Casual New England Patriots fans likely aren’t too familiar with the five free agents their team reportedly agreed to contracts with on Thursday. So, here’s a brief introduction to each:
BRUCE ELLINGTON, WIDE RECEIVER
After failing to land the likes of Adam Humphries, Cole Beasley and Golden Tate, the Patriots instead settled for two bargain-bin slot receivers.
Bill Belichick and Co. know Ellington well from his time with the Houston Texans. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound wideout played against the Patriots three times during the 2017 and 2018 seasons and was reasonably productive in each matchup, posting 4-59-1, 4-93-0 and 4-37-1 stat lines. Ellington also participated in joint practice with the Pats during the 2017 preseason, and Texans coach Bill O’Brien runs an offense similar to the one Josh McDaniels commands in New England.
Ellington, who turns 28 this summer, lined up in the slot on 59.3 percent of his offensive snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus, so he has some positional versatility. He also served as the San Francisco 49ers’ primary return man early in his career and could fill the void left by the departure of second-team All-Pro kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson.
The return game wasn’t a focus of Ellington’s during his stints in Houston and Detroit, however. He’s returned just nine punts and zero kickoffs over the last two seasons.
The biggest knock on Ellington is his health, particularly as it pertains to his hamstring. In 2016, he had one of the three muscles that make up his left hamstring surgically removed after an unusual preseason injury, and he landed on injured reserve twice last season due to hamstring issues.
These injuries might have sapped Ellington of some of his explosiveness. Though he led all Lions receivers with 23 catches during his brief four-game stint with Matt Patricia’s club late in 2018 — when he replaced Tate as the team’s top slot option — he averaged a paltry 5.7 yards per reception.
MAURICE HARRIS, WIDE RECEIVER
Harris, who spent the last three seasons in Washington, hit the open market after the Redskins declined to tender him as a restricted free agent. The 26-year-old plays a similar position to Ellington (47.8 percent of snaps in the slot in 2018) but is six inches taller, measuring in at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds.
An injury to Jamison Crowder last season resulted in a massive uptick in playing time for Harris, who ranked second among Redskins wideouts with 462 offensive snaps after playing just 130 as an undrafted rookie in 2016 and 76 in 2017.
Harris wasn’t a consistent contributor in Washington, but he did have one monster game, racking up 10 catches on 12 targets for 124 yards in a blowout loss to the Atlanta Falcons. That one outing accounted for 25 percent of Harris’ career receptions and 28.7 percent of his receiving yards.
Harris’ 59.6 percent catch rate last season was below average, but his hands are one of his greatest attributes. Pro Football Focus has him down for just one drop in 61 career targets. And you probably saw highlights of the one-handed touchdown catch he had two years ago.
Belichick and the Patriots also watched Harris catch two passes against Stephon Gilmore and haul in a short touchdown grab during the Redskins’ preseason visit to Gillette Stadium last summer.
Neither Harris nor Ellington will be guaranteed a roster spot this summer, and at this point, it’s unlikely both will be on the team come Week 1.
MIKE PENNEL, DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Of these five additions, Pennel has the best chance of playing a significant role in 2019. At 6-foot-4, 332 pounds, he’s a space-eating, two-gapping D-tackle who should slide into the spot formerly occupied by Malcom Brown, who signed with the New Orleans Saints this week.
The former New York Jet won’t provide much pass rush (one sack in five NFL seasons), but he’s the type of solid run-stuffer the Patriots need in the interior of their defensive line. Pennel was Pro Football Focus’ second-highest-graded interior defender in the AFC East last season behind new teammate Lawrence Guy.
The addition of Pennel likely isn’t the final move the Patriots will make at D-tackle. They still could re-sign Danny Shelton, who has yet to find a new home, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them tap into this year’s highly regarded draft class at the position.
TERRENCE BROOKS, SAFETY
Don’t expect Brooks to help much on defense — he hasn’t played more than 10 percent of defensive snaps since his rookie year in 2014 — but, like fellow free agent acquisition Brandon Bolden, he should play a key role in the kicking game assuming he makes the 53-man roster. In his final season with the New York Jets, the 27-year-old Florida State product led the entire NFL in special teams snaps played (392).
Injuries in the Jets’ secondary occasionally pressed Brooks into defensive duty. In an early-season win over the Miami Dolphins in 2017, he played 30 snaps at safety, intercepted two passes (including one on a fake punt), broke up another and tallied a quarterback hit.
All 69 of Brooks’ defensive snaps in 2018 came during a two-week span in which starting safety Marcus Maye was sidelined.
Brooks’ role in New York was similar to the one Nate Ebner — another special teams-focused safety — plays in New England. The two could find themselves fighting for one roster spot this summer.
MATT LACOSSE, TIGHT END
The Patriots needed help at tight end regardless of what Rob Gronkowski decides to do this offseason, and bringing LaCosse aboard was a good place to start.
The 26-year-old Illinois product steadily moved up the Denver Broncos’ depth chart over the course of last season, beginning as the team’s No. 3 tight end behind Jeff Heuerman and Jake Butt and finishing as the starter after Heuerman and Butt both went down with injuries. After playing in just seven games and catching three passes over his first three NFL seasons (one of which was lost to injury), he tallied 24 receptions for 250 yards and a touchdown in 2018.
At 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, LaCosse is considerably larger than Jacob Hollister (6-4, 245) or Stephen Anderson (6-2, 230) and similar in stature to Ryan Izzo (6-5, 255). Despite this, he’s not a great blocker and probably won’t be able to replicate the value Dwayne Allen (now with the Dolphins) brought in that area last season.
The Patriots likely aren’t done adding at tight end. Look for them to address this need in the draft, as well.
Thumbnail photo via Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports Images
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