A.J. Brown #11 of the Tennessee Titans catches a pass against the Cincinnati Bengals during the AFC Divisional Playoff at Nissan Stadium on January 22, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

If the Patriots still want to land an impact wide receiver, their free agency opportunities have dried up. They now have to explore the trade market.

It appears they may be doing just that, based on a new report by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler. He says to “expect [the Patriots] to continue to comb the market on wideouts, possibly via trade.” Fowler explained that the Patriots may be avoiding free agency at the position to avoid hurting their compensatory draft pick formula.

The Patriots passed on signing the most expensive free-agent wide receivers, and watched idly as the Raiders and Dolphins traded for Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill. Bill Belichick may be hitting the trade market, too, but for someone with more bang for the buck. Think Brandin Cooks in 2017.

To refresh your memory, the Patriots traded their 2017 first-round pick (No. 32) to the Saints for Cooks, who at the time was in the final year of his rookie deal. He cost the Pats only $1.5 million and caught 65 balls for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns, including a memorable game-winner from Tom Brady against the Texans. Another Cooks-type trade would be the best-case scenario, and the 2017 deal is proof that acquiring a young, cheap, established talent isn’t totally unrealistic.

But for the Pats to perfectly replicate the Cooks move, they’d have to trade for someone who was drafted in 2019.

That would sting.

The Patriots tried to land a true No. 1 receiver with pick No. 32 in the 2019 NFL Draft. Problem is, they used the pick on N’Keal Harry, who has 17-game averages of only 29 catches, 308 yards, and two touchdowns in 33 career games. Harry has one more year to figure it out in New England, but it’s possible that the Pats target someone else from his draft class via trade as something of a make-good.

So who could the Patriots land for a wide receiver at the end of an affordable contract? If they want an impact player, they’d likely have to replicate the 2017 Cooks trade.

  • It’s unclear how likely any of these trades would even be, but if Belichick wants to bring a talented and cheap receiver, or at least someone with upside or someone who fits what they want to do, these are the best options.

    A.J. Brown

    A.J. Brown #11 of the Tennessee Titans reacts as he leaves the field at the half during a 28-16 win over the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on November 07, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

    A.J. Brown #11 of the Tennessee Titans reacts as he leaves the field at the half during a 28-16 win over the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on November 07, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

    If there were ever a make-good on a disappointing Belichick draft pick for Belichick, it’s this guy.

    In an incredible gut-punch to New England, Brown admitted in 2020 that he “cried” when the Patriots passed on him – twice! – to select Harry and Joejuan Williams. He said: “I just knew I was going to the Patriots, because I was a big Patriots fan.”

    The intriguing part: the Titans’ contracts are piling up, most recently with an extension for linebacker Harold Landry . They already have more than $165 million in real cash committed to their 2023 roster, including $27 million for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. So it’ll take some maneuvering and budget-related sacrifices in order to sign Brown to an extension of his own. Brown has produced enough to deserve one of the top contracts at the position.

    But it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Titans ultimately decide they can’t afford that, and want to go in a different direction. So it would at least be worth a phone call to Titans GM (and former Patriots exec) Jon Robinson to see if a Brown trade is a possibility.

  • D.K. Metcalf (or Tyler Lockett)

    DK Metcalf #14 of the Seattle Seahawks scores a second quarter touchdown against the New England Patriots at CenturyLink Field on September 20, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

    DK Metcalf #14 of the Seattle Seahawks scores a second quarter touchdown against the New England Patriots at CenturyLink Field on September 20, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

    Talk about a kick in the balls. It’s hard to get on the Patriots for passing on Metcalf in the draft, because almost the entire league did. But he made an immediate impact in Seattle, and in three years has 17-game averages of 75 catches, 1,100 yards, and 10 touchdowns. Spending more picks to get him after Harry would hurt.

    Why would the Seahawks trade Metcalf? Because they’re in rebuilding mode after trading Russell Wilson to the Broncos. According to Jack Settleman of Snapback Sports, the Seahawks are “open to listening to offers” for Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, but “nothing is imminent.”

    They don’t have¬†to trade Metcalf, though, since he’s such an excellent value. And it wouldn’t be surprising if the Seahawks instead committed to Metcalf as a piece of the foreseeable future. But a dynamic wideout isn’t of much use to a team in year one of a rebuild with no long-term quarterback in place, and may not be over the next 4-5 years, either. He’s certainly performed well enough to deserve a lucrative long-term deal somewhere, but perhaps that ends up in another uniform.

    It’s a relative pipe dream for the Patriots (or anyone) to land Metcalf right now, especially considering the draft pick compensation it may require in the wake of other recent deals at the position. But he may possess the best mix of talent, production, and price tag in the league.

  • Brandin Cooks

    Brandin Cooks #13 of the Houston Texans reacts after scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on December 19, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

    Brandin Cooks #13 of the Houston Texans reacts after scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on December 19, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

    It’s only fitting to include Cooks on this list. He’s not cheap, though, but he’s in the final year of the deal he originally signed with the Rams. He’s on the books for $13.7 million cash and a $16.2 million cap hit, so if Belichick brought him back, he could possibly give him a short extension for some cap relief. The familiarity is there, and the Texans are a logical trade partner. Cooks is also coming off a career-best 90 catches and has topped 1,000 yards in six of his eight seasons, so he’s as proven and consistent a producer as there is in the league.

  • Andy Isabella

    Cornerback Troy Hill #22 of the Los Angeles Rams breaks up a pass to wide receiver Andy Isabella #17 of the Arizona Cardinals during the first half at State Farm Stadium on December 06, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

    Cornerback Troy Hill #22 of the Los Angeles Rams breaks up a pass to wide receiver Andy Isabella #17 of the Arizona Cardinals during the first half at State Farm Stadium on December 06, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

    And now, we have the depressed assets.

    Isabella reportedly asked the Cardinals for a trade this off-season. So there’s that. He’s also a former UMass alum, and has privately expressed interest in returning to Massachusetts as a Patriot.

    The problem for Isabella’s trade hopes is that the Cardinals would be selling low after drafting him 62nd overall in the 2019 draft. It’s unlikely he’d cost more than a third-round pick after making just 31 catches in 36 games so far in his career. He’s on the books for only $1.1 million, so financially, it’s not exactly necessary to unload him. Plus, they lost Christian Kirk in free agency, so they need to replace his production.

    But Isabella could be a classic “change of scenery” situation in Arizona. The Cardinals still have DeAndre Hopkins, and 2021 rookie Rondale Moore seems to have already passed Isabella on the depth chart. In New England, where there’s no clear No. 1, Isabella would have the potential to become the team’s leading receiver if it clicked for him and Mac Jones.

  • Curtis Samuel

    Curtis Samuel #10 of the Washington Football Team runs with the ball during the first half a New Orleans Saints at FedExField on October 10, 2021 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

    Curtis Samuel #10 of the Washington Football Team runs with the ball during the first half a New Orleans Saints at FedExField on October 10, 2021 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

    Samuel is a bounce-back candidate after groin and hamstring injuries limited him to only five games in 2021. At the same time, the Commanders are ostensibly looking to sign Terry McLaurin to an extension, which could make Samuel expendable.

    Samuel is in the second year of a three-year contract with the Commanders, and all his guaranteed money has already been paid. Washington would save $8.7 million on the cap if they traded him with a post-June 1 designation.

    If the Pats acquired him, Belichick may want to restructure his deal to relieve the $12.6 million cap hit in 2022, and two years averaging about $10.5M for a receiver that dealt with multiple injuries wouldn’t be an ideal move. But Samuel has always seemed like a good fit, and it wouldn’t be shocking if he were made available in D.C.

  • Darius Slayton

    Darius Slayton #86 of the New York Giants fends off a tackle attempt by Avonte Maddox #29 of the Philadelphia Eagles in the third quarter at MetLife Stadium on November 28, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

    Darius Slayton #86 of the New York Giants fends off a tackle attempt by Avonte Maddox #29 of the Philadelphia Eagles in the third quarter at MetLife Stadium on November 28, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

    Slayton’s production dipped in 2021, with the additions of Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney to the receiver depth chart. It’s unclear what direction the Giants want to take at the position under new head coach Brian Daboll, but Slayton, a fifth-round pick in 2019, could now be expendable. Slayton as a player could be reasonably compared to Nelson Agholor, so he’d give Belichick an intriguing option on the outside if Agholor can’t improve upon a disappointing 2021.

  • Sterling Shepard

    Aug 29, 2021; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA;  New England Patriots cornerback Mike Jackson (35) makes a tackles on New York Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard (3) during the second quarte at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 29, 2021; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Mike Jackson (35) makes a tackles on New York Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard (3) during the second quarte at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

    Another Giant, and one that seems like an even better fit for the Patriots. Shepard is primarily a slot receiver, and while the Patriots like Jakobi Meyers there, Shepard would give them a more traditional inside option that they currently lack on the roster. He wouldn’t excite fans like more established acquisitions would, but he’d have the potential to deliver career-best numbers in Belichick’s system. The Patriots would love his consistency, as Shepard caught between 57 and 66 passes in every season from 2016-20 before playing only seven games last season.

  • J.J. Arcega-Whiteside

    JJ Arcega-Whiteside #19 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs with the ball prior to the preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field on August 12, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

    J.J. Arcega-Whiteside #19 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs with the ball prior to the preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field on August 12, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

    Here’s an example of a 2019 draft pick who has only gone backward in the passing game and cratered his potential trade value. The Eagles drafted Arcega-Whiteside in the second round of the 2019 draft, only to take Jalen Reagor in the first round in 2020, then DeVonta Smith 11th overall in 2021. So, like Isabella in Arizona, Philly has seemingly decided quickly to move on from Arcega-Whiteside, who was primarily a special teamer in 2021. He’d represent a total flyer for Belichick, but perhaps there is untapped potential here.