The New England Patriots will head to the 2019 season with a single defensive position coach that will remain from the 2018 season. For a team that has thrived in continuity since Bill Belichick took over as head coach in 2000, this is a big problem.
Only safety coach Stephen Belichick is still a member of the 2018 team. Coach defensive linebacker / defender Brian Flores and cornerback coach Josh Boyer go to the Miami Dolphins. Defensive line coach Brendan Daly is reportedly addressing the Kansas City Chiefs. Training assistants like DeMarcus Covington, Mike Pellegrino and possibly Brian Belichick will have to take their place. The Patriots are also hiring Greg Schiano as defensive coordinator.
Given that there is so much movement in the coaching staff, it should now be considered essential to retain as many defensive players as possible in the 2018 unit that hampered the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII, keeping the heavyweight offense in just three points.
The most important free agent is defensive end Trey Flowers. If the Patriots re-sign Flowers, he will probably take most of his $ 18 million available in the salary cap room. The Patriots have shown willingness to pay for crucial defensive players in the past when they re-signed defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, savior Devin McCourty and linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Given its position, the flowers will probably be more expensive than the players of the past.
Other defensive contributors heading for free agency are defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton, cornerback Jason McCourty and defensive end John Simon. It should not be too difficult to re-sign any of those four players. It seems more likely that McCourty and Simon were back than Brown or Shelton.
The Patriots also have decisions to make about Hightower and Devin McCourty this offseason. Hightower is expected to reach a salary cap of $ 10,945,305. The Patriots could release almost $ 6 million by cutting it or exchanging it. McCourty is ready to assume a salary cap of $ 13,435,000. The Patriots could release $ 9.5 million in the capitalization space by trimming or swapping it.
Both players ended up having solid 2018 seasons.
Hightower was not the same game maker he had had in previous years, until the Super Bowl when he had two sacks. But he played 15 regular-season games for the second time in his career in the NFL. He increased the pressure at high speed and showed great positional versatility, capable of playing as an internal and external linebacker as linebacker. He saved his best postseason football when he had 16 pressures in just 80 quick passes for a 20 percent pressure rate.
McCourty had a tough run in weeks 5 and 6 when he allowed four touchdowns in two games, but otherwise had a very strong season. He allowed only one 10-yard reception in three postseason games. It was the fifth classified of Pro Football Focus in free security in 2018.
In an ideal world, the Patriots would get Hightower and McCourty to agree to pay the cuts or convince them to convert the base wage into money earned from incentives not likely to be earned. But even if they can not come to that agreement, it might be worth it to keep both players close to what they do on and off the field. Hightower is one of the best communicators of the defense, and his work with younger and less experienced players helped the Patriots defend their first struggles. McCourty is versatile and adaptable, and is the Patriots' primary high school communicator who can completely change identities on a dime.
The Patriots also have other means to open the space for the caps. Cutting tight end Dwayne Allen would free $ 7,306,250. Cutting defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who was a healthy scratch in two games this season, would open another $ 3.9 million. If tight end Rob Gronkowski retires, those are another $ 9 million in capitalization space. Field quarterback Tom Brady has a cap of $ 27 million that would be reduced considerably with a contract extension.
Even the simple act of cutting Allen and Clayborn would mean the Patriots could enter the off-season with almost $ 30 million in maximum space.
The Patriots usually like to be a year too early instead of a year too late to let the players lose. But with Flores, Boyer and Daly missing, the Patriots may need the leadership of McCourty and Hightower as much as their game on the field.
Photo in miniature through Brett Davis / USA TODAY Sports images