Malcolm Butler is likely headed to New Orleans. (Michael Madrid/USA Today Sports)

Malcolm Butler is likely headed to New Orleans. (Michael Madrid/USA Today Sports)

1. With Malcolm Butler visiting the Saints last week as a restricted free agent with a first-round tender, many have speculated the Patriots should force the Saints into signing him as a restricted free agent so they could get the Saints’ No. 11 overall pick. This doesn’t seem likely, and is where a potential trade comes in, which could have already been discussed two weeks ago when the two teams made a deal for wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Cooks needed to get traded last weekend because he was due a roster bonus last Monday. While Butler was rumored to be part of the deal, he ultimately wasn’t. This could have been because he didn’t sign his first-round tender. It’s quite possible the two teams agreed on a trade involving Butler and Cooks, but could only include the Cooks portion last weekend because the Saints needed to meet and work out a long-term deal with Butler before that part of the deal is executed. Once a long-term agreement happens, Butler would sign his tender and the Patriots could send him to the Saints and get back their first-round pick. That would mean in the end the Patriots would get Cooks and the Saints’ fourth-round pick in exchange for Butler and the Saints’ third-round pick. Not a bad deal at all for both sides. Bottom line, if the Patriots don’t in fact get the No. 11 overall pick from the Saints for Butler, note the Cooks trade and realize the two sides could have already negotiated a Cooks for Butler trade and pick swap, and the Patriots’ first-round pick last weekend could have been just a place-holder.

2. It cannot be stated how important it was for the Patriots to re-sign Dont’a Hightower. Hightower is the undisputed leader of the defense and who the unit looks to most. The 27-year-old isn’t much of a “ra-ra” leader, but when something needs to be said, he says it and gets the full attention of the team. This is what makes him such a great leader. After the Jamie Collins trade this past season, Hightower was the one leading the way in keeping the unit together and getting back on track after the poor showing against Seattle in the game immediately following the trade. Also, look at who is behind Hightower on the depth chart: Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin and Jonathan Freeny. Usually the Patriots have internal fallback options in place for free agents in case they leave, but in the case of Hightower they really didn’t, which was another major reason why it was imperative he returned in 2017.

3. One of the takeaways from Duron Harmon’s conference call on Friday was him noting he was going to experiment playing a couple of pounds heavier, going up from 205 pounds to 207 or 208 during OTAs and minicamp. “I would say the run area is a key [area] where I feel that I can grow in,” he said. “My tackling could be a little bit more aggressive and I think that’s going to come with putting on a little bit more weight, being able to bang down there. So I think that area is key, and could be an area I could grow a lot in, I believe so.” This could be a sign the team might use him more in a Patrick Chung role, where Chung plays closer to the line of scrimmage and is a major player in stopping the run.

4. While the Patriots are done with big moves following Hightower’s re-signing, there’s still more to be done. Even though the team brought in running back Rex Burkhead, there’s still a need for a No. 1 running back who can run in between the tackles on first and second down to wear out defenses. LeGarrette Blount remains unsigned and seems like a good option on a one-year deal. Also, with defensive ends Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard departing and only Kony Ealy joining the team thus far, look for another veteran to be brought in to be part of the rotation at defensive end. Another position to watch is cornerback. A veteran could be brought in to compete with Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones and Justin Coleman. A lot of the time these small moves get unnoticed during the offseason, but they could show up as being very important come October and November.

5. Along the lines of the team not being done with adding players via free agency, there are a couple of players who could see their current 2017 contracts get redone for a lesser salary. Danny Amendola is currently on the books for a cap hit of just under $8 million, which certainly won’t stand. If Amendola wants to return to the team, he will need to rework his deal, which he’s reportedly willing to do. Another player to keep an eye on is Nate Solder. The left tackle has the second-highest cap hit on the team of just over $11 million. He’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, so perhaps the Patriots sign him to extension now and have that serve as a way to lower his cap hit for the upcoming season.

6. According to Miguel Benzan (@Patscap), the Patriots have just over $26 million in cap space left for 2017. While this says they have a lot of money to spend, it’s worth looking ahead to 2018 and taking some things into consideration. Tom Brady’s cap hit goes from $14 million this year to $22 million next year, Rob Gronkowski’s goes from $6.75 million to $11 million and if the Patriots potentially place the franchise tag on Jimmy Garoppolo, his could go from just over $1 million to near $20 million. Obviously deals can be re-worked to manipulate the cap, but it is worth noting the dramatic increases next season and should be considered when it comes to spending the rest of the offseason. From this perspective, this is a major reason why the Patriots cannot sign Butler to an extension he wants.

7. Wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell will be back in New England this week promoting his children’s book “The Magician’s Hat.” He is scheduled to visit 12 schools all across the region where he wants to share his message of how important reading is to children pursuing their dreams. He will read excerpts from his book, and each child will receive a copy. For more information, visit www.readwithmalcolm.com.

Blog Author: 
Ryan Hannable

Safety Duron Harmon was one of the most underrated players on the Patriots defense in 2016. While on a national level he doesn’t get noticed much, without him the Patriots may not have won Super Bowl LI.

Returning to the Patriots wasn't a hard decision for Duron Harmon. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Returning to the Patriots wasn’t a hard decision for Duron Harmon. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Safety Duron Harmon was one of the most underrated players on the Patriots defense in 2016. While on a national level he doesn’t get noticed much, without him the Patriots may not have won Super Bowl LI.

The 26-year-old was a free agent for the first time this offseason, but ultimately re-signed with the Patriots for a reported four-year and $20 million deal.

Speaking Friday on a conference call, Harmon explained why it wasn’t that tough of a decision.

“The free agency process, it was a good process,” Harmon said. “You got to go out there, you got to be a free agent, you got to see where people value your skills at, what you put on tape for the first four years of your career. I would say in the end, I mean coming back to New England – that’s ultimately what I wanted to do. I love it here.

“I’ve built a lot of relationships here with people outside of football. My kids go to school here and just being a part of this organization – it means a lot to me. I really love playing for this organization. I love playing for Coach [Bill] Belichick. I love being a part of Mr. [Robert] Kraft’s team. In the end, just coming back here really wasn’t a hard decision. It was something that I ultimately wanted to do.”

Harmon is one of three safeties on the Patriots roster, along with Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, and last year he was used more in the nickel. The way he’s used in New England was one of the biggest reasons for him coming back.

“It was definitely enjoyable,” he said of his role last year. “I mean that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to come back. They know how to use me. They know how to really get the best out of me and I want to continue to grow being a part of this defense. Just being able to play more, being in more situations, being out there more, being relied on more is something that I really prided myself in last year to just let me know that I was becoming a better football player that Coach [Bill] Belichick and Matty P [Matt Patricia] would put me out there a lot more.”

Selected in the third round of the 2013 draft, Harmon has seven interceptions in four seasons.

Blog Author: 
Ryan Hannable
Judge Richard Berman says he was pleased to see Tom Brady win the Super Bowl. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

Judge Richard Berman says he was pleased to see Tom Brady hoist the Lombardi Trophy. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

When the Patriots defeated the Falcons and pulled off the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, there was at least one person in the Tri-State area who was pleased: Judge Richard Berman.

In a recent interview with The MMQB, Berman spoke at length for the first time about the Patriots’ big win. He said he thinks the victory finally put an end to Deflategate.

“I think Deflategate is finally put to rest by that Super Bowl,” he said. “I always thought in the back of my mind when I had the case, that this is a case that should be settled on the field. Not in the courts, not with an arbitrator, and ultimately, that’s what happened. And in such a dramatic way that it left no doubt.”

When Judge Berman negated Brady’s four-game suspension in September 2015, he skewered the NFL for what he considered to be a flawed arbitration process. Even though a federal appeals court overturned his decision, he said he would rule the same way if the case were presented in front of him today.

“I concluded that the NFL arbitration process was fundamentally flawed –– principally because of lack of notice of the alleged infraction and of a potential four-game suspension; inappropriate comparison of football deflation to use of steroids; failure to allow Brady’s counsel to question NFL general counsel [Jeff] Pash; and refusal to share with counsel the notes of witness interviews,” Berman said. “The commissioner’s arbitration award was not entitled to ‘deference’ by the courts also because he had a personal stake in the outcome of the appeal. That is, he had an incurable conflict of interest, evident partiality, and could not possibly be fair.”

In April 2016, eight months after Berman’s ruling, the NFL won its Deflategate appeal. In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals said commissioner Roger Goodell possesses broad authority to discipline players at his behest. Berman said it stung to read the ruling, but now he’s moving on –– largely thanks to the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI late-game heroics.

“It took awhile [to let it go], so the Super Bowl was good for me too,” he said.

Blog Author: 
Alex Reimer

It remains unclear where cornerback Malcolm Butler will play next season.

Duron Harmon spoke about Malcolm Butler on Friday. (Michael Madrid/USA Today Sports)

Duron Harmon spoke about Malcolm Butler on Friday. (Michael Madrid/USA Today Sports)

It remains unclear where cornerback Malcolm Butler will play next season.

He could return for his fourth year with the Patriots, or he could play elsewhere because another team put in an offer sheet for him, or the Patriots could trade him. Butler met with the Saints this week and coach Sean Payton had nothing but good things to say.

Butler is on the books for $3.91 million with his first-round tender, but feels he deserves more money.

Safety Duron Harmon would love to have him back, but understands Butler needs to do what is best for him.

“I love Malcolm. I love being his teammate,” Harmon said on a conference call Friday. “What he brings to the football field, what he brings to the locker room. I would love being his teammate, but it’s a business more than anything. I know people have to do what is best for them. I am rooting for him that he gets to do whatever he feels is best for him.”

The Patriots added Stephon Gilmore to the secondary and Harmon noted how important communication is to the success of the unit.

“We have to put the work,” Harmon said. “We have to work hard on the practice field and in the classroom. We have to stay after it. We know how much we like to run around here and communication is very key to how we play good defense. It will always be that way so we have to make sure the communication is up to par and it’s going to be on us to make sure everybody is communicating the right stuff.”

Blog Author: 
Ryan Hannable

For the first time in 17 years, Rex Ryan won’t be coaching in the NFL next season. Instead, he’ll be bloviating on TV.

The Bills fired Rex Ryan last year after two seasons. (Timothy T. Ludwig/USA Today Sports)

The Bills fired Rex Ryan last year after two seasons. (Timothy T. Ludwig/USA Today Sports)

For the first time in 17 years, Rex Ryan won’t be coaching in the NFL next season. Instead, he’ll be bloviating on TV.

According to the New York Daily News, ESPN has signed Ryan to a multi-year deal to serve as an NFL analyst. The ex-Jets and Bills coach will have a spot on “Sunday NFL Countdown.”

ESPN is in the process of overhauling its signature NFL studio show. With longtime host Chris Berman stepping down, the program will take on a different feel next season. Though Trey Wingo and Suzy Kolber have long been considered the favorites to succeed Berman, sideline reporter Sam Ponder has reportedly gained momentum as a surprise candidate to fill the chair. Last year, ESPN added Randy Moss, Matt Hasselbeck and Charles Woodson to the analyst desk. They replaced Cris Carter, Keyshawn Johnson and Tom Jackson.

Ryan’s bombastic nature may have worked against him as a head coach, but it should suit him just fine as a talking head.

Blog Author: 
Alex Reimer

Why did it take so long for Dont’a Hightower’s market to come in free agency?

Maybe it wasn’t just because teams didn’t see how they could use him properly, but rather teams had some injury concerns.

The Jets reportedly had injury concerns wth Dont'a Hightower. (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

The Jets reportedly had injury concerns wth Dont’a Hightower. (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

Why did it take so long for Dont’a Hightower’s market to come in free agency?

Maybe it wasn’t just because teams didn’t see how they could use him properly, but rather teams had some injury concerns.

Hightower battled shoulder and knee issues in 2016 and has only played a full season once in his five-year career, not playing more than 13 games in each of his last three seasons.

According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, the Jets’ interest in Hightower “zeal diminished” after giving him a physical when he was in for a visit on Sunday. The report added the Jets made an initial offer of $62.5 million over five years, but after the physical the guarantees wouldn’t be something Hightower would agree to.

The MMQB’s Albert Breer added the Jets actually pulled their offer after the physical, so it appears there were legitimate concerns with the linebacker.

The Patriots know Hightower better than anyone in the league given he’s spent five years with the organization, and were seemingly comfortable signing him to a four-year deal, but it definitely is worth noting a possible reason it took so long for his market to develop was because of injury concerns.

For more Patriots news, visit weei.com/patriots.

Blog Author: 
Ryan Hannable