NFL free agency is almost here. And Tom Brady isn’t the Patriots’ only question mark.
The Patriots have several holes to fill. They need more front-line talent at receiver and tight end, and the offensive line can always use a boost.
Free agency officially opens at 4 p.m. March 18. The Patriots currently have about $35 million in salary-cap space, though that number will decrease to $29 million if Brady’s contract voids on the 18th.
Let’s take a look at their biggest positional needs, and how they can fill them:
Under contract: Jarrett Stidham, Cody Kessler
Own free agents: Tom Brady
High-end options: Dak Prescott, Ryan Tannehill, Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston, Philip Rivers, Taysom Hill
Value options: Marcus Mariota, Case Keenum, Blake Bortles
Trade candidates: Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Derek Carr, Nick Foles
Analysis: Bringing Brady back is clearly the best option for winning in 2020. If he leaves, Bridgewater makes the most sense of the high-end options, but he will likely price himself out of the Patriots’ market (look out for the Buccaneers). Prescott is almost certainly not leaving Dallas. Tannehill is going to command a large contract, but has a spotty track record. Rivers is too old, Winston too error-prone, and Hill not only has never been a true NFL quarterback, it’s going to cost a first-round draft pick plus a large contract to pry him away from the Saints.
The value options make sense only if the Patriots want to install Stidham as the starter, which seems premature.
So if the Patriots lose Brady, they should either trade for a veteran to keep the seat warm for a year or two, or draft another kid and let him duke it out with Stidham in training camp.
Of the trade options, Newton has the highest ceiling, but he has been injury-prone the last few years, and his accuracy and decision-making are questionable. Carr ($19 million salary in 2020) is the safest option, but I’m not sure the Raiders are ready to move him.
Dalton, almost certain to be traded by the Bengals, seems like the best fit. He has been an NFL starter for nine years, made the playoffs five times, and is under contract for a reasonable $17.7 million in 2020 (and his contract has no dead money, meaning the Patriots probably could force him to take a pay cut).
2. Wide receiver
Under contract: Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Quincy Adeboyejo, Devin Ross
Own free agents: Phillip Dorsett
High-end options: Amari Cooper, A.J. Green, Robby Anderson, Emmanuel Sanders
Value options: Randall Cobb, Breshad Perriman, Devin Funchess, Nelson Agholor, Travis Benjamin, Keelan Cole (restricted)
Trade candidates: Odell Beckham, Stefon Diggs, Alshon Jeffery, Marquise Goodwin
Analysis: The Patriots don’t need to overhaul the position; they just need to add one more front-liner.
If Brady doesn’t return, they should get a receiver in the draft. If Brady does return, there are plenty of great options.
I don’t see a major need to seek out a trade; why give up a draft pick and spend $14 million on Beckham or $12 million on Diggs when they can get someone cheaper in free agency or the draft? Goodwin, the former Olympic sprinter, would bring some much-needed speed, and would cost a fraction of the others.
Otherwise, free agency is the way to go. Green would look great with the Patriots, but it doesn’t sound like the Bengals are going to let him get away. Same with the Cowboys and Cooper.
The guy the Patriots should target is Sanders, who proved last year with the 49ers that he still has plenty of good football left, and that he’s a quick learner. And considering he’ll turn 33 next week, Sanders should be more cost-effective than other options.
The other free agent to watch is Anderson, coming off a nice season with the Jets (52 catches for 779 yards and 5 touchdowns). At 6-3 and 190 pounds, he’d look great on the outside. But Anderson, who turns 27 in May, might have a much more lucrative free agent market than Sanders.
3. Tight end
Under contract: Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo
Own free agents: Ben Watson (retired)
High-end options: Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper
Value options: Eric Ebron, Jordan Reed, Blake Jarwin (restricted), Jason Witten, Charles Clay, Jacob Hollister (restricted)
Trade/release candidates: Hayden Hurst, Jimmy Graham, O.J. Howard
Analysis: LaCosse and Izzo are good enough to return, but the Patriots badly need a No. 1 tight end. Problem is, there are only two available in free agency, and both will be tough to get. The Chargers don’t look like they’re going to let Henry go, and Hooper either will be retained by the Falcons or likely price himself out of the Patriots’ market.
None of the value options are the answer.
Hurst looks like a great option. The 2018 first-round pick has slid to the No. 3 tight end in Baltimore, but he’s young, super cheap (owed about $3.5 million total over the next two years), and perhaps could benefit from a change of scenery. Same with Howard, though it doesn’t seem as if the Bucs are looking to move on.
Graham, likely to be released by the Packers, isn’t the answer by any means. But he could make sense as a one-year stopgap, as long as the Patriots also draft a tight end.
The Patriots should try to trade for Hurst, and if they can’t land him, they should draft at least one tight end, and maybe two.
Under contract: Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall, Tashawn Bower
Own free agents: Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts, Shilique Calhoun
High-end options: Cory Littleton, Blake Martinez, Joe Schobert, Nigel Bradham, De’Vondre Campbell
Value options: A.J. Klein, Nick Kwiatkoski, Danny Trevathan, Alec Ogletree, Patrick Onwuasor, Kamu Grugier-Hill
Trade candidates: Haason Reddick
Analysis: The Patriots could have significant turnover at linebacker, and Van Noy seems to have a robust free agency market and is likely gone. They should try harder to bring back Collins, but only if the market for the 30-year-old doesn’t explode. Bringing back Roberts in a reserve role seems like a no-brainer.
Drafting a linebacker seems like a must, especially given Hightower’s age (30 this week) and injury history. But the Patriots don’t need to go crazy in free agency if they lose Collins and Van Noy. Bentley could easily step into a bigger role, and you can always find a body at linebacker.
I like Klein and Grugier-Hill as value options, and Reddick is a former first-round pick who hasn’t panned out in Arizona, and could help net a compensatory pick down the road.
Under contract: Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Terrence Brooks, Obi Melifonwu, Malik Gant, Adarius Pickett
Own free agents: Devin McCourty
High-end options: Justin Simmons, Anthony Harris, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vonn Bell
Value options: Damarious Randall, Adrian Phillips, Jimmie Ward, Tony Jefferson, Tre Boston, Karl Joseph
Analysis: The Patriots have a giant hole at safety, but there’s only one veteran who makes any sense: McCourty. They should do whatever they can to bring him back for the next few years, not only because he is still an excellent player, but because he’s a great locker room leader as well. If McCourty leaves, the Patriots don’t have to sign a free agent or trade for a veteran; they can just slide Harmon into his role.
They should look to draft a safety, especially since Chung and McCourty are on the wrong side of 30. But it should be McCourty or bust in free agency.
Under contract: David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Hjalte Froholdt, Najee Toran
Own free agents: Joe Thuney, Ted Karras, James Ferentz
High-end options: Brandon Scherff, Graham Glasgow, Connor McGovern, Andrus Peat, Jason Peters (OT).
Value options: Matt Skura (restricted), Daryl Williams, Ron Leary, Greg Van Roten, Ereck Flowers
Trade/release candidates: Trent Williams (OT)
Analysis: Thuney is going to command a massive contract in free agency, and it wouldn’t be the worst idea for the Patriots to do the splurging. But more likely Thuney is going to get that payday elsewhere, leaving a hole at left guard.
The Patriots don’t need a high-end option to replace him; if they’re going to spend, it may as well be on Thuney. Karras would be a nice fill-in, but his market also may be more than the Patriots are willing to spend. Williams and Van Roten, two ex-Panthers, are intriguing options (Williams especially, since he plays every line position but center). The Patriots also could target Williams or Peters for left tackle and slide Isaiah Wynn to guard, though that seems like more work and money than necessary.
Most likely, the Patriots should draft another guard, sign a value free agent, and let them battle it out with Froholdt for the left guard spot.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.