New England Patriots

JuJu Smith-Schuster #19 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catches a pass in front of Terrance Mitchell #39 of the Cleveland Browns during the second half of the AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Heinz Field on January 10, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The Patriots need to take advantage of the time they have with Mac Jones on his rookie contract, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to surround him with even more weapons.

Thanks to the successful free-agent signings of Kendrick Bourne and Hunter Henry, and continued improvement from Jakobi Meyers, the Pats took a step forward in terms of pass-catching talent in 2021. But they could still stand to get even better, particularly at wide receiver, especially considering the depth charts of their competition in the AFC.

A popular comparison has been to that of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase in Cincinnati. Chase immediately became one of the best wideouts in the NFL as a rookie, so it’s not entirely realistic to expect the Patriots to land a talent like that immediately, unless they pay up in free agency. But it’s certainly realistic for Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ front office to identify a true slot receiver to complement Bourne and Meyers, both of whom are more hybrid inside-outside players.

As fans have seen for years in the Patriots’ offensive system, they are at their best when they have a traditional inside receiver who can get open early in routes, make plays in the short-to-intermediate areas, move the chains, and occasionally turn a short catch into a big gain with his speed and quickness.

  • 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.