Free agency hasn’t even begun yet and it’s already off to a miserable start for the New England Patriots.
While it’s no surprise that cornerback Malcolm Butler is done in Foxboro, wide receiver Danny Amendola is also reportedly on his way out of New England. Running back Dion Lewis and left tackle Nate Solder are also part of the exodus from Foxboro.
The first three players are staying in the AFC and will get to face the Patriots next season in their new digs. Amendola is set to sign a two-year, $12 million contract with the Miami Dolphins. According to Peter Schrager of Fox Sports, the deal includes $8.25 million in guarantees for the 32-year-old Amendola.
Butler, 27, is joining the Tennessee Titans on a five-year, $61 million contract that includes over $30 million in guarantees according to multiple reports. He’ll be joined in Nashville by Lewis, who signed a four-year deal with the Titans.
Breaking this morning per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, Solder is joining the New York Giants. New England’s first round pick in 2011, Solder, who turns 30 next month, is leaving the only NFL organization he’s known professionally. Early indications from Adam Schefter are that Solder will be the highest paid tackle in the league on a four-year, $60 million deal.
None of the moves will be official until the new NFL league year begins Wednesday at 4 p.m.
Solder just might be the biggest loss, as it leaves a gaping void in protecting the blindside of 40-year-old Tom Brady. The Patriots have two other offensive tackles set to become free agents this afternoon in LaAdrian Waddle and Cam Fleming, each of whom played great in stretches last season but have never proven themselves as starters over a 16-game schedule. And that’s assuming New England can re-sign one or both.
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Right tackle Marcus Cannon – who’s coming off a season-ending ankle injury – and 2017 third-round pick Antonio Garcia are the only tackles now on the roster for the Patriots. Garcia missed his entire rookie season due to blood clots in his lungs.
Amendola is taking his talents to South Beach after five years with New England. He initially signed a five-year, $28.5 million contract with the Patriots at the beginning of free agency in 2013, restructuring the deal in each of the final three years to the point he made roughly $17.5 million over the life of the deal.
As a member of the Dolphins, he’ll get to play the Patriots twice a year moving forward, though it’s unclear how many opportunities he’ll get to live up to his moniker of Danny “Playoff” Amendola. Miami has made the playoffs only twice since 2002. One of those appearances came in 2016, but the team regressed again last season to a 6-10 mark.
It’s in the postseason that Amendola emerged as a folk hero in New England, churning in huge performance after huge performance in January and February. He’s one of only four players to catch a touchdown pass from Tom Brady in multiple Super Bowls (Mike Vrabel, David Givens and Rob Gronkowski), doing so in Super Bowl XLIX vs. the Seattle Seahawks and Super Bowl LI vs. the Atlanta Falcons. Each catch came in the fourth quarter with the Patriots trailing in games they’d go on to win.
During his final postseason run with the Patriots, Amendola caught 26 passes for 348 yards over three games. He caught a pair of touchdown passes in the fourth quarter during New England’s rally against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game and posted a career playoff-high 152 yards in Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles. It was the second-highest mark of his career overall and his best single-game performance with the Patriots, regular or postseason.
Amendola’s departure leaves New England with six players under contract at wide receiver for next season: Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Philip Dorsett, Kenny Britt and Malcolm Mitchell. Practice squad receivers Cody Hollister and Riley McCarron were also signed to future contracts on Feb. 6.
Ever since he played just a single snap on special teams in the Super Bowl, it’s been clear Butler’s days in New England were done. No firm answer has yet emerged as to why Butler, who played more defensive snaps for the Patriots than any other player in 2017, was a pseudo-inactive in Super Bowl LII.
Clearly, the Titans aren’t concerned about the circumstances behind his benching, nor his up-and-down 2017 season. Tennessee, which hired former New England linebacker Mike Vrabel as its head coach this offseason, will pair Butler across from his former Patriots teammate in Logan Ryan. The duo started 27 of New England’s 32 regular season games between 2015 and 2016 together, as well as Super Bowl LI.
The more than $30 million in guarantees in Butler’s deal is about $10 million less in guaranteed money than Stephon Gilmore received from the Patriots on Day 1 of free agency last year.
Sans Butler, New England has Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones under contract at corner. Ryan Lewis and Jomal Wiltz were signed to futures contracts from the practice squad on Feb. 6.
Initial speculation linked New England to big-name cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Aqib Talib, neither of whom were scheduled to be free agents. The Seattle Seahawks released Sherman and he agreed to sign with the San Francisco 49ers the next day, while the Denver Broncos wound up trading Talib to the Los Angeles Rams.
Butler, who originally signed with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent out of NCAA Division II West Alabama in 2014, will forever be remembered for picking off Russell Wilson along the goal line in the final minute of Super Bowl XLIX to all but seal the win for New England.
The Patriots moved on from Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner after the game and wound up seeing immediate contributions from Butler in a starting role, as he made the Pro Bowl in 2015.
Lewis, 27, priced himself out of New England’s plans with a career year in 2017. He emerged as the featured player in a crowded backfield, rushing for a career-high 896 yards on a career-high 180 carries for a healthy 5.0 yards per rush – second in the NFL among running backs. He also had nine total touchdowns for the Patriots, including six rushing, which more that doubled his career total coming into the season.
Lewis bounced back nicely from a torn ACL suffered in 2015, his first with New England after failing to stick with the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns or Indianapolis Colts over his first four years in the league.
With those four out the door, New England can turn its attention to some of its other key free agents, including running back and Rex Burkhead and special teams captain Matthew Slater. There’s also the matter of figuring out if Gronkowski will return for a ninth NFL season. Strange times in Foxboro, indeed.