Four Focal Points For The Patriots Offseason
With the new league year beginning March 15, the Patriots enter the start of 2023 with questions about the current and future state of the roster. Will Devin McCourty retire? Who will be re-signed or brought on via free agency? Will Bill Belichick look to acquire a boundary corner before the draft? What is to be made of the offensive line?
The order in which these questions are addressed – and what the rest of the league does – often dictates subsequent moves. This makes accurate offseason predictions an exercise in futility, especially when it comes to New England.
So, instead, we must take a look at the existing roster construction and reposition the question as to what the Patriots could do instead of what they will do.
Patriots Cap Space + Draft Capital
Before diving into the preview, note that the Patriots have a good deal of cap space to work with in free agency at around $32MM, per Miguel Benzan. They also own 11 picks in the draft, including eight day three selections. A small but not insignificant amount of the cap will be allocated to drafted players, but New England still boasts some of the best flexibility in the league as it pertains to cap space and draft choices.
Position 1: Outside Corner
Summary: Draft one of the consensus top three cornerbacks with the 14th overall selection
Most Patriots offseason previews have tackle or receiver as the top priority. While both of those position groups must add at least one additional starter and more depth, no position is of greater need than a corner – specifically acquiring a true boundary corner with size.
Jonathan Jones is unlikely to return after pricing himself out of New England following a solid 2022 campaign that moved him to the outside. Even if he is retained, Jones is undersized and would operate on most NFL teams as a CB2, not the long-term solution as the top Patriots cornerback. Corners Joejuan Williams is a UFA and Miles Bryant an RFA, but neither possesses the talent necessary to compete as a boundary corner, let alone a true number one option.
Looking Around The Room
Still under contract are Jalen Mills and youngsters Jack Jones and Marcus Jones. Mills has quite a bit of variability for his role in 2023, ranging anywhere from matchup-based starting corner to move to free safety with the likely retirement of long-time Patriots captain Devin McCourty. The team would be best positioned to keep Mills in his current role rather than relying on him as their lockdown guy.
Despite flashes, Jack Jones is also a question, given his general inexperience, and the peculiar suspension at the end of 2022 makes the situation even murkier. As electric of a playmaker as he is, Marcus Jones does not have the size to consistently compete against the top wideouts in the league, especially those in the AFC East.
All three are expected to play important roles for New England next year but do not provide the comfort level one would hope for, even with the team’s ability to coach up the defensive backfield.
Given where the position group stands, two clear options emerge: trade for a veteran corner or draft a talented one. Jalen Ramsey trade rumors have emerged in recent weeks after Rams COO Kevin Demoff made foreboding comments on the all-pro’s future in Los Angeles. With the Rams entering what appears to be a rebuild despite their void of draft picks and poor cap situation, trading Ramsey seems to be on the table.
Although he is not considered past his prime at 28, Ramsey’s lackluster performance last season and $17MM cap hit for 2023 make him a risk and merely a stop-gap at a position demanding long-term stability. The draft capital to acquire him would not be significant, and there would be no dead cap if the Patriots were to release Ramsey after next season.
Still, all the considerations that go into trading for a star player who could be on the decline is a rare decision for Belichick and the front office. This move should be considered a stretch at best and paves the way to a more desirable option, which is the draft.
Fortunately, the Patriots find themselves at an opportune time to be a cornerback-needy team with this year’s draft. The consensus top-end talent consists of a trio of players who are strong prospects but unlikely to all be off the board prior to the Patriots’ first pick at 14th overall. One or two of Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez, Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr., and Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon should be available in the middle of the first round.
All three represent cost-effective options as big-bodied cornerbacks that can take over the CB1 spot in New England. With each standing six feet or taller, the Patriots will have found their long-term boundary corner on a rookie contract, and the secondary would be one of the youngest positional groups in the NFL.
Position 2: Wide Receiver
Summary: Explore the trade market for a younger receiver and, if that fails, build using earlier selections in the draft
Enough has been made about the Patriots’ inability to find receiving talent, and the point does not need to be belabored here. And while the lack of explosive players in the receiving game is an issue at the forefront of discussion amongst media and fans, depth is just as big of an issue.
Jakobi Meyers, New England’s top receiver for three consecutive seasons, is a UFA and may command more than Belichick would be willing to pay to retain him. It would be shocking to see Nelson Agholor re-signed unless the deal was team-friendly. This leaves Kendrick Bourne, Davante Parker, and 2022 second-round pick Tyquan Thornton as the only remaining wide receivers who made an impact last season.
Parker has injury issues, and while Bourne has been durable, his usage with the Patriots does not bode well for a leading-man role next season. Thornton did not look ready to take that next step in his rookie campaign but has time to develop. In the near term, however, the Patriots will need to bring in at least one wideout better than the returning three and add at least another for depth purposes.
The draft is an obvious avenue to build the receiving group, with USC’s Jordan Addison, Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and TCU’s Quentin Johnston all projected to be selected around where the Patriots pick in the first.
As stated earlier, if New England reserves that pick for a corner and look to the second round for receiving help, options become more limited. It has been demonstrated in recent drafts that a premium has been placed on the wide receiver position, and the talent pool could dry up quicker than anticipated.
Perhaps the Patriots go for it in the first and select one of the premier wideouts or wait to see if one from the next tier of players (Zay Flowers, Jalin Hyatt) falls and move up in the second to grab them.
Potential Trade Scenarios
Tee Higgins would cost a first and is almost certainly staying in Cincinnati, but perhaps Belichick can call his friend Sean Payton, new HC of the Denver Broncos, to gauge the interest in trading for WR Jerry Jeudy.
Option 1: Jerry Juedy
The Alabama product and former 15th overall pick has been good but not great since arriving in the league but has the route-running ability and athleticism to thrive in the New England system. It would also revive the brief but effective Jones-to-Jeudy connection the two shared at Alabama, where they spent time as roommates as well.
The Broncos are an ideal target, given their recent moves. In acquiring QB Russell Wilson last offseason and Payton several weeks ago, Denver is barren of draft picks, and the new ownership group may want to build with some younger, cheaper talent in the draft.
Jeudy does not cost much in 2023 with a $4.8MM cap hit but is certain to cash in on the open market next season if Denver does not pick up his fifth-year option (or the year after if the option is picked up). Would Payton want to move one of Wilson’s premier weapons as he tries to fix the Denver offense?
Perhaps not, but Denver has already-solid receiver talent across the board, even without Jeudy.
Options 2: Deandre Hopkins
If a deal cannot be struck for Jeudy, the Patriots could look into adding Cardinal’s Deandre Hopkins or reunite with the Texans’ Brandin Cooks. Hopkins carries a heavy cap hit, accounting for almost $20MM and $15MM the year after. Despite experiencing his share of injuries and returning from a PED suspension in 2022, he still has plenty left in the tank. He would immediately become the primary target in New England and shouldn’t cost more than a 2nd-round pick.
Options 3: Brandin Cooks
If traded after June 1, Cooks would save Houston over $18MM in cap space and take a disgruntled player off their roster. He would be the more cost-effective option but would not make the same impact as Hopkins. There has also been a recent trend of younger receivers demanding new contracts amidst their rookie deal, opening up doors for potential splashes once the new league year starts.
Identifying a wideout that fits the Patriots’ offense under new OC Bill O’Brien is a top priority this offseason, and assuring their success at the professional level by acquiring a proven talent may be the best course of action.
Position 3: Offensive Tackle
Summary: Sign RT Mike McGlinchey and use the collection of middle-round picks to draft depth on the interior
Using the first-round pick on a left tackle prospect is the trendy off-season prediction and is admittedly the most likely outcome of the 14th overall draft choice, especially with the uncertainty of LT Trent Brown (performance and cap casualty related). Signing swing tackle Conor McDermott to an extension was a great first step, but the need for more talented and younger tackles is evident.
The reason behind the offensive tackle position not being the number one or two offseason priority is because the Patriots could choose to add just a bit more depth to the interior and theoretically run out an underwhelming offensive line for 2023 that looked something like this:
• Starters: LT Brown, LG Strange, C Andrews, RG (FA/draft addition), RT Onwenu
• Depth: OT McDermott, OT Stueber, IOL Russey, IOL Hines
After last year’s debacle, it is doubtful anyone would be thrilled with that unit and unlikely that the Patriots would feel comfortable running this group out to protect Mac Jones in a “prove it” year. It would also require kicking Onwenu out, complicating matters if they plan to sign him to an extension but wish to keep his salary closer to top-end guard talent instead of mid-level right tackle money.
But if new offensive line coach Adrian Klemm can coach this group up to their potential, the line is passable and, at the very least, not as far off as some perceive it to be. New England can do more, but it would not require investing a first-round pick on the first tier of tackles in this draft.
Target Free Agent RT Mike McGlinchey
The “sign one, draft one” motto has frequented New England sports media since the end of the season and remains true today. Although he has never been a star, 49ers RT Mike McGlinchey will be one of the most sought-after players in free agency. Spotrac projects his salary to be in the $15MM range, and it would be worth the Patriots kicking the tires to see what type of contract he is seeking.
His build and play style would likely be elevated in a New England offense, moving away from the zone-based schemes HC Kyle Shanahan has installed in San Francisco (as long as the Patriots do not try to emulate the same style of offense as they did at the beginning of 2022). If McGlinchey prices himself in the open market, Jaguars’ Jawaan Taylor, Eagles’ Isaac Seumalo, or even the unlikely reunion with Isaiah Wynn could be on the table.
Each has its issues with consistency and/or injuries, but it would be a nice consolation prize for teams missing out on McGlinchey. Look for New England to search the open market to shore up one of their tackle spots, preferably on the right side of the line.
With the addition of a free-agent tackle, the line already looks much improved:
• Starters: LT Brown, LG Strange, C Andrews, RG Onwenu, RT McGlinchey (or other FA)
• Depth: OT McDermott, OT Stueber, IOL Russey, IOL Hines
This is arguably a good offensive line as it stands. Brown could be a weakness, and depth certainly needs to be built, but if the Patriots choose to keep Brown at left tackle, they can add to their backup pieces through the draft – something they have done effectively in the past.
It would be naive to think Belichick will not use his arsenal of day three picks to move around the board come April, but picks will be made, and the focus could be on building the offensive line to compete with other depth options.
Even if they wanted to use more expensive draft capital while reserving the first-round pick for a cornerback or receiver, they could move up in the second to target Ohio State’s Dawand Jones or Tennessee’s Darnell Wright to compete with Brown in training camp and eventually succeed him as the franchise’s blindside protector.
The options are available for New England to strengthen the line and protect Mac Jones in a make-or-break season, but it may not be as arduous a process as it is often seen today.
Position 4: Free Safety
Summary: Plan for the future if McCourty returns, find the long-term solution if he retires
The announcement of the return of long-time Patriots special teamer Matthew Slater was welcomed news to fans. It also compounded questions about the legendary safety Devin McCourty and his plans for 2023.
Although it seems unlikely, if McCourty decides to come back, the free safety position will be in good shape. McCourty saw his performance drop last season but still has the veteran savvy to be a plus player in the New England secondary.
The Patriots should still target his replacement in the draft, but it could come at a later pick, and tapping into free agency would be unnecessary. This should be considered a minor team issue if McCourty returns for a 14th season.
If McCourty Retires
If McCourty decides to hang them up, fans would dread using the 14th overall pick on his replacement, as it would be a heavy investment for a position considered to be less important than other areas with glaring needs. It should not be ruled out on someone like Alabama’s Brian Branch, but it appears unlikely.
Instead, the Patriots could target an array of talented players in the third round, such as Notre Dame’s Brandon Joseph, whose high football IQ and program track record hint at success at the next level. Pairing him in the defensive backfield with strong safety Kyle Dugger should give the team confidence in their last line of defense.
Draft + Free Agent Options
If New England is uncomfortable starting a rookie at free safety, they could look to find a long-term solution in free agency. Cincinnati’s Jessie Bates III would not come cheap but would give the Patriots an experienced, high-performing veteran at the position, allowing them to “set and forget” for the next five seasons. His projected AAV comes in around ~$15MM and would be a longer contract given Bates’ age at 26.
The former Wake Forest product has all the skills Belichick desires in an FS and would be McCourty’s ideal replacement now and for the future. 49ers’ Jimmie Ward would be an older, cheaper option and versatile player. Still, given the security the Patriots have enjoyed at the position for so many years, it would be difficult to see them pass on a younger player (through the draft or free agency) in favor of a temporary replacement.
New England has not shied away from paying McCourty market value throughout his career, especially in his later years. Whether they will pursue an even more expensive option in Bates and be able to compete with other offers remains to be seen. But if they were to lose out on signing a veteran for the foreseeable future, expect meaningful draft capital to be invested into the free safety position to lock down that position for the years to come.
Punter Jake Bailey signed a three-year extension that kicks in this year. Already pricey, Bailey’s future with the team beyond 2023 is questionable, with a potential out after this season and the puzzling end-of-year suspension. Nick Folk has been a reliable kicker for New England, but signs of decline have shown on the 38-year-old, and the Patriots may be looking to upgrade at the position.
This offseason is not immune to the annual “get more athletic” mantra, specifically for the inside linebackers position group. New England may not see this as much of a concern as pundits and fans passing up on several viable off-the-ball linebackers in last year’s draft. Bills’ free agent Tremaine Edmunds would be an ideal fit but may price himself out of the Patriots’ comfortability on the open market.
Neither Hunter Henry nor Jonnu Smith is going anywhere anytime soon. Despite disappointment relative to expectations upon signing with New England in 2020, both are capable tight ends that should see a boost in production under Bill O’Brien. Their ages and contract situations may force the Patriots to draft a tight end or two in this year’s draft to get younger, but the position group is expensive and solid as it stands today.
In recent years, the Patriots’ interior defensive front has been solid, if unspectacular. Losing a year of Barmore’s development and production due to injury in 2022 hurt, but the unit should only need another depth piece to round out the rotation. Edge presents a larger concern, with Josh Uche and Afernee Jennings entering contract years. It is a prove-it year for Ronnie Perkins, the Patriots’ third-round selection in 2021.
Thanks for Reading! You can follow me on Twitter @REITwriterPaul