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Patriots create questions in NFL free agency but find all the right answers

Some think New England's losses in 2018 NFL free agency are signs of the dynasty's demise. But look closer, SN's Vinnie Iyer writes. The Patriots simply are practicing patience over panic.

The demise of the Patriots has been exaggerated on several occasions before 2018, so what's wrong with writing off New England for yet another NFL offseason?

Everything.

The Patriots, fresh off losing Super Bowl 52, have lost some luster in NFL free agency. Cornerback Malcolm Butler, running back Dion Lewis and left tackle Nate Solder all cashed in with big contracts elsewhere. Two more offensive tackles, Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle, haven't been re-signed. Wide receiver Danny Amendola, a longtime fan favorite, is gone — to a division rival in Miami, no less.

But as usual, the Patriots have practiced patience, not panic. Well before the end of the offseason and with the 2018 NFL Draft still at their disposal, their retaining and gaining outweigh their losing.

NFL FREE AGENCY 2018:
Winners, losers of open market

The best part: Coach Bill Belichick and New England created their own open market by making two big trades with Cleveland, one for defensive tackle Danny Shelton and another for cornerback Jason McCourty. New England also made an underrated trade with Oakland for wide receiver/special teamer Cordarrelle Patterson.

Subtracting and adding it all, here are the answers to all the key questions about the Patriots' offseason so far.

How much does losing Solder hurt Tom Brady?

This is the most significant hit the Patriots have taken in free agency. Although Solder did not have a great 2017 season in pass protection, he represented stability in front of Brady while excelling in run blocking. Between Matt Light and Solder, Brady has benefited from a steady presence at the most important position on the line.

While 37-year-old Eli Manning now gets the services of Solder in New York, Brady will turn 41 with an unknown quantity trying to keep the QB upright. The rest of the line, plus Brady continuing to get the ball out of his hands quickly, should help limit the damage.


If neither Fleming nor Waddle is re-signed, at least the Patriots know they will have stud right tackle Marcus Cannon returning from his ankle injury. While Fleming and Waddle filled in well for Cannon, guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason and center David Andrews performed at a level rivaled by few interior line combinations.

No team had more passing attempts than the Patriots with Brady last season (584), but the 84 QB hits and 35 sacks they allowed were better than more than half the league. The unit's success came as a whole; it wasn't tied to an individual.

With Solder entering his age-30 season after some decline, New England was smart not to pay more for him than any other left tackle in the league. New York was desperate to do so given the status of its line.

Whether it's 2017 third-rounder Antonio Garcia, free-agent pickup Matt Tobin or somebody else holding down the left side, the Patriots will get by, even with Brady taking a few more lumps.

And how about no longer having Amendola?

For now, with the younger Julian Edelman (32 to be) on the mend and Rob Gronkowski not retiring, the Patriots are fine without Amendola's receiving across the middle. They were looking at a crowded wideout group, anyway. Behind Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Phillip Dorsett and Kenny Britt all were in the mix, and that was before they acquired Patterson.

One can't blame the oft-injured Amendola for taking the money and running to the rival Dolphins for a good late-career deal (two years, $12 million). One also can't blame the Patriots for thinking they no longer needed him as slot insurance.


How much will losing Lewis hurt the running game?

The Patriots looked like they finally had a well-defined backfield once they added Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead last offseason. Gillislee was supposed to replace LeGarrette Blount as the power back, while the more-versatile Burkhead would be called upon in many different situations. James White and Lewis were set to split time as the passing-game backs.

Instead, Gillislee fizzled, Burkhead got hurt and White failed to build off his status as Super Bowl hero, allowing Lewis to emerge as a workhorse down the stretch. The Patriots were reminded that Lewis is a special, all-around talent, but his breakout also priced him out of New England. Burkhead was the cheaper and younger player to re-sign, while his former Bengals teammate, Jeremy Hill, was a sneaky-good signing to push Gillislee.

The Patriots still have 80 percent of their run-blocking back, and between Burkhead, Gillislee, Hill and White, they go into the season with healthy options.

Lewis was a luxury, but as with almost every running back who comes through New England, he was far from a necessity.

NFL FREE AGENCY 2018:
Grading all notable signings, trades

And how about no longer having Lewis in the return game?

Lewis' explosiveness as a kick returner seemed like it would be tougher to replace than his rushing production ... and then came the deal for Patterson, a perfect Swiss Army Knife of a player for the Patriots.

The two-time Pro Bowler's arrival turns a potentially big drop-off for New England's return game into a mild improvement.

But how about going from Butler to the other McCourty at corner?

Browns general manager John Dorsey gets an assist for what Belichick has been able to do for his defense, which just lost ace coordinator Matt Patricia to the Lions. If Dorsey had not gone after T.J. Carrie and Darmarious Randall to flank Jamar Taylor, then Jason McCourty would not have been available.

McCourty last May was a steal for a more cost-conscious Cleveland regime on his two-year, $6 million deal. When healthy last season, he ended up shutting down opponents' top receivers.


Communication and inconsistency were the issues that led to the Patriots secondary's rough start to 2017. McCourty joining his twin brother, free safety Devin, should accelerate his ability to get on the same page in the scheme. Jason's on-the-ball playmaking also is a good complement to No. 1 corner Stephon Gilmore. Because the Patriots saved big on McCourty as opposed to what they would have had to pay for Butler, they were able to extend and give a raise to strong safety Patrick Chung.

Jason McCourty was the best possible solution to fill the Butler void in the short term.

So how big was getting Shelton and then Adrian Clayborn?

The Eagles were the better team in Super Bowl 52 because they dominated both lines of scrimmage. They racked up 164 rushing yards while averaging six yards per carry. Quarterback Nick Foles saw little pressure and wasn't sacked in his MVP outing, having plenty of time to drop back and zip the ball downfield.

The Patriots' persistent problems against the run in 2017 were tied in part to their lack of a true nose tackle against stout interior blocking teams. Shelton (6-2, 335 pounds) is literally a massive upgrade over Lawrence Guy and Alan Branch. Shelton and Malcom Brown give New England a tougher 1-2 punch on early downs.

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Clayborn exploded with a career-high 9 1/2 sacks as a situational edge rusher for the Falcons last season, with six coming in one game against the Cowboys. The Patriots needed a savvy veteran with a variety of moves who can take better advantage of the attention Trey Flowers gets on the right side. Clayborn off the left edge has proved he can work over lesser right tackles.

In base 4-3 packages, Shelton and Clayborn bring balance to the forces of Brown and Flowers. Shelton and Clayborn are more specialized than typical Belichick defensive players, but they directly curb two weaknesses.

MORE: NFL Mock Draft 2018: Patriots get a steal for offensive line

The Patriots through their personnel changes are good at discovering strengths, which allows them to be laser-focused about personnel acquisition to maximize their spending. Belichick gets a ton of credit for his in-game and in-season adjustments, but he doesn't get nearly enough credit for how he adjusts in free agency based on the Patriots' salary-cap situation and what players are available.

Don't be fooled by New England not spending as much as they have in recent years or seeing more familiar names leave in free agency. The Patriots are still getting down to the business of remaining a strong Super Bowl contender around Brady.