The New England Patriots came out swinging on the first day of the NFL’s legal tampering period. They invested more than $215 million in total contract money to sign seven outside free agents and keep two others in the fold, improving a roster that was among the league’s weakest from top-to-bottom during a disappointing 2020 season.
Make no mistake, the Patriots had to make some big moves given the state of their team in combination with their available salary cap space. That they did was therefore not a surprise, and in line with a similar financial situation they found themselves in four years ago (when players such as Stephon Gilmore and Lawrence Guy were added).
While Monday’s flurry of moves may not have addressed the number one position on the roster in terms of need — more on that later — it did shake up the general list of positions that needed to be addressed this offseason quite a bit. Let’s take a look at the needs-based rankings we updated earlier during the offseason and before this week’s moves (please click here for Version 2.0 from mid-March; please click here for Version 1.0 from mid-February):
1. Quarterback, 2. Linebacker, 3. Wide receiver, 4. Interior defensive line, 5. Defensive edge, 6. Tight end, 7. Interior offensive line, 8. Running back, 9. Cornerback, 10. Offensive tackle, 11. Safety, 12. Kicker, 13. Fullback, 14. Long snapper, 15. Punter
The Patriots’ moves on Monday addressed numerous positions on that list. The team signed or re-signed four interior defensive linemen, added a pair of wide receivers, and brought one player each on board at the tight end and linebacker positions as well as in the defensive backfield. T’was a busy few hours for Bill Belichick and company.
With all of those transactions now also factoring into the overall composition of the roster one day before the official start of free agency, we can now update the needs list for a third time this offseason.
15. Punter (-): With Jake Bailey still on his rookie contract and coming off an All-Pro season, the Patriots have no need whatsoever to add another punter to the equation in free agency or the draft. They are set for years to come.
14. Long snapper (-): Joe Cardona is one of the best long snappers in football and as such a cornerstone of New England’s kicking game operation. He is still only 28 years old and under contract through the 2022 season.
13. Fullback (-): With Danny Vitale scheduled to return off the Coronavirus opt-out list, the Patriots are well-stocked at fullback. Vitale and incumbent Jakob Johnson will compete for the role during the summer.
12. Kicker (-): Nick Folk is eligible to talk to other teams but has yet to agree to a new contract in New England or elsewhere. Even if the Patriots are unable to retain him, however, Justin Rohrwasser and Roberto Aguayo offer some emergency options to work with. The veteran and draft markets also include some potential for investment if Folk should take his talents elsewhere.
11. Safety (-): 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 they will form the core of the safety position this year before handing over the keys to the next generation further down the line — one that could possibly also include the hyper-versatile Jalen Mills who was just signed to a four-year deal.
10. Cornerback (-1): While it remains to be seen at which level the Patriots decide to tender restricted free agent cornerback J.C. Jackson, adding Mills to the equation gives them another body for the foreseeable future. At the very least, the 26-year-old offers an additional layer of depth at both safety and cornerback. He could therefore possibly replace veteran free agent Jason McCourty.
9. Offensive tackle (+1): The Patriots’ offensive tackle position saw some movement recently due to the trade that will send Marcus Cannon to Houston. New England is still well-set at the starter level with Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown, but the depth behind the two is inexperienced and might need to be addressed at one point in free agency or the draft despite its developmental upside.
8. Tight end (-2): New England signed one of the top tight ends available in free agency this year, by adding Jonnu Smith on a reported four-year, $50 million contract. While the price tag is notable, Smith gives the Patriots a viable TE1 capable of helping not just as a receiver but a blocker as well. With him atop the depth chart and second-year men Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene offering upside behind him, the group suddenly looks a lot better on paper.
7. Running back (+1): 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. Some reinforcements might be needed.
6. Interior defensive line (-2): As noted above, the Patriots were quite busy along their D-line on Monday. They signed outside free agents Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson to two-year contracts worth $16 million and $7 million, respectively; they also kept Deatrich Wise Jr. on a four-year, $22 million extension and furthermore brought back Carl Davis. The group itself is a solid one, especially versus the run, but will need some more upside in the pass rushing department outside of Wise Jr.
5. Defensive edge (-): Adding Matthew Judon to the edge group via a four-year, $56 million deal certainly makes it a better one, and gives New England plenty of versatility alongside fellow outside linebackers Chase Winovich and Josh Uche. The eventual usage of all those players will determine if more edge personnel is needed, but the Patriots certainly could add one or two more players for the early downs — especially in case Winovich does not develop into a three-down defender or Uche is moved to a more pass rush-specific role.
4. Interior offensive line (+3): New England losing Joe Thuney in free agency was expected — he signed a five-year, $80 million contract in Kansas City — and the team seems well equipped to replace him: Michael Onwenu appears to be a prime candidate to move to the vacant left guard spot after spending most of his impressive rookie year at right tackle. That said, the depth behind the projected starters is a major question. The same goes for the center position, which still is unaccounted for with David Andrews a free agent.
3. Linebacker (-1): While Matthew Judon spent most of his time in Baltimore playing on the edge, he also has the versatility to be moved back to the off-the-ball position — thus offering additional depth there as well. In general, signing him gives the Patriots more flexibility to address one of their biggest weaknesses last year: inconsistent play in the middle of the defense both versus the run and the pass. Second-year man Anfernee Jennings, for example, might be moved to an off-the-ball role with Judon primarily on the edge.
2. Wide receiver (+1): Even though the wide receiver position saw the additions of Nelson Agholor on a reported two-year, $26 million deal and Kendrick Bourne on a three-year pact worth $15 million, the Patriots have some work to do to improve one of the worst spots on the team a year ago. Adding the two free agents is a start, and raises the group’s floor, but the rest of the wide receiver room has get better as well to improve New England’s passing game.
1. Quarterback (-): Even with Cam Newton returning via a one-year deal last week, quarterback remains the number one need on the Patriots’ current roster. Why? Newton has disappointed as New England’s starter in 2020 and is not a long-term solution. Keeping him around as a veteran leader and mentor for a potential draft pick is a good move, but it does not change the overall urgency that a new franchise quarterback needs to be added soon.
As can be seen, there were quite a few changes to the list after New England’s early-free agency spending spree. The tight end and interior defensive line positions moved down the board a bit due to some quality additions, while running back and the interior O-line continue to be needs on the offensive side of the ball. Add the fact that wide receiver and quarterback positions are still major question marks at this point in time, and one can see where the Patriots have some work to do over the coming days and weeks.