As all sports fans know, the New England Patriots have been on an unprecedented run of success since the turn of the century.
This nearly two-decade run of Patriots dominance includes 12 AFC East titles, six AFC Championships and of course, four Super Bowl rings. Under the helm of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Pats have entered each season since 2000 as legitimate playoff and even Super Bowl contenders. However, looking ahead to the Patriots future, this upcoming 2016-17 campaign may be one of the most important seasons in Patriot’s history.
One of the beauties of being a Patriots fan was being able to positively look ahead to the upcoming year. Whether the year ended with the team hosting the Lombardi Trophy or coming up short, the future was always bright. Pats fans, and football fans in general, knew that New England would be right back in a similar position the upcoming season. However, looking at the team’s position for the future right know, this expected notion may not hold true for much longer.
As the Patriots have been moderately successful when it comings to drafting, they were able to lock up high caliber players to lengthy rookie deals or under market value second-tier deals. However, a lot of these players are now upcoming free agents and they will be looking to get paid.
Following this 2016-17 season, the team has a laundry list of free agents that are essential to the team’s current success. These players include Malcolm Butler, Sebastian Vollmer, Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Jabaal Sheard, Donta Hightower, Matthew Slater and Rob Ninkovich. Not to mention newly acquired players Martellus Bennett and Jonathan Cooper who are poised to have impactful seasons are also due up for free agency after this season. Long story short, the team has a lot of work to do and a lot of important decisions to make.
Now, the good news. The team’s front office isn’t dumb and have obviously planned for this overload of free agents in this specific year. Due to this, they restructured and planned contracts accordingly. They will be in a very comfortable spot when it comes to the salary cap, currently positioned to have $63,201,670 in cap space, the third highest in the league. So, the team will have money to spend, it just comes down to who to spend it on.
Naturally, the three players that jump out at you are Butler, Collins and Hightower. Three pro-bowl caliber players not even in the prime of their careers whose market value will be pretty lofty. Keeping a young defensive core should be a top priority for the Pat’s, as elite defensive backs and linebackers are hard to come by. As said, the team has put themselves in the position to be able to afford their top players, but the question remains, will they?
As fans have seen in the past, Belichick has not been able to watch young talent leave town and has never been the type of person to put one player before the overall team. The team often prefers extended cap space to spread around multiple players, rather than focus it on one or two. We’ve seen a number of former Patriots fall victim to this method such as Willie McGinest, Asante Samuel, Adam Vinatieri, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy and Wes Welker.
As the list of players mentioned above is fairly long, it is doubtful that the Patriots will bring back all of them. As minicamp is underway and the regular season is right around the corner, we should soon see who the team’s priorities are. Before opening day kicks off, expect to see a handful of those players offered extensions, a clear sign of building for the future. However, for those who are not extended or fail to reach any type of agreement prior to the regular season, it is a mortal lock that those players will hit free agency.
With a fairly large cloud of uncertainty over the team’s head going forward, this 2016-17 season could be the last season for the foreseeable future where the Patriots are undoubtedly one of the best rosters in football. This isn’t saying the team will suddenly fall off after this year, far from. They will still be a good team with legitimate playoff aspirations. However, this year’s roster, which may be even better than last year’s, is without question one of the best in football.
With a large, talented free agency class looming, the team needs to make the most out of this current squad while it is still intact.