After missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season and their first losing season since 2000, the New England Patriots and their fans are in uncharted territory. Coming off a year that saw some ups alongside plenty of downs both offensively and defensively, it is pretty clear that the Patriots have a lot of holes to fill in their roster for the 2021 season.
So, how can they fill them? And what moves are realistic to be made for a team that is projected to be among the league leaders in salary cap space? Let’s devise a six-step plan to reload the team heading into 2021.
Step No. 1: Re-sign David Andrews, Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler
Considering the circumstances surrounding the futures of veteran leaders Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung, the Patriots need to start shifting their identity to another core group of guys to carry the culture that was molded two decades ago into the future. This starts by re-signing important pieces to the team that have all played in several meaningful football games throughout their careers in New England.
With the Patriots near the top in terms of cap-space —and with the potential to add more (see: Hightower, Marcus Cannon) — expect them to use most of it to keep their core guys around for the foreseeable future.
David Andrews, who choked up and was brought to tears during his final interview in 2020, is set to hit the open market for the first time in his career. He thanked Bill Belichick and the Patriots for taking a chance on him as an undrafted free agent back in 2015 — noting they were “the only ones who gave [him] a look.” The Patriots will do everything in their power to retain one of their captains and the two sides coming to an agreement seems inevitable at this point in time.
Adam Butler — another undrafted gem — has turned himself into one of the more dominant defensive tackles in the AFC. He returned on a one-year deal last year after having a second-round tender placed on him the last offseason. Butler, who turns 27 in April, is certainly one of the key pieces to the Patriots’ front seven heading into the future. Set to be an unrestricted free agent for the first time, he adds experience and leadership to a defensive front that is looking to get younger through the draft and free agency.
As for veteran Lawrence Guy, he has been a major piece in the middle of the Patriots’ defense for the last four seasons and has his fair share of championship runs over the last few years. Guy could hit the open market and certainly get a nice payday after being the dominant force in the middle of the Patriots front seven since he arrived in 2017. With a defense that has struggled against the run for the last two years, Guy provides the ability to take on double teams and cause havoc in the middle of the Patriots defense.
The other notable free agents like James White and Joe Thuney, meanwhile are not as easy to project.
White saw his lowest snap count since 2016 and with Bill Belichick’s history of letting running backs walk it’s hard to predict what may happen with the Super Bowl 51 hero. As for Thuney, tagging him last year when they were up against the cap gave me every indication it was to keep him in town to then pay him this year with more cap space. However, with several holes at other spots and the emergence of versatile rookie Michael Onwenu, the two sides may part ways after five seasons together.
Step No. 2: Strike a long-term deal with J.C. Jackson
It’s almost certain that cornerback J.C. Jackson will be back as a restricted free agent. The question will be at what price? A first- or second-round tender being placed on him doesn’t necessarily give him the power in terms of negotiations, but locking up their future number one corner should be a top priority for the team in the offseason with a little over $60 million in cap space as of today.
Jackson is coming off a nine-interception campaign in 2020 and would certainly break the bank if he was on the open market. With Stephon Gilmore’s future in New England unknown past this season, locking up thee former undrafted free agent now should be a top priority for the team given its projected cap space and negotiating power.
It also should be noted that Jackson switched agents the last offseason and is now represented by Drew Rosenhaus, someone the Patriots have done business with several times over the years.
Step No. 3: Sign a proven veteran quarterback to compete with Jarrett Stidham and a draft pick
This is where the situation gets interesting. Anybody who tells you they know what the Patriots will do at the quarterback position this spring and into next season is lying. It’s certainly a fluid situation with Cam Newton — despite conflicting reports of him not returning to the Patriots. However, I do feel New England will look to upgrade the most important spot on the field and in turn their struggling passing game.
There are pipe dreams of Jimmy Garoppolo coming back to Foxborough via trade or the San Francisco 49ers releasing him due to his $26.5 million cap hit in 2021. Matthew Stafford’s future with the Detroit Lions is certainly unknown with the team picking inside the top-10 and with turnover at general manager and head coach. Then there’s free agents like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mitchell Trubisky, and Jacoby Brissett.
My dream scenario? Jimmy Garoppolo, Jarrett Stidham and a developmental prospect selected on Day Two or Day Three of the NFL draft.
Step No. 4: Upgrade the wide receiver position in free agency
2021 is a good year for the Patriots to have boatloads of cap space entering the offseason with a bulk of talent at the wide receiver position. Guys like Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, Will Fuller, Kenny Golladay and Corey Davis headline this season's free agency class, but all will demand top dollar and should cost big money, deservedly so. However, there’s a second tier of wideouts that can instantly upgrade the position like Curtis Samuel, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marvin Jones.
Someone like Curtis Samuel might be priority number one for the Patriots: 24 years old, used in multiple roles in the Panthers offense, and a player who has flashed with more touches. With a Panthers receiver room led by D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, Samuel could be looking for a bigger role and he would instantly become the Patriots’ WR1 at a cost they can certainly afford at the moment.
Step No. 5: Sign a veteran tight end that is reliable in both the passing and running game
It is no secret that the Patriots have gotten nothing out of their tight end position since Rob Gronkowski retired and then packed his bags to join Tom Brady in Tampa Bay. With Devin Asasi and Dalton Keene struggling to find success for the Patriots during their 2020 rookie seasons, adding a proven veteran to the position can help their development and take a bit of the load off them to produce early on in their careers.
It’s unknown what Dalton Keene’s full-time role will be in the offense as many saw him as a bit of an H-back heading into the season and used like Kyle Juszczyk is in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
Hunter Henry spotlights the tight end class but will likely demand big money on the open market. Players like Gerald Everett, Jonnu Smith and Tyler Kroft highlight a second tier of tight ends that may come at a more reasonable price but would still immediately help the Patriots in both the running and passing games. A tight end that can be a reliable target and catch 30+ balls a year would also help the Patriots with the transition period towards young tight ends Asiasi and Keene.
Step No. 6: Beefing up the front seven through the draft and free agency
With Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise JR. headed for free agency, and with Beau Allen failing to see the field in 2020, the Patriots have a lot of questions along their defensive line heading into the off-season. For a group that was gashed on the ground as the last season unfolded, strengthening the interior should be a priority for New England — not just through the draft but free agency as well.
Retaining both Guy and Butler is top priority, as noted above, but adding key depth pieces both to the interior as well as the edge and linebacker spots should only help the Patriots defense get off the field more in 2021.