When a franchise is as successful over a long period of time as the New England Patriots have been since the turn of the century, one player is often regarded as the most valuable. Like Wayne Gretzky with the Edmonton Oilers in the 80s or Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls in the 90s, Tom Brady has been the unequivocal leader of the Patriots’ franchise over the last 20 years. But while these players get a bulk of the credit for the on-field success of their respective teams, these dynasties would not be possible without an outstanding supporting cast.
Year in and year out, Bill Belichick and the front office has provided the fans with a Super Bowl-contending team, with a top-10 offense and/or defense (in terms of points) each year since 2001, according to Pro Football Reference. In those years, both the offense and the defense has ranked first in the league three times (2007, 2010, and 2012 for offense; 2003, 2016, 2019 for defense). Out of the six Super Bowl titles, two have come with a #1 ranked defense while none have come with a #1 ranked defense. This goes to show that, although Brady has been incredible over this run, his supporting cast on both offense and defense has allowed for the team’s sustainable success.
Brady’s pending free agency has been the cause of a lot of speculation regarding the quarterback’s future. Some have predicted that it makes too much sense for him to stay, while others have suggested that signs are pointing towards him leaving. But while locking up the greatest quarterback of all time is certainly a priority for the Patriots, it would be ignorant to ignore the potential of losing other key free agents. Among the 17 unrestricted free agents ready to hit the open market on March 18, here are five free agents that the Patriots could potentially lose that aren’t named Tom Brady:
1. Devin McCourty
The longest tenured defensive player on the Patriots, Devin McCourty has been a staple in the defensive backfield since he was drafted in 2010. McCourty has floated from corner to safety and has been a versatile weapon throughout his career. On top of playing around 95% of the defensive snaps throughout his career, he has also contributed on special teams as a returner and a coverage man. He gave much consideration to retirement following the Super Bowl LIII victory, but ultimately decided to return. There was not much of a decline in his performance in 2019, as he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Month for September after recording four interceptions, albeit against subpar quarterbacks. If McCourty decides to lace ‘em up for another year, it would certainly be a strange sight to see him in anything but a Patriots uniform.
2. Matthew Slater
It is not common that a special teams player would rank as a key free agent, but that goes to show just how valuable Matthew Slater has been over his career. An 8x Pro-Bowler and 3x Super-Bowl champion, Slater has put together a borderline Hall of Fame career as a special teams return man. Slater has shown a willingness to test free agency in the past, meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers before the 2018 season. At 34-years-old, it remains to be seen whether Slater will retire or keep playing. Like McCourty, shall he return, the Patriots should do everything in their power to resign their special teams captain and ensure that he retires a Patriot.
3. Joe Thuney
The only offensive player on this list, Joe Thuney has emerged as one of the premier guards in the NFL over the last couple seasons. Paired with Shaq Mason at guard, the duo has been among the best in the league. Thuney is bound to get paid this offseason, coming off a season in which he was named to the All-Pro Second Team for the first time in his career. He has started in every single game, playoffs included, since he was drafted in 2016. Although much easier to replace an interior lineman as opposed to a tackle, locking up Thuney long-term would be beneficial to the development of Sony Michel and the protection of Tom Brady should they choose to resign him.
4. Kyle Van Noy
The Patriots had the #1 ranked defense in the NFL this past season, which would not have been possible without the stellar play of Kyle Van Noy. Since coming over from the Lions in 2016, Van Noy has seen his role increase steadily each year. He has racked up two Super Bowl wins during his Patriots tenure, capped off with a stellar performance in Super Bowl LIII. Van Noy finished his 2019 campaign with a career-high 6.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. On top of play on the field, his off-field contributions have been equally as impressive. He is currently a finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year, which acknowledges his community service that he does through his Van Noy Valor Foundation. As his value has increased over the past few seasons, it is hard to imagine the Patriots will pay the fan-favorite what he is looking for and will likely look elsewhere for that money.
5. Jamie Collins
In his second stint with the Patriots, Jamie Collins has shown flashes of his old self after two and a half disappointing seasons in Cleveland. He finished this season with a career-high in sacks with 7 and interceptions with 3, including one returned for a touchdown. He has showed again his ability to succeed in the Patriots’ defensive system. His inability to perform to this level in Cleveland might prove that he is fit more so for a system like New England, making a reunion with Brian Flores in Miami or Matt Patricia in Detroit an interesting idea. Otherwise, his big season has him in line for a big payday, one that the Patriots may not be willing to match.
Honorable Mentions: LB/FB Elandon Roberts, ST Nate Ebner, WR Phillip Dorsett, DT Danny Shelton
Photo: Ron Schwane/AP Photo