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New England Patriots

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 18: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on during the second quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 18, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

From a player personnel standpoint, the NFL offseason has three main stages – internal free agency, traditional free agency, and the NFL Draft. While those stages may overlap at times, everything begins with teams focusing on their own rosters, including players on expiring contracts and candidates for contract extensions and renegotiations, as well as potential retirements. There are staffing changes taking place during this period as well.

For the Patriots, the first stage will set the tone for the remainder of the offseason. They have 22 expiring contracts, with 16 of those players filling starting or otherwise significant roles in 2021. There are also rookie options – one already picked up and one the team needs to make a decision on – that could impact the overall blueprint of the offseason.

Between the possible departures of franchise cornerstones, to figuring out the future of promising young players, here’s the five biggest internal questions the Patriots have to answer to start the offseason.

  • The futures of Devin McCourty and Dont'a Hightower

    EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – SEPTEMBER 19: Linebacker Dont’a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots reacts after making a defensive play in the second quarter of the game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on September 19, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

    Among those 22 players with expiring contracts are two multi-season captains and staples of the Patriots’ second dynasty. 34-year-old Devin McCourty and 31-year-old Dont’a Hightower are both pending free agents – with retirement rumors popping up surrounding both players as well.

    It’s not just that McCourty and Hightower have been integral parts of the Patriots’ defensive success over the last two years, but the specific positions they play are foundational in New England’s scheme. Figuring out whether or not they’ll return, and doing so quickly, will help paint the picture of the team’s biggest needs in free agency and the draft.

    Behind Dont’a Hightower, the Patriots have a logical replacement in Ja’Whaun Bentley. However, Bentley is also a pending free agent. How the team handles his contract situation could be a sign of what the expectation is for Hightower.

    Beyond Bentley, the Patriots don’t really have another big downhill run-stopping linebacker currently on the roster. At the same time, investments in players like Terez Hall, Raekwon McMillan, and Cameron McGrone could signal the team is shifting its philosophy at the position to favor more quick, athletic linebackers.

    As for McCourty, there is no obvious heir apparent currently on the team. The Patriots really haven’t had a second true deep safety since trading Duron Harmon in the spring of 2020.

    McCourty had a strong season in 2021, and despite his age doesn’t appear to be regressing severely. Bringing him back for another year should be an option. However if he’s set on retirement, finding a free safety will be one of the biggest items on Bill Belichick’s offseason to-do list.

  • What is the plan with J.C. Jackson?

    Nov 18, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) celebrates after an interception against the Atlanta Falcons in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 18, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) celebrates after an interception against the Atlanta Falcons in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    Hightower and McCourty aren’t the only defensive starters set to head to free agency. Cornerback J.C. Jackson is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.

    When it comes to Jackson the Patriots have three main options, with other possibilities branching off the different courses of action. They can sign him to a long-term deal, franchise tag him, or simply let him walk.

    If the Patriots want to lock up Jackson, they’d likely need to make him one of the highest-paid defensive backs in football. Spotrac projects his value at $20.9 million per year on a five year deal. That number would make him the highest-paid cornerback in the league, passing the $20 million AAV deal Jalen Ramsey signed with the Los Angeles Rams at the start of the 2020 season (also a five-year deal).

    Has Jackson done enough to warrant that kind of commitment from the Patriots? If they’re still projecting growth in his game, it’s possible. The 26-year-old was the fourth-ranked cornerback in the league in 2021 per PFF. However, his struggles against Bills’ star Stefon Diggs stand out, especially given he’ll likely face Diggs twice a year during that potential contract.

    A cheaper and less engrained option would be the franchise tag, which Spotrac projects to be $17.5 million. The move would clearly allow the Patriots to maintain Jackson on a team-friendly contract, then reevaluate the situation next offseason, and also offer the opportunity to extend the window to negotiate a long-term deal.

    The Patriots would also be able to trade Jackson after franchise tagging him, if they don’t want to keep him but don’t want to lose him for little to no return. However, letting him walk – whether it’s via trade or as a UFA – would be a tremendous risk. The team’s lack of depth at cornerback, specifically boundary corner, was clear late in the season. Cornerback is already one of the team’s biggest needs this offseason, if they lose Jackson it becomes a clear number one and may appear again in the top three.

  • Who is the odd man out at receiver?

    Dec 6, 2021; Orchard Park, New York, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver N’Keal Harry (1) prior to the game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots need to add an explosive pass catcher this offseason. The real question is what kind of player they’ll add, and how they’ll make the room.

    For the 2022 season, the Patriots have Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, and N’Keal Harry already under contract. Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski are both set to be restricted free agents. With the original round tender expected to be about $2.5 million, it seems likely both players would return.

    Any new receiver would bring the Patriots up to a projected six receivers on the 53-man roster, a significant number. It may make more sense for them to look for an upgrade rather than an outright addition.

    So who is the odd man out? Harry would be a strong possibility. He’s entering the final concrete year of his contract, and the Patriots will need to make a decision on his rookie option this spring. Trading him would open up almost $2 million in cap space, as opposed to just over $1 million if he’s released.

    This is a decision that could linger into training camp, but there are two reasons the Patriots could want to act sooner. First, freeing up the cap space for free agency. Also, letting another team make the decision on Harry’s fifth-year rookie option may add trade value.

    The other more out-of-the-box option is Agholor. If the Patriots have a chance to add a true ‘X’ receiver, they could look to trade the 28-year-old receiver who is set to be a free agent after 2022. The Patriots would save $9.8 million against the cap by trading Agholor, but would only open up $4.8 million by releasing him.

  • Sorting out the offensive line

    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

    The Patriots’ offensive line evolved throughout the season, and that won’t stop as the offseason begins. Four of their six main offensive linemen are under contract into 2022, with Trent Brown and Ted Karras pending free agents.

    There will be multiple dominoes to fall this offseason along the offensive line, mainly starting at tackle. Brown, as mentioned above, is a pending free agent while Isaiah Wynn is set to play under the final year of his deal, the fifth-year rookie option.

    Brown has repeatedly spoken openly about how much he loves playing in New England, and there may be an opportunity for the Patriots to sign him to a hometown discount if they want him back. If he does return, and the team is assured to have at least one starting tackle back, it could open up some interesting possibilities regarding Wynn.

    Wynn played starting-caliber football in 2021. He was PFF’s 33rd ranked offensive tackle (both left and right sides), which makes his $10.4 million fifth-year option a bargain.

    At the same time, the Patriots have historically favored bigger and more physical tackles. He’s also struggled to stay on the field at times. If Brown returns, he’d represent a fascinating potential trade piece, and the team would either draft a left tackle in his place, or move Brown back to the left side and return Michael Onwenu to right tackle.

    If that latter situation presents itself, it would make sense for the team to bring back Ted Karras after a strong 2021 season. However, if Onwenu is going to stay at left guard with Shaq Mason still on the right side, Karras would likely leave to get a starting role (and starter money) elsewhere.

  • Staffing changes

    Aug 29, 2019; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo watches the action during the second half against the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots could have a number of staff members heading elsewhere in the coming weeks. Assistant coaches and front office personnel have received interview requests over the last few weeks, and it’s not unrealistic to think at least some of those will turn into job offers.

    “We have a lot of good coaches. It’s not surprising that other teams would be interested in talking to them or other staff members, same thing with the scouting staff,” Belichick told reporters on Monday. “I mean, we really basically have that every single year.”

    The hottest name from the Patriots has been inside linebacker coach Jerod Mayo, who already has interviews lined up with the Broncos and Raiders. This is Mayo’s second year in the coaching carousel – he interviewed with the Eagles last year but didn’t land the job.

    Josh McDaniels has also been labeled as a potential candidate in this cycle. Given his success working with rookie quarterback Mac Jones, his services could be in demand. He hasn’t publicly received any interview requests yet, but that could change as the top names come off the market.

    In the front office, director of player personnel Dave Ziegler and scouting consultant Eliot Wolf are expected to take interviews. Both were reportedly central to the Patriots’ draft process in 2021.

    There may be other changes coming as well. Running backs coach Ivan Fears – who has been with the organization longer than Belichick, has hinted at retirement. Plus, the team may decide there are coaches currently under contract that won’t be retained into next season.

    As coaches and front office members leave, they’ll likely take a few other people with them as they build their own staffs in their new spots. The Patriots are generally pretty tight lipped when it comes to the staffing hierarchy in the building so it’s hard to say who will replace who, but there could be some serious reshuffling over the next few weeks.