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Who’s in, who’s out: Running through the Patriots’ free agents

J.C. Jackson stepped up as New England’s No. 1 cornerback following the trade of Stephon Gilmore, intercepting eight passes and earning his first Pro Bowl nod.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Considerable changes are once again coming to the Patriots.

General manager Bill Belichick overhauled the team last year, drafting a rookie quarterback and splurging during free agency after the franchise’s first losing record in two decades. The additions were enough to earn a playoff berth as a wild-card team, but the nosedive in the final weeks of the season illustrates why the post-Tom Brady rebuild is going to take much more than one record-breaking spending spree.

The Patriots have a number of personnel decisions to make, and will take their time to do so.

“We all need to step back and again, catch our breath, take a longer view of things, and, at some point, we’ll talk about certain situations,” Belichick said Sunday morning. “Players that aren’t under contract, players who — whatever their future is with the team or whatever their individual situations are, those will all be dealt with at a later point in time.”

Fourteen Patriots are set to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason, meaning they will no longer be under contract and are free to negotiate with any team. Another three will become restricted free agents, meaning they can negotiate with any team, but the Patriots will have the right of first refusal and/or the ability to tender them for draft compensation.


Let’s take a look at which players could be on their way out:


Dont’a Hightower — Hightower, a team captain, returned this year after opting out of the 2020 season. He started 15 games, playing 58.8 percent of the defensive snaps and registering 64 tackles. While there were some moments where he looked like the Hightower of old, there were also plenty where he seemed a step slow, whiffing on tackles and getting beat in the open field.

Will Dont’a Hightower be back next season?Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Ja’Whaun Bentley — The 2018 fifth-round draft pick finished the regular season as the Patriots’ leading tackler with 109. He exited Saturday’s loss with an arm injury and did not return. Additional details of the injury are unknown.


Jamie Collins — Perhaps his most memorable highlight after returning for his third stint with the organization in October was picking off Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold in Week 9 just 0.17 seconds after the ball was released.

Harvey Langi — Langi suffered an MCL sprain in Week 7 and never came off injured reserve. Prior to the injury, he earned very few defensive snaps — just 16 over seven games — and primarily contributed on special teams.

Thoughts: Speed and athleticism are clear priorities for revamping the linebacking corps. The group has Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Josh Uche, Chase Winovich, Ronnie Perkins, Anfernee Jennings, and Cameron McGrone all returning. The majority of that list is young, unproven players — Perkins, Jennings, and McGrone did not play a snap this season — so it’s possible help is available internally. Plus, Uche, who played only 21.9 percent of the defensive snaps, has shown promise.


Safety Devin McCourty — McCourty played 94.4 percent of the defensive snaps — the highest proportion of any defensive player — and played every game for the sixth straight season. The long-time team captain plays an important leadership role in the locker room, along with his spot in the safety rotation alongside Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger.

Devin McCourty has been a part of the Patriots since 2010.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Cornerback J.C. Jackson — Jackson stepped up following the trade of Stephon Gilmore, intercepting eight passes and earning his first Pro Bowl nod.


Thoughts: The Patriots could franchise tag Jackson, pushing his free agency to 2023 by offering him a guaranteed one-year contract projected to be worth $17.3 million. The team obviously needs additional depth; Joejuan Williams, Myles Bryant, Shaun Wade, and a handful of practice squad players aren’t going to cut it. Slot cornerback Jonathan Jones, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, is under contract through 2022, so his return will undoubtedly help.

Special teams

Gunner Matthew Slater — Slater said Saturday night he did not want to “disrespect the team” by discussing his personal situation, but retirement seems very much on the table. The 36-year-old, drafted by the Patriots in 2008, said he will discuss the matter with both his family and the staff before reaching a final decision. In his 14th NFL season, Slater played a team-high 80 percent of the special teams snaps.

Linebacker Brandon King — King returned to action this season after missing 2020 on the physically unable to perform list and 2019 on injured reserve due to a torn quad. He played almost exclusively on special teams, logging just two defensive snaps.

Nick Folk has been one of the most consistent kickers in the league the last two years.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Kicker Nick Folk — The 37-year-old was one of the Patriots’ most valuable players this season, converting 92.3 percent of his field-goal attempts and 89.4 percent of his extra points. He said Thursday he’d “love to keep playing” after this season.

Returner Gunner Olszewski (RFA) — His numbers as a punt returner dipped to 11.9 yards per return, down from 17.3 in his 2020 All-Pro season, but still ranked third in the league.


Thoughts: Given the special teams woes this season, the Patriots may have to evaluate how many players they retain that only contribute there. Olszewski played just 6 percent of the offensive snaps this season. What is his potential as a receiver? If it’s low, is he worth a roster spot just to return punts and kickoffs when other players are capable?


Quarterback Brian Hoyer — The 36-year-old was the team’s backup quarterback over 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham. He earned praise from both coaches and rookie quarterback Mac Jones for his guidance.

Right tackle Trent Brown — In his second stint with the Patriots, Brown was sidelined for an eight-week stretch with a calf injury. His absence left the offensive line in flux, but once he returned, he proved to be quite the effective blocker in both pass protection and the run game.

Center Ted Karras — Karras earned a spot in the starting offensive line at left guard. He also backed up starting center David Andrews in the few snaps Andrews missed.

Running back James White — White, a team captain, played just three games before a season-ending hip subluxation.

Brandon Bolden had a career-best season when it comes to receiving yards.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Running back Brandon Bolden — Bolden, who opted out of the 2020 season, stepped up to fill White’s pass-catching back role. He finished with a career-high 405 receiving yards, and 21 of his 41 receptions converted for a first down.


Wide receiver Jakobi Meyers (RFA) — Meyers finished as the team’s leading receiver with 83 receptions for 866 yards and two touchdowns. He and Jones have a strong connection, as Meyers repeatedly came through as a tough, reliable option on third down. The Patriots should absolutely ensure he remains in New England.

Fullback Jakob Johnson (RFA) — The Patriots used Johnson on 28 percent of the offensive plays. In addition to serving as a blocker, Johnson caught four passes on five targets for 43 yards. The Patriots this season also chose and were awarded Germany — Johnson’s home country — as their international home market, as part of the league’s global efforts.

Thoughts: Although the offense struggled to score points at times, the unit has building blocks in Jones, Damien Harris, and Rhamondre Stevenson. Re-signing Brown and Karras would keep the offensive line intact. Finding a No. 1 receiver and/or a speedy, shifty slot option would complement Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, and tight end Hunter Henry well. N’Keal Harry still has a year left on his rookie contract.

Nicole Yang can be reached at nicole.yang@globe.com.