It is no secret that Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots will have a lot of decisions to make this offseason.
Tom Brady is a free agent for the first time in his career. Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty, two players who have spent their entire 10-plus year careers in New England are also set to hit the open market. And edge linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins are in line for paydays after breakout seasons.
Not to mention Joe Thuney, whose name has appeared in the rumor mill lately with the buzz that he will become the highest-paid guard in the NFL this offseason.
While New England would love it if they could have all of these players back on their roster next season, the reality is that they may not have enough cap to get even two of these players back. If New England wants to keep some of the players listed above (while still remaining active on the open market), they will have to make some tough roster cuts to net cap space. Here are five players who could be sacrificial lambs this offseason.
Rex Burkhead, RB ($3,906,250 cap-hit in 2020)
When Burkhead came to New England in 2017, he was not well known around the league. However, in his time in New England, he’s developed a niche, serving as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and change-of-pace runner who can prove useful in nearly any situation of the game.
He was even the team’s goal line bell in their AFC Championship game victory in Kansas City two seasons ago, where he logged 41 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 12 attempts. He was a key component in New England’s efforts for a sixth title, and as a result, became a fan favorite.
2019, however, spelled a different narrative. Burkhead struggled to stay healthy, missing three games due to injury and losing touches to Sony Michel and James White as a result. The injuries were nothing new: Burkhead played in just 18 games combined in his first two seasons with the Patriots. If Burkhead were to be kept around in 2020, it’d make for a crowded backfield.
In addition to Burkhead, 2018 first-round pick Sony Michel, six-year veteran James White, key special teamer Brandon Bolden, fullbacks James Develin and Jakob Johnson, and 2019 third-round draft pick Damien Harris are all under contract for next season. Bottom line: that’s too many mouths to feed and too hefty a cap-hit for a potential third- or fourth-string running back in Burkhead.
Stephen Gostkowski, K ($4,887,500 cap-hit in 2020)
Patriot fans haven’t seen Gostkowski since he went to injured reserve with season-ending hip surgery in early October. This came after a rough four-week start to the season where the 14-year veteran missed four extra points, which was already a career-high.
Gostkowski, a fourth-round draft pick of the Patriots in 2006, wasn’t his best in his 2016 and 2018 campaigns either, so the kicking woes were a continuing trend in 2019.
After his injury, the Patriots saw two new kickers (Mike Nugent and Nick Folk), replace Gostkowski for the first time since 2010. While Nugent struggled, Folk was a fair replacement for the reliable Gostkowski, only missing three field goals in 17 tries and going a perfect twelve-for-twelve on extra-point attempts.
But what doesn’t show up on the stat sheet is trust, and that was something that Belichick rarely invested in Folk in 2019. The team attempted fifteen fourth-down conversions, the most since their 2009 campaign, and only converted on four of them.
Belichick didn’t trust Folk (or Nugent) to take 50-plus yard field goals, they combined for just one attempt all season, by far the lowest since Belichick came to New England in 2000.
This is relevant to Gostkowski because it shows he is still the only kicker Belichick trusts, making it likely he’ll be back in 2020.
What should be expected is to either bring back Folk or add a kicker through the draft to at the very least, make a competition for Gostkowski’s kicking job. If Gostkowski is released, it likely wouldn’t come until the end of the preseason, and even that doesn’t appear likely at this time.
Patrick Chung, S ($6,058,333 cap-hit in 2020)
Chung made headlines for all of the wrong reasons last offseason when he was busted on cocaine charges, and since then, his play on the field took a noticeable hit, and as a result, so did his reps.
The past two seasons have been injury-riddled for Chung, as he played just 13 games (and started 12) in 2019.
He failed to produce a turnover for the first time in his 11-year career, and he was given an overall grade of 54.8 by Pro Football Focus, his lowest among his 10 years in New England.
This came in a smaller sample size than seen in previous years for Chung, the 32-year-old was on the field for 64 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in the games he did appear in, by far his lowest since he returned to New England in 2014. The main point: his body appears to be breaking down, and his coverage skills declined in 2019.
Chung could serve as the sacrificial lamb for Devin McCourty, who is set for a big payday on the open market after his play didn’t skip a beat in 2019. While it’s always tough parting with long time veterans, carrying Chung’s $6-plus million cap-hit into 2020 seems avoidable.
Mohamed Sanu, WR, ($6,500,000 cap-hit in 2020)
Patriot fans had high hopes for Sanu when the team acquired him in exchange for a second-round pick from the Atlanta Falcons before the Week 8 trade deadline this season.
Those expectations, however, were not met with appropriate production. After a strong performance in his team debut against the Baltimore Ravens, Sanu suffered a high-ankle sprain and never rediscovered his rhythm with Tom Brady.
Sanu was the source of agony for many Patriot fans in 2019, who hauled in just 55 percent of his targets, averaged just three catches and 25 yards-per-game, and only saw 29 percent of his catches result in first downs –– all career-lows.
But let’s remember this: there was no single receiver who stood out from the pack in the second half of the season, and Sanu went from a third or fourth option in Atlanta to the second option in New England.
A major reason why Belichick brought Sanu in at the deadline was that he had an extra year of team control, that’s why the team surrendered a second-round pick rather than the third-round pick most teams give up for rentals.
If Sanu struggles again in 2020, it’s just a bad contract, but giving up on him now is waving the white flag on a trade that nearly every Patriot fan looks back on with regret; and there’s time to change that.
Dont’a Hightower, LB ($12,445,313 cap-hit in 2020)
This one has less to do with his performance. Hightower is very much still an important leader for the defense, and while he’s battled injuries for a few years now, his production on the field still very much fits the bill.
In 2019, the 29-year-old racked up 71 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and four pass deflections –– all highs within the last five seasons (some even career-highs).
The problem? Hightower carries the second-highest cap-hit on the team, trailing only the reigning-defensive player of the year in Stephon Gilmore. This feels more like a situation where a trade would suffice, it would be a tough pill to swallow to lose Hightower for the sheer purpose of opening cap space.
Some sources reported earlier this offseason that Hightower could be on the move so the team could bring back Tom Brady and vamp up a stagnant Patriot offense, but rumors have swirled as well that directly contradicts that.
New England has $41 million in cap space, surely enough to bring back Brady and potentially one of the team’s other free agents.
There are certainly arguments to be made for both sides, but what the team needs to decide is whether or not they are willing to sacrifice Hightower in exchange for the return of key defensive players or an improved offense in 2020.