1) Brandin Cooks
The Patriots traded the 32nd overall pick along with a third rounder to the New Orleans Saints for WR Brandin Cooks and the Saints’ fourth round pick. It might seem strange for a team that did not have a first round pick in 2016, courtesy of Roger Goodell and Deflategate, to again remove themselves from the first round in the upcoming draft. However, consider the position of the Patriots’ pick. At 32nd overall, the likelihood of finding a player of Cooks’ talent is slim.
The Patriots have a real need at wide receiver. Michael Floyd is likely not going to return. Edelman and Amendola are both bubble players following the 2017 season (given their age and contract situation). Malcolm Mitchell, a rookie during the 2016 campaign, is showing promise but is not a true WR1. Chris Hogan gave the Patriots the ability to stretch the field with his speed and created separation from defensive backs, but again, we are talking about Chris Hogan. Hogan was as vital of a free agent pick-up last season as Martellus Bennett, but there is only so much an undrafted WR who has played on five teams in five years can give.
As Robert Kraft recently pointed out, Cooks is as dynamic a receiver as Tom Brady has played with in his career. Cooks has put up over 2300 yards and 17 touchdowns in his last two seasons with the Saints. Since being drafted in the first round of 2014, Cooks has consistently been an offensive threat and should continue to do the same in New England. Quarterback Drew Brees is a passing-yards machine and no doubt contributed to Cooks success, but there is no reason to think that production will drop off under Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels. Despite the talk of Brady playing another 6-7 years, Belichick knows this team is built to win now. The Patriots will pick up Cooks’ 5th year option meaning the WR1 is locked up through the end of the 2018 season. A first round pick would have given the Patriots a rookie under contract for at least four more years (as opposed to the two Cooks offers), but the mismatch in talent is worth the truncated commitment.
2) Re-Signing Dont’a Hightower
I was on the edge of my seat throughout the first week of free agency waiting to hear news of Don’t’a Hightower. Of the BIG 3 going into the 2016 offseason (Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones and Hightower), the inside linebacker was the only player left to hoist the Lombardi trophy. Hightower is my favorite player on the Patriots’ defense. He lacks the overall athleticism of Jamie Collins and the big-play ability of Chandler Jones, but the guy is simply a winner. Look at the last two Super Bowl victories for the New England Patriots. In 2015 against Seattle, it was Hightower stuffing Marshawn Lynch at the goal-line that pressured the Seahawks to attempt a pass. We all know what happened on the next play. In the most recent Super Bowl, Hightower’s strip sack of Matt Ryan was the pivotal play of the game, if not the most important.
The ripple effects of NOT signing the defense’s signal caller could have been catastrophic. To begin with, Hightower is the soul of the defensive side of the ball, in the same way that Brady commands the offense. Losing him to free agency would have disrupted the chemistry of the team and stripped the heart out of the defense. New England players need to know that there is a reward for their hardwork. Since being drafted in the 1st round of the 2012 season, Dont’a Hightower has helped the Patriots to five consecutive AFC championships, and won two Super Bowls. The man deserved to get paid. It’s great to bring in one-and-done veterans like Darelle Reivs and Chris Long, but there are guys coming up on the roster (Malcolm Brown and Trey Flowers, notably) that need to know their homegrown talents will be rewarded. Hightower’s signing is a positive example for the entire team.
3) Stephon Gilmore
Singing Stephon Gilmore to a 5-year/$65 million contract may end up being a bittersweet move if it creates an impasse that results in Butler leaving the team. Assuming Belichick and Co. can calm the Butler situation down through the 2017 season, the Patriots are likely to have one of the most dynamic and talented backfields of any NFL team. For the past five years, I have watched Gilmore making big plays in the AFC East with the Buffalo Bills (and even several years before that when he was with the Gamecocks at South Carolina). Gilmore’s numbers last season—5 interceptions, 12 pass defenses—are very comparable to Butler’s (4 INTs, 17 PDefs), and will help the Patriots generate more turnovers on defense. The pass-rush should also see a bump in production, as opposing quarterbacks will be forced to hold the ball longer and progress through their reads. Even if Gilmore plays more conservatively under Matt Patricia’s defensive scheme, which values consistency over flash, he should still be able to generate big plays.
4) Kony Ealy
As a North Carolina native, I take interest in the actions being made by the Panthers’ organization. I followed them through their 15-1 season in 2015, and watched the heartbreaking defeat in Super Bowl 50 to Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos (a familiar sight for Patriots fans). In that game, relatively unknown DE Kony Ealy looked every bit of an all-star as Von Miller. While his production dipped in the 2016 regular season, the entire Panther’s roster was suffering a post-Josh Norman Super Bowl sized hangover. Prior to trading a second rounder for Ealy, the Patriots were remarkably thin at defensive end. Chris Long left for the Philadelphia Eagles. Jabaal Sheard went to Indianapolis, leaving just Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom on the depth. I don’t see Ealy being the next Chandler Jones or Michael Bennett, but he should at worst be an upgrade on Jabaal Sheard (their numbers were comparable in 2016, and Ealy has the higher ceiling). The downside of this trade is that Ealy is on the final year of his contract, and it is unlikely the Patriots will re-sign him after a breakout season given the budding talent of Trey Flowers (UFA 2019). The best case scenario for the Patriots would be for Ealy to have a solid 8-10 sack year, but not getting over the hump that would price him out of the Patriots’ budget for next season. Either way, it should be fun to watch Flowers and Ealy working the edge in 2017.
5) Dwayne Allen
Rob Gronkowski is the most game-breaking player I have ever seen in the NFL (outside of Justin Houston’s 1st half performance against the Broncos this season). But he’s unreliable. Since entering the league in 2010, Gronk has only managed to stay healthy for an entire season on three occasions. It’s unlikely the Patriots would have won the Super Bowl this season without having a capable backup in Martellus Bennett. Go back to the 2015 over-time loss against the Denver Broncos. The only time I have ever seen Tom Brady lose hope during a game was when Gronkowski was being carted off the field in the fourth quarter. You could just see the loss in his face. Had the Pats won that game, they would have had home-field advantage through the playoffs and likely three Lombardi trophies in three years.
It’s undeniable that Gronkowski’s absence hurts the offense, hence the importance in finding a comparable player to fill Bennett’s departure. Dwayne Allen (6’3”, 265lbs) is a downgrade from the freakish athleticism of Martellus Bennett (6’6”, 275lbs). But assuming Gronk can stay healthy, Allen is arguably a better fit for the Patriots offense. Everything I’ve seen from Allen’s film shows a player that is adept at blocking, which is the main priority of the TE2, while still having the pass-catching ability to create two-tight-end set mismatches. Allen still has three years remaining on his contract, which gives extra value to the Patriots in the trade for their fourth round pick. It’s hard to imagine Allen putting up numbers similar to Martellus Bennett last season (Gronk had more receiving yards in 4 games as Allen did all season), but he doesn’t have to. The extended value of the Brandin Cooks trade is that the offense is more explosive and dynamic in the inevitable injury absence of Gronk. While I have flashbacks to the failure that was Scott Chandler in 2015, Josh McDaniels will have learned from his mistakes and be able to make greater use of his TE2.