Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on against the Buffalo Bills during the first half 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)

  • Fortunately, the Patriots still have options for legitimate impact players in free agency. At others, they may have to explore other ways to acquire difference-making talent. Here’s the outlook for the Pats at key areas of need…

    Cornerback

    Joe Haden #23 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates a stop on fourth down in the fourth quarter to end the game at Heinz Field on December 19, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

    Of all the free-agent signings that had the potential to leave a sting in New England, J.C. Jackson’s big-but-manageable five-year deal with the Chargers may have been the hardest to swallow. To improve the Patriots’ talent and depth at the position, Belichick’s best bet on the open market now is with another veteran stopgap.

    Joe Haden is still out there as a potential addition. At 32 years old, Haden may not be the same player he was in 2015, when he earned second-team All-Pro honors. But he proved with the Steelers that he can still be a dependable starter, and it wouldn’t hurt for the Patriots to add that kind of pedigree to their cornerback room. If Belichick wants to go the veteran route at this spot, he could also look at Patrick Peterson, Janoris Jenkins, Kyle Fuller, or Xavier Rhodes.

    It appears that the Patriots could end up reuniting with a former CB – and perhaps not the one you think. The recently un-retired Malcolm Butler (!) is visiting the team for a tryout on Monday, according to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe. Butler doesn’t exactly need a tour of the facilities, so this seems to be all about evaluating what he’s got left as a player, and whether it’s worth gambling on the familiarity. For Butler himself, this would signify a reconciliation between himself and Bill Belichick after his infamous benching in Super Bowl LII.

    This is all to say that it certainly doesn’t seem like a Stephon Gilmore reunion is in the offing for Belichick. But recent reports suggest that Gilmore could reunite with Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler in Las Vegas with the Raiders.

  • Front-Seven

    Jadeveon Clowney #90 of the Cleveland Browns attempts to apply pressure during the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

    Jadeveon Clowney #90 of the Cleveland Browns attempts to apply pressure during the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

    The Patriots’ major pass-rush help for 2022 may have to come in the form of more sustained excellence from 2021 free-agent addition Matthew Judon. After an All-Pro-caliber first half of the season in 2021, Judon’s production mysteriously dropped off after the bye week, as did that of the entire Patriots defense. Judon chalked it up to poor execution against tough opponents when he joined Felger and Mazz at Radio Row before Super Bowl LVI.

    But the Patriots could still use another talented edge player, and they can still add potential difference-makers in free agency. They likely weren’t about to compete with the money that Chandler Jones (Raiders) or Von Miller (Bills) got, but if they are ready to pay up for another pass-rusher, Za’Darius Smith is still available after spurning the Ravens’ offer to keep exploring the open market. Guys like Jadeveon Clowney or Melvin Ingram could probably be had on shorter money.

    Linebacker was a position in need of speed and youth, and that’s the direction the Patriots are taking in 2022 – but they’re likely doing it internally. The trade of Chase Winovich to the Browns was more of a culture-preserving move, but the Pats are also moving on from Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, and the same appears to be the case for Dont’a Hightower.

    The bright side is, there are plenty of young, athletic internal options for the Patriots to develop. Between Josh Uche and second-year pros Ronnie Perkins and Cameron McGrone, the hope is at least one of them emerges as an impact starter in 2022. Uche, who was one of the most explosive players on the field in 2021 training camp, looked to be on that type of trajectory before playing only 30 percent of defensive snaps, and only six snaps in the Pats’ season-ending blowout loss to the Bills.

    If Belichick still wants to make a splash at linebacker, if only a short-term one, Bobby Wagner is still available. But considering the big-time contracts other veteran All-Pros got, Wagner may still be too expensive for New England, even at this stage.

  • 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 let Trent Brown explore free agency before bringing him back on a two-year deal on Monday, as his agent Drew Rosenhaus confirmed to Adam Schefter. So, for 2022, they appear set at the tackle spots with Brown and Isaiah Wynn under contract. They could stand to draft a long-term answer.

    Along the offensive line, the bigger question is at guard. Ted Karras is gone after cashing in on a three-year, $18 million deal with the Bengals, and Shaq Mason became a cap casualty in a trade to the Bucs. Mike Onwenu is an obvious candidate to take over at one of those spots; he mainly played right guard in college at Michigan.

    Elsewhere? The Patriots are reportedly hosting restricted free agent guard Ryan Bates, who played all 17 games for the Bills in 2021 with four starts. Buffalo tendered Bates at the original-round level, meaning that if the Pats signed him to an offer sheet, they’d have the opportunity to match, but wouldn’t be owed draft pick compensation if they declined.

    It would feel like a squirrelly situation in Foxboro if Bates ended up their full-time starter at guard, so you have to wonder if the Patriots are turning to the draft at that position. If Belichick decides to dip into the unrestricted market, Ereck Flowers has experience at both guard and tackle. Will Hernandez started all 17 games for the Giants in 2021. Billy Price can play both guard and center.

  • Wide Receiver

    Julio Jones #2 of the Tennessee Titans against the Indianapolis Colts at Nissan Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

    Julio Jones #2 of the Tennessee Titans against the Indianapolis Colts at Nissan Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

    Unless you count Julio Jones, the Patriots’ opportunities to add an impact wide receiver in free agency have dried up. Davante Adams ended up traded to the Raiders before signing the richest contract ever for a non-quarterback. Chris Godwin re-signed with the Bucs. Mike Williams re-signed with the Chargers. JuJu Smith-Schuster opted for the Chiefs on a one-year deal.

    The Patriots haven’t been against gambling on veteran wideouts on short money in the past. They haven’t often worked out as well as they’d hoped, but if Belichick wants to go that route in 2022, he has options. A.J. Green, T.Y. Hilton, and Will Fuller remain available. Odell Beckham Jr. is, too, but he’s more likely to sign later in the off-season, after he recovers from ACL surgery.

    If New England wants to add younger talent at the position, their best bet is a trade. They’ve been rumored to have interest in the Panthers’ Robby Anderson. If they want to recreate something close to the Brandin Cooks trade from 2017, or acquire an affordable asset on his rookie deal, they could look into the Cardinals’ Andy Isabella or the Colts’ Parris Campbell. If the Seahawks’ firesale isn’t over, it would be worth calling them about Tyler Lockett, or even D.K. Metcalf.

    Otherwise, the Patriots sound ready to re-commit to developing Nelson Agholor into the “X” receiver they want him to be. N’Keal Harry remains on the roster, but just about all hope is lost on the former first-round pick to make an appreciable impact in the passing game.