Before discussing acquisitions from the outside, we must first set the table for the Patriots’ own 2022 free agents.
New England has an interesting pending free-agent crop, both unrestricted and restricted, and a mix of young and more tenured players with decorated histories in the organization.
Along with future Pats Hall of Famers in Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, James White, and Matthew Slater, top cornerback J.C. Jackson would be among the highest-paid UFAs on the market.
Bill Belichick has many difficult decisions to make with 15 pending unrestricted free agents and three restricted free agents who are currently not under contract for the 2022 season.
Here is a priority ranking of the 18 Patriots who are set to hit free agency this offseason:
1. CB J.C. Jackson (Market Value: $18M APY)
The Patriots’ top priority in free agency is a no-brainer, with the 26-year-old Jackson entering his prime as a second-team All-Pro. New England will have until March 8 to decide if they’ll place a franchise or transition tag on Jackson. With PFF’s fifth-best coverage grade in single coverage this past season, Jackson is one of the league’s premier cover corners, whether it’s man or zone coverage on an island. In a man-heavy system, the Pats cannot afford to let elite cover talent walk out the door, especially given what’s currently behind Jackson on the depth chart. If a long-term deal cannot be reached, I fully expect the Patriots to place the franchise tag on Jackson while working on his future. Furthermore, with a quarterback on a rookie deal for the next four seasons, paying Jackson through his prime a la Stephon Gilmore in 2017 wouldn’t shock me either.
2. FS Devin McCourty (Market Value: $6M APY)
Along with his leadership on and off the field, McCourty’s fit as the deep safety in New England’s secondary alongside hybrids Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger is tremendous. McCourty was still 16th among safeties in PFF grade this season and isn’t in a significant decline yet well into his 30s. Speaking to a source close to McCourty, the future Pats HOFer is far from settled on his plans for 2022 as retirement lingers. But the current feeling around McCourty is that he’s leaning towards playing another season, and that would undoubtedly come in New England.
3. RT Trent Brown (Market Value: $12.5M APY)
An early-season injury led to a slow start for Brown in his return to the Patriots, but he had a solid season at right tackle with the Pats as an above-average starter. Brown’s play strength is still tremendous, and we see his athleticism on display when he gets into space and mirrors rushers in pass protection. Brown can still move, and he’s still enormous. His future ultimately comes down to how the team views Mike Onwenu. Onwenu has the inside track to earn back his starting job in 2022, either at left guard or right tackle. Still, with the uncertainty at both tackle spots, retaining a solid starter in Brown on a short-term deal makes the most sense. Brown also loves it in New England and may be willing to sign a team-friendly deal.
4. RB James White (Market Value: $2.5M APY)
Although Brandon Bolden filled in admirably for White this past season, the Patriots instantly missed White’s separation quickness and skill as a receiver in the passing game. White’s hip subluxation is a severe injury, but it’s not as bad as a full dislocation, meaning the 29-year-old should make a complete recovery. We saw glimpses of how valuable a sturdy check-down option and mismatch on linebacker White can be for Mac Jones before his injury in Week 3. I expect White to be back in 2022, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they draft his replacement in April either. They need a factor-back in the White role in this offense.
5. WR Jakobi Meyers (RFA)
The most likely outcome for Meyers is that the Patriots will tender him at a second-round level, which is a one-year contract worth $3.9 million. Based on recent history, Meyers is unlikely to receive an offer sheet if that’s the case, meaning he’ll be back on the Patriots in 2022. Although we believe it’s in the offense’s best interest to reduce Meyers’ target share, there’s an Amendola-like role for him moving forward. They need a more explosive Z receiver that creates bigger plays than Meyers, but he’s a heady and smooth route-runner who consistently flashes a high football IQ. Those types of receivers are useful in a complex scheme, so retaining Meyers on the one-year RFA tender is the preferred path.
6. LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
Ranking Bentley ahead of a future red jacket in Hightower might be surprising, but the reality is that he’s younger and simply better at this stage of his career. Even if the Patriots look to get smaller and faster at linebacker this offseason, there will always be a role in Bill Belichick’s defense for a thumping MIKE linebacker. Bentley’s role may be reduced to run packages only, rather than nearly 70% of the defensive snaps. However, a two-gapping system needs a 260-pound sledgehammer off the ball, and Bentley fits the mold. Again, they need more athletic players at the second level. But keeping Bentley for early downs/short-yardage is fine.
7. LB Dont’a Hightower (Market Value: $7.5M APY)
There are some tough conversations on the horizon for the Patriots and Hightower. There’s a role for the 32-year-old as a team captain and situational player like Bentley. But when you were once at the top, do you want to play 30% of the defensive snaps at the end? Hightower’s play speed and effectiveness as a blitzer have wanned, limiting his ability to play in coverage and in matchups against spread offenses. There’s still good tape from this past season when Hightower comes downhill and defends play-action routes over the middle, but it’s evident that his best days are behind him. Plus, retirement is likely on the table from Hightower’s perspective. Hightower is a Patriots legend and deserves all the post-career accolades from the team. Still, it might be time to move in a different direction.
8. K Nick Folk
Folk expressed his desire to keep playing before the Patriots’ loss to the Bills, and with how consistent he has been since joining the team in 2019, why not? Until the 37-year-old starts showing his age, it’s an easy decision to keep rolling with Folk at kicker. The team likes 2021 UDFA Quinn Nordin, and maybe Nordin pushes Folk even harder next summer. But, for now, it’s hard to envision Folk losing his job.
9. IOL Ted Karras
Karras offers the Patriots terrific interior versatility and an insurance policy at either guard or center. Although we all want to see Onwenu play, Karras’s toughness, IQ, and leadership helped stabilize the offensive line in 2021. He is a starting-caliber offensive lineman, so Karras might want to test the market and see if he has a guaranteed spot elsewhere. But when he hit free agency in 2019, New England offered Karras a two-year deal to stay with the Pats, and my guess is they’ll extend him a legitimate offer once again. Whether Karras starts the season at guard or not, we saw this season how smoothly he could step in as an injury or performance replacement. Karras is a quality depth piece that good teams have on the offensive line.
10. STer Matthew Slater
Slater is the spiritual leader in the locker room for the Patriots and has a future role in the organization if he wants it after his playing career. But, for now, he still covers kicks at a high level. Slater spent the end of the 2021 season recognizing his football mortality, speaking about the uncertainty of his future, and relishing in potentially his final home game at Gillette Stadium. On the other hand, he recently told WEEI that he feels good and liked how he held up this past season. My gut instinct tells me that Slater will be back for another season. If the Pats lose Slater, it will be to retirement.
11. RB Brandon Bolden
Speaking of quality depth, Bolden saved the Pats’ bacon this season by giving them something when White went down in the receiving back role while still maintaining his responsibilities on special teams. Although it’s all love for Bolden here, and he won’t cost much to retain, his snaps on offense will go to either White or a younger player, whether that’s Rhamondre Stevenson or a rookie. He’s worth having in the room for his leadership, special teams value, and as an insurance policy. But let’s not get crazy with the contract number.
12. LB Jamie Collins
If we are making an honest assessment of their 2021 tape, Collins was better than Hightower and Bentley when he signed mid-season to return to the Patriots. He was their best coverage linebacker but still has issues against the run, which in our eyes, prevents him from playing the early-down linebacker role. As a result, he falls down to the list, thinking that a younger player will fill his role next season. Returning from injuries for the Patriots are 2021 fifth-rounder Cameron McGrone and 26-year-old Raekwon McMillian, who flashed in camp last summer and was trending towards a regular role on defense before tearing his ACL. Despite the injury, the Pats liked what they saw so much from McMillan in camp that they signed him to a one-year extension in September. I would expect the Pats to give those reps in camp to McMillan and McGrone before they’d re-sign Collins.
13. WR/Returner Gunner Olszewski (RFA)
Gunner is also an RFA who could receive a tender from the Patriots. He’s not getting the second-round tender like Jakobi, but one would expect a “right of first refusal” to be on the table. That would pay Olszewski $2.4 million in 2022, which isn’t terrible value for a top returner. You do wonder if they can get it done at a lower number, though, since I don’t expect Olszewski’s market to be robust.
14. QB Brian Hoyer
There will probably be a small market for Hoyer’s services. The Jets tried to sign Hoyer as a backup for Zach Wilson before returning to the Pats last offseason, and teams don’t underestimate his value as a mentor to young QBs. Plus, he led nothing but touchdown drives in mop-up duty this season. With Hoyer, his families’ roots in the New England area are a huge factor in his decision-making process, so it’s hard to envision him leaving.
15. FB Jakob Johnson (RFA)
Johnson’s underdog story from Germany to switching positions in the NFL is admirable, and he’s a fine lead-blocker who allows the Pats to keep the two-back stuff in their scheme. But he’s not worth extending an RFA tender to, and one has to wonder if they either look for a more dynamic fullback in the Kyle Juszczyk mold or even transition Jonnu Smith into more of that role. Johnson blocks on 80% of his snaps and doesn’t scare you as a receiver, so defenses barely account for him in the passing game. He’s good enough at what he does to give the Pats that dimension, but he’s no James Develin. I wonder if they can upgrade at fullback.
16. NT Carl Davis
Davis was better at nose tackle at times than free-agent addition Davon Godchaux. He was certainly better at absorbing double-teams and taking on blocks inside. Davis would be a depth piece that can play the nose and give them some flexibility. I like the player, and he should be easy to retain, so I’m expecting Davis to be on the 90-man camp roster.
17. STer Brandon King
King is a locker room favorite and another cheap special teams ace that won’t hurt them cap-wise. This season, he had some bad penalties, mainly jumping offside on a missed field goal attempt that gave Colts kicker Michael Badgley another chance. But King was also second on the team in special teams tackles (eight). If they bring him back, nobody should lose any sleep over it.
18. LB Harvey Langi
Another “what if” from this past season in the kicking game involves Langi, who was on the punt protection unit at times before his injury. Would he have fared better in there than Jahlani Tavai or Jakob Jonhson, who both gave up blocked punts? Who knows? The Pats love Langi, so expect a camp invite on a non-guaranteed deal.