Well, as Bill said, “we’re already five weeks behind for 2017”. It’s time to move on from the fifth ring and look at the franchises future. New England is going into 2017 expecting to have the third most cap room in the NFL. With that good news comes the realization that there are a lot of free agents from this year’s team. So, we will focus on the unrestricted free agents headed into the 2017 offseason. Here are the top five targets for New England to re-sign.

5. DE Jabaal Sheard

When Chandler Jones was traded, most Patriots fans believed Sheard would step up to fill the role of the starting DE opposite Rob Ninkovich. That belief was never realized. Sheard was benched in week 11 against San Francisco, and never really regained his role as a starter. He was surpassed by Trey Flowers, who would lead the team in sacks. He finished the 2016-17 regular season with only five sacks.

A lot of people considered Sheard to be a top priority this offseason before the season began. Many were even concerned that his price would be too high for the Patriots to consider re-signing. With a down year, his stock may have dropped, and he could come back to play in the rotation with Ninkovich and Flowers. To me, his value will likely be around $6 million per year. It will be up to him, whether or not he took that benching as a sign of disrespect, or he learned from his mistakes.

4. Martellus Bennett

Last offseason, the Patriots traded a fourth round draft pick for Martellus Bennett and a sixth round pick. He had warn out his welcome in Chicago, and New England welcomed him in with open arms. With Gronkowski and Bennett, everyone assumed the offense would be unstoppable, however, they both battled injuries throughout the season and never really saw the field together. He finished the 2016-17 season with a career high 7 touchdowns and a 700-yard season (only the third of his career).

Bennett has always been a guy who thinks about more than money when it comes to football. He uses football to have fun, enjoy his life, and spread positivity┬áto the world. He’s stated how much he loves playing he and has done so numerous times.

New England would love the opportunity to see Bennett healthy in this Patriots’ offense with Gronk. Likely, his value would put him at roughly $7 million per year, but he may be willing to go down to stay in a good situation.

3. Logan Ryan

Ryan has received a lot of hate in New England, but the fact is that he’s a solid number two cornerback. It’s tough to find a good slot corner in the league, and Ryan has done a good job filling that role this year. He certainly has the instincts to be a solid cornerback, and that was obvious in his rookie season when he lead the league in interceptions. Not to mention he is one of the best tackling CBs in the game.

It will be interesting to follow Ryan’s offseason, because it seems that cornerbacks get paid more and more every year. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got offered a deal near a $7.5 million per year. If the money goes that high, it is almost certain he’s out of New England.

2. Alan Branch

Signing Alan Branch back in 2014 has been one of the biggest blessings for the Patriots. He was formally the first pick of the second round in 2007, and by the time he got to New England he was almost out of football. The story on Branch was his lack of drive and motor. What he have seen here has been exactly the opposite.

2016-17 was probably Branch’s best season, as he was dominant in the run game. Branch and Malcom Brown are a duo that strike fear into offensive lines, and that is something they don’t want to miss out on. Branch will turn 33 next season, and this will likely be his last contract for a season or two. I would put his value near $4 per year. He may want to continue to add to his legacy in New England and contribute to the team that gave him another opportunity.

1. Dont’a Hightower

Obviously, with the loss of Jamie Collins, Hightower becomes the sole priority for this team when it comes to re-signing decisions. He is one of the better linebackers in the game, as his skill set includes a solid pass rush, decent man coverage, and one of the best football minds on the field. All of these contribute to his solid play on the field again this year. He made a second-team All-Pro appearance by being one of the best at the position and making smart plays.

After seeing what Collins got from Cleveland (4-year $50 million) it would be smart to think Hightower would look for a comparable contract. Honestly, he deserves every penny of that contract. You may even get him to take slightly less for the fact he has missed three to four games nearly every season. There is no excuse for Hightower not to be on the Patriots next season, unless of course he starts asking to be paid like the best LB in the league. Even then, New England should look at using the franchise tag on him.





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