FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There are two distinct storylines surrounding the New England Patriots' activity since free agency began in mid-March.
There's Tom Brady. And then all the other departures.
Added together, it's been a tidal wave that has resulted in some viewing the Patriots as a team in the midst of a major rebuild. Others (hand raised here) see it as something closer to business as usual -- as long as we differentiate between Brady and everyone else.
Patriots 2020 free agency:— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) March 25, 2020
🏈In: DT Allen, WR Byrd, OLB Copeland, S C. Davis, QB Hoyer, S Phillips, FB Vitale
🏈Re-sign: D. McCourty, J. McCourty, Slater, Thuney, K. Davis, Calhoun
🏈Out: Brady, Collins, Dorsett, Ebner, Gostkowski, Harmon, Karras, Roberts, Shelton, Van Noy
The separation with Brady, who signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, could obviously backfire on the Patriots. Can New England possibly be better without him? It's a question that will linger until the games are actually played.
As for the rest of the Patriots' decisions, if you break them down from the perspective of coach Bill Belichick and the franchise, it's not a big departure from New England's norm.
Dolphins beef up defense with Van Noy
Adam Schefter explains how the Dolphins are continuing to pool resources to acquire quality talent like Kyle Van Noy.
Kyle Van Noy, linebacker
New team/terms: Miami Dolphins/4 years, $51 million
Patriots' view: Acquiring him and a seventh-round pick in 2016 in exchange for a sixth-round pick serves as a reminder of how the Patriots do a solid job identifying undervalued assets on the market and bringing out the best in them. This isn't to slight Van Noy, who still had to perform, but after 3½ years of him building up his value, there seemed to be a feeling on both sides of this negotiation that it was time to move on.
Who steps in: Chase Winovich, the 2019 third-round pick from Michigan, now has a chance to elevate from a sub-package player to a full-time role. He showed promise as a rookie and had been a regular at Gillette Stadium this offseason (prior to the facilities being closed during the coronavirus pandemic), which is a reflection, in part, of his professional approach. Successful teams feed their pipeline with solid drafting and developing, and the Patriots need Winovich to come through for them.
Elandon Roberts, linebacker
New team/terms: Dolphins/1 year, $2 million
Patriots' view: Roberts had a niche role on defense last season, playing sparingly in run-based situations. He filled in admirably as an emergency fullback, and also in a leadership role as a captain, but wasn't a big factor on special teams. There is always a place on a roster for a player like that, but in this case, there is also an acknowledgement that the player himself might want a fresh start.
Who steps in: Roberts was a sixth-round pick in 2016, and it wouldn't be a surprise if the Patriots draft a linebacker this year as well. Practice-squad linebacker Terez Hall shouldn't be overlooked as an option in this type of niche role; assistant coach Jerod Mayo has worked closely with him.
Phillip Dorsett, wide receiver
New team/terms: Seattle Seahawks/1 year
Patriots' view: Dorsett served the Patriots well as a No. 3-5 option and solid locker room presence the past three seasons, but with limited value on special teams as a returner, there was a chance to upgrade. Damiere Byrd, if he performs up to expectations, should do that as a cross between Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson.
Who steps in: Byrd.
Ted Karras, center
New team/terms: Dolphins/1 year, $4 million
Patriots' view: Karras would have been ideal to have back as a top backup center/guard, which is why he was offered a two-year deal that had a higher total value than what Karras ultimately signed for in Miami. But this decision was more about what Karras wanted: an opportunity to start. He'll get that with the Dolphins, whereas that wasn't available to him in New England with center David Andrews (optimistic about his return) and guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason on the depth chart.
Who steps in: Ideally it will be Hjalte Froholdt, the 2019 fourth-round pick from Arkansas who spent his rookie season on injured reserve. Karras joined the Patriots as a sixth-round pick in 2016, so a goal will be to find a similar prospect this year. Najee Toran, who spent last season on the practice squad, is a sleeper candidate. James Ferentz could also be back.
Jamie Collins, linebacker
New team/terms: Detroit Lions/3 years, $30 million
Patriots' view: Similar to Van Noy in 2016, Collins arrived in New England as an undervalued asset on the market (one year, base value of $1.05 million, with $250,000 guaranteed) and rebuilt his value with a solid season to cash in. Would it have been nice to have him back in 2020? Absolutely. But $10 million per season is way out of the ballpark for a player who has performed his best when there has been a carrot in front of him to chase.
Who steps in: Hello, Ja'Whaun Bentley (2018 fifth-round pick), your time to shine is now. This is also a high-need position in the draft.
Nate Ebner, safety
New team/terms: New York Giants/1 year, $2 million (fully guaranteed)
Patriots' view: A valuable core special-teamer who didn't factor in any defensive packages, Ebner is 31, and a fully guaranteed $2 million is a bit rich -- especially at a time when the Patriots finished 2019 as the oldest team in the NFL, and with the most players age 30 or older (with 17).
Who steps in: Ideally, free-agent signing Adrian Phillips can provide double bang for the buck -- more value on defense and a similar special-teams presence. If it's a one-for-one exchange of solely core special-teamers, free-agent Cody Davis is a candidate at a $1.5 million cap charge. Terrence Brooks, who is already on the roster, is another.
Duron Harmon, safety
New team/terms: Lions/final year of contract at $3.5 million
Patriots' view: He was a steadying presence in the locker room, and an intelligent player in a No. 3 safety role, but trading Harmon provided much-needed salary-cap relief. Given his limited contributions on special teams, and since he wasn't a big part of all defensive game plans (e.g., two snaps vs. Chiefs in the 2018 AFC title game), this is a spot that could potentially be filled in a more cost-effective manner.
Who steps in: Phillips, the free-agent signing from the Chargers, is almost like a combination of Ebner and Harmon in terms of filling two roles with one roster spot. Phillips has a different playing style than Harmon, however (less likely to be a center-field type and more suited for a linebacker-type role). Obi Melifonwu and 2019 undrafted free agent Malik Gant are among those also warranting a mention.
Stephen Gostkowski, place-kicker
New team/terms: Unsigned
Patriots' view: Gostkowski, 36, is coming off left hip surgery that limited him to four games in 2019. Gostkowski's base salary was jumping from $1.1 million in 2019 to $3.5 million in 2020. With the Patriots tight to the salary cap, this seemed to be a budget-based decision in an offseason in which there has been an infusion of youth to the NFL's oldest roster.
Who steps in: Similar to when the Patriots selected Gostkowski in the 2006 fourth round to replace Adam Vinatieri, an ideal scenario would be to follow a similar approach this year. Veteran Nick Folk is also an option as an experienced alternative.
Danny Shelton, defensive tackle
New team/terms: Lions/2 years, $8 million
Patriots' view: A valuable nose tackle who would have been nice to have back. The sides engaged in negotiations to make that a possibility, with Shelton having put himself in a nice position after signing a modest one-year, $1 million deal with the Patriots last May. The Lions, it seems, pushed them to the brink of where they wanted to go.
Who steps in: Free-agent signing Beau Allen, whose two-year contract has a maximum value of $8 million but is structured in a more team-friendly fashion. The Patriots assume some risk in this situation, as Shelton is a known player who had nicely adapted to the techniques being taught, but Allen has more athletic upside. Shelton follows Van Noy and Collins as players who arrived in New England on modest deals and then cashed in on the open market, which reflects how the Patriots annually find those types of values -- and need to continue to do so.