While NFL’s 2020 season officially came to an end with the final whistle of Sunday’s Super Bowl, the New England Patriots have already been in offseason mode for quite some time now. It will be a pivotal one for a team coming off a 7-9 campaign and in serious need of some upgrades across the board.
The offseason is the time to do that, with free agency and the draft presenting prime opportunities to bolster the depth and starting levels. New England will have plenty of resources at its disposal — from a projected $64 million in salary cap space to at least 10 draft picks (depending on the NFL’s compensatory process) — and thus plenty of opportunity to improve its team.
With that said, let’s take a look at those positions that might be higher up than others on the Patriots’ list of priorities.
Below, you will therefore find a list of each position on the roster broken down into four tiers and ranked based on need. That list, just like the attached potential targets in free agency and the draft, is obviously subjective — so feel free to share your own views on the topic in the comment section below.
Tier 4: Virtually no need
Jake Baily was the best punter in football this season and voted both first-team All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl. Given that, there is no need for New England to bring any other players in at the position this offseason. The only scenario in which such a move would make sense is if the team would like to give him some rest during training camp. Even then, Bailey is not going anywhere.
Potential free agency targets: Jordan Berry, Matt Haack, Kevin Huber
Potential draft targets: Max Duffy (Kentucky), James Smith (Cincinnati)
14. Long snapper
As is the case with Jake Bailey, Joe Cardona’s job is also set in stone. He has been the Patriots’ long snapper ever since 2015, and has proven himself a reliable member of the team’s kicking game operation. Still only 28 years old, anything but Cardona remaining New England’s long snapper for the foreseeable future would be a surprise.
Potential free agency targets: Morgan Cox, Don Muhlbach, L.P. Ladouceur
Potential draft targets: Thomas Fletcher (Alabama), Camaron Cheeseman (Michigan)
Jakob Johnson (ERFA), Danny Vitale
Jakob Johnson won the fullback competition by default in 2020 — James Develin retired, Danny Vitale opted out — but he did a fine job with it. Accordingly, the Patriots are expected to keep the exclusive-rights free agent in the fold and have him as their fullback once more in 2021. While Vitale could compete for the job, it would not be a surprise if the team opted to part ways with the veteran to save roughly $1.2 million in cap space.
Potential free agency targets: Anthony Sherman, Nick Bellore, Michael Burton, Kyle Juszczyk
Potential draft targets: Ben Mason (Michigan), Kylen Granson (SMU), Tory Carter (LSU)
Tier 3: Some questions about the future
Roberto Aguayo, Nick Folk (UFA), Justin Rohrwasser
Nick Folk played some mighty fine football in his first full season as a Patriot, but he could therefore become a popular player on the free agency market. New England will likely try to bring him back, but even if that endeavor does not end in success there are other options on the roster in youngsters Roberto Aguayo and Justin Rohrwasser. Furthermore, the free agency and draft markets also include some potential for investment if Folk is not retained.
Potential free agency targets: Zane Gonzalez, Younghoe Koo, Cody Parkey, Cairo Santos, Ryan Succop
Potential draft targets: Jose Borregales (Miami), Alex Kessman (Pittsburgh), Riley Patterson (Memphis), Evan McPherson (Florida)
Terrence Brooks (UFA), Patrick Chung, Cody Davis (UFA), Kyle Dugger, Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips
Even though Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are into their 30s and closer to the end of their respective careers than the beginning, they are expected back in 2021. Together with Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips — as well as versatile cornerbacks Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant — they will form the core of the safety position before handing over the keys to the next generation further down the line. Dugger is the central figure in this process after an impressive rookie season.
Potential free agency targets: Chris Banjo, Malik Hooker, George Iloka, Dean Marlowe, Keanu Neal, Will Redmond
Potential draft targets: Reed Blankenship (Middle Tennessee), Jevon Holland (Oregon), Trevon Moehrig (TCU), Hamsah Nasirildeen (Florida State)
Justin Bethel (UFA), Myles Bryant, Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson (RFA), Michael Jackson Sr, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty (UFA), D’Angelo Ross, Dee Virgin, Joejuan Williams
New England is expected to tender J.C. Jackson at least at the second-round level, which would allow the team to keep its top three cornerbacks around for 2021. That said, there are some questions at the position: Will Stephon Gilmore be back, and how will his contract look like? Will Jason McCourty be brought back in free agency? What role does the team have in mind for its young players like Myles Bryant and Joejuan Williams? The cornerback spot is one of the deepest on the current roster, but not set in stone.
Potential free agency targets: Ronald Darby, Quinton Dunbar, Shaquil Griffin, Desmond King II, Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman
Potential draft targets: Paulson Adebo (Stanford), Tyson Campbell (Georgia), Jaycee Horn (South Carolina), Ifeatu Melifonwu (Syracuse), Greg Newsome II (Northwestern), Asante Samuel Jr. (Florida State), Eric Stokes (Georgia), Patrick Surtain II (Alabama), Keith Taylor Jr. (Washington)
9. Running back
Brandon Bolden, Rex Burkhead (UFA), Damien Harris, Sony Michel, J.J. Taylor, James White (UFA)
The early-down role is in good hands with Damien Harris and Sony Michel both under contract through 2022 and 2021, respectively. The receiving and change-of-pace roles, however, are up in the air with both Rex Burkhead and James White headed for free agency. J.J. Taylor is a candidate to take over some of their responsibilities, but some follow-up moves will have to be made in case one or both of Burkhead and White are not back in New England next year.
Potential free agency targets: Matt Breida, Chris Carson, Telvin Coleman, James Conner, Kenyan Drake, D.J. Foster, Todd Gurley, Ty Montgomery, T.J. Yeldon
Potential draft targets: Michael Carter (North Carolina), Chris Evans (Michigan), Khalil Herbert (Virginia Tech), Jamar Jefferson (Oregon State)
8. Offensive tackle
Yodny Cajuste, Marcus Cannon, Korey Cunningham, Jermaine Eluemunor (UFA), Justin Herron, Michael Onwenu, Isaiah Wynn
On the surface, the Patriots appear to be relatively well set at the offensive tackle position. Isaiah Wynn and Michael Onwenu are a viable starting pair with Justin Herron showing some promise as a potential swing tackle. However, New England might still want to invest in the position: Wynn is entering the final year of his rookie contract after having spent time on injured reserve in each of his first three years in the NFL, while Onwenu is a candidate to move to left guard in case starter Joe Thuney leaves in free agency. Accordingly, it would not be a surprise if New England addressed its offensive tackle depth this year.
Potential free agency targets: Kelvin Beachum, Le’Raven Clark, Julie’n Davenport, Cam Robinson, Sam Tevi
Potential draft targets: Spencer Brown (Northern Iowa), Alex Leatherwood (Alabama), Ben Petrula (Boston College), Rashawn Slater (Northwestern), Dillon Radunz (North Dakota State), Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC)
Tier 2: Some upgrades are necessary
7. Tight end
Devin Asiasi, Ryan Izzo, Dalton Keene, Matt LaCosse
The Patriots invested two third-round draft picks in Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene last year, but so far the returns have been disappointing: the two rookies combined to catch just five passes for 55 yards and a touchdown all season. The circumstances — from Covid-19 to injuries — certainly hurt them in 2020, but New England would generally benefit from adding more quality depth alongside the youngsters: neither Ryan Izzo nor Matt LaCosse have proven to be anything more than role players since joining the team.
Potential free agency targets: Jared Cook, Gerald Everett, Hunter Henry, Tyler Kroft, Jonnu Smith, Robert Tonyan
Potential draft targets: Pat Freiermuth (Penn State), Brevin Jordan (Miami), Hunter Long (Boston College), Kyle Pitts (Florida)
6. Defensive edge
Rashod Berry, Tashawn Bower, Shilique Calhoun (UFA), John Simon (UFA), Josh Uche, Chase Winovich
Chase Winovich and Josh Uche have the potential to be a quality one-two punch at the defensive edge/outside linebacker position. However, New England will need to address the depth behind them because none of the players currently under contract inspire much confidence that they can perform at a starter-level workload. Setting the edge versus the run in particular proved to be an issue for the group in 2020, which might lead to the Patriots investing in not just one all-around edge defender over the next few months.
Potential free agency targets: Shaquil Barrett, Jadeveon Clowney, Bud Dupree, Leonard Floyd, Trey Hendrickson, Melvin Ingram, Carl Lawson, Yannick Ngakoue, Haason Reddick
Potential draft targets: Carlos Basham Jr. (Wake Forest), Tarron Jackson (Coastal Carolina) Patrick Jones II (Pittsburgh), Joseph Ossai (Texas), Jayson Oweh (Penn State), Kwity Paye (Michigan), Jaelan Phillips (Miami), Gregory Rousseau (Miami), Elerson Smith (Northern Iowa), Joe Tryon (Washington), Rashad Weaver (Pittsburgh)
5. Interior offensive line
David Andrews (UFA), James Ferentz (UFA), Marcus Martin (UFA), Shaq Mason, Ross Reynolds, Joe Thuney (UFA), Najee Toran
New England’s interior offensive line could look drastically different in 2021 with both David Andrews and Joe Thuney headed for the open market. While Andrews should be expected back, Thuney leaving would not come as a surprise: he is one of the best guards in the NFL and as such a candidate to receive a record-breaking deal elsewhere. The Patriots have a potential in-house replacement for Thuney available in the form of Michael Onwenu, but it would still not be a surprise to see them address the interior O-line over the offseason: even if Andrews is re-signed, the team needs better depth than what it currently has available.
Potential free agency targets: Tom Compton, Ben Garland, Joe Haeg, Ted Karras, Kelechi Osemele
Potential draft targets: Deonte Brown (Alabama), Ben Cleveland (Georgia), Wyatt Davis (Ohio State), Landon Dickerson (Alabama), Creed Humphrey (Oklahoma), Quinn Meinerz (Wisconsin-Whitewater)
Tier 1: Priority positions to be addressed
4. Interior defensive line
Beau Allen, Michael Barnett, Adam Butler (UFA), Byron Cowart, Carl Davis (UFA), Lawrence Guy (UFA), Bill Murray, Akeem Spence, Nick Thurman, Deatrich Wise Jr. (UFA)
With their top three interior defensive linemen from a year ago all headed towards free agency — Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise Jr. — and with the position as a whole struggling last year, the Patriots in need to add some talent over the offseason. Re-signing at least one of their free agents would be a start, but more needs to be done even in case Beau Allen returns from his mystery ailment that sidelined him for all of 2020. Luckily for New England, the draft in particular offers some intriguing options to help upgrade the position and address its biggest issue last year: clogging the gaps versus the run.
Potential free agency targets: Justin Ellis, Shelby Harris, Larry Ogunjobi, Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Rankins, Caraun Reid, Derek Wolfe
Potential draft targets: Christian Barmore (Alabama), Naquan Jones (Michigan State), Alim McNeill (North Carolina State), Daviyon Nixon (Iowa), Levi Onwuzurike (Washington), Tyler Shelvin (LSU), Jay Tufele (USC), Marvin Wilson (Florida State)
3. Wide receiver
Quincy Adeboyejo (ERFA), Damiere Byrd (UFA), Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Marqise Lee, Jakobi Meyers, Donte Moncrief (UFA), Gunner Olszewski, Matthew Slater, Devin Smith, Kristian Wilkerson, Isaiah Zuber
One of the main issues for the Patriots’ struggling passing offense in 2020 was the lack of quality talent at the wide receiver position. Accordingly, New England is in the market for some major upgrades even after having invested a first-round draft pick in N’Keal Harry just two years ago. Whether it is free agency or the draft, the team should be seen as a major player to give whoever will be the starting quarterback moving forward a better supporting cast than the one Cam Newton had to work with last year.
Potential free agency targets: Nelson Agholor, Corey Davis, Will Fuller V, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay, Mack Hollins, Tim Patrick, Allen Robinson, John Ross, Curtis Samuel, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Sammy Watkins
Potential draft targets: Rashod Bateman (Minnesota), Nico Collins (Michigan), D’Wayne Eskridge (Western Michigan), Dez Fitzpatrick (Louisville), Josh Imatorbhebhe (Illinois), Cade Johnson (South Dakota State), Terrace Marshall Jr. (LSU), Josh Palmer (Tennessee), Whop Philyor (Indiana), Amari Rodgers (Clemson), Devonta Smith (Alabama), Amon-Ra St. Brown (USC), Kadarius Toney (Florida), Jaylen Waddle (Alabama)
Ja’Whaun Bentley, Brandon Copeland (UFA), Terez Hall, Dont’a Hightower, Anfernee Jennings, Brandon King, Cassh Maluia, Michael Pinckney
Philosophically, Bill Belichick has always built his defenses around the linebacker position: with the defensive linemen up front asked to two-gap, the second-level defenders have to clog the lanes versus the run while also attacking as blitzers or dropping into coverage. Unfortunately for the team, the group failed to do any of those things at a consistent level in 2020. Even though Dont’a Hightower might come back after his Coronavirus opt-out, improving the group’s overall athleticism and developmental upside has to be a priority.
Potential free agency targets: Josh Bynes, Lavonte David, B.J. Goodson, Neville Hewitt, Matt Milano, Avery Williamson, K.J. Wright
Potential draft targets: Nick Bolton (Missouri), Baron Browning (Ohio State), Jabril Cox (LSU), Zaven Collins (Tulsa), Justin Hilliard (Ohio State), Cameron McGrone (Michigan), Dylan Moses (Alabama), Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (Notre Dame), Micah Parsons (Penn State), Chazz Surratt (North Carolina), Pete Werner (Ohio State)
Jake Dolegala, Brian Hoyer (UFA), Cam Newton (UFA), Jarrett Stidham
The Patriots face some considerable questions at the most important position on the field, and no clear answers are in sight. While bringing Cam Newton back after a disappointing 2020 season or elevating Jarrett Stidham to the QB1 role despite his struggles over the first two years might be an option — especially with an improved supporting cast — it seems more likely that the team will look towards the draft to find its next quarterback to develop into a viable starter at the NFL level. No position will be watched more closely, or be under more scrutiny, in the post-Tom Brady era than quarterback. Bill Belichick and company have to get this one right.
Potential free agency targets: Andy Dalton, Jacoby Brissett, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mitchell Trubisky, Jameis Winston
Potential draft targets: Justin Fields (Ohio State), Feleipe Franks (Arkansas), Mac Jones (Alabama), Trey Lance (North Dakota State), Jamie Newman (Georgia), Kyle Trask (Florida) Zach Wilson (BYU)