The one certainty when NFL free agency begins March 15: Changes are coming to the Patriots.
A team that finished 8-9 needs several upgrades on offense and has a few holes to fill on defense. The Patriots have at least $30 million in salary-cap space, seventh-most in the NFL, and they will likely have more assuming they release a handful of veterans.
Here is a look at their roster and where they are likely going in 2023, based on an analysis of their contracts and discussions with league sources last week at the NFL Combine:
▪ Quarterback: Find a veteran backup.
At the combine, the Patriots met with draft prospects, including Florida’s Anthony Richardson, and with the representatives of at least one veteran starting-caliber quarterback. But it appears they were just doing their diligence.
Word is they are happy with Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe (combined cash outlay in 2023: $2.95 million) and are looking for only a veteran third-stringer to replace Brian Hoyer, who is expected to be released. Someone such as Jeff Driskel, Chase Daniel, or A.J. McCarron (who played with Bill O’Brien in 2020) would make sense.
▪ Running back: Find a No. 2 to help Rhamondre Stevenson.
Stevenson was fantastic in 2022, but the Patriots are concerned that he wore down a bit toward the end, fumbling four times in the final six games. Stevenson’s snaps increased from 265 as a rookie to 699, the most by a Patriots running back since at least 2011, and his touches increased from 147 to 279.
The Patriots were overly reliant on Stevenson because neither rookie running back earned playing time — Pierre Strong had 10 carries, and Kevin Harris 18 — and the lightbulb never fully clicked for Damien Harris during his four years in Foxborough. The Patriots probably would take Harris back in a pinch, but will likely look for an upgrade.
▪ Wide receiver: Room for at least one, if not two (or even three) new guys.
The only locks appear to be Tyquan Thornton and DeVante Parker. Nelson Agholor is definitely gone, so that’s one vacancy. Jakobi Meyers is expected to hit free agency, and the Patriots will likely let him establish his market and decide whether they want to match an offer. The third vacancy could come from Kendrick Bourne, whose $5.5 million salary is a bargain but who clearly had issues with the coaches and may be disgruntled if he doesn’t get a new contract.
Free agency isn’t the answer other than Meyers, though a mid-level veteran such as Mack Hollins (690 yards and a special teams ace) would be a nice fit. The Patriots really need to use that 14th pick on a receiver or trade it for a veteran such as Tee Higgins, Deebo Samuel, Jerry Jeudy, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, or Chris Godwin.
▪ Tight end: Definitely need one.
Hunter Henry will likely be back for the final year of his contract, though a short-term extension to lower his $15 million cap number would benefit all sides. The tricky decision is with Jonnu Smith, who has been a big disappointment but has $6.25 million in guaranteed salary this year. The Patriots might have to bite their lip and keep him one more year, but they should first call the Falcons to see if Arthur Smith (Jonnu Smith’s former coach in Tennessee) is willing to take him in a trade, even if the Patriots have to pay some of the guarantee.
Free agents Mike Gesicki, Dalton Schultz, and Hayden Hurst would all be upgrades over Smith. Even if Smith returns, there is still room for a third tight end, and the Patriots haven’t developed one since Rob Gronkowski. This year’s draft is loaded at tight end.
▪ Offensive line: Looking for a right tackle.
Center David Andrews and guards Mike Onwenu and Cole Strange are safe. The obvious need is tackle, and word is the Patriots are looking for a right, which implies that Trent Brown is coming back on the left side. That makes sense; of Brown’s $4 million base salary in 2023, $3 million is fully guaranteed, and he has shown enough that it’s worth giving him one more year.
Plus, the Patriots have a hole at right tackle with Isaiah Wynn almost certainly gone, and it wouldn’t be ideal to have new players at both spots.
The Patriots re-signed late-season fill-in Conor McDermott, and should bring back restricted free agent Yodny Cajuste as a backup. But if they’re going to spend money, signing one of the top right tackles such as the 49ers’ Mike McGlinchey or Falcons’ Kaleb McGary would give them a potentially dominant line.
▪ Defensive front seven: Linebackers.
The defensive line looks pretty well set with Matthew Judon, Deatrich Wise, Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, Christian Barmore, and Josh Uche. But the Patriots have room for linebackers, with Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson both set to hit free agency and only Ja’Whaun Bentley, Jahlani Tavai, and Anfernee Jennings under contract.
If the Patriots want to make a big splash, one player I have circled is Tremaine Edmunds, the Bills’ 6-foot-5-inch middle linebacker who has 100-plus tackles in all five of his seasons and can play the pass (35 passes defended and five interceptions).
▪ Defensive back: Need an outside corner.
Jalen Mills, Jack Jones, and Marcus Jones will be back, but the Patriots need another outside cornerback. At minimum, they need to re-sign Jonathan Jones, the seven-year veteran who is tough, durable, and was their best cornerback last year.
Jones was terrific on the outside, but he could be moved back to the slot to replace Myles Bryant, who is a restricted free agent. Adding a free agent such as the Bucs’ Jamel Dean or Steelers’ Cameron Sutton could make a good secondary great.
The Patriots also need two safeties, but should just re-sign Devin McCourty and Jabrill Peppers to go along with Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips. They probably should draft another safety, but don’t need to sign one in free agency.
▪ Specialists: An entirely new battery?
The Patriots may look for their new specialists in the draft instead of free agency, but they need new faces. Kicker Nick Folk is 38, he ranked 13th in field goal percentage last year (86.5), and he doesn’t have a big enough leg for kickoffs. Punter Jake Bailey was the worst in the NFL, and his surprise one-game suspension at the end of the year (over which Bailey has filed a grievance) signaled that the Patriots appear ready to move on. And standing is in question for long snapper Joe Cardona, a free agent who missed the final three games last year with a torn tendon in his foot.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.