By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Bill Belichick has a lot on his plate this offseason. Never mind the need to upgrade at key positions, some of which may have to come via free agency. The Patriots also have plenty of their own free agents to worry about in the coming months.
Some of the Patriots’ impending unrestricted free agents are more likely to depart than others. And a few departures may be welcomed. But the Patriots would also be better off retaining some of their key internal free agents than they would be venturing into the great unknown.
Just like Tom Brady has made all quarterback debates useless unless you want to pull a Tony Dungy, the quarterback position will inevitably displace all other arguments on how the Patriots can get better in 2021. It’s important to note all the other areas of need and positional groups they’ll want to shore up, but QB trumps everything else and will be reflected in our coverage this offseason.
That said, the Patriots still have plenty of flaws that their quarterback room wasn’t good enough to mask in 2020. They may return to the days of the QB making up for their deficiencies in 2021. But those problems would still exist and, like they did during Brady’s career, could make the difference between whether they’re back to being a real Super Bowl contender or just another fraud playoff team.
We’re a long way off from uttering “Super Bowl” and “Patriots” in the same sentence, unless your point is how far off they stand as of January 2021. But if they land the right quarterback, there’s a chance we’re back to talking about the Pats as an AFC East contender, warts and all. And the answer could very well come off the free-agent pile.
But if we’re talking about the Patriots contending for the Sup- … for the big game again, they still need to improve beyond the quarterback position. So it’s worth entering the offseason with a big-picture view of the Patriots’ many questions among their own free agents. We’ll go more in-depth on external free agents for the Patriots in the coming weeks, but this column will cover the internal free agents to know, in all three phases.
QBs Cam Newton and Brian Hoyer. It’s possible that the Patriots flush out the entire quarterback room in 2021. They need a new QBs coach and as many as three new signal-callers. Newton had one of the worst statistical seasons we’ve ever seen from a Patriots QB and flunked the eye test. Stidham could barely get on the field amid Newton’s struggles, even in a Week 17 game that meant nothing in the standings. And Hoyer couldn’t supplant either of them after floundering in Kansas City. It’s fair to expect that at most, one of them will be back next year and the Pats will have a different outlook at the position. And it would be hard for their outlook not to be better than 2020.
LG Joe Thuney. Among the Patriots’ internal free agents, Thuney is the one who would command the most money on the open market. He just played on a $14.7 million franchise tag and should challenge for the top AAV in the league at his position. Zack Martin recently signed a six-year, $84 million extension with the Cowboys, so we’ll see if another team is willing to offer Thuney something similar. Expect the Patriots to at least make a push to keep him, but it could take a highly competitive offer that would eat into their cap space.
C David Andrews. A team captain and one of the best leadership presences in the locker room, Andrews should absolutely be hearing from the Patriots about an extension. If Andrews hits free agency and gets top-of-the-market offers in the range of $11 million per season, which is what Rodney Hudson got from the Raiders, then that may be tougher to accomplish. But Andrews certainly sounds like a guy who wants to stay in New England and would be willing to take less than top-end money to do so. He should be at or near the top of the list of the Patriots’ free agents to keep.
RB James White. I mean he’s clearly going to Tampa, right? It’s hard to imagine that Tom Brady won’t come calling for White to join the Bucs in the offseason. The Patriots have two younger backs who may be ready to take on bigger roles in the passing game, particularly Damien Harris. Even Sony Michel flashed some potential in Week 17 against the Jets. But White won’t cost too much to keep – hard to believe he’ll cost more than the $3.4 million he earned in 2020 – so it’ll be interesting to see who else may want him.
RB Rex Burkhead. The veteran back was finally putting it all together as the Patriots’ best all-around option at the position, but the injury bug struck again and harder than ever when Burkhead unfortunately went down with a torn ACL. He’s a name to remember as someone who could come back on short money later in the offseason after he’s fully recovered from surgery. Even if he does return, he’ll be inconsequential to the Patriots’ ability to spend elsewhere.
WR Damiere Byrd. The wideout may have earned himself a bit of a raise after posting career highs in catches and yards (47-604) in 2020. He also played more offensive snaps (901) than the rest of his career combined in the Patriots’ beleaguered receiver corps. All things considered, Byrd was a pleasant surprise. He’d be a welcome return, but ideally as a complementary receiver rather than every-snap starter.
OL Jermaine Eluemunor. Acquired last season amid injuries and depth concerns on the O-line, Eluemunor played in 12 games and started eight in 2020 and was serviceable at times. But it became clearer over the course of the season that he’s not a true starter at the NFL level. With Yodny Cajuste still in the fold and the emergence of rookies Mike Onwenu and Justin Herron on the OL, Eluemunor shouldn’t be a priority to re-sign.
OL James Ferentz. He’s now spent two seasons bouncing around the bottom of the Patriots’ OL depth chart. He’d be a reliable, affordable player to keep around as a reserve option with familiarity of the offense, especially if they lose Andrews and have to make a transition at center.
FB Jakob Johnson. The fullback is an exclusive rights free agent (ERFA), which means he has an expired contract and fewer than three accrued seasons. The Patriots can exclusively offer him a one-year deal and bar him from negotiating with others. It’ll be interesting to see if they do, because the signing of Dan Vitale and drafting of Dalton Keene indicate that they want to go in a different direction at the fullback position.
OL Marcus Martin. They just signed Martin as essentially an emergency option. For now it’s safe to assume he has no future in New England, but you never know with the Andrews situation.
CB J.C. Jackson. He’s actually a restricted free agent, rather than unrestricted. So the Patriots will tender Jackson to a one-year deal and another team would need to sign Jackson to an offer sheet. The Pats could offer him a first-round tender, which would likely cost in the range of $4.8 million and require any team that signs him to an offer sheet to send a first-round pick to New England. Jackson should be in line for a raise and perhaps an extension after making nine interceptions, second-most in the NFL.
DT Lawrence Guy. One of the Patriots’ most consistent and dependable players over the past four seasons, Guy has been worth every cent of the four-year deal he signed in 2017. It’s unlikely he’ll get another four years or high-end money as a free agent, so it’s probably best for the Patriots to sign him to another multi-year contract. That’s especially true when you look at the team’s lack of depth in the front-seven as they continue to draft their way into a new era. Guy makes a perfect bridge player from one era to the next.
CB Jason McCourty. Despite being an excellent addition in 2018 and 2019, the younger McCourty twin took a step back in 2020. Now 33 years old, McCourty shouldn’t be high on the Patriots’ list of free-agent priorities. The continued presence of brother Devin McCourty might complicate matters, but either way, Jason is a player who won’t command more than a cheap one-year deal at this point.
DT Adam Butler. The former undrafted free agent played on a $3.2 million tender and logged four sacks with seven QB hits in 15 games (four starts). He may draw interest from Brian Flores in Miami as a free agent. But Butler should be able to be had on an affordable new deal. Like Guy, he’d be a good player to have on the roster as Belichick seeks new pieces for the future on the defensive line.
DE Deatrich Wise. Another member of the class of 2017, Wise hasn’t fit well with the Patriots’ defensive system in the last couple of years. He’s better suited as a defensive end in a 4-3 structure, so he may draw interest (and have interest of his own) from teams that would use him that way. He’s proven that he certainly belongs in the NFL. New England just hasn’t felt like his ideal home lately.
OLB John Simon. After a season as a versatile, dependable piece of the Patriots defense, Simon slid back in 2020 and did himself few favors as far as his next contract. He may get a reprieve with Belichick in New England, but he wouldn’t command big money anyway. He’d be just the type of re-signing that makes the media and fans unnecessarily pee themselves with fury.
OLB Shilique Calhoun. He spent some time on injured reserve this season, so we’ll see how long it takes for Calhoun to find himself a team. Like Simon, he seems like a possibility to come back on very short money. They’re going to need someone at linebacker.
S Terrence Brooks. Kyle Dugger’s emergence and Joejuan Williams’ potential at safety left little room for Brooks to play more than just a reserve role on defense. He could very well find a decent deal elsewhere in the offseason, as the Patriots look toward transitioning to more of a Dugger-centric safety group. But if Brooks comes back, it’s unlikely the deal would cost much of anything.
OLB Brandon Copeland. He only played six games before going on IR. Copeland won’t be a priority and would probably cost the veteran minimum if he came back.
DT Carl Davis. The Patriots actually tightened up their run defense for a time when Davis got on the field. He’s a name to keep in mind with Guy and Butler as a potential bridge option to keep around for another year as the rebuild progresses.
CB Dee Virgin. Like the aforementioned Marcus Martin, Virgin just got here. He’s not likely to be on the Patriots’ radar beyond a futures contract.
K Nick Folk. It’s a bad sign when your kicker is one of your team’s bright spots, but Folk has been very good since signing with the Patriots midway through 2019 and staying on for 2020. Still, it would be an even worse sign if the Patriots brought him back yet again, because they drafted Justin Rohrwasser in the fifth round of the 2020 draft. Folk has been steady and even clutch, but he’s not the kicker of the future and finding that guy should be the priority at that position.
CB Justin Bethel. If Matthew Slater retires, Bethel would be the perfect guy to take the torch moving forward as a special teams cornerstone. Bethel and Slater have been a dynamic gunner duo and a major part of why field position was one of the only areas where the Patriots truly dominated in 2020. Another signing that would cause irrational anger, but Bethel is clearly an ace on special teams and would be good to keep if Slater is gone.
S Cody Davis. The veteran special teamer did make one big play in 2020, blocking a field goal that Devin McCourty returned for a touchdown against the Chargers. Like Bethel, Davis could be a solid player to keep in the fold on special teams if Slater decides to retire and they need to make a transition in the third phase. He’d certainly be affordable.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at email@example.com.