Point/Counterpoint: What's biggest free-agent priority on Patriots defense?

Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry

Every week during the NFL season, Tom E. Curran & Phil Perry will go head-to-head and offer their own takes on a Patriots or NFL-related question. Here's this week's topic:

The Patriots historic defensive season keeps rolling on but at the end of this season, three of their most important defenders - Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins - are going to be free agents. Which player should be the highest priority?

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What's fascinating to me is the path each of these three traveled to get to this point.

McCourty was a first-round pick in 2010. Now 32, he's at the tail end of a five-year, $47.5M deal that had $28.5M guaranteed. After contemplating retirement in the offseason, he's having one of the best years of his career.

Van Noy is 28 and he's at the end of a two-year, $11.7 million deal signed in 2017 when he was still emerging as a Patriot. A second-round pick, he's made $16.3M in his career. He's playing at a Pro Bowl-level at least, arguably an All-Pro level. The contract he's in line to sign is the "big one" for him.

Collins is 30. A second-round pick in 2013, he's here on a one-year deal worth a total of $2M. He's made $34M in his career, $27.4M of which came from Cleveland. He's Pro Bowl-level as well.

All three are vital to the team's success but - as we saw with Collins previously and Trey Flowers this season - the Patriots can restock, reshuffle and survive. The one thing that can't be easily replicated by anyone is McCourty's leadership and institutional knowledge. He could play until 36 if he decided to. There are no diminishing skills. Further, there's nobody behind him near as I can tell.

To me, it goes McCourty, Van Noy, Collins.

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The Devin McCourty selection makes all kinds of sense. Especially when you use the argument I did last week, which is that coverage is more important than pass-rush. McCourty is the central nervous system for the secondary in New England. (Fun example here of the kind of games he can play with opposing quarterbacks.) That's the team's strength. Pay him what he needs to stick around.

But I'm not sure he requires the "priority" label because I'm not sure how desperate he'll be to play elsewhere. His brother has a year left on his deal. McCourty flirted with the idea of retirement before last year's Super Bowl. It feels like he and the team should be able to figure out something that works for both sides relatively easily.

The same probably won't be true for Van Noy. I'd say that, because of his age and the position he plays, he should be the priority this offseason. Though the Patriots parted ways with guys like Chandler Jones and Trey Flowers in the past, Van Noy is a little different edge defender.

First, he's likely not going to command the same type of deal those players did. (The contract Preston Smith got with the Packers, which pays an average of $13 million per year, might make sense.) And what he does as a player who can work in all situations on the edge of the Patriots defense is invaluable. He can set against the run, track running backs in coverage, and get after quarterbacks - with or without the help of games up front.

Collins, 30, is a great communicator himself and a versatile athlete who can play on the edge or in the middle of the field. But Collins is a little older and not quite as stout in the run game as Van Noy. That matters. And there's no one behind Van Noy currently on the roster who can do the same things he does. (Chase Winovich is currently more a pass-game specialist.)

If the Patriots can figure out a way to take care of Van Noy first, then come to terms with McCourty and Collins, that'd make the most sense to me.

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Point/Counterpoint: What's biggest free-agent priority on Patriots defense? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

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