The official start to the NFL’s new league year begins at 4:00 p.m. EST on March 13, 2019, and thus starts this season’s free agency period.
The Patriots have several positions that could use an upgrade through free agency, but the pass rushers may be most important of them all. While New England’s defensive strategy doesn’t revolve around pass rushers getting to the quarterback on every play, they certainly don’t want to end next season tied for the second-fewest sacks in the NFL, as they did in 2018.
One of the top pass rushers headed to free agency is the Patriots’ own Trey Flowers. Re-signing Flowers should and will be New England’s top priority this offseason. He is an integral part of the Patriots as he leads the team in sacks this year and is already familiar in the Patriots’ system.
As it stands right now, New England is projected to have just under $20 million in cap money for 2019. Signing Flowers, or any other pass rusher looking for big money, will be hard to do, but not impossible.
The talent of the top defensive linemen in this year’s free agent crop is tremendously deep. Some of the best players at their position are looking for long-term contracts that will pay them lots of cash. Many of these men will likely be re-signed or will have the franchise tag placed on them, but let’s not worry about that right now.
This is more of a wish-list for the Patriots if every player available for free agency actually hits the open market. The list will start at the highest priority for the Patriots and descend towards guys that have a more realistic chance to end up on New England’s roster.
Lawrence is largely considered the top free agent in this year’s pool of available players. This man is a handful for any offensive lineman and nearly impossible to shut down on a consistent basis. He has solidified himself as one of the game’s top pass rushers as he’s tallied 25 sacks over the past two seasons, which is the fourth-most over that span. According to Next Gen Stats, his 108 pressures in the past two seasons are the sixth-most in the NFL. Pro Football Focus had him rated as the ninth-best pass rusher with a grade of 84.5. His 16.6 percent pass-rush win percentage was the 15th-best in the league, according to PFF.
Lawrence was already playing on a franchise tag so it would cost the Cowboys a pretty penny to tag him for the second straight season. This may be what lands him on the open market where the Patriots can lure him away with promises of Super Bowl rings in his future.
The former No. 1 overall pick from the 2014 NFL Draft hits the market coming off solid performances over the past couple of seasons. He has been selected to three straight Pro Bowls and has had at least nine sacks in each of the past two years. He is a freakish athlete that has a set of unorthodox moves that he uses to consistently put pressure on the quarterback. He also has the wits to instantly diagnose plays and lightning quick speed to fill the gaps in the run game.
When Clowney is healthy, he has the potential to be one of the best pass rushers in the game today. If he hadn’t missed 17 games during his short career, he could be worth somewhere near Khalil Mack’s $23 million that he received from the Chicago Bears. Maybe there’s a chance New England can get him to sign a team friendly deal since he hasn’t proven to be very durable throughout his rookie contract.
Frank Clark has been groomed within the vicious Seattle defense to become one of the games top defensive line prospects to hit free agency. Clark had his best performance of his young career and will be demanding top dollar in the open market. 2018 was by far his best season to date as he set career highs in sacks (13), solo tackles (33), and quarterback hits (27). He even recorded his first career interception this past season.
Clark had a 17.4 percent pass-rush win percentage which was 11th-best in the NFL, per PFF. It’s worth noting that this was four spots higher than Lawrence. His overall pass-rush grade by Pro Football Focus was 75.2, which was the 19-highest this season.
He has room to grow, but Clark has proven he has the potential to be a cornerstone for whatever defense he starts for next season.
Ford couldn’t have picked a better season to put up the best numbers of his career. He went into the final year of his rookie contract coming off of a 2017 campaign in which he was riddled with injuries. Ford set career highs for sacks (13), tackles for loss (13), and solo tackles (42). He also had 29 quarterback hits which tied him for the fourth-most in 2018. The combination of Justin Houston and Dee Ford was the most effective pass-rushing duo, according to Next Gen Stats, with 118 total pressures.
One of his most impressive achievements of 2018 was earning the league’s highest Pro Football Focus pass-rush grade with a score of 91.0. He also had the highest total pressure count (86) amongst qualified edge rushers.
He is a force to be reckoned with on the edge, whether he lines up at defensive end or linebacker, and at 27 years old he is well worth every penny he’s going to get this offseason.
Za’Darius Smith will be a candidate that the Patriots would be able to afford and use effectively if he actually makes it to the open market. He’s a powerful and explosive player that uses his 6-foot-4 frame to get into the defenders’ faces on his way the quarterback. He’s also very versatile as the Ravens lined him up at defensive end, defensive tackle, and linebacker throughout the season.
The Ravens will be making a strong push to retain Smith after he put up the best numbers of his career thus far. Much like the other top free agents, Smith took advantage of his contract season and had eight-and-a-half sacks, 45 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and 25 quarterback hits in 2018.
Pro Football Focus has him listed as their most under-the-radar free agent out of all players available in free agency. This bodes well for the New England’s chances of snagging him at a price befitting of Bill Belichick.
Dante Fowler Jr.
Dante Fowler Jr. is an incredibly talented player that failed to live up to the expectations that came with being drafted third overall in the 2015 draft. His career got off to a rocky start after he tore his ACL during rookie mini-camp causing him to miss his entire rookie season. He returned to the field in 2016 to appear in all 16 games but did not put up the numbers that the Jaguars were expecting. He only had 23 tackles on the season and added four sacks. The following season was his best to date as he doubled his sack total to eight and finally looked as if he was living up to his potential.
He started this season off with a suspension for violating the league’s conduct policy and was also suspended for a week in the preseason. His off-the-field antics and performance on the field lead to the Jaguars reducing his playtime. The Jaguars have a stacked defensive front so Fowler Jr. was reduced to just 32 percent of the snaps this past season. A change of scenery was just what he needed when the Rams traded for Fowler just ahead of this year’s trade deadline with the hopes they could tap into the raw talent he possesses.
Fowler seems like a perfect reclamation project for the Patriots, especially since he is only 25 years old. He should also come at a massive discount compared to the other pass rushers on the market. New England is a perfect place for this young talent to get his career back on track.