Update, March 12: This story has been updated to reflect the Patriots re-signing QB Cam Newton.
The new league year begins at 4 p.m. on March 17. The Patriots will have a number of decisions to make on how to rebuild the roster.
With big needs at quarterback, receiver, defensive tackle, linebacker, and cornerback, how will coach Bill Belichick approach free agency?
Here’s a look at the key free agents from the 2020 Patriots roster. Check back as this story is updated with more players.
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Cornerback Jason McCourty
Age: Turns 34 in August.
Resume: When he first arrived prior to the start of the 2018 season in a trade with the Browns, the scouting report was that he had the potential to be an excellent complementary piece. He might not have been considered as talented as his brother Devin, but he could help fortify one of the deepest positions on the New England roster. And over his first two years in New England, he did just that, working as a second corner behind Stephen Gilmore and making big plays at important times while teamed in the secondary with the likes of his brother, Gilmore, and rising young star-in-the-making J.C. Jackson. He did see a bit of a transition in 2020; he was supplanted on the outside by Jackson and Jonathan Jones, working some in the slot while also seeing time at safety.
That newfound versatility is another tool he figures to use come 2021. At this stage of his career, it’s not about just staying in shape and studying film, but showing a willingness to adapt to the depth chart around you. Bottom line? It’s a savvy veteran move, one that will almost certainly pay dividends for McCourty when it comes to his prospects for 2021.
The market: There are going to be a lot of high-profile free agent corners on the market, many of them on the plus-side of 30, including Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, and Josh Norman. McCourty won’t command those types of high-end dollars. But if you’re a veteran defense in need of a dependable, low-cost, and versatile depth piece in the secondary — Green Bay? San Francisco? — McCourty could be a good under-the-radar acquisition.
Should they re-sign him? Yes. If the Patriots are looking to keep McCourty on the roster — and if he’s so inclined — I could see a one-year deal for the veteran at the minimum, which is just over $1 million annually. With the understanding that he could end up in the middle of a camp roster battle with a younger or more inexperienced defensive back, the idea of having him back for short money is a no-brainer.
Will they re-sign him? Given McCourty’s leadership skills, versatility, and expected low cost, I think he is back.
Analysis: A few things to consider:
• Two guys who could impact on McCourty’s future are cornerback Joejuan Williams and defensive back Myles Bryant. If the Patriots feel Williams is capable of filling McCourty’s spot at corner and Bryant at safety, they could decide to move on from McCourty.
• The McCourtys are held in the highest esteem throughout the league. These are the sorts of individuals you want your franchise to attract. Their presence alone speaks volumes about your roster makeup.
• If there’s one signing where sentimentality could play a role, it’s here. The chance for a reasonably priced veteran to (presumably) finish his career in a familiar spot alongside his brother could be the sort of feel-good story that could help set the stage nicely for 2021.
Running back James White
Resume: One of the most dynamic offensive options in recent franchise history, White was immense in 2018: 87 catches, 751 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns; 94 carries, 425 rushing yards, 5 TDs. He’s eighth in franchise history in career receptions (369) and 14th in receiving yards (3,184), and has three Super Bowl rings to his name. You could argue that he suffered from Tom Brady’s departure more than anyone else, as his totals dipped to some of the lowest since he first arrived in the league. However, while his career is still a work in progress, based on what he did in Super Bowl LI alone, you could already make a case for him as a future member of the Patriots’ Hall of Fame.
The market: White has few comparables when it comes to this year’s free-agent market. The only UFA who might be considered similar is Carolina’s Mike Davis, who stepped in for the Panthers when Christian McCaffrey went down with health issues. (Last season, White had 375 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown on 330 snaps. The 5-foot-9, 221-pound Davis, had 373 receiving yards and a pair of receiving touchdowns after 579 snaps.) Even with the recent downturn in free-agent deals for running backs, there won’t be many like White on the market.
Should they re-sign him? Definitely. White has not only distinguished himself as a great and dependable player, but a great teammate and terrific leader. He and Julian Edelman are two of the only remaining offensive touchstones to an earlier era. A smart and heady veteran who is knee-deep in the system, he remains a terrific example of how to succeed in New England for younger players. And he would likely be a relatively inexpensive signing.
Will they re-sign him? It’s tough to tell for a few reasons.
• The Patriots don’t have a similar back on the roster right now. Rex Burkhead is the only other dependable back who has something resembling a similar skill set, but he’s also an unrestricted free agent and coming off a serious knee injury.
• White hasn’t had the usual workload of most running backs, but at the age of 29, it’s fair to ask how much tread has come off his tires. The Patriots have a lot of salary cap room, but they aren’t in the business of handing out multiyear deals to running backs in the late 20s.
• White just suffered through a brutal season that included the death of his father, and you have to wonder if he’s interested in hitting the reset button at this point in his career.
• Belichick remains committed to turning things over as frequently as possible at the running back position. Seven seasons as a running back in New England under Belichick is a lifetime — only Kevin Faulk (12 years) and Brandon Bolden (eight seasons) have hung around longer.
Analysis: If I’m Tom Brady, I’m already in White’s ear, recruiting him to come to Tampa. The Bucs’ don’t have a traditional third-down back on the roster, White is a Florida native, and Brady trusts him in big moments. Barring that, I could see him signing with a team that needs a battle-tested, cost-effective veteran to bring some stability to the offense. I would love to be proven wrong — I have an unnatural affinity for third-down backs, and White is the latest in a long line of players that include Faulk, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, and Dion Lewis. But it feels like we might have already seen his last game in a New England uniform.
Offensive lineman Joe Thuney
Resume: He’s one of the best in the league at what he does — he made All-Rookie in his first season, and was second-team All-Pro in 2019. He’s durable, having played at least 97 percent of snaps every season since he arrived in the league in 2016. While his natural position is guard, he’s versatile, having played guard, tackle, and center in the NFL. He’s a winner, with a pair of Super Bowl rings at age 28. An elite player.
The market: Thuney will command one of the richest contracts for any offensive lineman this offseason. (The only current comparable could very well be Washington guard Brandon Scherff, who was franchised.)
What sort of numbers could we be talking about? The landscape has changed over the last year-plus, but in November 2019, guard Brandon Brooks got a four-year extension from the Eagles worth between $54.2 million and $56.5 million (depending on reports) with $30 million guaranteed, a contract that made him the highest-paid guard in the NFL. That’s certainly a legitimate neighborhood for Thuney’s reps to shoot for.
Should they re-sign him? Yes. Thuney is not only an excellent offensive lineman. He represents stability, consistency, and offensive continuity, something the Patriots could use. If they can make the money work, they should definitely make every attempt to re-sign him.
Will they re-sign him? That’s a tougher question. Thuney’s future in New England is likely tied to two guys — center David Andrews and guard Michael Onwenu. Like Thuney, Andrews has been a rock-solid presence for New England’s offensive line for the last several seasons but is also set to hit free agency. Meanwhile, Onwenu was arguably the best offensive rookie on the roster last year. He played 92 percent of the offensive snaps, lining up at right tackle, right guard, left guard, and tackle-eligible tight end, and landed a spot on the Pro Football Focus All-Rookie Team.
If the Patriots believe Onwenu can build on that promising first year and they can shape a workable long-term deal with Andrews, then it wouldn’t be a surprise to see New England move on from Thuney. If not, then Thuney could be one of their pricier free-agent signings.
Analysis: The Patriots are expected to have $63 million in cap space this offseason, and while they have questions on both sides of the ball, the return of Thuney would provide a dose of stability for an offense looking to hit the reset button. Re-signing an offensive lineman isn’t an overtly flashy move, but a successful team builds out from the trenches. (Just ask Patrick Mahomes about the importance of sturdy offensive line play.)
But the recent reacquisition of Trent Brown feels like the first line of a conversation that ends with us reminiscing about how good Thuney was while he was in a New England uniform. Now, the smart play is likely taking the cash you were thinking of offering Thuney and using some of it to re-sign Andrews. The offensive line depth chart from left to right would be Brown, Isaiah Wynn, Andrews, Shaq Mason and Onwenu. A good group. In the end, it’s tough to see the likes of Thuney and (perhaps) Marcus Cannon leave, but as Bill Belichick reminds us every year, change is the only constant in the NFL.
Defensive lineman Lawrence Guy
Age: 31 in March
Resume: A former seventh-round pick of the Packers in 2011, Guy has climbed the NFL ladder from defensive spare part — he’s been cut or waived three times — to an underrated member of New England’s front seven. The 6-foot-4, 315-pounder joined the Patriots prior to the 2017 season, and has emerged as an excellent complementary defensive lineman. Working with Trey Flowers, Alan Branch and Adam Butler, Guy missed just two games in four years. (He played 14 games last season because of shoulder issues.) Overall, he played 50 percent of the defensive snaps the last four years. He even played 37 percent or more of the special teams snaps in three of those four seasons.
He can work against the run or the pass. (He was used more against the run than the pass, but still showed an ability to collapse the pocket in passing situations.) He’s had at least 47 tackles a season, with a career-high 55 in 2018, and has seven sacks in four years. He’s not an overwhelming defensive presence, but has carved out a niche as a sturdy, dependable, and versatile lineman. He shouldn’t be considered an elite player, but it’s not a mistake that he was named to the Patriots All-Decade Team, and was voted a captain last season: Guy’s career in New England has been a testament to reliability and consistency.
The market: Guy is well regarded around the league, and any playoff (or playoff-ready) team looking for a smart and versatile veteran who won’t suck up too much cap space could be interested in him. The market will be tempered a bit because he’ll be 31 when the 2021 season opens, but he’d be a great fit for any team looking to add another relatively cost-effective piece to a high-level defense.
Should they re-sign him? Yes. Keeping a player like Guy on your roster is not only a plus from an on-field standpoint, but he’s emerged as a respected locker room presence.
Will they re-sign him? That’s a little more complicated. Guy’s future could also be tied to fellow UFA’s Deatrich Wise Jr. and Butler. Butler (who is four years younger than Guy) is a rapidly ascending presence who finished strong last season, and could command a generous contract in free agency.
Belichick loves defensive linemen like Guy, a versatile type who can work effectively in a three- or four-man front while putting pressure on the passer and also holding up well against the run. Going all the way back to the likes of Anthony Pleasant, it’s a body type that has had success in New England.
Analysis: It’s undeniable Guy has earned another contract with the Patriots.
The idea of re-upping Guy isn’t a splashy move that’ll draw a lot of attention from the 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. crowd. But you need players like Guy if you want to win championships. From a roster perspective, he’s a prime example of a robust middle-class; a cost-effective, heady veteran who is likely to outperform his contract. It feels like a modest two-year deal would be a good fit for both sides, and have him back along New England’s defensive front for another couple of seasons.
Kicker Nick Folk
Resume: After a brief stumble to start the season, Folk emerged as one of the most important pieces of the New England roster in 2020. He was eighth in the league in field-goal percentage (92.9), going 26-for-28, and among kickers with at least 25 attempts, he had just two misses — only Graham Gano of the Giants was sharper. Folk finished the year with 26 straight field goals made, and had a pair of walk offs to lift the Patriots to wins over the Jets and Cardinals, the latter of which might have been New England’s finest win of 2020.
The Patriots had an amazing record of stability at kicker for more than 20 years with Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski. Folk won’t be around as long as either one of them, but since joining the Patriots in 2019, he has exceeded expectations with a combined 89 percent conversion rate (40-for-45) on field-goal attempts.
The market: There are a lot of well-known kickers who are 30 or older who could be UFA’s this offseason, a group that includes old friend Gostkowski, Ryan Succop and Matt Prater. But among the kickers who could hit the market, only two kickers (Younghoe Koo and Cairo Santos) had a better conversion rate than Folk’s 93 percent. It’s all relative because we’re talking about kickers’ contracts, but Folk should command a million-plus annual base salary again in 2021.
Should they re-sign him? Yes. Folk was as dependable as any kicker in the league last year. For a team that places such a high priority on special teams, his presence brings stability and consistency to the position. As long as they leave themselves an escape hatch in the contract (more on that in a second), it makes sense to bring him back.
Will they re-sign him? One big question here: How do the Patriots feel about Justin Rohrwasser? You remember the fifth-round pick from last spring who likely spent his first NFL paycheck on tattoo removal and ended up on the practice squad? Then, there’s Roberto Aguayo, another practice squadder with an impressive college resume (69 of 78 on field goals and 198-for-198 on PATs at Florida State). Provided Folk returns, the guess here is there’s a competition between Folk and (at least) Rohrwasser at some point this offseason. If Rohrwasser or Aguayo are ready, then Folk could be deemed expendable.
Analysis: As long as someone doesn’t overpay him — and that is a possibility, given the ever-fluctuating market for kickers — Folk is a natural fit to return to New England. He’s already proven his worth over a season-plus as a relatively low-maintenance veteran who can come through in big moments. One of the things that really makes Folk’s relatively short time in New England unique is that last season, he was only responsible for field goals and extra points, and didn’t have to worry about kickoffs. Part of that is obviously because of Jake Bailey’s big leg, but a part of it is because Belichick recognizes just how good Folk is, and is willing to accommodate him to make sure he stays as healthy as possible. While that set-up is only a small part of what made Folk so successful last year, it’s one of the reasons why it makes so much sense for the Patriots to re-up Folk for at least more season.
Christopher Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.