2017 NFL Free Agency: Predicting New England Patriots 5 Biggest Moves

Dec 18, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) before the game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Doug Martin Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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These 2017 NFL free agency predictions for the New England Patriots’ biggest moves provide a solid roadmap back to the Super Bowl.

Coming off a historic Super Bowl victory, the New England Patriots have a lot to accomplish this offseason if they plan on booking a return trip to the big game in 2018. It all starts during 2017 NFL free agency.

At this moment, the Patriots appear to have plenty of cap space to work with. According to Spotrac.com, the team currently has about $62.9 million to work with. It seems like an ideal situation to be in, but there’s a lot of dough the Patriots need to spend between now and the start of the new league year.

There are several New England stars either with expiring contracts or in need of extensions. Addressing those issues in the coming month is going to be very costly. More importantly, it’s going to take a big chunk out of the aforementioned $62.9 million in cap space. And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Patriots acquire at least one notable name via the open market.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some moves Bill Belichick and Co. could make as part of the 2017 NFL Free Agency festivities. Here are my five predictions for the top maneuvers the Patriots will make in the next month or so.

Danny Amendola New England Patriots

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5. Patriots Sever Ties With Danny Amendola

Each of the last two offseasons, Danny Amendola has taken a pay cut to stay in New England. While that may be an option in 2017 as well, I think it’s time for the Patriots to simply move on from the aging, injury-prone receiver.

For most of the 2016 campaign, Amendola was little more than an afterthought in the passing game. He finished the year with only 23 catches for 243 yards and four touchdowns, one of the quietest of his eight NFL seasons. His best game came in Week 2, when he managed a modest 48 receiving yards to go along with two scores.

It got worse during the playoffs, when he was essentially a non-factor up until the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory. Although his high-ankle sprain played a part in that, it only highlighted the fact that his effectiveness (and ability to stay healthy) is fading.

Especially with the emergence of Malcolm Mitchell as a dependable weapon, New England may be forced to make a difficult decision at receiver. Seeing as Amendola is no higher than No. 4 on the depth chart and is scheduled to count $6 million against the cap, he appears to be the odd man out.

A restructure is possible, but it may be in the team’s best interest to simply show Amendola the door. They need the cap space to re-sign/extend all of their stars, and could probably find a better use for the roster spot at this point.

Dont'a Hightower New England Patriots

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4. Dont’a Hightower Avoids the Open Market

One of the Patriots’ top priorities this offseason will be getting star linebacker Dont’a Hightower back under contract. He’s scheduled to be a free agent come March 9, but I’m predicting he doesn’t get the opportunity to test the waters.

At this moment, New England has plenty of cap space available. One of the reasons for that is because they have so many noteworthy names in need of new deals. Hightower certainly falls into that category.

He’s coming off another sensational season for the Patriots. Hightower continued to be a dominant force in the middle of the New England defense, providing leadership while also making an irreplaceable impact on the field. There’s no doubt in my mind the Patriots will find a way to keep him around.

Plus, there’s a reason the team sent Jamie Collins packing prior to the 2016 trade deadline. They knew they only had so much money to go around, and weren’t willing to spend so much of it at the linebacker position. The Patriots only had the cap space to afford one new contract at linebacker, and it appears Hightower has been designated to receive said contract.

With so many teams looking for answers at linebacker, New England would be wise to keep Hightower off the open market. I’m predicting that’s exactly what they’ll do.

Malcolm Butler New England Patriots

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3. Patriots Extend Malcolm Butler

At this point, it appears the main focus for New England is retaining their top talent. They’ve now (hypothetically) got Hightower back, but there’s another looming question mark on defense. What does the future hold for star cornerback Malcolm Butler?

Butler is a restricted free agent this offseason, meaning the Patriots can slap him with a first-round tender and essentially call it a day. That would pay him about $4 million in 2017 (via the Boston Globe’s Ben Volin). It would, however, leave open the opportunity for a team to sign Butler to an offer sheet.

It would cost any team a first-round pick to sign Butler away from New England. However, I’m sure most would pay that price for an All-Pro cornerback, especially in today’s pass-happy NFL. Even if the Patriots choose to match, they’d essentially be giving Butler a new deal on someone else’s terms. That’s why they’ll avoid the whole situation and pay him the way he deserves to be paid.

Before 2017 NFL Free Agency even begins, the Patriots will extend Butler’s contract, rewarding him with a massive payday. They have the money to get the job done, and can’t afford to let the former undrafted free agent take his talents elsewhere.

Martellus Bennett New England Patriots

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2. Martellus Bennett Gets a New Deal

I don’t see any way the Patriots let Martellus Bennett walk this offseason. Especially with the injury bug routinely biting Rob Gronkowski, New England would be crazy to let the dominant tight end get away.

Bennett is coming off a career year as part of the Patriots’ dynamic passing game. With Tom Brady throwing his way, the former second-round pick was finally able to showcase his elite natural abilities. It wasn’t his best statistical year in terms of catches or receptions, but he finished with a career-best seven touchdowns and three games of 100+ receiving yards.

Seeing as he’d be the best tight end available this offseason, the Patriots can’t let him get to the open market. Chances are they re-sign him to a new deal before March 9, and may even slap him with the franchise tag if it comes down to it (via CSN New England’s Phil Perry).

New England isn’t expected to get into a bidding war for Bennett (via ESPN’s Mike Reiss). That’s why it’ll avoid that situation entirely by getting him under contract before the new league year begins.

Bennett may be turning 30 the day after free agency begins, but he’s still a star. With Gronkowski an uncertainty at this point, the Patriots (and Brady) need a capable playmaker at tight end. A re-signing needs to happen to keep this ship sailing smoothly in 2017.

Doug Martin Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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1. Doug Martin Replaces LeGarrette Blount After Release

Most of the moves up to this point have been fairly predictable. This one, however, would definitely be a bit out of left field. There’s a very good chance the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cut the cord with Doug Martin this offseason. After his suspension last year, they can release him without creating any dead money, saving themselves $5,764,706 in the process. It seems crazy considering his upside, but Muscle Hamster has worn out his welcome in Tampa Bay.

As for LeGarrette Blount, he’s coming off another outstanding season with the Patriots. He found the end zone 18 times, but still managed only 3.9 yards per carry. New England’s dynamic offense clearly helped bolster his resume a bit this year. That, however, could boost his ego enough to ask for too much money for the Patriots to bring him back.

We must also consider the last three points I touched on. New England still needs to re-sign Hightower and Bennett while also handing Butler a boatload of money. Other guys like Jabaal Sheard, Logan Ryan and Michael Floyd are also free agents, and may very well be re-signed. Put simply, there’s plenty of money to go around but plenty of mouths to feed as well.

When comparing the two running backs’ recent play, I’d venture to guess Martin is going to be significantly cheaper this offseason. Blount may be looking for a deal that pays him an annual average of $4-5 million. Meanwhile, Martin could sign for as low as $2 million per year. It seems like a small gap, but it could very well be the difference.

Especially with other playmakers at running back, the Patriots can’t afford to overpay Blount. So instead of taking that route, they wait until Martin is released and sign him at a discount. I’m sure Belichick would have no problem taking advantage of his natural abilities. Plus, his long-term upside is much greater than Blount’s.

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