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Patriots 2024 Offseason Preview: Predicting Decisions for Top In-House Free Agents

The 2024 Patriots are beginning to take shape. On Monday alone, offensive tackle Trent Brown’s contract was officially voided, offensive lineman James Ferentz retired, respected veterans defensive tackle Lawrence Guy and safety Adrian Phillips were cut in cap-saving moves, and head coach Jerod Mayo’s new-look staff was officially announced.

With New England’s coaching staff locked in, the team can focus on rebuilding a roster with several areas that need to be addressed. The Patriots are projected to have the 3rd-most cap space in the NFL this offseason, but that’s due in large part to their sizeable free agent class. 24 players are set to hit free agency in March, with 18 of those players being unrestricted free agents.

The Patriots have done a poor job retaining homegrown talent in recent seasons, particularly early-round picks, but this year’s group features multiple players who have earned the chance to turn that track record around. And with the franchise tag window officially open, de facto general manager Eliot Wolf can give a glimpse into how he values the tactic, which was rarely used during the Bill Belichick era. There are also a number of veterans seeking third contracts whose futures could be determined by whether New England wants to lean on familiar faces or forge a new path.

This list will take a look at the Patriots’ top impending free agents, the cases for and against retaining them, and what kind of deals they could earn on the market.

S KYLE DUGGER

Nov 5, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23) runs the ball out of the end zone after an interception during the first half against the Washington Commanders at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Dugger assumed a bigger role in the Patriots’ secondary following Devin McCourty’s retirement last offseason. He played 1,069 defensive snaps, shattering his previous career-high of 721 the previous season, and led the defense with 71 solo tackles.

Dugger continues to thrive near the line of scrimmage, doing his best work when used as a strong safety, nickel corner, and dime linebacker. The versatile defender brings rare physicality in the run game, often jolting linemen with his explosive hands, and has exceptional timing as a blitzer. Coverage isn’t Dugger’s strong suit, but he comes downhill with bad intentions from zone and can hang with tight ends when on top of his game. He ranked 3rd among safeties in pressures (15), 6th in tackles for loss or no gain (8), and tied for 9th in coverage stops (15).

Few New England defenders are as impactful as Dugger, but his highlights were often more opportunistic than anything last season, and he gave up big plays more frequently than usual. Missed tackles continue to be an issue for the veteran, and he seemed to be responsible for coverage busts throughout the season due to either missed assignments, poor depth, or losing receivers at the top of routes. In fairness, Dugger played 4.5x more free safety than his previous season-high despite lacking the range to hold up deep consistently, which put him in some difficult spots.

PFF salary cap expert Brad Spielberger predicts Dugger will earn $16.26 million on the franchise tag while Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan believes Dugger will earn a three-year deal averaging $13.5 million. The latter deal would make Dugger the league’s 8th-highest-paid safety behind the Ravens’ Marcus Williams and ahead of the Seahawks’ Quandre Diggs.

Dugger’s struggles in an expanded role make the tag a realistic option, giving New England leverage and more time to find a deal that suits both sides. That said, no one on the Patriots’ defense brings his blend of size, physicality, instincts, and athleticism, and turning 28 in March could bring down the safety’s price tag. If New England minimizes Dugger’s free safety snaps moving forward, there shouldn’t be any hesitation about retaining him long-term. They may have to live with his inconsistent tackling and coverage, but neither drawback has kept Dugger from being a headliner in one of the league’s best defenses.

Prediction: Stays 

OL MIKE ONWENU

Dec 7, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; New England Patriots guard Mike Onwenu (71) blocks against Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt (90) during the second quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Onwenu missed the entire summer and season opener due to offseason ankle surgery, leading to some rust in his first games back at right guard. But after sitting out Week 6 and returning in Week 7 at right tackle, which had been a glaring weakness on an already leaky front, Onwenu proved he’s still one of New England’s most valuable offensive players.

The versatile lineman put together an impressive 11-game stretch despite facing the likes of T.J. Watt, Khalil Mack, and George Karlaftis. Onwenu lacks ideal foot speed and quickness for the position but compensates with length, technique, and powerful hands. He and right guard Sidy Sow also combined for devastating run blocks on a weekly basis and could develop into a formidable duo.

Onwenu’s positional flexibility and skill set make for an interesting free-agency situation. His best fit is at guard, where I believe he has Pro Bowl potential, but he holds up well enough at right tackle to make a living outside. At 350 lbs, he’s also scheme-dependent and won’t fit in offenses that ask their linemen to regularly pull or cross defenders’ faces.

Spielberger projects a four-year deal averaging $14.5 million for Onwenu, which would make him the 11th-highest-paid right tackle just below the Browns’ Jack Conklin and ahead of the Dolphins’ Austin Jackson. This contract would make him the 5th-highest-paid right guard, just behind the Browns’ Wyatt Teller.

Benzan has Onwenu signing a contract of the same length but with an average of $17 million per year, featuring incentives if he earns Pro Bowl or All-Pro nods at tackle. This would tie Onwenu for 8th among right tackles with the Panthers’ Taylor Moton and 3rd among right guards behind the Cowboys’ Zack Martin and ahead of the Jaguars’ Brandon Scherff. Onwenu is also a candidate to receive the franchise tag.

In an Alex Van Pelt scheme that believes in flexibility and maximizing players’ strengths, Onwenu is a no-brainer re-signing for the Patriots. The Browns asked their interior linemen to pull far more often than their tackles, and Dawand Jones is another mountain of a man who succeeded on Cleveland’s right edge. Onwenu also took on a greater leadership role last season while continuing to be New England’s most consistent and dominant lineman. That’s the kind of homegrown talent you keep around.

Prediction: Stays

OT TRENT BROWN

Dec 7, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; New England Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown (77) blocks against Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Nick Herbig (51) during the third quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Trent Brown is the most polarizing member of New England’s free agent class. 2023 was tough on just about everyone in the Patriots’ building, but Brown’s response to this adversity sparked rumors and controversy. After trailing only the Vikings’ Christian Darrisaw in PFF grade through seven weeks, Brown ranked 56th among 82 tackles with 200 snaps from Weeks 8-18.

There is a strong case to be made that New England and Brown should go their separate ways after what appeared to be a toxic relationship. Among multiple other alleged infractions, reports indicate he wasn’t sufficiently motivated, chose not to return from injury to protect himself, and openly discussed playing for an NFC team in the locker room after a win in Pittsburgh. Brown’s film was also damning at times, sometimes appearing to take plays off and show minimal effort.

Brown pushed back against these accusations, defending his willingness to play through injury and expressing discontent with his treatment by the team. Brown suffered an MCL and high-ankle sprain in Week 7 that derailed an excellent start to the season. Despite playing through the injury, he clearly wasn’t 100% and aggravated it the next week. Brown missed two games and came back as part of a rotation, which he says he supported, but he couldn’t regain his previous level of play. He fell ill in Week 15 and missed three of his final four games, including one where he appeared to be a healthy scratch despite being listed with an illness in each other absence. Brown also openly criticized the team for what he believed to be unfair scheduling practices, subjecting him to mind games, and mishandling the offensive line following Mac Jones’ rookie season.

Spielberger projects Brown will sign a two-year, $7.5 million per year deal, a $1 million pay bump from last season. With Tyron Smith likely chasing a ring and Jonah Williams being the next-best left tackle on the market, re-signing Brown could be a steal.

When motivated and healthy, Brown is one of the best at his position, and people forget he started every game in 2022. That said, Brown has struggled significantly in both areas. And while he’s publicly supported Mayo’s promotion to head coach, there’s no guarantee a regime change will be enough to keep the veteran at his best. The Patriots desperately need tackles, and there may not be a draft prospect outside of the top 10 ready to start out of the gate. If he hasn’t burned bridges inside the Patriots’ building, it makes sense for the sides to make peace for a year while a rookie learns on the bench. But with Brown’s contract voiding on Monday, guaranteeing he’ll hit the market in March, that feels like more of a pipe dream than a blossoming reality.

Prediction: Leaves

DB MYLES BRYANT

Nov 12, 2023; Frankfurt, Germany; New England Patriots cornerback Myles Bryant (27) celebrates with cornerback Jalen Mills (2) after intercepting a pass against the Indianapolis Colts in the second half during an NFL International Series game at Deutsche Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Myles Bryant is a lightning rod for criticism, which comes with the territory for most slot corners, but even the harshest of critics had to appreciate his efforts in a contract year. He responded to a career-high 816 defensive snaps with career-highs in tackles (66), tackles for loss or no gain (7), and forced incompletions (7).

Bryant’s value lies in his intelligence, toughness, versatility, and dependability. He played every position in the defensive backfield and filled in for Christian Gonzalez, Jonathan Jones, and Jabrill Peppers at different points throughout the season. The undrafted free agent is at his best on early downs, where he can read and react from zone coverage and provide high-effort run defense. He also consistently attacks the ball to force fumbles and was disruptive as a blitzer in limited opportunities.

Bryant stays competitive in man coverage thanks to his route recognition and technique, but his lack of size and explosiveness are undeniable detriments. This is most obvious when he’s left on an island against top receivers or forced to cover a lot of ground downfield. And while Bryant is a generally reliable tackler who minimizes yards after contact, he exceeded a miss rate of 10% for the first time in his career.

Spielberger projects Bryant will sign a two-year contract averaging $3.5 million, comparable to the Titans’ Sean Murphy-Bunting and former 1st-round corners on their first contracts. This would be one of the lesser veteran deals at the position, but few teams, if any, will covet Bryant as highly as the Patriots. He lacks the name recognition to command big money, and his average athleticism won’t fit in some systems.

Players and coaches alike gush about Bryant whenever he’s brought up, and his extensive experience in New England’s scheme is invaluable. That said, Bryant isn’t an ideal every-down player and could be pushed into a reserve role if Marcus Jones or another, more athletic corner steps up. If he’s content signing a team-friendly deal that includes a solid pay bump, Bryant could return as a rotational piece with the ability to slide in where he’s needed.

Prediction: Stays

TE HUNTER HENRY

Dec 17, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots tight end Hunter Henry (85) makes a catch for a touchdown during the first half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

2023 was Hunter Henry’s first season as a Patriots team captain, and he backed it up by being one of the offense’s only consistent playmakers. Among tight ends, only Sam LaPorta (10) caught more touchdowns than Henry (6), and he ranked top-5 at the position in contested catches (10) while dropping just two passes.

The former Charger isn’t the dynamic weapon he was in San Diego, but he’s a reliable chain-mover and a tough cover in the Red Zone. Henry makes up for a lack of explosiveness with well-executed routes, a big frame, and soft hands. He made some impressive adjustments to inaccurate passes last season and showed good concentration in traffic. Henry won’t blow anyone away as a blocker, but the effort is always there and he typically does enough to get in the way of defenders.

Injuries have plagued Henry his entire Patriots career, but last season was the first where he missed time, sitting out Weeks 16 and 17 with a knee before landing on injured reserve ahead of the finale. This is concerning for the 29-year-old, whose burst and fluidity have already been impacted by years of similar issues. While still effective, Henry can’t pull away from coverage and offers next to nothing after the catch. In the run game, he doesn’t get much push and gets worked by bigger defenders, making him a less-than-ideal fit in-line on a consistent basis.

Spielberger projects Henry will sign a two-year deal for $6.13 million per year, less than half of his current average. This would sandwich him behind the Jets’ Tyler Conklin and ahead of the Texans’ Dalton Schultz, a fair deal given Henry’s diminishing explosiveness and injury history.

David Andrews’ future is up in the air, and Mac Jones is likely playing elsewhere in 2024. Henry could be one of the only remaining leaders in an offense led by its fourth coordinator in as many seasons. The cupboard is also bare at tight end, with the Patriots having zero players under contract at the position. If Alex Van Pelt wants an athletic dual-threat a la David Njoku, Henry may not fit as well as someone like Schultz. But if he values an inexpensive veteran who’s well-respected in the locker room, Henry should be a priority re-signing.

Prediction: Stays

ED Anfernee Jennings

Aug 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots linebacker Anfernee Jennings (33) waits on the snap of the ball during the first half against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Anfernee Jennings came out of nowhere to have one of the most productive seasons of any edge defender in 2023. Matthew Judon’s season-ending injury thrust Jennings into a larger role, and he answered by tying Maxx Crosby for the position lead in run stops (38) and tying Khalil Mack for the 2nd-most tackles for loss or no gain, all while nearly doubling his career-high in snaps.

The former Alabama linebacker has always been a force against the run, but he flourished as a consistent presence on potential run downs. Equipped with outstanding instincts, a sturdy anchor, and a knack for stacking and shedding blocks, Jennings completely shut down his end of the line and even made plays away from his gap. He rarely lost a rep and was one of the key figures behind New England’s league-best run defense.

Generating negative plays consistently is valuable on any down, but Jennings’ lack of pass-rush upside caps his ceiling. He’s disciplined and can create disruption when asked to slant inside, but he lacks the juice or bend to be a consistent threat off the edge. Jennings isn’t very fluid in coverage, either, making him strictly an edge defender.

Spielberger projects Jennings will sign a two-year deal averaging $5.25 million, a nice contract for an early-down playmaker with limited flexibility. This would place him behind teammate Deatrich Wise and ahead of Eagles veteran Brandon Graham among edge defenders.

Unless some team surprises and throws a big contract at Jennings, he seems like an easy re-sign for the Patriots, particularly with former defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington now running that side of the ball. Some statistical regression from his breakout campaign is to be expected, but I’d expect Jennings to remain a fixture of the defense and one of the league’s best run-stoppers.

Prediction: Stays

ED JOSH UCHE

Oct 1, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) looks to throw as New England Patriots linebacker Josh Uche (55) defends during the first quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

One season after putting himself on the map with 11.5 sacks in seven games, Josh Uche experienced a disappointing regression in a contract year.  His pressure rate plummeted from 20.7% to 15.7%, which was closer to his rookie figure of 13.0%, and his pass rush win rate was a career-low 11.1%, nearly half of what it was in 2022.

Uche spent parts of the year dealing with a foot injury, which understandably slowed him down after a strong start to the season. But unlike his breakout campaign, where he was beating tackles 1-on-1 with dizzying efficiency, the edge rusher had significantly fewer quality wins in 2023 and was inconsistent in contain. Uche showed improvement as a run defender thanks to better recognition, but there were still too many reps where poor discipline resulted in big gains. He also struggled in space when asked to drop into coverage.

Spielberger projects Uche will make $7.5 million on a one-year deal, placing him between the Chiefs’ Charles Omenihu and the Bills’ Leonard Floyd. Uche can’t contribute on every down like the aforementioned veterans, but youth and pass-rush upside help his case.

Uche is still an explosive athlete who can hit linemen with an arsenal of rush moves, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the situational rusher return on a team-friendly prove-it deal. But if another team offers a decent payday and/or more security, the former 2nd-rounder might start fresh elsewhere.

Prediction: Leaves

WR KENDRICK BOURNE

Oct 8, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne (84) runs with the ball during the second half against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Kendrick Bourne was on pace for his best year as a pro before tearing his ACL in Week 8 against the Dolphins, depriving the offense of its best receiver. Through eight weeks, Bourne was the Patriots’ only pass-catcher with 35+ targets (55), 30+ receptions (37), 250+ receiving yards (406), more than two receiving touchdowns (four), or double-digit receptions of 15+ yards (12).

After spending 2022 in Matt Patricia’s dog house, Bourne seized his new opportunity and established himself as a key cog in the passing game. He brought smooth route running to a group filled with stiff veterans and inexperienced rookies, and his juice after the catch was matched only by DeMario Douglas. Bourne also showed great effort in the run game and threw several key blocks throughout the season.

Unfortunately, time isn’t on Bourne’s side as he approaches 29 years old coming off of a major injury. ACLs typically take a season to mentally recover from, which could be detrimental for a player who already lacks great explosiveness and relies so heavily on running after the catch.

Spielberger predicts Bourne will sign a one-year prove-it deal this offseason, a $2 million pay bump from last season that would put him in a similar neighborhood as the Texans’ Robert Woods and the Steelers’ Allen Robinson. Woods has been my top comparison for Bourne at this stage in his career, as both had to battle back from ACL injuries in their late 20s before going on to help mentor young quarterbacks.

Bourne has been open about his desire to return to the Patriots, and his infectious energy was sorely missed. Even if his burst takes a step back, his strong hands and smooth routes should compensate in a WR3/4 role. And though he didn’t get many chances to show it in a conservative passing attack, he is capable of making jaw-dropping grabs downfield. With this year’s free agent class falling off significantly outside of the top five players, bringing Bourne back as a depth piece and locker room presence could be best for both sides.

Prediction: Stays

TE MIKE GESICKI

Dec 24, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; New England Patriots tight end Mike Gesicki (88) pulls in a touchdown reception in the third quarter against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a tough couple of seasons for Mike Gesicki. After falling out of favor with the Dolphins due to his skill set not matching their scheme, he came to a doomed Patriots offense and had his worst season statistically since his rookie year.

Gesicki was exactly what fans were promised, an oversized slot receiver with magnets for hands and a huge catch radius. Both of his touchdowns came in rare wins for New England, including a dagger against the Bills and a great scramble adjustment late in Denver. Gesicki didn’t drop any of the 47 passes thrown his way and caught five of 10 contested targets. Similar to Bourne, his skill set wasn’t maximized due to the Patriots’ conservative passing attack, which provided minimal opportunities to make plays downfield. He was also forced to play more true Z receiver once Bourne went down, which wasn’t a great fit.

While Gesicki wasn’t put in position to consistently succeed with the Patriots, he also became an odd fit for their offense when running the ball became a survival tactic. Gesicki’s linear frame and average strength make it hard for him to consistently succeed as a blocker, even though his effort is never in question. As a receiver, Gesicki being tall with minimal bend allows defenders to get into his chest and shut down routes early, which can affect both his availability and the timing of the overall pattern.

Spielberger projects Gesicki will earn $2 million on another prove-it deal, which is less than half of the $4.5 million he earned in 2023. This would put the 28-year-old on par with the Bears’ Marcedes Lewis, who is still one of the best blocking tight ends in the game at 40 years old.

Gesicki could be an odd fit in Alex Van Pelt’s run-heavy offense, but the coach’s affinity for multiple tight ends sets could also work in his favor. Gesicki was a great locker room presence who always kept things light despite the dark cloud of a 4-13 season hanging over the building. He can still be a formidable Red Zone threat and 50-50 specialist if given more opportunities, but I think someone like Harrison Bryant, an underutilized dual threat who’s spent his entire career with Van Pelt, makes more sense.

Prediction: Leaves

RB EZEKIEL ELLIOTT

Dec 31, 2023; Orchard Park, New York, USA; New England Patriots running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) spikes the ball after scoring a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills during the second half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Following a down season with the Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliott was expected to be a short-yardage and pass-protection specialist when the Patriots signed him late during training camp. He far exceeded those expectations, serving as a solid one-two punch with Rhamondre Stevenson and eventually becoming the lead back when Stevenson suffered a season-ending ankle injury.

Running lanes were scarce behind an every-shifting Patriots offensive line, resulting in Elliott getting stuffed on over 20% of his carries for the first time in his career. But he clawed and scratched for every yard he earned, leading to a career-high 72.6% of rushing yards coming after contact and his 3rd-highest rate of missed tackle forced per attempt (0.13). Elliott also showed off his vision on several trademark blitz pickups, and he was a solid receiver out of the backfield on screens.

Elliott’s 2023 evaluation is tough due to how consistently poor his blocking was, but he clearly isn’t the same player despite having some gas left in the tank. The veteran isn’t very dynamic in space, and there were times he appeared to miss open running lanes. Despite Bill O’Brien trying to make him a true dual-threat, Elliott couldn’t make much magic as a pass catcher, and he allowed pressure on a career-high 17.9% of pass protection snaps.

Elliott was a great locker room presence who immediately gelled in New England, and he performed admirably in a tough situation. But the Patriots need to go younger at running back with Stevenson entering a contract year, and Elliott turning 29 this offseason is intimidating, given his downhill running style. Unless he comes at a price similar to the $3 million he received last season, I think the team should sign a younger option like Zack Moss while Elliott tries to earn a ring on a contender.

Prediction: Leaves 

Taylor Kyles

Taylor Kyles is the lead NFL Analyst for CLNS Media covering players, schemes, and tendencies through a New England Patriots-centric lens.

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