The New England Patriots’ 2020 season ended in disappointing fashion, with the team finishing below .500 and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The club is now heading into an offseason that could see some major turnover. The team that will step onto the field to kick off the 2021 campaign in eight months could therefore look drastically different from the one that played against the New York Jets in Week 17.
The list of upcoming free agents shows where changes might be on the way for New England.
After all, 34 members of the 2020 Patriots are about to enter free agency once the new NFL league year begins on March 17: 27 of them will be unrestricted and head to the open market, two are restricted, and five carry the exclusive rights label. All in all, the list of New England’s free agents features some big names in all three phases of the game.
Offensive unrestricted free agents
C David Andrews: New England’s starting center will enter the open market for the first time in his career. Given his status as a reliable presence up front and a long-time team captain, he should be seen as one of the favorites to eventually be retained by the club — especially considering the uncertainty elsewhere on offense.
C Caleb Benenoch: Benenoch ended the 2020 season on the Patriots’ practice squad injured reserve, which means that the team still has time to sign him to a futures pact. As of right now, however, that did not happen and he is headed for free agency.
RB Rex Burkhead: Ending his 2020 season prematurely due to a torn ACL suffered in Week 11, Burkhead’s regular season outlook will be closely tied to this recovery process. He might therefore be retained as a comparatively cheap signing to bolster the depth in the offensive backfield.
TE Jake Burt: Burt also ended the season on practice squad IR and is therefore a candidate to be signed to a futures deal. While New England has handed some of those pacts out already, Burt has not received one so far.
WR Damiere Byrd: After signing a one-year pact with the Patriots last offseason, Byrd is again scheduled to enter the open market this year. Coming off a productive season as New England’s WR1 in terms of playing time, he could be brought back on the cheap to play a more complementary role next year.
OT Jermaine Eluemunor: The Patriots’ starting right tackle in Week 1 was demoted to a backup role after an mid-season ankle injury that helped rookie Michael Onwenu emerge as the new top option. That said, Eluemunor’s experience and versatility could make him a candidate to be retained.
C James Ferentz: Even with former fourth-round draft pick Hjalte Froholdt returning to full strength, Ferentz emerged as New England’s backup center in 2020. The Patriots should be able to keep him on a cost-effective deal if they so choose.
QB Brian Hoyer: At age 35 and after ending the season as New England’s third-string quarterback, the future is very much in doubt for Hoyer. Depending on how the position as a whole develops this offseason, however, the Patriots might want to keep him around due to his experience and leadership. Of course, that depends on whether he wants to return.
C Marcus Martin: Martin was added ahead of the regular season finale versus the Jets and ended his season with one snap on special teams. He will not break the bank in free agency regardless of where he ends up.
WR Donte Moncrief: While he did have some moments in the kicking game, Moncrief did not provide much as a receiver for the Patriots. He might be a cheap option to be retained, but it would not be a surprise to see the team focus on other options.
QB Cam Newton: No player on the Patriots’ list of free agents will be watched more closely than the team’s 2020 starting quarterback. Coming off a challenging season that ultimately ended in disappointment, every option still seems to be on the table despite earlier reports of an expected split between the two parties this year. Newton may not be a long-term solution, but his experience and leadership might be valuable to a team in flux at QB.
OT Jordan Steckler: An undrafted rookie, Steckler was added to the Patriots’ practice squad in late October and finished the season there without any in-game action. Like Benenoch and Burt, he too was not yet signed to a futures pact.
G Joe Thuney: Thuney spent the 2020 season playing under the one-year, $14.78 million franchise tag and had another highly successful season. The Patriots’ best offensive lineman will therefore attract his fair share of suitors and is a candidate to sign a record-breaking deal for interior offensive linemen. Of course, the question is whether or not it happens in New England or elsewhere. The odds point towards the latter, though.
RB James White: A cornerstone of the Patriots’ Dynasty 2.0, White played a comparatively limited role in New England’s offense in 2020. That said, he still has value as one of the best receiving backs in the game and a veteran leader on a team making the transition into a new era. The Patriots certainly will try to keep him, but the market might dictate his future.
Defensive unrestricted free agents
S Terrence Brooks: Brooks played a prominent role in the Patriots’ secondary in 2019, but the arrival of fellow safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger changed his role in 2020. He saw only limited playing time and is therefore a candidate to move on from the team.
DT Adam Butler: After playing the 2020 season under the second-round free agency tender, Butler is now headed for the open market. A productive interior defender who played a bigger role than anticipated this year, New England might want to retain him as part of its efforts to solidify the front seven.
LB Shilique Calhoun: Calhoun had some productive moments this season but a knee injury plus the emergence of rookie Josh Uche forced him into a more limited role. Still, he did provide some value as a rotational pass rusher.
LB Brandon Copeland: A pectoral injury suffered in late October ended Copeland’s season and possibly his tenure with the Patriots. While there is always a chance he is brought back, New England would probably prefer to invest in some higher-upside options at linebacker.
DT Carl Davis: Davis looked serviceable when on the field but concussion issues limited him to just three games in 2020. His status will probably be tied to other players currently on New England’s roster or the team’s free agency radar.
DT Lawrence Guy: The Patriots’ most reliable interior defensive lineman, Lawrence Guy will likely be high up on the list of priorities this offseason. While he is on the wrong side of 30, he has still performed at a high level this year and is among the veteran leaders. Accordingly, New England will likely try to keep Guy around for at least another year.
CB Jason McCourty: After holding a starting role in his first two years with the Patriots, McCourty was used in a more specialized fashion this season — he played a rotational role at safety and was employed as a deep safety from time to time. At age 33, every option seems to be plausible: from him returning on a cheap one-year pact, to joining another team as a seasoned veteran, to heading off into retirement.
DT Isaiah Mack: The Patriots claimed Mack off the waiver wire in early November but he never provided the depth along the defensive line the team hoped he would. Mack ended the 2020 season on the practice squad and is a candidate for a futures pact.
LB John Simon: John Simon proved himself a reliable outside linebacker over his first two seasons as a Patriot, but he had his issues in 2020 and could therefore have played his last down with the team. England investing a pair of Day Two picks in edge linebackers during last year’s draft also does not help his case. That said, his experience might be seen as valuable.
DE Deatrich Wise Jr: One of the most upbeat players on the Patriots’ roster, Wise Jr. is the last man standing from the Patriots’ 2017 draft. Will he be kept? He did have his moments, but might be looking for a bigger role than the more specialized one he might be given in New England next season.
Special teams unrestricted free agents
CB Justin Bethel: Bethel is one of the best kick coverage players in the NFL, and with Matthew Slater’s future uncertain might become a priority for the Patriots to be brought back next year. He may offer no value on defense, but his special teams abilities cannot be denied.
S Cody Davis: Another impressive special teams presence, Davis took over the role that was vacated when Nate Ebner left New England last offseason. He certainly appears to be a candidate to be brought back under the right conditions.
K Nick Folk: Even though he was added late to the process last summer, Folk had an impressive season as the Patriots’ place kicker and was one of the most reliable players on the team in 2020. Even though the team has Justin Rohrwasser and Roberto Aguayo in the pipeline, bringing Folk back would be a good move.
Restricted free agents
CB J.C. Jackson: This one is pretty straight forward. The Patriots will place a restricted tender sheet on Jackson to keep him from entering the open market. Which one will it be? That’s the big question, but there is a case to be made for the second- or maybe even the first-round tender. Either way, expect him back in New England next year unless a team is willing to invest some major resources to bring him in.
CB Dee Virgin: Virgin was signed late during the season with the future in mind. Accordingly, the Patriots might decide to place a tender sheet on him. Anything more than the original undrafted tender would be a surprise, though.
Exclusive rights free agents
WR Quincy Adeboyejo: The first Patriot to be placed on season-ending injured reserve last year, Adeboyejo’s future is in question after he did not contribute to the team so far. He could still be tendered, though, to offer some wide receiver depth.
LB Rashod Berry: Berry will likely be brought back by the Patriots after the undrafted rookie free agent showed some flashes as a situational pass rusher in 2020. Given New England’s uncertain linebacker situation, re-signing him seems like a no-brainer.
CB Michael Jackson Sr: Jackson was competitive in training camp last summer, bit it did not translate into a roster spot at the time. He was later added to the 53-man team but played only a limited role. Still, he’s a candidate for the ERFA tender.
FB Jakob Johnson: Even with Dan Vitale coming off the Coronavirus opt-out list, don’t expect Johnson to go anywhere. He’s not a star but the Patriots’ fullback has made as big a leap as any member of the team’s roster in 2020, and could fill the position for years to come.
LB Cassh Maluia: Maluia’s value as an off-the-ball linebacker was limited in 2020, but he still has the upside to develop into a serviceable backup option and special teams presence. He should get another chance to prove himself as such in 2021.