2017 NFL Free Agency: 5 Underrated Targets for New England Patriots

After winning Super Bowl 51 the New England Patriots look to reload in the offseason. Here are 5 underrated targets for them in 2017 NFL free agency

As soon as the New England Patriots were crowned champions for a fifth time, their head coach Bill Belichick started talking about how his franchise was behind all the other NFL teams by several weeks. That’s the kind of focus that has him labeled as one of the best coaches to ever roam an NFL sideline. While the players and fans were celebrating their huge comeback win in Super Bowl 51, Belichick was thinking about how to prepare for the next title run. The first thing to come up in that offseason which Belichick was so worried about will be 2017 NFL free agency.

The Patriots are never really big spenders in free agency, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t big players in it. In the past they’ve found guys like defensive ends Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard, wide receivers Danny Amendola, Wes Welker and Chris Hogan, and running back LaGarrette Blount. All played their roles well for the team, and none were the type of “break-the-bank” signings that fans long for. Well at least non-New England fans long for.

Patriots fans have been around long enough to see how things are done there. The five-time champs let the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins of the league dish out the big money. New England instead likes getting guys who fit their system. The result is wins. Lots and lots of wins.

Don’t expect them to change that philosophy now. With 2017 NFL free agency just around the corner the Patriots will once again be looking to do some bargain hunting. Here are five underrated targets for the Pats as they look to reload for another Super Bowl run.

Dec 24, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) goes down against Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Trent Cole (58) during the fourth quarter at the Oakland Coliseum. The Oakland Raiders defeated the Indianapolis Colts 33-25. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

5. Trent Cole, OLB — Indianapolis Colts

After 10 years and 85.5 career sacks as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, edge rusher Trent Cole headed to Indianapolis. He spent the past two seasons there as a member of the Colts and is once again looking for a home. Apparently in advance of 2017 NFL free agency, Cole felt it was necessary to hit up Twitter and let the world know: A. He isn’t retiring, and B. He is ready to be taken “off the leash:”

The reason Cole felt the need to announce he won’t retire could be tied back to his missing nine games last season. Cole turned 34 in October and struggled with a back injury. He posted just two sacks, which was the lowest in his career. It wasn’t much worse than the season before, though, as Cole had only three sacks in 14 games for Indy.

Still, this seems like the kind of guy who could show up in New England and play a minor, but effective role for them. With pass rushers always in demand, the 270-pound Cole could be a third-down specialist that provides pressure in limited snaps. He also wouldn’t cost much at all considering his performance the past two seasons.

Sep 13, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Gavin Escobar (89) scores a touchdown in the third quarter against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

4. Gavin Escobar, TE — Dallas Cowboys

There’s two facts when discussing New England tight ends. Fact No. 1 is that Martellus Bennett has no intentions of signing a team-friendly deal. Fact No. 2 is that Rob Gronkowski has not played a full16 games since 2011.

The Patriots continue to need to find backup tight ends to pair with Gronk as, in the past five seasons, he has missed five, nine, one, one, and eight games, respectively. That’s a full season and a half of missed time for Gronk, so Marty B needs to be replaced.

One guy who may be a candidate is Gavin Escobar. Like Bennett, Escobar was originally drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round, but was hardly utilized. Bennett had one season in which he recorded receptions outside of the teens in Dallas, but since leaving has never had less than 55 receptions. Escobar has been used even less frequently by Dallas as he has never topped double digits in receptions. What he has done though is proven to be a valuable red zone asset. The 6-6, 251-pound Escobar has eight touchdowns in four seasons, including a career high of four in 2014.

The biggest knock on him is his blocking ability. It’s an area he has improved in over the years, but still it isn’t a strength of his game. He can still provide a big target for quarterback Tom Brady and would be considerably less expensive than Bennett.

Dec 27, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (24) returns an interception during the third quarter against the New York Giants at TCF Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Giants 49-17. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

3. Captain Munnerlyn, CB — Minnesota Vikings

An undersized corner selected in the last round of the 2009 draft, Captain Munnerlyn has carved out a nice career for himself thus far. He worked himself into being a regular starter for the Carolina Panthers and recorded 11 interceptions in five years with them. Even more impressive, the 5-9 corner returned five of those 11 picks for touchdowns. He is still the Panthers all-time leader in interceptions returned for touchdowns in a career as well as the most in a season, recording two in both 2012 and 2013.

He then hit free agency and was kind of an afterthought. He eventually signed a three-year deal, but didn’t receive the kind of huge pa day that other corners with his kind of numbers would have made. In Minnesota he has played 47 games, while starting 30 of them and helped anchor a strong defensive unit opposite of up-and-comer Xavier Rhodes.

The former South Carolina Gamecock is coming off his first season since 2011 in which he failed to record an interception, but that could be to the benefit of the Pats. His name isn’t as popular as it once was and gives them an affordable and underrated player to look at should they lose their own free agent corner, Logan Ryan, this offseason.

Nov 30, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Kamar Aiken (11) stretches and scores a touchdown after a catch from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Matt Schaub (not pictured) as Cleveland Browns free safety K’Waun Williams (36) defends during the third quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

2. Kamar Aiken, WR — Baltimore Ravens

An undrafted receiver in 2011 out of Central Florida, Kamar Aiken spent most of the 2012 season on the Patriots practice squad after spending his rookie season with a divisional rival, the Buffalo Bills. After being cut by the Patriots, he found his way to Chicago for a season before turning into a reliable target for the Baltimore Ravens.

Aiken’s breakout season came in 2015 when he had 75 receptions for 944 yards and five scores. He produced these numbers while the team struggled with injuries to the players ahead of him on the depth chart. This past season, he fell back down the chart as Steve Smith Sr. returned to health and Mike Wallace was signed via free agency.

The 27-year-old is now free to go where he chooses and a return to New England makes sense. The Patriots have some talented players at the wide out spot, but what they don’t have is a lot of size there. Aiken (6-2, 215-pounds) would be tallest guy at the position and could be a reliable target for Tom Brady.

He should also be affordable as Aiken isn’t a household name. His production is also limited to just a couple of seasons, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a contributor for a team that’s great at spreading the ball around.

Nov 27, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (94) pass rushes in the first half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

1. DeMarcus Ware, DE — Denver Broncos

Needing a pass rusher with Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long hitting free agency, the Patriots could opt for a veteran with something to prove. DeMarcus Ware is the franchise sack leader for the Dallas Cowboys, but was cut following the 2013 season due to cap concerns. He then went on to play three seasons for the Denver Broncos and was part of the Super Bowl 50 winning club.

Following that title run, Ware really started to struggle with health issues. He claims he is fully healthy now and ready to roll, while adding that he will prove doubters wrong. He probably also wants to win another Super Bowl as championships seem to be rather addicting.

Ware most likely won’t be looking to cash in this offseason. He already had one huge contract with Dallas and one with Denver. His main concern seems to be proving he can still play and winning. In New England you’re guaranteed the winning part. He also would be on a talented and smart team which would avoid overusing the aged veteran.

As a situational pass rusher, Ware could bring a lot to New England. Last season they went for Chris Long, formerly of the St. Louis Rams and he did his job. Ware however has a little more burst and could offer even more in terms of harassing opposing quarterbacks.

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