This story has been updated to reflect the Patriots’ compensatory picks.
Changes are coming to the Patriots roster.
The new league year, along with free agency, will begin on March 17.
Six weeks later, the 2021 NFL Draft is scheduled to be held April 29 through May 1 in Cleveland.
Let’s set the stage for what could be in store.
How much cap space do the Patriots have?
The NFL has yet to finalize its salary cap for the 2021 season, but the number will be no less than $180 million. Regardless of the final figure, the Patriots will have plenty to spend, currently boasting the third-highest amount of cap space in the league with $62.5 million. That number accounts for the team’s carryover from last season as well as the eight players who opted out and are expected to return.
Between now and the start of free agency, the Patriots could create additional room by releasing players under contract.
Which Patriots might not be back?
More than 20 Patriots are expected to become unrestricted free agents, meaning they are able to negotiate and sign with any team.
On offense, the team will need to decide whether it wants to re-sign the following players: center David Andrews, running back Rex Burkhead, wide receiver Damiere Byrd, offensive tackle Jermaine Eluemunor, center James Ferentz, quarterback Brian Hoyer, quarterback Cam Newton, guard Joe Thuney, and running back James White.
On defense, the list includes safety Terrence Brooks, defensive tackle Adam Butler, linebacker Shilique Calhoun, linebacker Brandon Copeland, defensive tackle Carl Davis, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, cornerback Jason McCourty, defensive end John Simon, and defensive end Deatrich Wise.
Also set to hit unrestricted free agency are four core members of last season’s special teams unit: kicker Nick Folk, who earned the starting job over rookie fifth-round draft pick Justin Rohrwasser; gunners Justin Bethel and Cody Davis; and wide receiver Donte Moncrief, who assumed a new role as a kick returner.
Cornerback J.C. Jackson is also set to become a restricted free agent, meaning the Patriots can tender him with the right of first refusal and/or draft compensation.
Which positions are their biggest areas of need?
Quarterback has obviously drawn the most attention, given the uncertainty at the position. Newton seems open to returning to the Patriots, and has expressed confidence in his ability to maintain a starting role.
During a recent appearance on the “I Am Athlete” podcast, Newton attributed some of his poor performance last season to the lack of offseason and his COVID-19 diagnosis. He admitted to feeling pre-snap discomfort and overthinking his decisions in the pocket. Perhaps he’ll feel more comfortable after a full season with the playbook.
Newton returning to the team is certainly not out of the question, but the Patriots are undoubtedly considering other options. Quarterbacks Jared Goff, Matthew Stafford, and Carson Wentz will all be playing for new teams next season, and more movement is surely coming.
Among the free agents is a familiar face in Jacoby Brissett, whom the Patriots drafted with a third-round pick in 2016 before trading him the following season to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for wide receiver Phillip Dorsett.
Other passers that will be available include Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Mitch Trubisky, Tyrod Taylor, and Jameis Winston.
Two players still under contract to watch are Jimmy Garoppolo, who has two years remaining on his deal with the San Francisco 49ers, and Marcus Mariota, who has a year left with the Las Vegas Raiders.
It seems more likely that Mariota, behind Derek Carr on the Raiders depth chart, gets traded (or released) over Garoppolo because 1. The Raiders are probably interested in shedding his $10 million-plus cap hit, and 2. The 49ers are likely retaining Garoppolo as a starter unless they make a splashy move, such as trading for Deshaun Watson.
OK, but once the Patriots sign a quarterback, who will catch the ball?
After 2020’s abysmal passing attack, the Patriots could use another wide receiver or tight end. The team ranked 27th in the league in average points scored per game (20.4), 30th in average passing yards per game (180.6), and tied for dead-last in number of passing touchdowns (12).
Lucky for coach Bill Belichick, this free-agent class is loaded with proven wide receivers at varying price tags and experience. The long list of possibilities features Nelson Agholor, Keelan Cole, Corey Davis, Will Fuller V, Kenny Golladay, AJ Green, TY Hilton, Marvin Jones, John Ross, Allen Robinson, Curtis Samuel, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Sammy Watkins.
There are options at tight end, too, with Jared Cook, Gerald Everett, Kyle Rudolph, and Jonnu Smith. Hunter Henry could also become available if the Los Angeles Chargers decide not to franchise tag him. All seem like an upgrade after the Patriots received virtually no production from their rookie tandem of Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene last season.
Which draft picks do the Patriots have?
The Patriots have nine selections in this year’s draft.
They’ll have one first-rounder (15th overall), a second-rounder (46th overall), a third-rounder (a compensatory pick at No. 96), two fourth-rounders (111th overall and a compensatory pick at 139), a fifth-rounder (142nd overall), two sixth-rounders (171st, 173rd overall), and a seventh-rounder (203rd overall).
What might they do with their top pick?
The quarterback position is once again the area of focus.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. had the Patriots selecting Alabama quarterback Mac Jones in his initial mock draft, and his most recent version projects the Patriots will trade up to select North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance.
If the Patriots choose to go in a different direction, Kiper said this week in a conference call that Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle and Florida’s Kadarius Toney are the only wide receivers worth considering at 15th overall — and even Toney is a bit of a stretch at that stage.
Kiper also named Florida tight end Kyle Pitts as the lone tight end worth drafting at No. 15.
On the defensive side, Kiper listed a few options at cornerback in Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II, and Sout Carolina’s Jaycee Horn. “Two of those three will probably be still there,” he said. “Guaranteed one of those three will still be there.”
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.