The 2020 NFL season was always going to be a transition year for the Patriots, with Tom Brady moving on and Bill Belichick letting most of the high-priced free agents leave this spring.
But Belichick has a lot more work cut out for him now, just to fill out his lineup. The Patriots have been hit harder than any other NFL team with opt-outs, with Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, and Marcus Cannon among the eight Patriots who in the last week have backed out of playing.
The season kicks off in just six weeks, and Belichick needs to find a starting right tackle, a linebacker, a safety, and probably a tight end, too.
Belichick could simply promote some of the youngsters penciled in for backup roles, but because of the pandemic, there are better players than usual available in free agency. The Patriots may be held together a bit by Scotch tape, and none of the free agents will be as good as the players they are replacing, but the Patriots have the salary cap space (about $26 million) to bring in a few veterans and remain competitive this year.
Let’s take a look at the free agents they should sign in the next couple of weeks:
1. Right tackle Demar Dotson.
First things first: The Patriots should shore up the offensive line after losing Cannon. None of their current options are very appealing. The other tackles on the roster are Korey Cunningham, who appeared in one game last year, and Yodny Cajuste, a third-round pick who spent his entire rookie season on the injured list. Cajuste might be worth the wait, but starting him from Day 1 is a huge gamble.
The other option is to move Joe Thuney to right tackle, and let someone like Hjalte Froholdt, who also didn’t play a snap as a rookie, move to left guard. But that potentially makes the Patriots worse at two positions.
Instead, Belichick should sign a sturdy veteran right tackle to protect Cam Newton. Dotson, a 10-year veteran with the Buccaneers, certainly fits that role. Dotson may be 34, and the Bucs didn’t want him back, but Belichick should be able to coax another good year out of him.
Dotson has been durable, with 30 starts the last two years, and has the added benefit of playing right tackle for his entire career. Other veteran tackles available include Donald Penn and Cordy Glenn, who are left tackles.
2. Cornerback Logan Ryan.
No, cornerback is not the Patriots’ biggest need; it may be their smallest need, in fact. But bringing back Ryan, a free agent after three productive seasons in Tennessee and four in New England, makes too much sense not to happen.
After losing Chung and Hightower (and trading Duron Harmon), the Patriots just need talented, versatile football players. Ryan can play pretty much anything in the secondary — boundary cornerback, slot cornerback, deep center field, zone, man, etc. Plus he knows the Patriots defense, is respected in the locker room, and has the maturity and temperament to fill the leadership void.
3. Linebacker Alec Ogletree.
Jadeveon Clowney is the name mentioned frequently for the Patriots on TV and talk radio, but his skills as an edge rusher don’t really fill the Patriots’ needs, and he has high salary demands. The Patriots aren’t shelling out big money for free agents this year, and I doubt Clowney is coming to New England to play for a Newton-like minimum contract.
Instead, what the Patriots really need are linebackers, after losing all three of their starters from last year (Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Hightower).
The Patriots aren’t totally barren at the position. Third-year veteran Ja’Whaun Bentley should be able to step in and make an impact. Chase Winovich and John Simon can do linebacker jobs. Shilique Calhoun and Brandon Copeland are veteran backups. And at least one of three draft picks — second-rounder Josh Uche, third-rounder Anfernee Jennings, and sixth-rounder Cassh Maluia — should produce, though it will be asking a lot of rookies to make an impact this year when they didn’t have normal offseason training and practice.
This group needs just one more veteran off-the-ball linebacker who can help get guys lined up before the snap, then chase down a ball-carrier. The best option looks to be Ogletree, who has started 93 games in seven seasons with the Rams and Giants.
Ogletree has been a three-down inside linebacker who plays both the run and pass and should have some football left in his legs at 28 years old. Other options include Wesley Woodyard, Preston Brown, and Nigel Bradham.
4. Safety Eric Reid.
The Patriots lost an important player in Chung, who has been Belichick’s queen chess piece the last several years. Having a safety who is big enough to play the run but fast enough to play man coverage has been crucial to Belichick’s defense.
He has a few options on the roster; Kyle Dugger was drafted in the second round, Adrian Phillips was signed from the Chargers, and Terrence Brooks returns for a second year. But there’s a reason Belichick gave Chung a new contract and a pay raise in May. Dugger is a rookie who is making a huge jump from Division 2, Phillips has mostly been a backup in his career, and Brooks didn’t have a great 2019 season in New England.
Reid probably has lost a step in coverage, but he’s still a big, physical presence who started 16 games last year and was second among all defensive backs with 129 tackles. Reid would be a great football fit in Foxborough, and signing him would also bring more attention to the Patriots’ social justice efforts. Other options include Mark Barron and Tavon Wilson.
5. Tight end David Njoku.
Losing Matt LaCosse to an opt-out doesn’t crush the Patriots at tight end, but it does highlight how unproven and unsettled the position is.
Ryan Izzo, a blocking tight end and 2018 seventh-round pick, is the only player with NFL experience. He is joined by four rookies: third-round picks Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, and undrafted Rashod Berry and Jake Burt. Jakob Johnson, a second-year fullback, also can play some tight end.
It’s certainly the least-proven tight end unit in the NFL, and depending on how the third-rounders pan out, possibly the worst.
I know Njoku is not a free agent, and he rescinded his trade request last week while tweeting he is “all in” with Cleveland. But the Patriots should go get him. Njoku’s price may never be lower; he caught just five passes in four games last year, and the Browns gave a big free agent contract to Austin Hooper.
But Njoku is a 2017 first-round pick who showed promise in 2018 with 56 catches for 639 yards and four touchdowns. And he’s under contract for a reasonable $1.76 million this year and $6.01 million next year.
Free agent options include Delanie Walker, Charles Clay, and Luke Stocker. But Njoku is much younger (24) and has a lot more football left.