New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 24: New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick looks on after the game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

  • It’s that time a year once again. NFL free agency has arrived, meaning it’s time to fully put the 2021 Patriots in the rearview mirror as the team builds its roster for 2022.

    The Patriots have come a long way over the last 52 weeks. This time last year, the roster needed a near-total overhaul. Entering the new league year in 2022, the team has many more foundational pieces in place – and with those additions, less money to spend.

    Still, there are multiple positions on the roster that need attention. On top of filling in the holes from last year’s squad, the team has 21 of its own players set to be free agents (you can find the full list of those players here).

    For the purpose of this list, we won’t include those players in the 2022 outlook (because they’re not under contract). However, some may be more likely to return than others, which is factored in.

    Of course, the Patriots can address any of these needs through both free agency and/or the draft. The depth of those classes factors into this ranking – making it more ‘urgent’ needs than ‘biggest.’ Some spots may make more sense one way or the other, but this is where things stand heading into free agency.

    Patriots pending free agents in italics

  • 10. Backup QB

    Aug 29, 2021; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Brian Hoyer (5) throws the ball against the New York Giants during the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

    This might be a little higher on the list if not for Jarrett Stidham, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal. Still, the relationship between Mac Jones and pending free agent Brian Hoyer was an important one for the young quarterback’s development.

    According to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, Hoyer is likely to return. However, other teams with young QB’s could see what he did for Jones and make an aggressive push to get him in their rooms. On the off chance Hoyer doesn’t end up back in New England, it’d make sense for the Patriots to find another veteran with starting experience to work with Jones, especially after losing both quarterback coaches from the 2021 staff (Josh McDaniels, Bo Hardegree).

    Free agent names to know: Brian Hoyer, Mike Glennon, Joe Flacco, Colt McCoy, Geno Smith, Chase Daniel

  • 9. Free safety

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 18: Devin McCourty #32 of the New England Patriots intercepts a pass against the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

    Free safety is one of the most important positions in the Patriots’ defensive scheme, and Devin McCourty has played that spot at an incredibly high level for a decade. Getting him back on a one-year, $9 million deal was big. If he had hit the open market, this position would have been much higher on this list.

    Still, adding a young player as a possible heir apparent to the role down the road could be a solid move for the right cost. Having that player play alongside McCourty could be a valuable teaching experience, and add some depth in the short term (this would best be addressed during the draft). A veteran depth option wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

    Free agent names to know: Marcus Williams, Marcus Maye, Quandre Diggs, Duron Harmon, DeShon Elliott, Tavon Wilson

  • 8. Fullback

    Nov 28, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots fullback Jakob Johnson (47) during warm ups prior to a game against the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    By not tendering Jakob Johnson, the Patriots will head into the offseason without a fullback on their roster. If the power run game is going to remain a central part of the offense, that will need to be rectified. Johnson could still return – non-tendering him doesn’t mean the team doesn’t want him back, just that they didn’t want to pay him the tender amount (min. $2.43 million).

    At the same time, this could signal a change in offensive philosophy. With Josh McDaniels not in the building for the first time in a decade, could the approach change? We’ve seen the team bring in more versatile fullbacks in recent years (Dan Vitale, Dalton Keene) although none have stuck to this point.

    Free agent names to know: Jakob Johnson, Alex Ingold, Patrick Ricard, Andy Janovich, Elijhaa Penny, Michael Burton

  • 7. Kicker

    Sep 19, 2021; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots kicker Nick Folk (6) kicks a field goal as punter Jake Bailey (7) holds during the second half against the New England Patriots at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

    Sep 19, 2021; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots kicker Nick Folk (6) kicks a field goal as punter Jake Bailey (7) holds during the second half against the New England Patriots at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

    This is another positional need that could and likely will be solved by bringing back a veteran. Nick Folk was one of the best kickers in football last year, and without an obvious replacement on the roster it would make sense for the Patriots to want him back.

    Despite a successful year in 2020, Folk wasn’t re-signed by the Patriots last season until a week into free agency. However, Folk’s market will likely be stronger this time around – he’s had back-to-back successful seasons after spending a year out of the league. If he’s willing to listen to offers elsewhere, the Patriots may need to make him more of a priority this time around. Yet, he’s spoken highly of his time in New England and may not be looking for a change at 37 years old.

    Free agent names to know: Nick Folk, Greg Zuerlein, Younghoe Koo, Joey Slye

  • 6. Strong side defensive end/EDGE defender

    Aug 12, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy (53) at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 12, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy (53) at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

    Henry Anderson didn’t seem to get a ton of time with the first unit in the preseason last year, then played sparingly in four games before getting hurt. Meanwhile, Chase Winovich’s status remains an enigma – he played just 14 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last year. When on the field, he projects as more of a weakside rusher, a role handled well by Matthew Judon. Winovich is also entering the last year of his rookie deal.

    That’s all a long way of saying the Patriots could use a big body to play opposite Judon and next to Christian Barmore to sure up their defensive line. Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise are penciled into that role right now, but finding a player with more three-down potential could add to the dynamic of the defensive front. Recently-released Trey Flowers would be a great fit for that role and they could also look for an outside linebacker to contribute in that sense – especially after releasing Kyle Van Noy. Either way, there will be options available in both free agency and the draft.

    Free agent names to know: Trey Flowers, Melvin Ingram, Charles Harris, Uchenna Nwosu

  • 5. Pass-catching running back

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 12: James White #28 of the New England Patriots makes a catch past the reach of Jerome Baker #55 of the Miami Dolphins during the second half at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 12: James White #28 of the New England Patriots makes a catch past the reach of Jerome Baker #55 of the Miami Dolphins during the second half at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    One of the more understated storylines of the 2021 Patriots was how much the offense missed James White. White turned 30 in February and heads to free agency as he works his way back from his hip injury. 32-year-old Brandon Bolden, who for the most part filled in for White in the third down back role, is also set to be a free agent.

    Last year, there were only nine running backs (including Bolden) over the age of 30 to play eight or more games in the entire NFL. Even if White and/or Bolden return, adding youth to a group that plays such a crucial role in the offense is something the Patriots should look to do this offseason. They usually address running back needs in the draft, but with only six picks could end up looking to free agency this time around.

    Meanwhile, the Patriots early-down backs were some of their most exciting players in 2021 in Damien Harris and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson. Both remain under contract, although Harris is entering the final year of his rookie deal.

    Free agent names to know: James White, Brandon Bolden, Cordarrelle Patterson, Chase Edmonds, Marlon Mack, Justin Jackson, Darrel Williams, Phillip Lindsay

  • 4. Wide receiver

    Oct 3, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson (12) catches the ball for a first down in the second half against Detroit Lions defensive back Bobby Price (27) at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

    Why isn’t wide receiver higher on this list? The Patriots have NFL-caliber players across the board here, and some depth as well. There may not be the top-end talent some fans are looking for, but the unit was able to be the sixth-highest scoring offense in the NFL in 2021. At the same time, there are other positions where the team simply doesn’t have enough bodies – starters or backups – and will need to invest heavily just to get the depth chart set.

    That being said, an upgrade at wide receiver could go a long way for the Patriots’ offense. They’ve reportedly been doing their due diligence on a number of outside receivers both in free agency and the draft (another reason this is a less-urgent need is it being such a strong receiver draft class – they’ll have their chances to add).

    Meanwhile in the slot, the team tendered restricted free agent Jakobi Meyers on Sunday at the second-round level. That makes it highly likely Meyers will return in 2021, but the team could look to upgrade or bring in another option if Meyers leaves after this season. They’ve been linked to a handful of slot receivers over the past few weeks.

    Free agent names to know: Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Allen Robinson, Allen Lazard, Marquez-Valdes Scantling, D.J. Chark, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Will Fuller, Emmanuel Sanders, Jamison Crowder, Braxton Berrios, Christian Kirk, Jakeem Grant, DaeSean Hamilton

  • 3. Inside linebacker

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 18: Ja’Whaun Bentley #8 of the New England Patriots and Dont’a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots react after a turnover in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on November 18, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

    The Patriots are in line for a major reset at middle linebacker. Both Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley are set to be free agents after playing over 600 defensive snaps last season. If those two aren’t retained, a full-on restock of the room with established starting-caliber veterans and/or premium draft picks could be on the way.

    Beyond Hightower and Bentley, the Patriots don’t have much proven depth in the middle. Raekwon McMillan, Terez Hall, and Cameron McGrone all offer upside but are coming back off major injuries. Plus, that would be a very young group for a position Belichick values veteran leadership at. At the very least, even if those are the players the Patriots are going to lean on moving forward, adding a contributing-level veteran – whether it’s Hightower, Bentley, or somebody new – would make sense.

    Free agent names to know: Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Leighton Vander Esch, Josey Jewell, Anthony Barr, Alec Ogletree, Bobby Wagner

  • 2. Tackle

    Aug 19, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New England Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown (77) against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 19, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New England Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown (77) against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    Not left tackle, not right tackle. Tackle. Both spots are likely immediate or near-immediate needs for the Patriots.

    Trent Brown was last year’s starting right tackle when healthy. He’s a pending free agent who could chase another big-money deal. Even if he returns to New England, their history in these types of situations would suggest that would likely be on another one-year deal.

    At the same time, starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn is entering the final year of his rookie deal. There have been questions about Wynn’s fit in New England and his ability to stay healthy (he’s missed 31 games in four years due to injury, including his entire rookie year). He may need to be replaced next year.

    Tackle is a position the Patriots tend to try and stay ahead on, instead of replacing those players as they leave. Replacing Brown will be a tough enough job – on top of that, they have to decide between extending Wynn, potentially adding another tackle as his eventual replacement, or dealing with another on-the-fly replacement next year.

    There is one unknown here that could make handling the situation easier for the Patriots than it seems from the outside. After playing exclusively at guard in college, Michael Onwenu moved to tackle at rookie and looked like a star. Last year, the team moved him back inside to guard with mixed results, and he ended up on the bench at the end of the year.

    Heading into year three, it would make sense for the team to settle on a long-term position for Onwenu and let him develop at one spot. If they view him as a tackle long-term, he’d be Brown’s likely replacement this year. If they view him as a guard, he steps in for pending free agent Ted Karras, and the tackle outlook is as described above. Based on how they handled things last year though, the former seems to be the case.

    It’s also worth noting tackle is a position the Patriots have historically addressed almost exclusively through the draft under Belichick. Of course there are exceptions (Brown was acquired via trade), but as big of a need as it is this feels like a spot they’re more likely to address in April.

    Free agent names to know: Trent Brown, Morgan Moses, Riley Reiff, Germain Ifedi, Brandon Shell

  • 1. Boundary cornerback

    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

    Realistically, cornerback could have been listed twice in the top three spots. This was a major need for the team before it was reported that they didn’t plan on using the franchise tag on J.C. Jackson, a move many expected.

    If the Patriots want to continue playing press-man defense, they need strong man corners on the outside. Right now, the depth chart on the outside is Jalen Mills, Joejuan Williams, and then Justin Bethel (meanwhile, the team remains strong in the slot with Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant, and Shaun Wade).

    The Patriots had seemingly the ideal setup for their secondary during the 2019 season. Two strong man outside corners in Jackson and Stephon Gilmore, Jones in the slot, Jason McCourty as a rover third cornerback/second deep safety, Devin McCourty as the primary deep safety, and Patrick Chung in the box. With that combination of players on the backend, the linebackers were able to focus on playing downhill and asked to contribute in coverage – something that was an issue for New England in 2021.

    To get back to that defensive mold, the Patriots need to add two starting-caliber cornerbacks (moving Mills to the rover role), or at least one starting-caliber corner and then another rover. Boundary cornerback is one of the toughest positions to add to in the league, especially when looking for guys who play the game the way the Patriots want. It’s not impossible to do this offseason, but they have their work cut out for them here.

    Free agent names to know: Carlton Davis, Stephon Gilmore, Casey Hayward Jr., Darious Williams, Charvarius Ward, Eli Apple, Rasul Douglas, Joe Haden, James Bradberry (trade candidate)

  • With that, let the free agent frenzy begin! Make sure to check back in in April, when we’ll reset the team needs heading into the NFL Draft.