Assessing the free agent pool for the Patriots biggest areas of need

The Patriots are on to 2021.
There’s still two games to play, of course, but that’s just a formality. With no playoffs on the horizon, the Patriots are essentially playing out the string with an eye toward next season.
If there’s a caveat, the final two games will provide Bill Belichick even more of an opportunity to see how some of the younger players might fit into the future plans, and help him assess his priorities going forward.
With or without those games, though, it’s been fairly obvious throughout the season where many of the holes lie.
Offensively, it starts with the most important position at quarterback, and branches out to the skill positions at wide receiver and tight end. All the Patriots need to do is look toward the AFC front-running Chiefs and Bills, and know they’re going to need to put up a lot more points than they did this season to compete down the road.
Defensively, the front seven also needs work, particularly up front where they’ve been suspect. They also have some in-house free agents they could lose in free agency (Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, John Simon). So that factors into the equation.
The Patriots will certainly have a bit of money to spend even after taking care of in-house free agents. Right now, they’re flush with cap space.
Of course Belichick can plug the holes through free agency, the draft as well as trade avenues.
On the free agency front, here’s a look at some of the best available free agents in positions of need for the Patriots.
Quarterback
There’s a list of QBs who are set to hit free agency, and a few others who might gain that status if they’re released.
Given that, it’s important to distinguish what the Patriots may or may not be looking for. If they enter the draft and focus on landing a quarterback they believe could be the answer, the veteran they sign is going to be a placeholder until the kid is ready to take over. So there’s no need to make a huge splurge.
And given how quickly many of the first round picks have jumped in, the wait shouldn’t be too long.
If they’re merely going to take a shot at someone in the latter rounds, like they did with Jarrett Stidham in the fourth round, they’ll want more than a placeholder. They’ll want someone who will essentially be the guy for a few years and perhaps beyond.
The placeholder possibilities include veterans Ryan Fitzpatrick (Dolphins) and Andy Dalton (Cowboys). If they want to take a whirl with a free agent quarterback who still has plenty of years ahead, they could bring back Jacoby Brissett (Colts) or try and make something out of Jameis Winston (Saints).
Again, it depends on what Belichick is hoping to accomplish at the position. He might actually feel bringing Cam Newton back with a full offseason is the best option under the circumstances.
Or maybe that’s not in the cards.
The view here is that while Newton has brought so much to the room, so much that has been embraced by the players as well as the organization, it would be hard to stomach another season with him heaving the football like it was a shot put. The team should thank him for filling the post-Tom Brady void and move on. As for Stidham, the powers that be have given no indication he’s the man.
So let’s continue to assume they look elsewhere.
It’s possible the best options lurk with a couple quarterbacks who might not be in the plans of their respective teams, namely Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers), Matthew Stafford (Lions) and Carson Wentz (Eagles).
It’s a whole different ballgame if any of this trio become available in free agency, or via trade.
Belichick would likely pounce on Jimmy G, given his knowledge of the system, not to mention the Hoodie originally drafting him to be Brady’s successor. Belichick has a soft spot for the Niners quarterback, there’s little question about that.
Garoppolo’s injury history, however, is a concern, but certainly not a deal breaker if he’s available. Jimmy G wouldn’t be a bad option. He’s capable of getting them back into the playoffs with an improved surrounding cast.
Wentz, meanwhile, doesn’t look like he’s getting his job back from rookie Jalen Hurts, whose injected life into Philly’s sagging offense. Wentz can’t be as bad as he played this year. So he would be a bit of a reclamation project. It’s doubtful the Pats would want to take on his pricey contract in a trade, if the Eagles don’t release him.
Stafford? This would be a good option, especially if the Patriots don’t land the quarterback they want in the draft. Stafford can still play. He’s just been stuck in a miserable situation in Detroit. If he becomes available after all the smoke clears with the new coach and GM hires, he’s the man to focus on. If the Lions set him loose, the Patriots should pounce.
Of all the positions of need, this one holds the most intrigue.
Wide receiver
They need a No. 1 receiver, and a No. 2 wouldn’t be bad, either. It’s doubtful the Patriots will double-down but you never know.
They currently have Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olczweski and Marqise Lee, who opted out, under contract for next season. At this point, it’s hard to say what Edelman’s future holds with a chronic knee issue.
So bolstering the worst receiving corps in the NFL is the biggest priority after settling the quarterback situation.
On the more expensive end, there’s Allen Robinson (Bears), JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers), Will Fuller (Texans), Kenny Golladay (Lions) and Chris Godwin (Buccaneers).
Unless the Patriots are willing to pay top dollar ($18-to-$19 million), which is a huge leap, this group won’t apply. Plus, New England is going to be a hard sell for an elite receiver unless there’s a legitimate quarterback under center.
For the purpose of this exercise, and in dream land, we’ll jump into the pool. We’ll believe the Patriots are going all-in for a top gun. So which high-priced receiver would be a good fit in Foxboro?
Robinson’s name has been kicked around in Patriots circles. The Bears wideout has been productive even while having to catch passes from Mitchell Trubisky. Last year, he hauled in 98 passes for 1,147 yards. He’d work just fine in the Patriots offense.
Godwin is another interesting option. With the Bucs bringing Antonio Brown into the fold, he hasn’t been utilized quite as much. But he’s a difference-maker, and might be looking to go to someplace where he’d be the No. 1.
Golladay’s injury history (hip) might lower his price a bit, but not much. He’s still going to get a big pay day. But again, everyone in this group is going to command top dollar, and the Patriots simply don’t pay for receivers.
Below that group there’s T.Y. Hilton, Curtis Samuel, Sammy Watkins, Corey Davis, Marvin Jones, Keelan Cole and Nelson Agholor. This group might be in the $9-to-$11 million neighborhood.
Perhaps, given the need, the Patriots will splurge on one of the players in the second group. Cole and Agholor, who will both be 28 next season, might be in the Patriots wheelhouse. They’re not quite No. 1 receivers, but would be a step in the right direction for the Pats.
Whether it’s free agency, the draft, trade, upgrading at receiver is a must.
Tight end
The Patriots drafted Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in 2020, and also have Ryan Izzo in the stable.
Not nearly enough. Even if the younger players improve, they still need to add a veteran to the mix who can actually play. If the Patriots don’t get the stud receiver, they would be wise to set their sights on a tight end who can contribute to the offense.
The problem here is the list of free agents isn’t great. With that said, the three best free agent options are Hunter Henry (Chargers), Jonnu Smith (Titans) and Gerald Everett (Rams).
While injuries have somewhat plagued Henry’s career, and he hasn’t produced quite like he did his first two seasons before suffering a torn ACL, he would still be a huge upgrade over what the Patriots have in-house.
The Chargers slapped him with a franchise tag ($10.6 million) in 2020, so it’ll be interesting to see what route they take with him this year. With Justin Herbert looking like he’s going to be a great quarterback for years to come, it’ll be important for the Chargers to provide weapons.
After Henry, Smith would be a good addition. He’s been a significant contributor in the Titans offense. He’s averaged more than 7.0 yards after the catch over his career.
He’s not known for his blocking, but is a dynamic playmaker, which is exactly what the Patriots need.
Everett, meanwhile, would also be a solid upgrade. Nothing flashy, but he knows how to play the position and would definitely help in the passing game.
One other possibility is Mo Alie-Cox, who has put together a surprisingly good year for the Colts. He’s a former hoop player at Virginia Commonwealth.
Maybe Asiasi or Keene will show something Year 2, but it would also help them having a veteran on board.
Defensive line
The Patriots could lose both Guy and Butler to free agency, which would create even more of a void. Guy has been their best and most consistent presence up front. It’s hard to imagine them keeping both. But the bottom line is they need more beef up front to help stop the run. They were gashed by too many teams, who gained too many ground yards, with the two most recent games (Dolphins, Rams) being the prime example.
Who’s going to be available?
Cam Heyward (Steelers), Leonard Williams (Giants), Ndamukong Suh (Bucs) and Kenny Clark (Packers) will all see their current contracts run out after this season. Would love Green Bay’s Clark, but the price tag for him, as well as the other names listed above, might be too high for the Patriots’ liking. The Packers exercised Clark’s fifth year option ($7.69 million) on his rookie deal this year.
Sheldon Rankins (Saints) and Devlin Tomlinson (Giants) are two other possibilities.
The Pats are more likely to head to the draft for a big run-stuffer, than overpay a big guy up front.
But the bottom line remains: they can’t have another year, where teams embarrass them on the ground. They also need a pass rusher who can not only get to the quarterback, but set the edge against the run, something Chase Winovich and Simon struggled to do this season. The Patriots were really hurt by outside runs.
So they need some beef in the middle, and or a pass rusher who is better at holding the edge.
Linebacker
Does Dont’a Hightower return? And if so, is he enough to make the linebacking corps a strength once again?
It’s hard to know what Hightower’s plans are, or what the team’s plans are for him. He’ll be 31 in March, and after opting out for a year, some have speculated he might retire. So that bears watching.
Ja’Whaun Bentley had some good games, but he’s limited. He just doesn’t have the lateral speed to track down runners who aren’t headed straight for him. Rookies Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche were used out of necessity, while the Patriots also had safeties in linebacker roles (Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger).
Uche shows promise as a pass rusher, while Jennings looked good in spots. He needs more seasoning.
Basically, they need another run stopper, and who can also drop into coverage.
Seattle’s K.J. Wright is expected to become a free agent. The veteran has been one of the more consistent linebackers. Last season, he had a career-high 132 tackles, along with 11 passes defended and three interceptions. He was also good in coverage. He’s 31, but again, with so many young players, they need veteran guidance, especially if Hightower doesn’t return.

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