Despite winning Super Bowl LIII, the New England Patriots enter 2019 with quite a few needs on both sides of the ball. The 2018 Patriots finished as the league’s 16th-ranked defensive line, per Football Outsiders. The line as a whole was nothing special, but it did have a truly special player in Trey Flowers. The former fourth-round pick was New England’s best defender and should be a hot commodity in free agency. The Patriots should try to bring him back, but they’ll need to have a Plan B in case Flowers departs. Fortunately for New England, Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham is a perfect backup plan for the Patriots.
Obviously, Plan A for the Patriots is bringing back Trey Flowers. Flowers is one of the best edge defenders in the league and should have his best years in front of him. New England has a bad reputation for not paying their young stars, but they usually make a competitive offer.
Unfortunately for New England, Flowers could very well be the top defensive end on the market. Demarcus Lawrence and Jadeveon Clowney are both likely to re-sign with their respective teams, leaving Flowers as the best edge rusher available. The 26-year old could won’t get Khalil Mack money, but he could receive $18-19 million per season. Teams like the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns have tons of cap room and the need for a player like Flowers. Both teams are in position to easily outbid New England for Flowers.
New England doesn’t overpay under any circumstances, and they might not bring Flowers back if the cost if that high. Just like when they lost out on Nate Solder last year, New England needs to have options ready in case they lose their homegrown talent. Based on what’s expected to be available, New England should start honing in on Brandon Graham as a potential fill-in.
How Graham Fits in New England
Graham isn’t as good as Trey Flowers, but he can play essentially the same exact role. A strong defender against both the run and the pass, Graham finished 2018 with four sacks, 39 tackles, and 11 quarterback hits. This stat line doesn’t jump off the page, but you need to go beyond the box score to fully appreciate Graham. Graham is a master at setting the edge and eating space so others can make the play. Pro Football Focus acknowledged Graham’s selfless play by ranking him as the 2018’s 10th-best edge rusher.
If this type of play style sounds familiar, that’s because it basically describes Trey Flowers to a tee. While Flowers is more disruptive than Graham, Flowers’ box score doesn’t accurately reflect how much he impacts the game.
Flowers finished the 2018 season ranked 34th in sacks (7.5), 22nd in quarterback hits (20), and 46th in tackles-for-loss (nine). On paper, Flowers doesn’t appear to be anything special. However, watching the games tells a different story, as Flowers is clearly the force which makes the Patriots defense work. Pro Football Focus agrees with this assessment, as the advanced analytics website ranked Flowers as the sixth-best edge defender during the 2018 season.
Graham and Flowers are similar players in that their impact goes far beyond the box score. Both players win their one-on-one matchups, set the edge in the run game, and free up others to make plays. Graham can’t do everything Flowers can do, but he can do it at a much cheaper cost.
Why Graham is the Bargain
Philadelphia has a young quarterback in Carson Wentz on his rookie contract and should be all-in on capitalizing during their Super Bowl window. At first glance, the Patriots might be worried about why the Eagles would let Graham leave in the first place.
However, a further dive into Philadelphia’s roster shows that the Eagles don’t really have an option. Philadelphia currently has just under $885,000 in available cap space, per Spotrac. While Philadelphia could always restructure a few of their existing contracts, it seems unlikely that they’d manipulate the cap enough to bring Graham back at a market rate.
Graham is still a good player, but is on the wrong side of 30 and is somewhat underrated around the league. Because of this, it’s safe to assume Graham lands a three- to four-year deal worth anywhere from $10 to $12 million a year. Obviously, he’s not as good as Flowers, but he can provide roughly 80-90% of what Flowers did and save the Patriots approximately $7-10 million in the process. New England only has $14.4 million in cap space heading into 2019, so that extra savings could go a long way.
If the Patriots can get Trey Flowers for less than $16 million a year, they should absolutely do it. However, Flowers could be the best edge rusher on the market, and teams like the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts can easily outbid New England for his services. Should that happen, the Patriots should turn to Brandon Graham. The longtime Eagle can seamlessly fill in along the defensive line in the short term while the Patriots draft their long-term answer with one of their many early-round draft picks.
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