The new league year brought some considerable turnover to the New England Patriots in all three phases of the game. Quarterback Tom Brady and center Ted Karras will no longer be part of the offense, the defense saw the departures of tackle Danny Shelton, linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins Sr. and Elandon Roberts, and safety Duron Harmon, while the special teams units will have to move forward without core member Nate Ebner.
All in all, the times they are a-changin’ for a team that is in a difficult position heading into the second phase of free agency not just because of those big-name departures. After all, the market is also starting to dry up while the Patriots’ financial resources remain rather limited. That being said, the salary cap is flexible as contract extensions or releases/trades may help New England improve its wiggle room to target some of the available free agents.
Who are those? Let’s take a look at some of the best fits at every position.
Quarterback: Jameis Winston
With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers expected to sign Tom Brady soon, the team’s former quarterback will be left to explore his options on the open market. Jameis Winston has the raw athletic skillset and the physical tools to develop into a high-end starter, but his erratic play cannot be denied after he threw 33 touchdown passes in 2019 but also 30 interceptions. His lack of consistency and tendency to make head-scratching plays on a nearly weekly basis is nothing new, and will hurt his chances of finding a new team. The Patriots, however, might still be interested in adding him as an experienced depth option — the least bad one still available in free agency — with upside to compete for a role behind front-runner Jarrett Stidham.
Offensive backfield: Carlos Hyde
With Isaiah Crowell expected to sign with the Seattle Seahawks and Jordan Howard joining the Miami Dolphins, Carlos Hyde might be the best running back remaining on the open market from New England’s perspective. Hyde himself is coming off a productive season with the Houston Texas: he had his first 1,000-yard rushing campaign and was a solid lead back for the club. While not the most electrifying runner, he is an experienced option capable of working well in a rotational role. That said, New England’s need at running back is quasi non-existent with Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris and Brandon Bolden all in the fold for 2020.
Wide receiver: Emmanuel Sanders
New England will field a new quarterback this year, and the best way to help him get comfortable in the starting role is by having reliable pass catchers to surround him. Few if any left on the open market fit that bill as well as Emmanuel Sanders. The 33-year-old is a savvy veteran and premier route runner capable of winning one-on-one matchups against press-man coverage by using his experience and short-area quickness to create leverage. As such, he would not help the Patriots’ new quarterback and possibly also aid in the development of young wideouts like N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers.
Tight end: Eric Ebron
A six-year veteran who started his career with the Detroit Lions before joining the Indianapolis Colts in 2018, Eric Ebron would instantly make the Patriots’ aerial attack better: he has tremendous speed and acceleration for a player his size (6-foot-4, 255 pounds), and is a serious threat in the red zone and down the seam that knows how to beat man-to-man coverage with his burst and physicality. He would be suited to fill the role as the team’s number one tight end previously held by Rob Gronkowski, even though his blocking is not on the same level as the future Hall of Famers’. Still, Ebron is an intriguing target.
Offensive line: James Ferentz
The Patriots already kept starting left guard Joe Thuney in the fold through use of the franchise tag, so the starting positions along the offensive line are all filled at the moment and with center David Andrews appearing to trend in the right direction. New England therefore only needs to address the depth, and the best option available in terms of experience and asking price appears to be long-time Patriot James Ferentz. While not the highest-upside option, he would add a proven commodity to the equation alongside young interior linemen Hjalte Froholdt and Jermaine Eluemunor.
Defensive tackle: Damon Harrison Sr.
New England addressed is defensive position by signing Beau Allen to a two-year, $8 million contract earlier this week, but adding more depth might still be a smart move to help find a replacement for Danny Shelton. Damon Harrison therefore appears to be a solid target. The 31-year-old is a stout run defender, after all, capable of filling an early-down role and being used in short-yardage situations. While 2019 was a down year for him, injuries may have played a role in this and limited his production. When healthy, he should still be able to offer a stout presence up front.
Defensive edge: Kamalei Correa
The departure of Kyle Van Noy created a big hole on the Patriots’ defensive edge. While Chase Winovich and John Simon are solid as replacement options, the position still would benefit from more depth — something Kamalei Correa would offer. A former second-round draft pick that had a limited impact in Baltimore but was solid as an outside linebacker in Tennessee, Correa is coming off the best season of his career and registered 6.0 sacks in 2019. His best usage might be in a rotational role, however, something New England would offer.
Linebacker: Josh Bynes
With both Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts playing elsewhere in 2020, the Patriots need to add more linebacker depth behind Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley. The draft appears to be the best route to travel from the team’s perspective, but free agency also offers some intriguing options such as ex-Raven Josh Bynes. The 30-year-old was solid in a rotational role for the team in 2019, with his skills as a run defender reminiscent of Roberts. Bynes would not be a high-end starter or long-term solution, but a solid and comparatively cheap depth piece behind Hightower and Bentley.
Cornerback: Ronald Darby
The cornerback position is the least of New England’s worries at the moment: led by reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, no position group on the roster and possibly the entire league is as deep. However, the Patriots could still opt to address it by bringing high-upside reclamation projects on board. Enter Ronald Darby, a former teammate of Gilmore in Buffalo that offers plenty of experience and a solid athletic profile but has failed to consistently carve out a role both with the Bills and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Safety: Damarious Randall
The addition of Adrian Phillips helps fill the void of Duron Harmon’s departure, but the Patriots might still opt to address the position in free agency. As is the case with the cornerback spot, low-risk high-reward reclamation projects like Damarious Randall might be the way to go. A former first-rounder that failed to live up to his draft status in both Green Bay and Cleveland, Randall is a good tackler and run defender but not necessarily an impact player in the passing game. That being said, his athleticism could make him a potential target for New England to bolster its safety depth.
Special teams: Greg Zuerlein
For now, the Patriots are set at the kicker position as Stephen Gostkowski remains under contract. However, his spot on the team does not appear to be etched in stone due to his age and increasingly up-and-down player over the last few seasons. Bringing in competition either via free agency or the draft seems like a good plan, therefore, with Greg Zuerlein a potential option if the team wants to travel the first of the two roads. The former All-Pro saw his field goal percentage decrease each year since 2017, but might benefit from a change of scenery.