Happy New Year, NFL fans.
At 4 p.m. Wednesday, the league’s calendar officially flips to the 2016 season, which means teams will be free to trade players and sign free agents.
The Patriots aren’t expected to be major players in free agency, given that almost their entire defense remains intact and they still have the core of the offense (Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and most of the line) under contract.
But the Patriots still have needs to fill, and they should sign several players over the next few weeks. And most of the top needs are on the offensive side of the football, where they have star power but not a lot of depth.
They enter free agency with about $20 million in salary-cap space and plenty of flexibility to move more money around.
Let’s take a look at the most glaring holes and how the Patriots can look to fill them in free agency:
Currently under contract: Edelman, Danny Amendola, Keshawn Martin, Aaron Dobson, Chris Harper, and DeAndre Carter.
The Patriots weren’t that deep at the position last year, and then they cut No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell last week, leaving a hole opposite Edelman with no clear-cut options. Martin should contribute as a No. 3 or 4 receiver, Dobson is no lock to make the team after three disappointing seasons, and Harper and Carter are projects.
Unfortunately, the wide receiver market in free agency isn’t that deep. The best available receivers are inconsistent or mediocre performers such as Travis Benjamin, Marvin Jones, and Rueben Randle, who all will likely price themselves out of the Patriots’ range.
Of those, Randle would be the best fit, but he likely will be too expensive.
Mohamed Sanu is an intriguing option as a great athlete and a Rutgers product, but he, too, could price himself out of their market. Mike Wallace became available Tuesday, but he is likely too expensive. Percy Harvin could be a good low-risk/high-reward candidate, but given his injury history and sometimes bizarre off-field behavior, the Patriots probably couldn’t count on him to be a consistent contributor in 2016.
The Patriots could try to sign an old veteran who wants a ring; Anquan Boldin, Marques Colston, and Andre Johnson are available, but none of those guys play special teams.
Ultimately the Patriots might have to draft a receiver in the middle rounds and sign a few veteran depth guys for near-minimum salaries and hope that one sticks.
The lack of depth in free agency actually could help Amendola stick around for another season, although the Patriots will likely ask him to cut his $5 million salary.
Currently under contract: Dion Lewis, James White, Brandon Bolden, Tyler Gaffney, Joey Iosefa, FB James Develin.
The Patriots need at least one running back, possibly two. Lewis was a revelation last year, but he’s coming back from a torn ACL, and the Patriots need to hedge their bets. White proved himself to be a dependable pass-catcher with good speed as the third-down back, but he lacks power to break tackles and run up the middle. The Patriots need a bigger back to fill the “LeGarrette Blount” role, perhaps Blount, who is a free agent.
But really, they need a versatile, three-down back, someone who doesn’t tip their hand when he’s in the game.
The guy I and many others have circled is Matt Forte, who has rushed for 8,602 yards (4.2 average) with 68 touchdowns and caught 487 passes for 4,116 yards and 19 touchdowns in eight years.
Forte also been extremely durable, missing only eight games in those eight seasons. Yes, he’s 30 years old, but if the Patriots can get Forte for $3 million-$4 million a year for two seasons, they should pounce.
The Patriots will never pay for the top running backs such as Lamar Miller, Doug Martin, Chris Ivory, and Arian Foster. More realistic options are the Khiry Robinson, Alfred Morris, Bilal Powell, and Joique Bell.
C.J. Anderson, who had two big games against the Patriots last season, also is a good option; Denver gave him a restricted free agent tender of $1.6 million, which the Patriots would have to exceed, but it wouldn’t cost them any draft-pick compensation.
Currently on the roster: Gronkowski, Mike Williams, A.J. Derby, Keavon Milton.
Williams hopes to be down 20 pounds to about 280 when he enters training camp, and the Patriots like the athleticism and potential of Derby, last year’s sixth-round pick, who was essentially given a redshirt season. But they badly need another tight end after cutting Scott Chandler.
Unfortunately, it’s not a good year for tight ends in free agency. Antonio Gates will almost certainly re-sign with the Chargers, and Dwayne Allen already re-signed with the Colts.
The best remaining options are the Owen Daniels, Ladarius Green, and the Coby Fleener. Daniels and Fleener could be decent fits as more of an H-back tight end.
Currently on the roster: Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming, LaAdrian Waddle.
The Patriots’ toughest loss to overcome in 2015 may have been Solder, to a torn biceps in Week 5. Cannon was a disaster trying to fill in at left tackle, Vollmer was ill-suited to handle the position, Fleming had never played there at any level before filling in for one game, and Waddle, who was acquired at the end of the season, is mostly a right tackle.
So not only do the Patriots need to find a better backup for Solder, it’s also time to think about life after Vollmer and Cannon, who might have only one season left in Foxborough, if that.
The market is ripe with quality tackles and guards, but if the Patriots make a signing, it almost certainly would be a veteran backup, likely a player who can play guard or tackle, and probably someone who comes cheap.
More likely, look for the Patriots to use a high draft pick on an offensive tackle of the future.
The Patriots have their core defensive players under contract for 2016: Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Logan Ryan, Patrick Chung, Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown, and others.
All but McCourty, Chung, Easley, and Brown are entering the final year of their deals, but the Patriots likely won’t address contract extensions until after the draft.
But they do have a few holes. They could use another cornerback to complement Butler, Ryan, Justin Coleman, Darryl Roberts, and Rashaan Melvin. Leon Hall, Brandon Boykin, Jeremy Lane, and Nolan Carroll look like intriguing veteran options, and the Patriots were excited about Tarell Brown last year before he reinjured his foot.
The Patriots also might need another edge rusher, with Jones and Sheard in the last year of their contracts and Ninkovich now 32. The Patriots won’t spend big for a pass rusher, but good value might be found in Chris Long, Jason Jones, Derrick Shelby, Junior Galette, Jason Hatcher, Randy Starks, and former first-round pick Adrian Clayborn.