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Pick-Six: Predicting Which Patriots Free Agents Will, Won't Return In 2018

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- For the second straight year, the Patriots enter the offseason five weeks behind everybody else.

That famous line, uttered by Bill Belichick after winning Super Bowl LI against the Falcons, prefaced a flurry of activity from the Patriots. The common refrain surrounding Belichick's moves suggested that the coach was acting as if his team had lost the Super Bowl, rather than won it.

Well, a year later, they're in the same boat in terms of a late start to the offseason, only this year they actually did lose the Super Bowl. Clearly, some big decisions loom.

The team will receive some obvious boosts from the returns of Julian Edelman and Dont'a Hightower. They'll also get contributions for the first time from defensive end Derek Rivers and possibly offensive tackle Tony Garcia, both of whom missed the entirety of their rookie seasons. The Patriots also have three picks in the top 63 spots in the draft, so they could be in position to add an impact player or two in the top two rounds.

And as always happens in an offseason, the team must make hard decisions on free agents. This year, there are a number of big names whose contracts are up, and it'll be interesting to see how the Patriots approach each player and each position. Here's one man's thoughts on how Belichick might go about building that roster for 2018 and beyond, spotlighting six key free agents.

Nate Solder

Nate Solder
Nate Solder celebrates with his son Hudson after the Patriots won Super Bowl LI. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The left tackle is not among the very best in the NFL, but he's among the very good. And considering a reliable left tackle is a rare commodity in the NFL, the Patriots would be crazy if they didn't want to re-sign Solder.

This decision may be more up to Solder than the Patriots, though. He'll turn 30 in April, so physically he should still have another two to three years of solid play ahead of him. But with his 2-year-old son fighting cancer for the second time in his young life, it's at least been speculated that Solder may walk away from football to be with his family.

From the outside, it's impossible to know what Solder will decide. But assuming things progress well for his son, there's reason to believe Solder will continue his career without opting to uproot his family.

PREDICTION: Solder will return on a two-year deal that will keep him among the top half of the league in terms of left tackle salaries.

Malcolm Butler

malcolm butler
Malcolm Butler. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

He has been the ultimate underdog story, and with one magical play, he won the Patriots a Super Bowl. He helped win another, too. But the coach -- who threw piles of cash at Stephon Gilmore and let Butler dangle in the wind as a restricted free agent prior to last season -- doesn't like him. He's gone.

PREDICTION: Butler will sign elsewhere and make decent money, but not at the Patrick Peterson/Josh Norman/Richard Sherman level he appeared destined to make prior to the 2017 season.

Danny Amendola

Tom Brady, Danny Amendola
Tom Brady, Danny Amendola (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Danny Amendola took a pay cut to stick with the Patriots in 2015. He did it again in 2016. And then again in 2017. What makes you think he's suddenly going to seek a better situation as a free agent?

Amendola, 32, appears to love his role in Tom Brady's offense, and he seems to genuinely be enjoying his life. He loves playing football for the most successful organization in the NFL, and he also likes filming goofy buddy cop videos with his pal, Julian Edelman. It's been quite the development for the player who was brought in as a "Wes Welker replacement" and had to win over the fan base as an outsider entering a difficult situation. He's since established himself as a clutch postseason performer, and he seems to truly appreciate his lot in life at the moment.

PREDICTION: Amendola will return, and he won't be overly concerned about the particulars of the contract. The man clearly just wants to play football for the Patriots for as long as he can.

Cameron Fleming/LaAdrian Waddle

LaAdrian Waddle
LaAdrian Waddle (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

Technically, Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle are two human beings, not one. But for all intents and purposes, the Patriots might look at the two players as being a singular decision to make this offseason.

Assuming they re-sign Solder, assuming Marcus Cannon returns healthy, and assuming Garcia enters camp in playing shape (which is the largest assumption of all, given the unknowns of the illness that cost him his rookie season), the Patriots likely only need one of the two players for depth purposes.

Both players did perform well, on the whole, in 2017. Fleming started six regular-season games, while Waddle started four. Waddle started in the team's divisional round win over the Titans, while Fleming started in the AFC title game and the Super Bowl. Waddle has an extra year in the league but has started just four more games than Fleming.

PREDICTION: Waddle will likely cost less, but the Patriots may be more committed to Fleming, considering they spent a fourth-round pick on him in 2014. Expect one of the two players to return.

Rex Burkhead

Rex Burkhead
Rex Burkhead (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Rex Burkhead's case is an interesting one. After scoring four total touchdowns in his first four NFL seasons combined, he made it into the end zone eight times in just 10 games for the Patriots.

He showed he could run the ball (64 carries, 265 yards, 5 TDs) and catch the ball (30 receptions, 254 yards, 3 TDs). He picked up 46 yards on a simple screen pass in the Super Bowl.

What will be interesting to monitor is how teams view Burkhead. Is he capable of taking on a bigger role in a different offense? Or is he just a classic case of Belichick taking a relative unknown and turning him into a player perfectly suited to help the Patriots? If one team buys into the former idea, Burkhead could find himself with a big payday on the open market.

PREDICTION: Expect Burkhead to return, maybe on an identical deal to the one he signed last year. The injuries might cost him that big-money free-agent deal, and he might be looking for a one-year opportunity to try again to earn that big contract.

Dion Lewis

Dion Lewis
Dion Lewis (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Somewhat similar to Malcolm Butler, running back Dion Lewis is the perfect Patriots success story. After amassing 3,265 yards from scrimmage and 31 touchdowns during his two college seasons at Pitt, Lewis' NFL career never got going. A rash of injuries prevented him from ever really getting an NFL chance, and after missing the entire 2013 and 2014 seasons, it looked like his career might be done.

But Belichick gave him a chance, and Lewis has been nothing short of exceptional in his three seasons with the Patriots.

In a crowded backfield in 2017, Lewis led the team in rushing with 896 yards -- more than twice that of Mike Gillislee, who ranked second on the team with 383 yards. He also caught 32 passes and scored nine offensive touchdowns and he was one of just seven players in the NFL to return a kickoff for a touchdown.

The performance was outstanding, and it was likely enough for Lewis to earn a legitimate payday on a two- or three-year contract.

PREDICTION: The Patriots would love to have Lewis as a part of their offense going forward, but expect him to sign elsewhere for more money than he'd get in New England. He's certainly earned that right. The Patriots, meanwhile, will probably get to work in identifying the next Dion Lewis, who might be on a practice squad in Cleveland or out of the league entirely.

(Not listed above: CB Johnson Bademosi, ST Matthew Slater, ST Nate Ebner, LB James Harrison, DT Ricky Jean Francois, ST Brandon Bolden, DE Geneo Grissom, LB Marquis Flowers. Of that group, players to expect on the roster in 2018: Slater, Ebner, Flowers.)

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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