As Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty said Monday, changes are coming to New England.
“I think when you have a season like we did this year and you’re not going to the playoffs, you have embarrassing losses, this roster’s going to be a lot different,” said McCourty, his team 6-9 heading into Sunday’s finale against the Jets. “There’s a lot of guys that are in the locker room that aren’t going to be in the locker room next year. Guys that are playing football right now that aren’t going to be playing football next year.”
A number of Patriots will become free agents this offseason, which means Sunday’s game could mark their last game with the organization.
Let’s begin with the quarterback room, where both starter Cam Newton and third-stringer Brian Hoyer are set to become unrestricted free agents, meaning they are free to negotiate and sign with any team. Backup Jarrett Stidham, meanwhile, is under contract through the 2022 season.
Newton, who signed a one-year, veteran-minimum deal this summer, has referred to his time in New England as “a job interview.” Asked after Monday’s blowout loss to the Bills if he has done enough to prove to the Patriots — and the league — that he deserves another contract, Newton replied, “I don’t care about no contract,” and reiterated his interest in winning games.
This season marks one of the worst of Newton’s 10-year NFL career, as he’s thrown just five touchdown passes and averaged 172.5 passing yards per game. Throughout New England’s offensive struggles, however, coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have overtly stood by Newton, starting him every game he’s been available.
Even if he does not return to New England, Newton, who turns 32 in May, doesn’t seem ready to retire.
“I’m not there,” he said recently during an interview on WEEI. “I still have a lot of football left and I still want to play football and I have the urge to be better.”
Should the Patriots decide to bring back Newton, it’s hard to envision the quarterback room staying completely intact. Hoyer, now in his third stint in New England, began the season as Newton’s backup, started one game in which he got benched for Stidham, and has since been relegated to the inactive list each week.
In addition to deciding how to handle the quarterback position, the Patriots will have decisions to make on several other important players, too.
On offense, center David Andrews, running back Rex Burkhead, wide receiver Damiere Byrd, right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor, backup center James Ferentz, guard Joe Thuney, and running back James White are all set to become unrestricted free agents.
Andrews and Thuney have been mainstays on New England’s offensive line, while Eluemunor carved out a starting role after Marcus Cannon opted out of the season because of concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic. Ferentz, who has bounced between the active roster and practice squad, filled in for an injured Andrews earlier this season.
Byrd, in his first season with the Patriots, ranks second on the team in receiving yards (597) and receptions (46). Burkhead and White, known for their production as pass-catching backs, continued to contribute in that capacity, with a combined 931 yards from scrimmage.
On defense, impending unrestricted free agents include defensive tackles Adam Butler, Carl Davis, and Lawrence Guy, safety Terrence Brooks, linebackers Shilique Calhoun and Brandon Copeland, cornerback McCourty, and defensive lineman Deatrich Wise.
Of those players, Butler, Guy, McCourty, and Wise are the only players who logged over 50 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season. McCourty’s twin brother, Devin, signed a two-year deal in March and has stated he plans on returning in 2021.
On special teams, three key contributors in Justin Bethel, Cody Davis, and kicker Nick Folk are set to hit unrestricted free agency. Bethel leads the team in special teams snaps, beating out veteran Matthew Slater by just two snaps.
Even though Slater is not scheduled to become a free agent, it’s possible he might not return, either, instead opting for retirement. After signing a two-year extension in March, the 35-year-old captain recently expressed uncertainty about his future plans.
“That’s something that [my wife] Shahrzad and I are going to have to pray about and we are going to have to see what we feel like is best for our family,” Slater said Wednesday. “If we feel the Lord is telling us to do something, we want to be obedient in that way.”
Folk, 36, registered one of the best seasons of his career, knocking down 92.9 percent of his field-goal attempts, including two game-winners and a long of 51 yards. The Patriots have two kickers on the practice squad, fifth-round pick Justin Rohrwasser and newly signed Roberto Aguayo, but Folk remains an option for the team moving forward.
“I feel like I’m kicking pretty well,” Folk said last week. “There’s no inkling in me that wants to stop. I enjoy this, I enjoy the guys, I enjoy my teammates playing football. It’s a lot of fun. I enjoy kicking. So, I want to keep going, want to keep playing.”
Two Patriots, cornerback J.C. Jackson and Tashawn Bower, will enter restricted free agency, meaning the Patriots can tender them with the right of first refusal and/or draft compensation.
Jackson is the obvious one to watch in this category. If the Patriots were to tender him at the second-round level, for example, that means Jackson can re-sign at a predetermined contract amount. If another team offers him a deal, the Patriots could have the opportunity to match. If Jackson signs with a new team, that team would have to surrender a second-round pick to the Patriots.
Lastly, four Patriots — cornerback Myles Bryant, linebacker Terez Hall, fullback Jakob Johnson, and running back J.J. Taylor — will become exclusive rights free agents, meaning they must re-sign with the Patriots if the team chooses to offer them a deal.
Free agency is set to begin March 17.
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.