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Free-Agent Setup: Confident New England Patriots expected to go tagless

By
Howard Balzer, The Sports Xchange
New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis (33) is chased down by Buffalo Bills cornerback Shareece Wright (20) and linebacker Matt Milano (58) on a seven-yard carry in the second quarter on December 24, 2017 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Photo by Matthew Healey/UPI
New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis (33) is chased down by Buffalo Bills cornerback Shareece Wright (20) and linebacker Matt Milano (58) on a seven-yard carry in the second quarter on December 24, 2017 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Photo by Matthew Healey/UPI | License Photo

Despite three key contributors in left tackle Nate Solder, cornerback Malcolm Butler and running back Dion Lewis, New England almost certainly will not use its franchise tag on any of its 13 free agents for 2018.

The terms of Solder's previous contract prohibit the use of the tag on the former first-round pick who is apparently actually considering retirement as he approaches the age of 30. Though he may be the best tackle on the market, if Solder plays in 2018 it will likely be protecting Tom Brady's blind side.

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Butler's eventful career in New England is coming to an end after he was benched for this year's Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. That put the cap on a tumultuous season that began with the restricted free agent reportedly agreeing to a contract with the Saints only to see the teams fail to reach a trade deal.

Lewis became the Patriots' lead back down the stretch this year, but the undersized 27-year-old isn't worth the franchise tag figure and is likely to find more money on the open market than in New England, where history shows the team rarely invests in backs and prefers the relative value of a committee approach in the backfield.

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Unit-by-unit depth chart as of Super Bowl LII. Injured players listed as starters if that was their status when injured.

*Asterisk indicates player ended 2017 season on injured reserve.

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QUARTERBACKS (A): Starter - Tom Brady. Backup - Brian Hoyer.

RUNNING BACKS (B): Starter - Dion Lewis (UFA). Backups - James White, Rex Burkhead (UFA), Mike Gillislee, FB James Develin, Brandon Bolden.

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TIGHT ENDS (B): Starter - Rob Gronkowski. Backups - Dwayne Allen, *Martellus Bennett, Jacob Hollister.

WIDE RECEIVERS (B-minus): Starters - *Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan. Backups - Danny Amendola (UFA), *Malcolm Mitchell, Kenny Britt, Phillip Dorsett, Bernard Reedy, Matthew Slater (UFA).

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (B): Starters - LT Nate Solder (UFA), LG Joe Thuney, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason, RT *Marcus Cannon. Backups - T Cameron Fleming (UFA), T LaAdrian Waddle (UFA), T/G Cole Croston, G/C Ted Karras, T *Tony Garcia, T *Andrew Jelks, G *Chase Farris.

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DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (C-plus): Starters - LDE Eric Lee, DT Malcom Brown, DT Alan Branch, RDE Trey Flowers. Backups - DE Deatrich Wise Jr., DT/DE Lawrence Guy, DT Adam Butler, DT *Vincent Valentine, DE *Derek Rivers, DE Geneo Grissom (UFA), DT Ricky Jean Francois (UFA), DE *Keionta Davis, DE Caleb Kidder.

LINEBACKERS (C): Starters - OLB *Dont'a Hightower, MLB Elandon Roberts, OLB Kyle Van Noy. Backups - MLB David Harris (subsequently retired), OLB James Harrison (UFA), OLB *Harvey Langi, OLB *Shea McClellin, OLB Marquis Flowers (UFA), LB Nicholas Grigsby.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (B-minus): Starters - LCB Stephon Gilmore, RCB Malcolm Butler (UFA), SS Patrick Chung, FS Devin McCourty. Backups - FS Duron Harmon, CB Eric Rowe, CB *Jonathan Jones, S *Nate Ebner, CB *Cyrus Jones, S Jordan Richards, CB Johnson Bademosi, S Brandon King.

SPECIAL TEAMS (A): K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, LS Joe Cardona, PR Danny Amendola (UFA), KOR Dion Lewis (UFA).

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