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NFL free agency: Patriots have holes to fill but what they really need is not one, but two receivers

Packers wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling is just what the Patriots need — he is 6-4 and can absolutely fly.Nick Wass/Associated Press

When the NFL’s “legal tampering” period begins Monday at noon, the Patriots will have plenty of holes to fill.

Their best player in the secondary, cornerback J.C. Jackson, is a free agent. So are most of the linebackers, plus right tackle Trent Brown, running backs James White and Brandon Bolden, and several key role players such as Ted Karras and Matthew Slater.

But one need stands above the rest as the Patriots look to improve upon last year’s 10-7 regular season:

Wide receiver. And not just one of them.

For the Patriots to become a true Super Bowl contender in 2022, they need to get Mac Jones two new receivers. They need a big, fast, alpha on the outside, and a small, quick possession guy in the slot.


The Patriots may have reached the playoffs last season, but were noticeably punchless in the final weeks. Games against the Bills and Dolphins turned into track meets, and the Patriots couldn’t keep up.

The problem was Jones didn’t have a true No. 1. Jakobi Meyers, the Patriots’ leading receiver, was 33rd in the NFL in yards (866) and 40th in yards per game (50.9). Kendrick Bourne ranked 45th in yards per game, Hunter Henry 69th, and Nelson Agholor 82nd.

And it was no coincidence that in 2021, the top NFL teams all were powered by elite receivers:

▪ The Rams won the Super Bowl behind the best receiver in the league, Cooper Kupp.

▪ Seven of the top 10 receivers in terms of yards per game reached at least the Divisional round: Kupp (first), Devante Adams (second), Deebo Samuel (fourth), Ja’Marr Chase (fifth), Chris Godwin (seventh), Tee Higgins (eighth), and Tyreek Hill (10th).

▪ That list doesn’t include Stefon Diggs, Travis Kelce, A.J. Brown, and George Kittle, elite receivers who each ranked in the teens.


The Patriots currently have six wide receivers on their roster: Agholor, Bourne, N’Keal Harry, Kristian Wilkerson, Tre Nixon and Malcolm Perry. Meyers and Gunner Olszewski are restricted free agents.

While the tampering period begins Monday, all trades and signings don’t become official until 4 p.m. Wednesday, the start of the 2022 league year. The Patriots had $17.6 million in salary cap space as of Sunday morning, per the NFL Players Association, which ranked 17th most in the NFL.

The Patriots probably won’t be big spenders like last year, when they set an NFL record by handing out $175 million fully guaranteed in free agency. But they have plenty of flexibility to make moves, and have several easy ways of creating more cap space, between releases and restructures.

Let’s look at the moves they need to make at wide receiver:

Their own moves

The Patriots might look to move on from N'Keal Harry, who has one year left on his contract.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Bourne will be back, and Meyers likely will be back on a second-round tender ($3.986 million). Harry, entering the final year of his contract, is as good as gone, even if it means releasing him. Agholor might be gone, too, but the Patriots need to figure out what to do with his contract ($5 million of his $9 million salary is fully guaranteed). If they’re lucky, another team will take it in a trade. But the Patriots won’t get much back in return. They may have to just release Agholor and hope that another team signs him for, say, $4 million, which would reduce the Patriots’ obligation to just $1 million.


Olszewski has been a terrific punt returner in three seasons, but hasn’t done anything as a slot receiver. It’s worth remembering that Julian Edelman didn’t break out until his fifth NFL season, so perhaps the Patriots should bring back Olszewski on a salary that is lower than the lowest RFA tender ($2.433 million). But that shouldn’t stop them from trying to find a better slot receiver, too.

Top of the list

Outside: Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Packers (free agent); JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers (free agent).

Slot: Tyler Lockett, Seahawks (trade); Christian Kirk, Cardinals (free agent); Braxton Berrios, Jets (free agent).

Now that the Seahawks have traded Russell Wilson, it’s worth checking to see if they’re willing to sell off other parts. Lockett, who will be 30 in September, should be the Patriots’ top target. At 5 feet 10 inches and 182 pounds, Lockett has the size to play inside and the speed to play outside. And he has developed into an explosive receiver, with 36 touchdowns the last four years and three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Lockett is owed $16 million this year, but the final three years and $44 million would have no guarantees.

Valdez-Scantling is just what the Patriots need — he is 6-4 and can absolutely fly. MVS ran a 4.37 at the Combine, has averaged 17.5 yards per catch in his career, and has scored a 70-yard touchdown in each of his last three seasons. If they can’t sign him, Smith-Schuster is only 25 years old and scored 26 touchdowns in his first four seasons before being derailed by a shoulder injury last year.


In the slot, Kirk is only 26, and had the best year of his career in 2021 after finally being moved inside, finishing with 982 yards and five touchdowns. And Berrios, 27, has turned into a productive slot receiver despite playing with shaky quarterbacks. He already spent one training camp with the Patriots, and a reunion makes a lot of sense.

Maybe pile

Will Fuller appeared in just two games for the Dolphins in 2021.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Outside: Will Fuller, Dolphins (free agent); Allen Robinson, Bears (free agent), Robby Anderson, Panthers (trade)

Slot: Jamison Crowder, Jets (free agent); Jarvis Landry, Browns (trade/release).

Fuller has speed for days, but only played two games last year because of a finger injury, and has missed 42 of 97 games since entering the NFL. But he probably could be had for cheap because of injuries. Robinson is also coming off an injury-plagued season, yet still could be looking at $20 million per year, which will likely scare off the Patriots. The Pats have always liked Anderson, but he’s due $13 million this year, with $8 million fully guaranteed and another $2.8 million owed this Friday, which seems too much for the Patriots.

Crowder and Landry are both terrific receivers and solid backup options if the Patriots can’t land Lockett, Kirk, or Berrios. But both will be 29 this year and are coming off injury-plagued seasons.

Last resort

Outside: Odell Beckham, Rams (free agent); Brandin Cooks, Texans (trade).

Slot: Adam Humphries, Commanders (free agent); Cole Beasley, Bills (trade); Andy Isabella, Cardinals (trade).


Beckham should have been a top target for the Patriots, but he tore his ACL in the Super Bowl, and is likely going to re-sign with the Rams. Cooks was surprisingly productive last year with 1,037 yards and six touchdowns, though $13.7 million seems like more than the Patriots would want to pay him. They also know he’s not a true No. 1 receiver.

The Patriots tried to get Humphries in 2019, so perhaps they will try again now that he’s a bargain and not a premier free agent. Beasley has been productive in Buffalo, but he’s going to be 33 this year, and his outspokenness was a big distraction for the Bills last season. Isabella has been a bust since the Cardinals took him in the second round in 2019, and he had just one catch in 2021. But he went to UMass and probably could be had for a bag of footballs.

Ben Volin can be reached at