Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; General view of the videobaord after the New England Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots are moving on from their 2014 Super Bowl Championship season which culminated in a dramatic 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Unfortunately for the Patriots, a long post-season run means an abbreviated offseason. For the Patriots coaches, front office and scouting staff it is past time to roll up their sleeves and get to work on catching up to the rest of the NFL teams who got a head start in their offseason roster building preparation.
Over the next few weeks the regional draft combines begin and those are capped off by the national NFL combine starting on February 17. Internal free agents take priority as New England has a deadline of March 2 as far as applying the franchise tag to players who cannot work out a long-term deal and whom the team desires to keep off the market. Free agency begins on March 7 with teams able to negotiate with unrestricted free agents and on March 10 at 4PM the league year begins and players begin to officially sign with new teams.
Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots nose tackleAlan Branch
(97) celebrates after the game against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Seahawks 28-24. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
With that, it seems the ideal time to take a look at the internal free agents and cap numbers of salaried veterans in New England where tough decisions need to be made as far as roster management. Kicking off the six-part series was kicker Stephen Gostkowski, and part two looked at a trio of veteran contributors in wide receiver Danny Amendola, inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. Part three got to the Pro Bowl secondary players looking at cornerback Darrelle Revis and free safety Devin McCourty. Now, part four looks as the mid-season acquisitions from 2014 in defensive tackle Alan Branch and linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas:
OFFSEASON PRIORITY FOUR OF SIX: Akeem Ayers, Alan Branch, and Jonathan Casillas
Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Seattle Seahawks running backMarshawn Lynch
(24) reaches for the end zone as New England Patriots middle linebacker Akeem Ayers (55) defends in the closing minutes Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots made three key in-season moves to pick up reinforcements for their front seven on defense in October: they traded a sixth round draft pick for linebacker Akeem Ayers and a seventh round draft pick from Tennessee; another trade with Tampa Bay giving up a fifth round draft pick for linebacker Jonathan Casillas and a sixth round draft pick; and finally they signed defensive lineman Alan Branch as an unrestricted free agent after he had been released by Buffalo in the preseason.
Ayers stepped in at outside linebacker/defensive end after Chandler Jones went down with a hip injury against the New York Jets in week seven. Ayers had been a second round draft pick in 2011 for Tennessee and excelled for three seasons as the strongside (Sam) linebacker. A new defense in 2014 saw Ayers moved to outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense and buried on the bench. Ayers played just one game in 2014 through seven weeks and just ten snaps for the Titans.
Traded to New England in week seven, Ayers was a regular on defense until Jones returned to health at his right outside linebacker spot. Ayers had 4 sacks in his first 5 games in New England and is versatile and a quick learner. The problem in New England is that with the 3-4 in place with Rob Ninkovich and Jones locked in at defensive end/outside linebacker, there is no starting opportunity for Ayers.
Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch (24) runs against New England Patriots nose tackle Alan Branch (97) in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots added veteran interior defensive lineman Alan Branch at midseason for depth with injuries to youngsters Sealver Siliga and Dominique Easley depleting the defensive line depth. Branch fit in with the rotation and added a pass rush push inside and was stout against the run. Branch was an inexpensive fit with just a $301,000 cap hit in 2014 for half a season.
Branch had been a key cog in Arizona and Seattle before joining the Buffalo Bills in 2013. He was a regular starter on the defensive line and was especially productive teaming with Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams to clog the middle of the defense. He was expected to return in 2014 and contribute for Buffalo but an offseason with a DUI saw him released after he showed up at training camp out of shape. After getting little interest and sitting unemployed, the Patriots came calling. Branch rehabilitated his career and may find many suitors in free agency.
Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker Jonathan Casillas (52) celebrates after beating the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Jonathan Casillas made his primary contributions on special teams in New England after he came over from Tampa Bay. However, Casillas was a solid backup and flashed some strong coverage skills getting a lot of playing time against San Diego in week 14 and Buffalo in the season finale. At six-foot-one and 227 pounds, Casillas is undersized for an inside linebacker but fills the role of coverage linebacker that Dane Fletcher had filled for the Patriots defense prior to 2014.
Casillas, who won a Super Bowl with the Saints prior to going to Tampa Bay, is versatile and inexpensive. Casillas played well in the playoffs when he got a chance against the Colts, and his ability to play on special teams adds to his value in New England. Casillas is a likely re-signing as he fills a specific need for depth and coverage at linebacker and playing on special teams. He should be a low-cap number re-signing and fill a need for the Patriots in 2015 and beyond.
Branch is in a tough spot to return as Wilfork has a huge cap number next year after having a strong season bouncing back from his Achilles injury in 2013. The Patriots have Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga and Joe Vellano as depth. They also spent a first round draft pick to obtain Dominique Easley to play inside on the defensive line and he should be healthy and ready to contribute in 2015. Branch also had signed a one year contract for $3 million dollars in 2013 and then signed three year contract worth $9.3 million in Buffalo before his release. He is looking to start, make a significant salary, and will not likely return to New England at the veteran minimum contract level again.
The Patriots would love to keep Ayers for depth at linebacker and in case of injury, but with a cap hit of just $616,000 last season, he is likely looking for a significant increase in salary and a starting job. His production in New England opened eyes around the league and highlighted the tactical error Tennessee made in playing ineffective and expensive veterans Kamerion Wimbley and Shaun Phillips instead of Ayers. Another team is likely to offer more playing time and pay Ayers more than New England would offer to keep him for depth.
Dec 28, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker Jonathan Casillas (52) tackles Buffalo Bills quarterbackKyle Orton
(18) and called from roughing the passer in the second half at Gillette Stadium. Buffalo Bills defeated the Patriots 17-9. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
It is likely that only Jonathan Casillas will return to New England from their trio of mid-season pickups on defense. Casillas is not going to generate the interest in free agency that Ayers and Branch likely will after rehabilitating their earning potential for the Super Bowl champions. Branch and Ayers are both looking for a starting opportunity and pass rushers and big bodies do not grow on trees in the NFL. The Patriots may make an attempt to keep Ayers and Branch, but both will likely be out of their pay range by day one of free agency.