2017 NFL Free Agency: Ranking New England Patriots Priorities to Re-Sign

The New England Patriots have some serious work to do in free agency this offseason. Which of their own free agents are the top priorities?

After winning the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots expect to have an extremely busy offseason. They will likely be shopping Jimmy Garoppolo on the trade market, have a lot of capital in the 2017 NFL Draft and will have a busy free agency period.

The Patriots have almost $63 million in cap space this offseason, which probably seems unfair to the rest of the league. However, they have 21 of their own free agents to worry about. Simply put, it is going to be a busy offseason in New England.

Which of their own free agents do the Patriots need to make sure to bring back? Let’s take a look at their priority players to re-sign this offseason.

5. Jabaal Sheard, EDGE

Early in the season, Jabaal Sheard was an up-and-down player for the Patriots. He was not creating consistent pressure on the quarterback and was seemingly not playing within the defensive system.

That being said, Sheard was one of the team’s most important defenders down the stretch. Sheard is an explosive pass rusher on the edge who also shows impressive ability against the run. He is a quick and athletic defensive end who also shows impressive power at the point of attack.

Trey Flowers has emerged as the Patriots’ top pass rusher, but he needs some help on the edge. Sheard is an impressive player who will command some attention on the open market. He is not the top priority this offseason, but the Patriots would be wise to make sure that Sheard is back.

Martellus Bennett New England Patriots

Oct 30, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills inside linebacker Zach Brown (53) watches as New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett (88) runs the ball during the second half at New Era Field. The Patriots beat the Bills 41-25. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

4. Martellus Bennett, TE

It will be interesting to see how the Patriots value Martellus Bennett this offseason. Bennett did not light the world on fire in his only season in New England, finishing the year with 55 receptions for 701 yards and seven touchdowns. That being said, Bennett was a reliable target in the passing game who impact the game in a variety of ways.

Bennett is an elite run blocker at the tight end position. He frequently cleared out an entire side of the defensive line in the run game. Bennett is a good receiver who can be a match-up nightmare in the middle of the field, but do not discount his ability to run block. Bennett is an absolute mauler.

No matter who else is one the field, Bennett can be a dynamic weapon. He is a sure-handed receiver with incredible size and impressive athleticism. However, part of his value to the Patriots is Gronk insurance. Rob Gronkowski is an absolute specimen at the tight end position, but he struggles to ever stay healthy.

Having Bennett in the mix protects the New England Patriots from a Gronkowski injury. If they are both healthy, great. The Pats have the best tight end duo in the NFL. If not, they can get by with one or the other.

Tom Brady is still incredible, but he is not getting any younger. The Patriots need to go all in the next few seasons as they will never be in a better position to win Super Bowls than right now. Re-signing Bennett is a bit of a luxury, but it is the kind of win-now move that the Patriots must consider.

Alan Branch New England Patriots

Sep 11, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots defensive lineman Alan Branch (97) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Cardinals 23-21. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

3. Alan Branch, DT

Back to the defensive side of the ball, as we get to defensive tackle Alan Branch. The 6-6, 350-pound Branch bounced around the league a bit earlier in his career, but he has really found a home in New England.

Branch signed a free agent contract with the Patriots back in 2014, and has been an important part of their defense ever since. Branch is a massive man in the middle of the Patriots defense. He almost single-handily makes it impossible to run inside against New England.

Branch is a big and strong man who will take on double-teams and stop the running game at the line of scrimmage. He also has incredibly long arms that he uses well to keep the offensive linemen away from him. Branch is an extremely talented player who is essential up front for the Patriots.

At 32 years old, Branch will probably not get a long-term deal this offseason. That being said, he is going to get some serious money. Branch is legitimately and elite run defender from the defensive tackle position. I fully expect the New England Patriots to make Branch a priority and he will likely re-sign on a high-money, short-term deal.

Malcolm Butler New England Patriots

Jan 22, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) reacts after a play in the first half against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2017 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

2. Malcolm Butler, CB

In Super Bowl 49 against the Seattle Seahawks, Malcolm Butler became an overnight sensation. Butler’s game winning interception will go down in New England Patriots’ history, but he has become a much-more complete player since that play.

Butler is one of the most talented young cornerbacks in the NFL. He is an extremely aggressive and instinctive player who shows elite man-to-man skills. Make no mistake about it, Butler is a shutdown cornerback in the making. The New England Patriots cannot let one of their young defensive stars reach the open market.

Butler is different from the others on this list. Being a former undrafted free agent, Butler is only a restricted free agent this offseason. This means that the Patriots can match any offer that is made to him this offseason. As good as Butler has been the past couple of years, the Patriots will likely match anything that is sent his way.

He is an elite NFL cornerback who would be incredibly difficult to replace. Locking Butler up to a long-term deal should be an extremely high priority for the Patriots this offseason. Fellow starting cornerback Logan Ryan will hit the market as an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

Ryan played extremely well for the Patriots down the stretch, but he is not at the level of Butler. Ryan is primarily a slot cornerback who is going to get huge money this offseason. I expect that Ryan priced himself out of New England with his play down the stretch. Out of the two cornerbacks, Butler is undoubtedly the right guy to lock up long-term. Ryan is a good player, but he is not at the same level as his counterpart.

Dont'a Hightower New England Patriots

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower (54) celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after beating the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

1. Dont’a Hightower, LB

The leader of the New England Patriots defense who consistently comes up with big plays in the biggest moments, Dont’a Hightower has been be free agency priority number one. Hightower is an elite run defender from the linebacker position and impact pass rusher from the edge. He also does a nice job in coverage and always puts himself in a position to make a play.

Hightower has made two huge plays in Super Bowls during his career with the Patriots. Back in Super Bowl 49 against the Seahawks, Hightower stopped Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line, just one play before Butler made the game-winning interceptions. In Super Bowl 51, Hightower had a huge sack and forced fumble on Matt Ryan that helped swing the momentum in the Patriots’ incredible come-from-behind victory.

Hightower is the clear leader of the Patriots defense and a huge part of two Super Bowl championship teams. Their run defense always takes a huge hit when he comes out, and Hightower is arguably the best pass rusher on the team. Make no mistake about it, getting him back is a huge priority this offseason.

Signing the talented linebacker to a long-term deal would obviously be preferred. However, Hightower is so valuable that the Patriots should not hesitate to place the franchise tag on him. It is a hefty price, but Hightower is well worth it. Without him in the middle of this defense, they would have serious issues on that side of the ball.

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