When NFL free agency officially begins at 4 p.m. next Wednesday, the Patriots will have a decent wad of cash to spend.
With the release of tight end Dwayne Allen Monday, they have $24 million in salary-cap space — more than enough to fill all of their needs. And they can always create more space, with a contract extension for Tom Brady, by releasing a veteran such as Adrian Clayborn, or by restructuring/extending a veteran such as Devin McCourty or Rob Gronkowski.
But this may not be the year for the Patriots to go all-in on a major free agent, as they did in 2017 by giving Stephon Gilmore a five-year, $65 million contract. The top free agents this year — running back Le’Veon Bell, quarterback Nick Foles, linebacker C.J. Mosley, and safeties Earl Thomas, Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, and Eric Weddle — don’t really fit their needs. If the Patriots do splurge, it probably would be on one of their own — defensive end Trey Flowers, or, less likely, left tackle Trent Brown.
The most glaring needs are on the offensive side of the ball, with Brady, Julian Edelman, and (maybe) Gronkowski needing some new supporting cast members. The Patriots of course need a young quarterback to groom behind Brady, and they’re getting old in the secondary. But those are long-term needs that can be filled in the draft.
Let’s take a look at their most immediate roster needs, and the options available. In addition to current free agents, we tried to identify players who could be available in a trade or released. And we’re not including a kicker or punter, as we believe the Patriots should re-sign Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen.
The biggest needs, in order:
1. WIDE RECEIVER
Under contract: Julian Edelman, Braxton Berrios, Cody Hollister, Damoun Patterson, Josh Gordon (suspended).
High-end options: Tyrell Williams, Adam Humphries, Devin Funchess, Randall Cobb, Jamison Crowder, Golden Tate, John Brown.
Value options: Phillip Dorsett, Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, Donte Moncrief, Tavon Austin, Cole Beasley, Kevin White, T.J. Jones, Rishard Matthews, Michael Crabtree, Pierre Garcon, Tommylee Lewis.
Trade candidates: Seth Roberts (Raiders), Antonio Brown (Steelers).
Release candidates: DeVante Parker (Dolphins), Danny Amendola (Dolphins).
Analysis: Edelman is the only receiver on the roster who has an NFL catch. The Patriots need to add multiple receivers, and at least one should be a proven veteran. They also will control Gordon’s rights as a restricted free agent when he comes off suspension, and likely will keep him.
No one in the high-end group excites me that much; it’s a bunch of “B” receivers who are going to command “A” prices. And I can’t imagine the Patriots want to throw big money at a receiver without also doing something for Edelman, who will make between $2.5 million and $5.5 million this year. Instead, they have six draft picks in the first three rounds, and should try to find one or two elite receivers there.
If the Patriots are going to spend money on anyone, it should be Humphries, who has been durable and productive and would look great in New England. Tate, entering his 10th season, and Crowder, coming off an ankle injury, could be decent value signings. But they’re 5-10 and 5-9, respectively, and I think the Patriots need a bigger receiver on the outside, similar to Brandon LaFell or Hogan. Funchess is intriguing, but there were questions about his effort in Carolina; he had a down 2018 season yet still could command a big contract.
Among the value options, Hogan gave New England a good three seasons, but it’s time to move on. Dorsett showed enough promise that I’d like to see him back, though the Patriots shouldn’t overpay for him. I wouldn’t mind seeing Patterson for $3 million-$4 million, and if he’s too expensive, Austin could be an option in the kick returner/gadget player role (Lewis would be an even cheaper version). Garcon is worth a look as that big, physical receiver on the outside. Same with Matthews, who has had decent production despite never playing with a good quarterback.
A reunion with Amendola is worth exploring if/when he is released, though that ship probably has sailed. Parker, a former first-round pick, is worth investigating once the Dolphins release him. The Raiders have most of their roster up for sale, and I’d check in on Roberts, another big receiver, who is set to make $4.65 million this year. Brown has to be included, but it’s hard to think he’s coming to New England.
2. TIGHT END
Under contract: Rob Gronkowski, Jacob Hollister, Stephen Anderson, Ryan Izzo.
High-end options: Tyler Eifert, Jared Cook, Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
Value options: Jesse James, C.J. Uzomah, Luke Willson, Tyler Kroft, Lance Kendricks, Jake Fisher.
Trade candidate: Ed Dickson (Seahawks).
Analysis: The Patriots released Allen, and Gronkowski is not long for the NFL, so they definitely need to add one if not two tight ends. There isn’t a No. 1 tight end in this crop of free agents, but there are a few decent options for the role of Gronk’s sidekick.
Eifert has been decimated by injuries the last three years, but he caught 13 touchdown passes in 2015, and might be worth a one-year, incentive-laden deal. Seferian-Jenkins has stayed out of trouble the last two years, and has the size (6-5, 262) and all-around game similar to Martellus Bennett’s. James, 6-7 and 261 pounds, would look good in a Patriots uniform after four decent seasons in Pittsburgh. Dickson, who will be 32 this year, is an excellent blocking tight end and is under contract for $3.7 million, similar to what the Patriots paid Allen in 2018.
An intriguing option is Fisher, a former second-round pick as a left tackle by the Bengals who reportedly lost weight this offseason and is trying to become a tight end. He could be a hybrid tight end/tackle in the New England offense.
3. DEFENSIVE END
Under contract: Adrian Clayborn, Deatrich Wise, Keionta Davis, Derek Rivers, Ufomba Kamalu.
High-end options: Trey Flowers, Ezekiel Ansah, Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Dante Fowler, Shane Ray, Bruce Irvin.
Value options: John Simon, Markus Golden, Shaq Barrett, Aaron Lynch.
Trade candidate: Solomon Thomas (49ers), Charles Harris (Dolphins).
Release candidates: Justin Houston (Chiefs), Andre Branch (Dolphins), Olivier Vernon (Giants).
Analysis: The Patriots need to sign at least one defensive end, possibly two if they end up making Clayborn a salary-cap casualty. If they do spend money in free agency, it likely would be on Flowers, who has developed into a solid anchor on the line.
But I don’t necessarily see the need to overspend to keep Flowers. Thanks to several edge rushers getting the franchise tag, Flowers is the best one available in free agency, and he could command upward of $17 million per season. That’s a lot of money for someone who has never really sniffed a Pro Bowl.
Of the high-end options, Preston Smith is intriguing, with good measurables (6-5, 265), durability (played all 64 games over four years), and production (24.5 career sacks). But, like Flowers, Smith probably is going to command a nice payday, and if the Patriots are going to spend big money on a defensive end, they may as well spend it on Flowers. Same applies for Za’Darius Smith.
Bringing back Simon seems like a no-brainer; he’ll be cheap, is good in the locker room, and was a solid producer last year as a defensive end/outside linebacker. Lynch is a big, stout defensive end at 6-6, 270. Branch has similar size, and the Patriots know all about him, facing him for the last three years with Miami.
And they should check in with the 49ers and Dolphins about Thomas and Harris, two former first-round picks who have disappointed.
4. DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Under contract: Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, David Parry, Frank Herron.
High-end options: Ndamukong Suh, Sheldon Richardson, Michael Pierce (RFA).
Value options: Henry Anderson, Darius Philon, Malcom Brown, Timmy Jernigan, Allen Bailey, Christian Covington, Bennie Logan, Mario Edwards, Danny Shelton.
Trade candidates: Robert Nkemdiche (Cardinals), Vernon Butler (Panthers), A’Shawn Robinson (Lions).
Analysis: The Patriots have two defensive tackles as free agents, and it wouldn’t be shocking if neither returned. Brown was OK as a two-down run-stopper, but I want him back only on a short-term, cheap deal. Shelton made one big play in the Super Bowl, but otherwise was a bust last year.
I don’t see any need for the Patriots to spend big on a Suh, Richardson, or Pierce. In fact, they might just fill all of their defensive line needs with some of the versatile tackle/ends listed above, similar to what they have in Guy. Jernigan has had a decent five-year career, can play across the line, and might be had for a discount since he is coming off an injury. Anderson had seven sacks for the Jets last year and can play inside or outside. Edwards also can play anywhere across the line, and doesn’t turn 25 until April.
For trade candidates, Nkemdiche, Butler, and Robinson are all former high draft picks who disappointed with their original team, and are entering the final year of their contracts — which means only a one-year, minimum-cost investment, and the potential for a compensatory draft pick down the road.
5. OFFENSIVE TACKLE
Under contract: Marcus Cannon, Isaiah Wynn, Cole Croston, Dan Skipper.
High-end options: Trent Brown, Jared Veldheer (RT), Ja’Whaun James (RT), Daryl Williams (RT).
Value options: LaAdrian Waddle, Cam Fleming, Kendall Lamm (RT), Joe Barksdale (RT).
Trade candidate: Donald Penn (Raiders).
Release candidates: D.J. Humphries (Cardinals), RT Jermey Parmell (Jaguars).
Analysis: Brown is the top left tackle in free agency after having an outstanding year for the Patriots, and could be looking at $14-plus million per year. There’s no question he was an important piece for the Patriots, but if they weren’t going to pay big money for Nate Solder, I have a hard time seeing them doing it for Brown.
The Patriots could certainly plug in last year’s first-round pick, Wynn. He was getting work at left tackle during training camp, and they obviously were high on him. Of course, Wynn is coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon and has never taken an NFL snap, so the Patriots had better sign good depth at the position. This seems like a good year to invest in another left tackle in the draft, where the Patriots can lock a young player into a cheap, four-year contract.
Of the high-end free agent options, Veldheer makes the most sense. He has started at left tackle, right tackle, and right guard in a nine-year career, has the massive size (6-8, 321) the Patriots covet, and probably could be had in the $8 million range.
Bringing back Waddle or Fleming for another year wouldn’t be the worst idea, though that can’t be their only move at the position. Humphries could be a decent option if the Cardinals release him before his fifth-year option becomes guaranteed, and maybe the Raiders wouldn’t mind getting a draft pick for Penn, though his salary is a bit high (anywhere from $6.85 million-$10.6 million).