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Six free agents from ESPN’s Top-50 list to keep an eye on as potential Patriots targets

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Wild Card Round - Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The New England Patriots are expected to be quite busy this offseason. Not only is the team among the league leaders in salary cap space, it also has plenty of holes on its roster to fill — from quarterback, to wide receiver, to defensive tackle, to linebacker. Needless to say that they are a team to watch when it comes to making moves once free agency opens on March 17.

What might those moves look like, though? That is anyone’s guess outside of One Patriot Place.

The expectation, however, is that some of the roughly $60 million in cap space will be used to keep the team’s own class of free agents in town. Quarterback Cam Newton, running back James White, offensive linemen David Andrews and Joe Thuney, defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler, and cornerback J.C. Jackson are the biggest names among them, and some of them will likely be retained for 2021 and beyond.

Even though that alone does still not rule out a big splash on the open market similar to the Stephon Gilmore acquisition of 2017, it would not be surprising to see the Patriots go after players below the top tier of free-agents-to-be.

ESPN’s recently released list of the top-50 players to hit free agency this year shows that there are plenty of targets for the team even if it decides against going after players such as Leonard Williams (No. 3), Hunter Henry (No. 5) or Kenny Golladay (No. 8). With that in mind, let’s take a look at six players from that list — not including Joe Thuney (No. 20) and Cam Newton (No. 49) — to keep an eye on as the 2020 league year turns into 2021.

19. LB Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine a 31-year-old linebacker generating a ton of interest in free agency, especially if his own team has decided against re-signing him. But the fact of the matter is that he is still playing a pretty high level, especially in pass defense. He might have to go year to year from a contract perspective, but he should certainly be considered a high-level starter for 2021.

The Patriots’ linebacker position was a definitive strength for the team in 2019, but the offseason departures of Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins as well as Dont’a Hightower’s opt-out created a vacuum that the team was unable to fill in 2020. Van Noy and Collins are not walking through that door again, with Hightower a potential candidate for retirement heading into his age-31 season.

Hightower’s status will definitely play a big role in New England’s decision making. If he returns, linebacker is less of an issue with youngsters Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and maybe even Chase Winovich as potential options to bolster the depth alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley. If “Mr. February” decides to call it a career, however, a player like David would be a viable replacement option given his experience and high quality play.

While he too is on the wrong side of 30, the former second-round draft pick has shown no signs of slowing down and is still an ultra reliable player — one who could command around $10 million per year on the open market. Would the Patriots be willing to pay as much? If Hightower is no longer part of the equation, that could very well be the case.

23. LB Matt Milano, Buffalo Bills

Not too many people outside of Buffalo have heard of Milano, a fifth-round draft pick in 2017. But people who watch the Bills closely know he has developed into a reliable three-down linebacker who can be counted on to play the run, perform well in pass coverage and even rush the passer on occasion. He would have a sneaky active market.

Another linebacker the Patriots might target is the Bills’ Matt Milano. A younger option than Lavonte David — Milano will turn 26 on the first day of free agency — he has proven himself an all-around option as an off-the-ball linebacker. As such, he would fit in well with what New England is asking its players at the position to do: he can attack downhill versus the run, move to the edge in the passing game, and drop back into coverage zones as well.

As is the case with David, Dont’a Hightower’s status will have an impact on the team’s decision making in regards to Milano and the linebacker position in general. And, there are other questions as well.

Would the team be willing to pay the projected $9 million to $11 million per year for a player who has only one 16-game season on his four-year NFL résumé and has also shown some inconsistency as a tackler? And would the Bills — a team that might have to create some cap space this year — even be willing to let one of its most integral defenders leave?

25. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers

There’s no other way to put it: Smith-Schuster had a confounding contract year. Playing in the Steelers’ short passing game, he caught 97 passes — ninth most in the NFL — but averaged only 8.6 yards per catch. That was the third lowest among the wide receivers who caught at least 50 passes in 2020. The performance isn’t likely to change teams’ perceptions of his potential as a downfield receiver, but it could prompt at least a closer look.

Wide receiver production was a problem for the Patriots in 2020. Julian Edelman missed considerable time after undergoing knee surgery and appears to be close to the finish line of his career; Damiere Byrd was used as a WR1 at times despite being best suited as a complementary piece; N’Keal Harry again failed to live up to the natural expectations that come with being a first-round draft selection; Gunner Olszewski and Donte Moncrief did not tip the scales when inserted into the lineup.

In fact, only one member of the group produced at a consistent level and as such can be seen as a near-certainty to play a prominent role again in 2021: second-year man Jakobi Meyers. Like the rest of New England’s receiving group, however, Meyers would also benefit from seeing some higher-level talent added to the offense around him. Enter Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

The 24-year-old will likely be a sought-after player on the open market, and possibly command upwards of $15 million per year on a new deal, but the Patriots should still take a look at him. After all, he perfectly fits what the team is doing on offense due to his ability to make plays in the short and intermediate area and run crisp routes regardless of where he lines up. Add an ability to understand coverages and win one-on-ones and you get a player that would definitely make New England’s wide receiver group a better one.

27. WR Curtis Samuel, Carolina Panthers

Samuel set career highs for receptions (77) and yards (851) in 2020, while also emerging as an intriguing multi-positional player who got 41 carries out of various formations. He rushed for 200 yards and two touchdowns, while converting 10 first downs, and would be closely scrutinized by teams with open-minded schemes. Among players classified as wide receivers, only the Bears’ Cordarrelle Patterson finished with more rushing yards than Samuel.

A former second-round draft pick, Curtis Samuel was largely a disappointment over his first three years in Carolina. Playing under new offensive coordinator Joe Brady in 2020, however, he was able to revive his career — just in time to hit the open market. While it remains to be seen how teams view his status as a one-year wonder and lack of consistent production between 2017 and 2019, it would not be surprising to see him command more than $7 million per year on a new deal.

Would the Patriots be willing to give out that kind of money? Given the status of their current wide receiver group and the questions surrounding Julian Edelman’s future, that might just be the case. Samuel, like Smith-Schuster, would be an intriguing addition to the group due to his versatility and ability to make plays from all over the formation.

37. DT Larry Ogunjobi, Cleveland Browns

A three-year starter, Ogunjobi has been a force at times in the interior line. He might be better suited to playing the 3-technique in a 4-3 defense, rather than the nose tackle, but he has plenty of tape doing both.

The Patriots’ defensive tackle position struggled in 2020, with the team being unable to replace big-bodied nose tackle Danny Shelton after his free agency departure: Beau Allen spent essentially the entire season on the sidelines due to an undisclosed ailment, while no other player was able to successfully fill that role within New England’s defense — making life harder for Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and the second-level defenders.

Add the fact that both Guy and Butler as well as Deatrich Wise Jr. are free agents, the Patriots might have to rebuild the position from the ground up. Former Browns third-round draft pick Larry Ogunjobi might be a candidate to help do just that.

While not the same type of player as Shelton or Allen, his ability to attack upfield from various techniques along the defensive line could help give the team another rotational option. Ogunjobi will likely not be a massive upgrade over the 2020 personnel, but with some reinforcements around him could serve as a lower-cost option compared to Guy, Butler and Wise Jr.

45. TE Gerald Everett, Los Angeles Rams

Everett has been the Rams’ second tight end for most of his career, but his production, as well as the value teams place on tight ends who can exploit mismatches, make him a free agent worth watching. He set career highs with 41 receptions for 417 yards this season in the Rams’ scheme.

The Patriots invested two third-round draft picks in the tight end position last year when they brought Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene aboard. The two rookies had but a limited impact in 2020 while serving as rotational depth options behind TE1 Ryan Izzo. New England will likely try to build the position around Asiasi and Keene moving forward, but adding another experienced option to take some pressure off of them would be a smart move.

Entner Gerald Everett, who has shown some versatility in the running and the passing game and will likely not command more than $5 million on the open market. While not a top-tier player at the position, he would be a nice complementary addition to the existing talent on the team, and at the very least an upgrade over the likes of Izzo and Matt LaCosse.