The New England Patriots likely will look very different when they take the field for Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season.
The Super Bowl LI champs have some tough roster decisions to tackle in the coming weeks, as nearly two dozen of their current players are set to hit free agency when the league year opens March 9.
In this two-part series, we examine the pros and cons of keeping each player.
This is Part 2. To read Part 1, click here.
Safety Duron Harmon
Pros: Harmon was on the field more than most third safeties this season, with coach Bill Belichick frequently using him alongside Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung in the Patriots’ “big nickel” package. He’s been a solid player throughout his four years in New England and has a history of making victory-sealing interceptions late in games.
Cons: He won’t unseat McCourty or Chung to become a true starter, and if another team is willing to pay him like one, the Patriots might need to let him walk.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower
Pros: Hightower is the unquestioned leader of the Patriots’ defense and — as our own Doug Kyed detailed last week — should be the team’s No. 1 priority in free agency. He earned Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors for the first time this season, and his strip sack of Matt Ryan helped swing momentum in New England’s favor in Super Bowl.
Cons: After seeing the contract former teammate Jamie Collins landed last month, keeping Hightower won’t be cheap. Collins signed a four-year, $50 million extension with the Cleveland Browns, and Hightower’s next deal should be even more lucrative. Injuries also are a concern with Hightower, who’s missed 11 games over the last three seasons and hasn’t played a full 16 since 2013.
Defensive end Chris Long
Pros: Despite his modest sack total, Long enjoyed a solid bounce-back season in his first year with the Patriots, playing in all 16 games for the first time since 2013 and starting seven. Some of his most important contributions — like the key hold he drew in Super Bowl — didn’t show up on the stat sheet.
Cons: The Patriots need to bolster their pass rush this spring and summer, and Long, who turns 32 next month and had just four sacks this season, might not fit into the team’s future plans.
Linebacker Barkevious Mingo
Pros: Only Nate Ebner played more special-teams snaps than Mingo this season, the linebacker’s first in New England.
Cons: That’s about all he did. After an eye-popping Patriots debut in the team’s final preseason game, Mingo played just 47 defensive snaps all season, with most of those coming in garbage time.
Cornerback Logan Ryan
Pros: The Patriots’ No. 2 corner behind Malcolm Butler for much of the season, Ryan is a tackling machine with a track record of shutting down some of the NFL’s top wide receivers (see: Hopkins, DeAndre and Thomas, Demaryius).
Cons: Ryan still battles inconsistency at times, and as we mentioned with Butler, teams have a tendency to overpay free-agent cornerbacks. If salary demands force the Patriots to choose between the two, they’ll likely go with Butler, who’s emerged as one of the NFL’s best corners over the past two seasons.
Tight end Greg Scruggs
Pros: Hard to say. Scruggs, who entered the league as a defensive end, went down with a knee injury two weeks after signing with the Patriots in early October and was placed on injured reserve before he could make his New England debut.
Cons: While he’s spent nearly an entire season in the Pats’ system, he’s never caught a pass in his NFL career.
Defensive end Jabaal Sheard
Pros: Sheard’s Patriots tenure hit rock bottom when he was a healthy scratch for a Week 11 game in San Francisco. But to his credit, he responded well following that benching and quietly put together a strong second half of the season as a backup.
Cons: This season was a clear step back from Sheard’s 2015 campaign when he tallied a career-high eight sacks. At 27, he’s younger and more versatile than Long, but the Patriots still could choose to go in a different direction as they look to shake up their unspectacular pass rush.
** The Patriots also have four exclusive-rights free agents in cornerback Justin Coleman, special teamer Brandon King, defensive end Geneo Grissom and tight end Matt Lengel. If the team extends a tender to one of these players, he must accept it.
Thumbnail photo via Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports Images
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