Lazar for this stat: The Pats were 30th in the league in DVOA with 4.7 yards per rush allowed last year. Now I think a factor in that was they are playing a base 4-2-5 with Pat Chung in on virtually every down. And they’ll sacrifice the yards on the ground for chunk plays all day. But in order to do that and be able to function you still need linebackers who can limit the damage on rushing downs or else you’re just begging for short yardage situations and Nick Foles going 11-for-13 on 3rd down with seven conversions. They need someone who can man the middle as an off-the-line LB, either alongside Dont’a Hightower or freeing him up to play on the LOS. And in this system, it’s the most complicated position besides quarterback. It took Hightower himself a year-plus of looking lost and slow to make reads before he figured it out. JAnd he’s a Saban guy too. Jamie Collins never figured it out. Kyle Van Noy has played so far over his head for so long that I think that’s no longer over his head. But beyond him it’s just Elandon Roberts, which makes Hightower indispensable. And no championship contender can afford to have anyone be indispensable.
4. Extend Rob Gronkowski.
Like I wrote earlier, the gut a lot of us have that there might be something to this retirement business could be bullshit as well. But until then, he is still your second best player. If he’s looking for a new contract with a higher AAV and more guaranteed money, it’s not unreasonable. He earned the most at his position this year with over $10 million not because he hit his incentive numbers but because he made All Pro. The point being there’s plenty of room for both sides to compromise on an extension that will reduce is cap hit ($10.9 million), put some distance between his salary and those of Jimmy Graham and Travis Kelce, but still protect the team if he he misses time. The only reason he’s not higher on the list is they won without him in 2016. But you look at how quickly he took over the most important game of the regular season at Pittsburgh and the first drive of the Super Bowl and you can’t deny the trail gets way steeper if he’s off jumping around in Vince McMahon-issued tights.
5. Re-sign Dion Lewis.
As a general rule, I regard running backs in this system as members of a droid army. Interchangeable parts that can easily be replaced when they break down or their programming goes haywire. There’s always another BenJonas Gray-Bolden kicking around looking for work they can plug in there. But there are exceptions, and Dion Lewis is one. The guy is special. Not a 25 carry a game/every game guy. Those are rare. And overpriced wastes of money when you’ve got the best quarterback in the league. Still, Lewis led the NFL in rushing over the second half of the season. He had the best completion percentage in the league. He makes people miss, but also runs over them. He takes care of the ball and gives you almost no negative plays. Which isn’t to say I’d pay him Le’Veon Bell money. But he deserves to be in the top ten in the league, at least. For what he brings to this offense, he’d be worth it.
6. Find an Edge Player.
For most football writers in town, this is the first, last and middle priority every goddamned year. Opening my Cliche Generator app, it’s “You gotta put pressure on opposing QBs! Find someone to move them off off their spot! Don’t let them get comfortable and pick you apart!!!” And every year the Pats are one or two plays from a championship without an “elite” rusher eating up half their salary cap. Which isn’t to say they don’t need help there now. They do. The loss of Rob Ninkovich there left a hole that they couldn’t fill with all the Eric Lees and Lawrence Guys (meaning no offense to all you guys from Lawrence) a minimum salary could buy. I do believe Trey Flowers is playing his way toward the coveted Second Contract that has eluded so many of their draft picks. And I’d like to see James Harrison come back in a limited role. I’m also not sleeping on Derek Rivers, whose camp injury gave him a redshirt freshmen year but whom they loved enough to take out of that football factory Youngstown St with the 83rd pick. But they need a starter opposite Flowers, no question.
7. Retain Nate Solder.
I can actually feel the eyerolls through the vibrations in the ground. And I’ll admit that Solder did not have his best season. PFF had him as the 32nd best tackle (both LT and RT) in football, but only the third best on his own team. The also had him as a dreadful 45th pass blocking, but 12th overall in the run game. So sure, his grades are all over the place. But he was that kid whose struggles came early in the semester and he did better on the midterm and the final. Frankly it wouldn’t surprise me if he retired to be with his family as they battle health issues. But what I’d like to see most is him come back for at least one more season before handing left tackle over to last year’s 85th overall pick, Anthony Garcia out of that football factory, Troy. In the same way that Matt Light played one final year with Solder backing him up.
8. Extend Brandin Cooks.
Ben Volin of the Globe is starting rumors that the Patriots will probably trade Cooks. I’d say that’s idiotic, but saying “Ben Volin” and “idiotic” would be repeating myself. I can’t wrap my brain around this notion that somehow Cooks’ season was “a disappointment.” Based on what? The fact that he was Brady’s go-to option after Gronk? That he finishes with 4 fewer receptions and 2 fewer yards than Gronk? That he was 7th in the league in yards per reception, ahead of Julio Jones? Was is the incredible toe-tap catch he made in the end zone to beat Houston? Or the way he ran cornerbacks off to come back on the ball all season long and still 1/3 of his catches (21) were for 19 yards or more, and 11 were for 34 yards or more? Or maybe the beef is that he stayed healthy for all 19 games. Whatever, this guy is exactly the kind of deep threat we always hear the Patriots lack. And he won’t even turn 25 until about Week 3 this season. The only problem is his salary. Which is like 13th in the league among wideouts, as it should be. But it’s way out of line with the rest of the Pats’ receiving corps. He stands to only make slightly less in 2018 than Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan combined. Which is partly why New Orleans was willing to deal him. So some sort of an extension that pays him long term but reduces this year’s cap hit is more or less mandatory. But trading him for anything less than the first round pick they gave up to get him would be positively … Ben Volin.
9. Figure Out the Second Tight End Situation.
I had a history teacher Freshman year who did a whole unit on Lincoln’s struggles to find a general and how the search basically lasted for the entire war. And by now I think Josh McDaniels is going through the same thing with his two tight end offense. I think if he captured a leprechaun and could be granted one wish for setting him free, he’d ask for a non-homicidal second option for his “Joker” 2-TE sets. The Patriots have tried. God knows, they’ve tried. They just can’t keep two healthy, productive TEs on the field. They’ve missed with a bunch of Scott Chandlers, Zach Sudfelds, AJ Derbys and now Dwayne Allen. Martellus Bennett was a great addition and then Gronk got hurt. They brought Bennett back and then he got hurt. And yet if they could roll out there with a healthy Bennett opposite a healthy Gronk (see No. 4 above) and operate out of 12-personnel with two effective, versatile options, it would be much better for McDaniels than coaching a broken down Andrew Luck and cashing some pill-addled lucky spermer’s checks ever could be.
10. Re-sign Danny Amendola.
This is only 10th on his list not because I don’t think it’s a huge priority. It is. Danny Playoff Amdendola’s postseason performances speak for themselves. To the point not only do the people who screamed he could never replace Wes Welker deserve to eat shit, but it’s time to make a case he has been on of the best free agent signings in team history. Right now I’d put him just ahead of Rodney Harrison and behind only Mike Vrabel. And he has galaxies of productive football still ahead of him. I only put this so low on the list because I don’t think they’ll have a huge problem getting him to sign. Because she is from Rhode Island. And some things are more important than money.