Coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, the New England Patriots are headed into a pivotal offseason: they need to rebuild a roster that went just 7-9 last year and is in need of some major upgrades across the board. Part of those could be bringing back the players scheduled to enter free agency — and there are quite a few of them.
All in all, 26 players that were with New England in one way last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is interior offensive lineman James Ferentz, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 17.
Name: James Ferentz
Jersey number: 66
Opening day age: 32
Size: 6-foot-2, 300 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
What is his experience? After a five-year college career at the University of Iowa under his father Kirk, Ferentz joined the NFL in 2014 as an undrafted free agent pickup by the Houston Texans. He spent his entire rookie campaign on the Texans’ practice squad before being claimed off waivers by the Denver Broncos ahead of the 2015 season opener. Over the next two years, Ferentz appeared in 22 games for his new club as a reserve interior offensive lineman — earning a Super Bowl ring along the way.
The Broncos decided to part ways with Ferentz after the 2017 draft, however, paving the way for him to join the Patriots. After spending his first year in New England on the practice squad, Ferentz saw increased action over the next three seasons as a backup option at the center and guard positions. As such, he appeared in a combined 25 regular season and playoff games for the Patriots and earned the first four starts of his NFL career. As he did in Denver, Ferentz also won a Super Bowl with the club.
What did his 2020 season look like? Despite serving as the Patriots’ number two center in 2019 and starting two games in place of an injured Ted Karras, Ferentz saw little action as an unrestricted free agent in the spring and summer of 2020. He was invited to a workout by the Miami Dolphins in early September, but had to wait until later that month to finally sign another NFL contract: Ferentz returned to New England on a practice squad contract to offer experienced depth along an injury-riddled interior O-line.
He remained on the practice squad for 10 days before being promoted to the active roster again. With starting center David Andrews being moved to injured reserve because of a thumb injury, Ferentz was elevated to start New England’s Week 4 contest against the Kansas City Chiefs. While he would return to a backup position afterwards again, Ferentz did finish the season with seven total in-game appearances — including starts against the Chiefs and later in the season finale versus the New York Jets.
All in all, the veteran lineman was on the field for 161 of a possible 1,011 offensive snaps (15.9%) and gave up two quarterback pressures. He also saw semi-regular action in the kicking game: Ferentz played 19 snaps (of 397; 4.8%) as part of the Patriots’ field goal and extra point protection units. As was the case during his previous three years with the club, however, he was mainly used as experienced depth and played the role of a “break glass in case of emergency”-type player.
Still, Ferentz’s seventh season in the league was again a solid one given his general career trajectory. That said, not all was positive: he was among the 11 Patriots to be placed on the NFL’s new Reserve/Covid-19 list after testing positive in mid-October. Ferentz spent 12 days on the reserve list before returning later that month. He did play six of his seven games in 2020 after his stint on the Coronavirus list, though.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? Ferentz arrived in the NFL by signing a standard three-year undrafted rookie deal, but over the course of his career earned most of his money through other deals in Houston, Denver and eventually New England. Most of those pacts were of the lower-end variety. Accordingly, Ferentz’s total contractual career earnings are estimated at $3.1 million by Over the Cap.
Which teams might be in the running? Ferentz’s age and limited starting experience will likely not make him a popular name on the free agent market. That said, teams trying to upgrade their offensive line depth could still identify him as a player worth pursuing. The Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Chargers, Tennessee Titans or Washington Football Team come to mind as possible landing spots.
Why should he be expected back? With both David Andrews and Joe Thuney headed for free agency, retaining Ferentz would ensure at least some level of stability from a depth perspective. His experience and knowledge of the system also cannot be underestimated: they allowed him to beat out former fourth-round draft pick Hjalte Froholdt for the top interior backup spot in 2020 — a position that remains very much unoccupied at the moment.
Why should he be expected to leave? Ferentz’s age in combination with some limited upside could make the team go the same route it went last season: leave him unsigned while trying to give younger interior linemen a shot. This, in turn, could create a scenario in which Ferentz either gets picked up by another team or loses his former job without even being given a chance to compete for it during offseason workouts and training camp.
What is his projected free agency outcome? While Ferentz proved himself a solid depth option behind Karras and Andrews the last two seasons, the team will not break the bank to bring him back. If he is willing to return on a one-year, veteran’s minimum pact, however, he might be given another chance to compete for a roster spot. None of that is given, though, and it would therefore not be a surprise if his 2021 free agency went like 2020’s: with him remaining unsigned until New England sees a need to bring him back during the season.