2017 NFL Free Agency: 5 Targets For the New England Patriots

The New England Patriots undoubtedly have a busy offseason ahead, but who should the Pats target in 2017 NFL free agency?

The No. 1 priority for the New England Patriots this offseason is to take care of their own free agents. Guys like Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, Alan Branch and Martellus Bennett will all hit the open market this offseason. Taking care of their own should be of the utmost importance for the Patriots.

That being said, they have the cap space to make moves outside of that in free agency if they wish. According to Over the Cap, New England currently has the sixth most cap space in the NFL at just over $60.5 million. A lot of that cap space will dry up after the Patriots make their re-signings, but there will still be cap room to work with.

No matter what happens, I do not expect the Patriots to go hog-wild in free agency. That is just not how this team operates. That being said, they will undoubtedly target players who they believe can help them. Bill Belichick and company will not hesitate to make a move if they feel it is the right fit.

Which upcoming NFL free agents make the most sense for the New England Patriots? Let’s look at five possible targets for the Super Bowl champions.

Melvin Ingram

Nov 6, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram (54) yells before the snap during the third quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

5. Melvin Ingram, EDGE

The New England Patriots do not regularly spend big in free agency. They typically let other teams go crazy on the big name free agents while they sit back and pick up a handful of under-valued players. However, if they decide to go big this offseason, I could see Melvin Ingram being their guy.

With pass rushers being valued at a premium, Ingram is about to get paid this offseason. He has ridiculous speed and athleticism as a pass rusher, and has the ability to convert his speed into power. Ingram also shows elite bend around the edge, which helps him create consistent pressure on the quarterback.

Ingram has piled up 18.5 sacks the past two seasons, but even when he does not reach the quarterback, he usually makes him uncomfortable. With defensive ends Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard being free agents for the Patriots this offseason, I could see them looking to replace the position with a bang.

While pass rushing is undoubtedly his strong suit, Ingram brings a well-rounded skill-set to the table. He is strong against the run and has even shown the ability to handle minor pass coverage duties. Perhaps most importantly, Ingram has shown some nice versatility. He can rush the passer as a defensive end with his hand in the ground or as an outside linebacker. Ingram also kicked inside in some obvious passing situations. That kind of versatility always catches the eye of Belichick.

It is not overly likely that the Patriots land a big-time free agent this offseason (except for Hightower of course). But if they want to go big, Ingram should be the guy.

Jared Cook

Jan 15, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; Green Bay Packers tight end Jared Cook (89) celebrates after catching a touchdown pass against Dallas Cowboys strong safety J.J. Wilcox (27) during the third quarter in the NFC Divisional playoff game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

4. Jared Cook, TE

Preferably, the Patriots would be able to bring back Martellus Bennett this offseason. He is a strong pass catcher and elite run blocker at the tight end position. Bennett provides great Rob Gronkowski security. As much of an injury risk as Gronkowski is, the Patriots need to have some security at the tight end position.

Bennett coming back would be ideal, but re-signing him will not be easy. Bennett appears primed to chase big money this offseason, and I would not be surprised to see the Patriots get priced out. They value Bennett highly, but they will not be irresponsible.

If that happens, Jared Cook would be a strong fall-back option. Cook is an extremely athletic tight end who shows nice receiving ability. He had a good season with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay last year and could be a similar reliable option for Tom Brady.

Cook is not a big-time run blocker like Bennett, but his overall receiving skills are probably a bit better. He’s a great receiving threat who would provide similar Gronkowski insurance. For a lower price than Bennett, I could see the Patriots showing some interest in the veteran tight end.

Cornelius Washington

Nov 13, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Chicago Bears defensive end Cornelius Washington (90) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers won 36-10. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

3. Cornelius Washington, DL

The Patriots typically do a nice job of finding under-valued players in free agency. Rob Ninkovich, Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel immediately come to mind when thinking of massive steals that the Patriots have found in free agency over the years. Could Cornelius Washington be the next name to add to that list?

Washington never really got a chance to compete with the Chicago Bears. He showed flashes of brilliance up front, but the Bears could never really find a consistent position for him. Washington was brought in as an outside linebacker, but bulked up to play five-technique defensive end.

He is a strong and powerful defensive lineman who has great length. Washington does a nice job of using his length to his advantage both against the run and in the pass rush. Washington is a powerful player who can hold his own up front, but do not discount his speed and athleticism.

The former Bear shows nice explosion off of the snap and will make plays in the backfield. Honestly, I see Washington as a pass-rushing interior defensive lineman. Perhaps he could see some early down work at defensive end, but Washington’s speed could be a huge weapon on the interior.

Regardless, his versatility would be considered a plus in New England. Washington is a talented guy who has some nice upside. I think the New England Patriots would give him a great opportunity to unlock his potential.

Tim Hightower

Jan 3, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Tim Hightower (34) runs against Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Kroy Biermann (71) during the first half at the Georgia Dome. The Saints defeated the Falcons 20-17. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

2. Tim Hightower, RB

LeGarrette Blount led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns in 2016. That is undoubtedly an impressive number, but Blount’s 3.9 yards per carry average leaves plenty to be desired. Blount played an important role for the Patriots in 2016, but if someone wants to overpay him based on the touchdown production, so be it.

I will never understand how Blount is an effective runner. He dances far too much for a power back and rarely hits the hole hard. The Patriots offense made him look better than he actually is. That being said, if the Pats do not bring Blount back, somebody has to take on the power back role.

James White and Dion Lewis have the smaller/receiving back role under control, but the Patriots need a guy who can run between the tackles. Personally, I would like to see them attack this position in the 2017 NFL Draft, but Tim Hightower is an interesting free agent option for them to consider.

Hightower has had a career rejuvenation with the New Orleans Saints the past two seasons. He has become a reliable player for the Saints, playing a big role in their offense. Hightower is a powerful runner who hits the hole hard. He is not a speed demon, but he does have more quickness than a guy like Blount.

If Hightower could get an opportunity in the Patriots offense, he would likely have a lot of success. He is a dependable guy who typically picks up the necessary yardage. The Patriots need an inside runner and Hightower would be a great option. He is also considered a great leader in the locker room, which is always great.

I am not saying that the Pats should invest a ton of money in to Hightower, but he is a talented guy who would make a difference for the team. If they give him the same opportunity as Blount, Hightower would be the more dynamic and productive player.

Charles Johnson

Oct 10, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson (95) tries to pump up the crowd during the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium. The Bucs defeated the Panthers 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

1. Charles Johnson, DE

As I mentioned earlier, Patriots defensive ends Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard will both hit free agency this offseason. While I could certainly see them bringing at least one of those guys back, I would not be surprised if the Pats still attack the position in free agency.

Charles Johnson took a huge pay-cut to go back to the Carolina Panthers last season. After being so close to a ring in 2015, Johnson and the Panthers had a tough 2016 season. If Johnson wants to go ring chasing, I am sure the Patriots would find room for him.

Johnson has always been an extremely strong and powerful player. In his younger days, his combination of power and athleticism was downright scary. At 30 years old, Johnson does not have the same explosion that he once did. He is certainly a step slow now, but he is still a powerful defensive end who has above average speed.

He is a not an elite pass rusher from the edge at this point in his career, but Johnson can certainly still get after the quarterback. Plus, he is still fantastic against the run. I wonder if the Patriots would want Johnson in a role where he would play outside on early down and inside in obvious passing situations? This would be a way to capitalize on his current strengths as a player.

Defensive line is a need for the Patriots. Johnson is a talented and productive veteran who has a great reputation as a teammate. If the price is right, I could easily see this being a fit.

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