New England Patriots: Onwenu free agency mess is a situation Eliot Wolf should avoid

Top young players should be signed earlier rather than later.

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers
New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers / Joe Sargent/GettyImages

The New England Patriots are now faced with the prospect of losing some good players to free agency after their fourth year in the league. Current versions include guard Mike Onwenu, safety Kyle Dugger, and edge Josh Uche.

Under former general manager Bill Belichick, the order of the day was essentially to neglect signing players earlier in their four-year tenure (not including first-rounders, of course) and just let things play out as they will. That includes those who'd proven to be solid, if not better, NFL players in their first couple of years in the league.

The upside is that if the player gets complacent, you aren't stuck with at least the guaranteed portion of his new deal. Fair comment. The downside, however, is that if he continues on an upward trajectory and proves to be a valuable asset, you'll have muffed a chance to secure his services for the longer term. A contract earlier realizes two positives; first, it gives the young player security. That's important. And secondly, it provides the team with a good player at a team-friendly cost.

For the New England Patriots under GM Belichick, the decision seems to have been mostly, if not always, let them play out their contract and when the time comes we'll see if we want to re-sign them. This, among other aspects of his personnel management, contributed to Belichick's losing his job. But it has also been detrimental to the team.

The New England Patriots need to be smarter about young players on four-year deals

The commentary herein doesn't apply to all players on a four-year deal, not hardly. But earlier in their tenure with the team, either the team thinks they'll have a long-term future with the club. If they don't, that's another problem not to be dealt with here.

In some cases, it becomes pretty apparent earlier on that a lower-round pick or even an undrafted free agent (UDFA) has "it" and is already or is progressing into a solid NFL player. Examples of those UDFA's include center David Andrews, cornerback Jonathan Jones, and cornerback Malcolm Butler.

Higher or lower draft picks are included, such as higher picks Christian Barmore, the aforementioned Dugger, and Uche. In addition, Onwenu, a sixth-round selection, special teams ace Brenden Schooler, and a precocious sixth-round pick, wide receiver Demario Douglas also fall (or may fall) into that category.

Under Belichick, these players were just contractually taken for granted and ignored when an alternative strategy should have been employed. Belichick didn't "get it," but maybe Wolf will. The simple fact is that when you have a player who has demonstrated solid NFL talent early on, you should extend his contract earlier rather than later.

The Patriots need to be smarter about these deals

This offseason, Onwenu, Dugger, and Uche will become free agents if not signed to an extension by a certain date. Whatever you may think of these players, if those in command thought that, say, Onwenu and maybe Dugger were players who should be Patriots for the longer term, then they should have been signed to an extension, maybe after their second season in the league.

Can you make mistakes with this strategy? Indeed, you might. But, after two years in the system, your system, if you can't evaluate a player and his potential, then the Patriots need a new personnel evaluator. Well, that must be a rhetorical question because they do just have that now in Eliot Wolf.

Another player on whom this issue is arising is Christian Barmore, a standout defensive tackle, best since Vince Wilfork's tenure. Barmore was a talent earlier on. Now, after a true breakout season, he's entering his fourth year. He should have been signed after last season. It's late, but not too late, to sign him to an extension (assuming his balky knee checks out) now. Just do so, please.

The moral of the story is this: under Belichick, the Patriots seemingly told very good players on four-year contracts to take a contractual hike. It was a bad policy then, and if it continues, it'll be a truly bad one now. Wolf must now grab the bull by the horns and sign Barmore. Then, evaluate Keion White (who will be a standout defensive tackle, not an end) in 2024, and then sign him if he progresses right after the 2024 season.

Eliot Wolf has a lot of challenges on his hands. They include 2024 free agency, which begins in no time. Then, he faces the all-important 2024 NFL draft that happens in about two plus months. He also needs to deal with contracts for young players who may or may not deserve extensions.

Belichick always seemed to say, don't bother me until you're a free agent. That policy stunk. Hopefully, Wolf has learned that this policy is dysfunctional in some cases. If he's around after this off-season, we'll find out.

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