New England Patriots

Bobby Wagner #54 of the Seattle Seahawks reacts on fourth down against the Tennessee Titans during the second quarter at Lumen Field on September 19, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

At first, offense was the story of the 2022 NFL free agency pool. Now, after the dust has settled on the franchise tag deadline, the league’s top free agents are on defense.

In fact, the pool has deepened on that side of the ball. And it’s quite a name: former Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner is now a free agent after being informed of his release, as Seattle is in the early stages of a major rebuild after trading quarterback Russell Wilson. Unlike the league’s impending free agents, Wagner doesn’t have to wait until the start of the league year on Wednesday, March 16 to sign with a new team.

Mike Giardi of the NFL Network reported Wednesday that the linebacker position “has drawn a lot of attention” in free agency for the Pats. But he specified that they’re looking at LBs “to supplement what’s currently on the roster,” meaning “not earth shakers.” This was before Wagner, an earth shaker, hit the open market.

But it sounds like Bill Belichick would have to change his plan on the fly if he wants Wagner badly enough. The Patriots have Matthew Judon locked in at outside linebacker. He tops the depth chart ahead of youngsters Chase Winovich, Anfernee Jennings, Josh Uche, Jahlani Tavai, and 2021 fifth-round pick Cameron McGrone, all of whom are 26 years old or younger. For a defense in need of speed and youth, linebacker looks like a position where the Patriots can get that internally by simply playing the kids more.

Jeremy McNichols #28 of the Tennessee Titans is tackled by Bobby Wagner #54 of the Seattle Seahawks during the fourth quarter at Lumen Field on September 19, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Jeremy McNichols #28 of the Tennessee Titans is tackled by Bobby Wagner #54 of the Seattle Seahawks during the fourth quarter at Lumen Field on September 19, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

They may have to, because the Patriots appear to be in the midst of a veteran exodus at the position. They’ve already released Kyle Van Noy, while Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are both on track for free agency.

Wagner would certainly be a departure from supplementing your current roster with depth pieces. At 31, he’d make the Patriots’ defense older rather than younger. But he’d bring an All-Pro pedigree (first team in six of the last eight years), with a prototypical build and playing style for Belichick at inside linebacker. If you’re hoping the Patriots make a short-term splash with a high-end veteran talent, Wagner seems like an ideal choice.

For now, it seems like Belichick will instead turn to a youth movement with what he already has at linebacker. But keep reading to see the other top options headed for free agency across the NFL in 2022.

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Ranked: Top-20 NFL free agents of 2022

  • Some of the best free agents are just entering their prime, while others are squarely in it.

    Either way, expect a lot of big-money contracts to be handed out during the off-season. And it’s very likely most of the highest-paid players land on this list of the top 25 NFL free agents of 2022.

    1. EDGE Von Miller

    Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks unsuccessfully attempts to keep Von Miller #40 of the Los Angeles Rams from getting a sack in the second quarter of the game at SoFi Stadium on December 21, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

    Miller will be 33 years old at the start of the 2022 season, so it’s unclear what kind of term he can get at this point. But what is clear is that Miller can still make a significant impact as an edge rusher. The future Hall of Famer made 9.5 sacks and 17 QB hits in 15 games, split between the Broncos and Rams, then made four more sacks in four postseason games to earn his second Super Bowl ring with Los Angeles.

    He may be closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but Miller still has plenty left in the tank and would be a sensible signing for a contending team that can clear the space for a “mercenary” type of deal, with a reasonably high AAV and only one year guaranteed. Keep an eye on the Bengals, Patriots, Seahawks, and Steelers.

  • 2. EDGE Chandler Jones

    Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Tennessee Titans fumbles after being hit by Chandler Jones #55 of the Arizona Cardinals during the third quarter at Nissan Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images)

    Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Tennessee Titans fumbles after being hit by Chandler Jones #55 of the Arizona Cardinals during the third quarter at Nissan Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images)

    Since being traded to the Cardinals in 2016, Jones has almost quietly built a Hall-of-Fame-caliber resume. He racked up 10.5 more sacks in 15 games this past season, and is up to 107.5 in his career. He was named a First Team All-Pro in 2017 and 2019.

    Jones is 31 years old, but could possibly still fetch a deal for 3-4 years if someone’s willing to commit. He should certainly continue to make good pass rusher money. The Dolphins, Jaguars, Jets, and Colts will certainly have the financial capabilities to take him on.

  • 3. CB J.C. Jackson

    Nov 18, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) runs after intercepting a pass against the Atlanta Falcons during the fourth quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 18, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) runs after intercepting a pass against the Atlanta Falcons during the fourth quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    Jackson checks in at No. 5 as the best cornerback on the market and the first who will still be under 30 years old at the end of the 2022 season. He may be a tier slightly below the makeup of an elite shutdown cornerback, but his ball skills are undeniable (17 interceptions in the past two seasons) and he will make a lot of plays as long as quarterbacks keep throwing in his area.

    Jackson makes sense for a team that can install him as their No. 1 cornerback without having to lean on him as the anchor of the defense. So the Chargers, Colts, Raiders, and Steelers qualify as good potential suitors in that regard.

  • 4. LB Bobby Wagner

    Jeremy McNichols #28 of the Tennessee Titans is tackled by Bobby Wagner #54 of the Seattle Seahawks during the fourth quarter at Lumen Field on September 19, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

    Jeremy McNichols #28 of the Tennessee Titans is tackled by Bobby Wagner #54 of the Seattle Seahawks during the fourth quarter at Lumen Field on September 19, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

    Adding the 31-year-old Wagner would make a defense older rather than younger, but he’s been arguably the best middle linebacker in football for most of his career. The 2021 season was the first since 2015 that he wasn’t named a first team All-Pro. He should still be able to make a significant impact with a new team, and it probably wouldn’t be much term.

  • 5. OT Terron Armstead

    Terron Armstead #72 of the New Orleans Saints in action against the Seattle Seahawks during the fourth quarter at Lumen Field on October 25, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

    Terron Armstead #72 of the New Orleans Saints in action against the Seattle Seahawks during the fourth quarter at Lumen Field on October 25, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

    Armstead is 30 years old and has missed 11 games the past two years, but he’s one of the better left tackles in the league and hitting the open market squarely in his prime. So you can expect him to draw plenty of interest among tackle-needy teams, and cash in big-time.

  • 6. S Marcus Williams

    Marcus Williams #43 of the New Orleans Saints reacts after intercepting a pass against the Green Bay Packers during the second half at TIAA Bank Field on September 12, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

    Marcus Williams #43 of the New Orleans Saints reacts after intercepting a pass against the Green Bay Packers during the second half at TIAA Bank Field on September 12, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

    Williams should become one of the highest-paid safeties in the league. Could he top the Broncos’ Justin Simmons, who made $15.1 million in 2022? Williams is only 25 years old and has not just recovered from the sting of the “Minneapolis Miracle” play with Stefon Diggs, but established himself as one of the best young safeties in the NFL. He’ll find a new home with a team that hasn’t invested in safety at the draft and could use an injection of talent there.

  • 7. EDGE Randy Gregory

    Randy Gregory #94 of the Dallas Cowboys sacks Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots in the third quarter at Gillette Stadium on October 17, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    Randy Gregory #94 of the Dallas Cowboys sacks Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots in the third quarter at Gillette Stadium on October 17, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    Gregory doesn’t come without risk. He missed the entire 2017 and 2019 seasons due to suspensions under the league’s substance abuse policy, and missed five games due to injury in 2021. But Gregory hasn’t faced major discipline since his reinstatement, and he emerged as a productive starting edge rusher for the Cowboys with six sacks, 17 QB hits, and three forced fumbles. Because of his past transgressions, it’s possible Gregory can only get a one-year deal, but someone will gamble on his talent. The Patriots, Seahawks, and Chiefs seem like the kind of teams who would.

  • 8. OG Brandon Scherff

    Brandon Scherff #75 of the Washington Football Team blocks during the NFL preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals at FedExField on August 20, 2021 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

    Brandon Scherff #75 of the Washington Football Team blocks during the NFL preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals at FedExField on August 20, 2021 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

    Patriots fans saw with Joe Thuney’s move to the Chiefs in 2021 that guards can get paid, too. Scherff has lived up to his first-round billing as one of the best starting guards in the NFL during his time in Washington, and should be able to find a team willing to give him multiple years at more than $15 million annually.

  • 9. CB Carlton Davis

    Carlton Davis #24 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers carries the ball against the Dallas Cowboys during the fourth quarter at Raymond James Stadium on September 09, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

    Carlton Davis #24 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers carries the ball against the Dallas Cowboys during the fourth quarter at Raymond James Stadium on September 09, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

    The Bucs are facing a massive talent exodus, beyond just Tom Brady’s retirement. On offense they’re likely to lose Chris Godwin, and defensively, they’ll probably have to replace Davis, who has started 50 of his 51 career games at cornerback. He’s 25 years old, so Davis gets a bump up this list over corners with higher pedigrees. But he’ll be a good starter in his prime years, so expect a team to pay up for that on the open market.

  • 10. WR Allen Robinson

    Allen Robinson #12 of the Chicago Bears runs for yards during the first half against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

    Allen Robinson #12 of the Chicago Bears runs for yards during the first half against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

    Robinson has had kind of a strange career. When healthy, he’s one of the best big-play threats at outside receiver in the league and a dominant 1-on-1 player. But he’s dealt with major injuries, offensive systems in flux, and inconsistent quarterbacks throwing him the ball. So you shouldn’t blame Robinson if he insists on going to a team with a franchise quarterback in place. The Chargers, Ravens, and Patriots would make logical sense, if they’re willing to pay.

  • 11. CB Stephon Gilmore

    Stephon Gilmore #9 of the Carolina Panthers looks on in the fourth quarter Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

    Stephon Gilmore #9 of the Carolina Panthers looks on in the fourth quarter Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

    Gilmore may have been a top-3 player on this list if he’d stayed healthy over the past two seasons. But he’s now 31 years old and has missed 14 games in the past two years, mainly due to knee problems. So it’s unlikely he’ll ever play at the same speed that he did in New England, where he won Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. But Gilmore’s not done yet. If he can stay on the field, Gilmore should still be a very good starting cornerback for whoever’s willing to take the chance.

  • 12. LB De’Vondre Campbell

    De'Vondre Campbell #59 of the Green Bay Packers reacts after sacking Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals during the first half at State Farm Stadium on October 28, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

    De’Vondre Campbell #59 of the Green Bay Packers reacts after sacking Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals during the first half at State Farm Stadium on October 28, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

    Campbell was a dynamic inside linebacker before it became cool. He’s squarely in his prime at age 28, and in the era of Darius Leonard, Devin White, et al., his playing style has become more valuable. So it’s possible Campbell resets the market as the top inside linebacker available. The Chiefs, Raiders, Patriots, and Eagles could use a guy like him.

  • 13. DT Akiem Hicks

    Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers is sacked by Akiem Hicks #96 of the Chicago Bears in the second half at Soldier Field on October 17, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

    Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers is sacked by Akiem Hicks #96 of the Chicago Bears in the second half at Soldier Field on October 17, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

    One of the league’s best late bloomers, Hicks emerged as a premier interior pass rusher during his time with the Bears. He’s 32 years old and missed eight games in 2021, so it’s likely Hicks won’t get a long-term offer. But on a classic one-year prove-it deal? He could immediately infuse his new team with impact talent at a relatively scarce position.

  • 14. S Tyrann Mathieu

    Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Kansas City Chiefs dives into the endzone for a touchdown after a 34-yard interception return against the Baltimore Ravens during the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on September 19, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images)

    Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Kansas City Chiefs dives into the endzone for a touchdown after a 34-yard interception return against the Baltimore Ravens during the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on September 19, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images)

    The “Honey Badger” is still 29 years old and enjoyed a career resurgence through his prime years with the Chiefs. Mathieu is quietly a three-time First Team All-Pro and can still make plays with the best of them at safety. There may not be a ton of demand for safeties on the open market, but someone should be willing to pay him over $10 million annually.

  • 15. WR Odell Beckham Jr.

    Odell Beckham Jr. #3 of the Los Angeles Rams catches the ball in the second quarter of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals during Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium on February 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

    Odell Beckham Jr. #3 of the Los Angeles Rams catches the ball in the second quarter of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals during Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium on February 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

    Health is the biggest question for Beckham coming out of the Super Bowl. He appeared to be on his way to making a major impact in the game before appearing to injure his knee or leg in a non-contact injury. Those are always scary, but the fact that Beckham stood on the sidelines for the rest of the game was possibly a good sign. We’ll see how much teams are willing to commit to Beckham in terms of years, but he’s clearly still a dynamic receiver when healthy.

  • 16. DE Emmanuel Ogbah

    Emmanuel Ogbah #91 of the Miami Dolphins reacts after defeating the at Caesars Superdome on December 27, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

    Emmanuel Ogbah #91 of the Miami Dolphins reacts after defeating the at Caesars Superdome on December 27, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

    The 32nd overall pick in the 2016 draft, Ogbah has been slower than expected to ascend. The Browns moved on from him after three seasons and he lasted just one year in Kansas City, but Ogbah seemed to finally put it together under Brian Flores in Miami. He’s made nine sacks in each of the past two years, and in 2021 he batted down a mind-blowing 12 (!) passes at the line. Still just 28 years old, Ogbah may have shown enough to get a surprisingly big contract.

  • 17. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

    Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster #19 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the ball against the Las Vegas Raiders in the first half of the game at Heinz Field on September 19, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

    Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster #19 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the ball against the Las Vegas Raiders in the first half of the game at Heinz Field on September 19, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

    Since a 111-catch season for Smith-Schuster in 2018, the emergence of Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson has pushed him down the pecking order in Pittsburgh. That, and he played only five games in 2021. So he won’t get a big contract, but if he can stay healthy, he could deliver great value for a team in need of a dynamic inside receiver.

  • 18. WR D.J. Chark

    D.J. Chark #17 of the Jacksonville Jaguars makes a reception for a touchdown during the game against the Arizona Cardinals at TIAA Bank Field on September 26, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

    D.J. Chark #17 of the Jacksonville Jaguars makes a reception for a touchdown during the game against the Arizona Cardinals at TIAA Bank Field on September 26, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

    It would make sense for the Jaguars to retain Chark, but it would make even more sense for the receiver to explore the open market first. A broken ankle limited Chark to just four games in 2021, so teams may have pause on how much they’re willing to commit financially. But he’s only two seasons removed from a 1,000-yard season and should be a productive outside receiver in the right situation with good health. Someone will take the plunge on him, with the potential for good value.

  • 19. S Marcus Maye

    Oct 24, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New York Jets free safety Marcus Maye (20) tackles New England Patriots running back Damien Harris (37) during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    Oct 24, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New York Jets free safety Marcus Maye (20) tackles New England Patriots running back Damien Harris (37) during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    Maye finally has a chance to escape the Jets, but he’s coming off a season in which he played only six games before suffering a torn Achilles. The injury almost certainly crushed his earning potential in this particular off-season, but if Maye can prove he’s close to the same level he played at before his Achilles injury, he’ll at least be able to parlay a one-year deal into something more lucrative in 2023. Assuming he stays on the field, he’ll make a good mercenary.

  • 20. LB Dont’a Hightower

    BUFFALO, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Cole Beasley #11 of the Buffalo Bills runs the ball against Dont'a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots during the third quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

    BUFFALO, NEW YORK – JANUARY 15: Cole Beasley #11 of the Buffalo Bills runs the ball against Dont’a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots during the third quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

    There’s a chance that the three-time Super Bowl champion and former second team All-Pro has more left in the tank than he showed late in 2021. It’s hard to play like your normal self after taking a whole season off, which Hightower did in 2020. But do the Patriots feel it’s time to move on? Wherever Hightower ends up, it’s likely on a one-year deal, but he does plan on playing. Teams in need of veteran depth at inside linebacker could get great value out of him.

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7 free-agent slot receivers to bolster the Patriots offense in 2022

  • A free-agent slot receiver may not necessarily be the game-breaking kind of talent that Ja’Marr Chase or the top free-agent receivers are, but it should definitely improve the roster at a specific area of need and make life easier for Mac Jones in his second year. Here are seven free-agent slot receivers who could boost the Patriots’ offense in the 2022 season.

    JuJu Smith-Schuster

    Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster #19 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the ball against the Las Vegas Raiders in the first half of the game at Heinz Field on September 19, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

    Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster #19 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the ball against the Las Vegas Raiders in the first half of the game at Heinz Field on September 19, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

    At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Smith-Schuster is closer to the same size as Meyers and Bourne than that of Gunner Olszewski. But he is certainly at his best playing inside. He lined up in the slot on 78.8 percent of his offensive snaps in 2021.

    Smith-Schuster played only five games before a shoulder injury and the resulting surgery cut his regular season short. But he did return for the Steelers in the wild card round and made five catches for 26 yards, so in theory, he’s healthy as he heads toward unrestricted free agency. The fact that it was a shoulder injury should mean that his quickness is intact.

    We’ll see if his clean bill of health can help him get more than a one-year deal, but Smith-Schuster is likely to see less on the open market than his more productive counterparts at the top of the heap. Still, he’s two years removed from a 97-catch season and would give Jones a fearless, dynamic target over the middle of the field.

  • Christian Kirk

    Christian Kirk #13 of the Arizona Cardinals catches the ball over Jourdan Lewis #26 of the Dallas Cowboys during the third quarter at AT&T Stadium on January 02, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

    Christian Kirk #13 of the Arizona Cardinals catches the ball over Jourdan Lewis #26 of the Dallas Cowboys during the third quarter at AT&T Stadium on January 02, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

    Kirk is younger and faster than Smith-Schuster, and would bring a big-play element to the slot receiver spot. He scored touchdowns of 80 and 56 yards in his third season in 2020, and added five more scores in 2021, three of which came from more than 20 yards out.

    In an impressive leap forward, Kirk led the Cardinals in catches (77) and targets (103) while lining up in the slot 80.2 percent of the time. He’s also efficient; his 74.8 percent catch rate was seventh among all receivers.

    At 25 years old coming off a career year, Kirk will probably command a long-term deal for at least mid-market value. But he seems like the exact type of player the Patriots could install in the slot full-time.

  • Isaiah McKenzie

    Isaiah McKenzie #19 of the Buffalo Bills runs out of bounds after catching a pass against Joejuan Williams #33 of the New England Patriots during the first quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

    Isaiah McKenzie #19 of the Buffalo Bills runs out of bounds after catching a pass against Joejuan Williams #33 of the New England Patriots during the first quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

    Also known as The Patriot Killer! In reality, it was just one big game for McKenzie against the Pats. But in a Week 16 game with first place in the AFC East on the line and the Patriots focusing on slowing down Stefon Diggs, McKenzie exploded for 11 catches, 125 yards, and a touchdown. That stung.

    McKenzie is relatively small, but he’s also young, fast, and inexpensive. He should be able to get a multi-year deal somewhere, but won’t break the bank. Most importantly, he’d be a good fit for the Patriots and diminish the depth chart of their chief rival in the division.

    Belichick hasn’t been shy about bringing in players who played well against the Patriots in the past. McKenzie would make sense, and come relatively cheaply as a guy with a low volume of production so far in his career.

  • Braxton Berrios

    Braxton Berrios #10 of the New York Jets runs with the ball for a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins in the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on December 19, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

    Braxton Berrios #10 of the New York Jets runs with the ball for a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins in the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on December 19, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

    Sound familiar? Berrios began his career with the Patriots as a sixth-round pick out of Miami. But he spent his rookie season on injured reserve before being waived in 2019.

    Berrios ended up with the Jets, and surprisingly enough, has developed into a decent slot receiver. His catches have gone up in each of the last three seasons, with a career-best 46 in 2021. He was also a First Team All-Pro kick returner, leading the league with 30.4 yards per return and delivering the longest kick return touchdown of the season at 102 yards.

    One would think there are no hard feelings between Berrios and the Patriots. He’d make for a promising addition to the slot receiver depth chart, and the relative familiarity with New England is a plus.

  • Odell Beckham Jr.

    Odell Beckham Jr. #3 of the Los Angeles Rams runs with the ball during Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium on February 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. The Los Angeles Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

    Odell Beckham Jr. #3 of the Los Angeles Rams runs with the ball during Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium on February 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. The Los Angeles Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

    OBJ will definitely come cheaply, because he may not even be able to practice until around September. The former Giants, Browns, and Rams wideout tore his ACL as he made a catch in Super Bowl LVI, which was unfortunate for obvious reasons, but doubly so because it felt like he was on his way to a big game.

    Beckham turns 30 years old in November and will now be on (likely) his fourth team in nine seasons. Off-field drama has tended to follow him around. But Beckham also acknowledged that there was once mutual interest between him and the Patriots during his brief time as a free agent during the 2021 season.

    Well, his price tag will never be lower than it is now. If Beckham can prove he’s close to the same player he’s been in his career – which is a legitimate question mark after a second ACL injury – he’ll be good bang for the buck, and give Jones a potential game-breaker over the middle.

  • Cedrick Wilson

    Cedrick Wilson #1 of the Dallas Cowboys carries the ball after a reception against the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 16, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

    Cedrick Wilson #1 of the Dallas Cowboys carries the ball after a reception against the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 16, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

    Wilson lined up in the slot 82.7 percent of the time, the highest rate on the Cowboys. That’s notable, because Dallas lined up three other pass-catchers inside for at least 359 plays.

    The 26-year-old Wilson came up with 45 catches, 602 yards, and six touchdowns for the league’s most productive offense. That’s impressive, considering he had the sixth-most targets on the team.

    Belichick may view the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Wilson as more of a hybrid receiver, which might make him a redundancy with Meyers and Bourne. But he’s a proven producer in the slot and would inject the depth chart with youth and perhaps some untapped potential.

  • Jamison Crowder

    Jamison Crowder #82 of the New York Jets avoids the tackle of Kevin Johnson #28 of the Cleveland Browns in the third quarter at MetLife Stadium on December 27, 2020 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

    Jamison Crowder #82 of the New York Jets avoids the tackle of Kevin Johnson #28 of the Cleveland Browns in the third quarter at MetLife Stadium on December 27, 2020 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

    Crowder is a familiar name to Patriots fans at this point, as a three-year veteran of the Jets. The 28-year-old wouldn’t transform the offense overnight, but he’s proven to be a steady and dependable slot receiver for most of his career.

    Despite the presence of Berrios and dynamic rookie Elijah Moore, Crowder lined up in the slot more often than any Jets receiver in 2021. He also managed to lead the team in catches with 51, despite working with a rookie quarterback and a defensive head coach.

    Crowder could step right in and start in the slot in three-receiver sets, but signing him may only be worth it if a spot opens up on the roster. The Patriots would be better suited aiming a little higher, but Crowder would be a solid fallback plan.

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5 free agents to improve the Patriots' defense for 2022

  • With work to do on the defensive side of the ball, here are five established free agents for the Patriots to target for immediate improvement in 2022.

  • Rasul Douglas, CB

    GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN – NOVEMBER 28: Rasul Douglas #29 of the Green Bay Packers returns an interception for a touchdown during the third quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at Lambeau Field on November 28, 2021 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

    In his fifth season in the NFL, Douglas broke out. With Green Bay’s top corner Jaire Alexander playing just four games, Douglas stepped up to make plays in the secondary. He defended 13 passes with five interceptions and made two pick-sixes, which were most in the league.

    Douglas will have multiple suitors after his 2021 campaign. New England will have to rely on Green Bay’s inability to work him into an already difficult cap space situation and outbid other teams.

  • Harold Landry, LB

    NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE – SEPTEMBER 26: Harold Landry III #58 of the Tennessee Titans celebrates sacking quarterback Carson Wentz #2 of the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter of the game at Nissan Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images)

    Landry is no stranger to playing strong defense in this region, as an alum of Boston College. Landry is dynamic on the edge and continues to improve his game. In 2021, Landry made his first Pro Bowl with Tennessee with a career-high 75 tackles and 12.0 sacks.

    While New England’s need at linebacker focuses more on the inside, Landry would be dominant on the edge opposite a refreshed Matthew Judon, to pressure and contain opposing offenses.

  • Desmond King, CB

    GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN – AUGUST 14: Desmond King #25 of the Houston Texans avoids the tackle of De’Jon Harris #46 of the Green Bay Packers in the first half during the preseason game at Lambeau Field on August 14, 2021 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

    King offers an ideal fit for New England’s needs. Pro Football Focus ranked King as the sixth-best slot corner in the NFL entering 2021, and he continued to make plays in that role with Houston. King defended six passes with three interceptions and a forced fumble.

    With Jonathan Jones only under contract through next season, New England could use long-term insurance for slot coverage through a capable player like King.

  • De’Vondre Campbell, LB

    GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN – NOVEMBER 14: Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks is tackled by De’Vondre Campbell #59 of the Green Bay Packers during the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field on November 14, 2021 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

    As another potential target from Green Bay, Campbell offers an intriguing mix of size and speed. The 6-foot-3 linebacker tied for sixth in the NFL with 111 tackles, while forcing two fumbles with two interceptions.

    With stability needed in the linebacking core, Campbell would be a player entering his prime to tighten the interior of the New England defense.

  • Charvarius Ward, CB

    Charvarius Ward #35 of the Kansas City Chiefs and Nick Bolton #54 of the Kansas City Chiefs tackle Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys during the first quarter at Arrowhead Stadium on November 21, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

    Charvarius Ward #35 of the Kansas City Chiefs and Nick Bolton #54 of the Kansas City Chiefs tackle Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys during the first quarter at Arrowhead Stadium on November 21, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

    At age 26, Ward offers productivity and playoff experience with Kansas City. The Super Bowl LIV champion matched his career highs in 2021 with two interceptions and 10 passes defended. Ward would likely fill the slot in New England.

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Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster 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 and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.