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Patriots 2021 free agency preview: New England needs to invest in its wide receiver position

Related: Patriots free agency preview: Deep running back market could spark New England’s interest

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Passing the football was a major Achilles heel for the New England Patriots in 2020. While inconsistent play at the quarterback position — starter Cam Newton in particular — played a role in this, so did the wide receivers’ inability to provide the passers with reliable targets. Outside of second-year man Jakobi Meyers, who ended the season as New England’s top receiver in catches and yards, the group struggled mightily.

Heading into the offseason, the wide receiver spot therefore has to be a major point of emphasis for the organization — one that is among the league leaders in salary cap space and therefore well-equipped to add talent to a group lacking just that. If New England wants its offense to rebound after a disappointing 2020 season, and surround its next starting quarterback with playmakers, investing in some wideouts will be key.

Before digging into the free agent options that might be available next month, let’s first take a closer look at who New England currently has under contract for the 2021 season at the position:

  • Julian Edelman
  • N’Keal Harry
  • Marqise Lee
  • Jakobi Meyers
  • Gunner Olszewski
  • Matthew Slater
  • Devin Smith
  • Kristian Wilkerson
  • Isaiah Zuber

The Patriots have some intriguing talent on their current wide receiver depth char: N’Keal Harry is a former first-round draft pick, Jakobi Meyers looked good in 2020, Gunner Olszewski and Matthew Slater are All-Pro-level special teamers. However, the group still needs to be upgraded considering that it lacks a true WR1 and has an aging Julian Edelman — a player not guaranteed to return this season — as its top option.

Three members of New England’s 2020 payroll are furthermore headed for free agency once the market opens on March 17:

  • Quincy Adeboyejo (ERFA)
  • Damiere Byrd (UFA)
  • Donte Moncrief (UFA)

Of the three players set to enter free agency in two weeks, Damiere Byrd appears to have the best chance at a return. He had some good moments in 2020 even though the Patriots used him in a role outside of his comfort zone: Byrd is more of a complementary third/fourth option than a top-two receiver. Still, he has shown that he can have some success in New England’s scheme and is a candidate to be brought back at the right price.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at free agent wide receivers — in case you are wondering the order is alphabetical and nothing else — New England might be interested in adding under the right conditions.

Nelson Agholor

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Las Vegas Raiders

2020 statistics: 16 games; 48 catches, 896 receiving yards, 8 receiving touchdowns

After five so-and-so years in Philadelphia, Agholor took his talents to Las Vegas last offseason and produced one of the best years of his career. A viable deep threat capable of lining up both on the perimeter and on the outside, the former first-round draft pick will have some suitors but could also be an attractive option for the Patriots: he will not command top dollar — i.e. below $10 million per year — and could be a solid number two option to have.

Kendrick Bourne

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: San Francisco 49ers

2020 statistics: 15 games; 49 catches, 667 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns

Despite two separate stints on the NFL’s Coronavirus reserve list, Kendrick Bourne produced the best season of his career in 2020: setting new career highs in catches and yards, the former undrafted free agent is entering the open market with some momentum on his side. Nevertheless, Bourne will likely not be an expensive option in case San Francisco allows him to test free agency.

This could make him an attractive target in case New England wants to upgrade its Z-receiver role. While not a number one in terms of skillset and upside, Bourne has the tools to turn into a productive complementary piece (think: 2020 Damiere Byrd).

Keelan Cole

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Jacksonville Jaguars

2020 statistics: 16 games; 55 catches, 642 receiving yards, 5 receiving touchdowns

Despite the Jaguars fielding one of the NFL’s worst offenses last season while moving quarterbacks in and out of the lineup, Keelan Cole still posted some solid numbers. Cole, who has not missed a game since entering the league as a rookie free agent in 2017, is a capable player on the outside — an area that was a major weakness for New England’s passing offense last season.

The Patriots could look at him as a low-cost option to help lift some pressure off former first-round selection N’Keal Harry on the outside.

Corey Davis

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Tennessee Titans

2020 statistics: 15 games; 65 catches, 984 receiving yards, 5 receiving touchdowns

The fifth overall selection of the 2017 draft, Corey Davis entered 2020 knowing that the Titans declined his fifth-year contract option and were willing to move on after the season. He made the most out of the situation, though, and finished as Tennessee’s second most productive pass catcher behind only Pro Bowl selection A.J. Brown. Having Brown attract defenses’ attention opposite him may have helped, but Davis’ productivity still cannot be denied.

Davis projects as a realistic target for New England not just because of his upbringing in Tennessee — an organization led by two ex-Patriots in head coach Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson — and his projected price tag. He likely will not ask to be paid as one of the NFL’s top receivers given his stint with the Titans, but still provides size and starter-level upside as a perimeter target.

Will Fuller V

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: Houston Texans

2020 statistics: 11 games; 53 catches, 879 receiving yards, 8 receiving touchdowns

With DeAndre Hopkins traded to Arizona, Fuller took over as the Texans’ number one wide receiver and produced some solid numbers in 2020. Despite missing five games due to suspension, he finished second on the team in receptions and receiving yards as well as first in touchdowns. He could therefore be a popular name once the market opens, which in turn might drive his price up beyond the Patriots’ target range.

Still, New England could be interested in obtaining his services given his upside and productivity as a deep threat in a Patriots-like scheme. The question is whether or not the team would be willing to pay upwards of $15 million a year for a player who has never played a full season in his career due to multiple soft-tissue injuries.

Chris Godwin

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 25

2020 team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2020 statistics: 16 games; 81 catches, 1,072 receiving yards, 8 receiving touchdowns

First things first: It would not be a surprise to see the Buccaneers place the franchise tag on Chris Godwin should a new deal not be reached by mid-March. That, in turn, would prevent the Patriots from going after him.

But even if he makes it to the open market, he won’t come cheap: Godwin could very well demand $20 million per season, a price probably too high for New England’s liking even though he would undoubtably make the team’s passing offense a better one. That said, he certainly is worth top dollar considering that he is one of the best wide receivers in football and still only 25 years old.

Kenny Golladay

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: Detroit Lions

2020 statistics: 5 games; 20 catches, 338 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns

Dealing with hamstring and hip injuries. Golladay was limited to just five games during his 2020 contract season. When healthy, though, he has proven himself a productive player due to his size and ability to win contested catches on the outside: he caught 135 passes for 2,253 yards and 16 touchdowns between 2018 and 2019.

Like Chris Godwin, however, he could get the franchise tag before the March 9 deadline. And even if not he is in the same basic situation as the Buccaneers’ star receiver: Golladay could get $20 million per year on a new deal, a price the Patriots would likely not be willing to pay — even though the 27-year-old is a true number one wide receiver and would immediately upgrade New England’s skill position group.

A.J. Green

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 33

2020 team: Cincinnati Bengals

2020 statistics: 16 games; 47 catches, 523 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns

The oldest player on this list, A.J. Green’s impressive career in Cincinnati appears to be coming to an end after 10 seasons. He would add size and proven productivity to the New England offense at a relatively low cost, but would only be a one- or two-year rental given his age. On top of that, Green is no longer a number one wide receiver at this stage in his career and would have to be used as a package-specific weapon.

T.Y. Hilton

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 31

2020 team: Indianapolis Colts

2020 statistics: 15 games; 56 catches, 762 receiving yards, 5 receiving touchdowns

After posting five 1,000-yards seasons in six years between 2013 and 2018, T.Y. Hilton has not reached he plateau again in the two years since. That said, he can still be a productive player if used correctly due to his solid route-running and experience. Just like A.J. Green, however, he is no longer a WR1 due to his age; signing him to a comparatively cheap deal would have to be a complementary move more than anything else.

Adam Humphries

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Tennessee Titans

2020 statistics: 7 games; 23 catches, 228 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns

The Patriots were in on Adam Humphries when he entered free agency two years ago but ended up signing a four-year, $36 million deal in Tennessee. Now, they could have another chance to bring him aboard after the Titans released him last week. He would be a cheap option after two relatively uninspiring years, but one has to wonder whether or not he would be a real upgrade over what New England has

Unless the Patriots feel confident in their ability to turn them into a productive slot option again, he likely should not be expected to be brought board.

Marvin Jones

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 31

2020 team: Detroit Lions

2020 statistics: 16 games; 76 catches, 978 receiving yards, 9 receiving touchdowns

The Lions will likely make Kenny Golladay their top priority at wide receiver this offseason, which in turn might make Marvin Jones available in free agency. A proven wide receiver who has steady production on his résumé — he has caught 50-plus passes in five of his last seven seasons — Jones projects as a strong WR2 in the Patriots’ system able to help improve the outside passing game.

Jones would also be a relatively cost-effective option given his age. While he would not be much more than a short-term fix for the Patriots’ struggling passing game, having him in the lineup could help draw some attention away from younger players such as Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry or tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene.

Zay Jones

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Las Vegas Raiders

2020 statistics: 16 games; 14 catches, 154 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdowns

A former second-round draft pick who makes his living outside the numbers, Zay Jones has struggled after getting traded from the Buffalo Bills to the Raiders during the 2019 season. However, he is still young and only three years removed from a season during which he caught 56 passes for 652 yards and seven touchdowns. The soon-to-be 26-year-old would be a reclamation project more than anything else, but could benefit from a change of scenery.

Tim Patrick

Free agency status: Restricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: Denver Broncos

2020 statistics: 15 games; 51 catches, 742 receiving yards, 6 receiving touchdowns

After two quiet seasons, Tim Patrick broke out in 2020 and finished as the Broncos’ number two wide receiver behind first-round rookie Jerry Jeudy. Capable of lining up all over the formation, the former undrafted free agent would be a solid addition to the New England passing game: he is a technically proficient player capable of challenging defenses deep.

Given his status as a restricted free agent, however, the question is if the Patriots would be willing to part with a draft pick — most likely a second-rounder — to get him aboard in case Denver tenders him. It might be worth a shot given his upside as a productive WR2, but it would obviously hurt new England’s draft capital. If such a move was made, though, it would be a major sign of confidence in Patrick’s projected impact.

Breshad Perriman

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 27

2020 team: New York Jets

2020 statistics: 12 games; 30 catches, 505 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns

The Patriots have gone after players who performed well against them in the past, and Breshad Perriman would not be an exception: in two games between New England and New York last season, the former first-round draft pick caught eight passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns. While he has played for five different teams since joining the league in 2015, he does have potential as a speedy and cheap perimeter weapon.

Josh Reynolds

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Los Angeles Rams

2020 statistics: 18 games; 55 catches, 683 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns

If the Patriots want to add size to their receiving corps, they could decide to go after 6-foot-3 Josh Reynolds, who improved every year since joining the league as a fourth-round selection in 2017. He will not be a primary target for any team, but would come relatively cheap due to his inconsistent play in the past. A change of scenery might help him, but Reynolds still projects as little more than a WR3 with value as a potential red zone target.

Allen Robinson

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Chicago Bears

2020 statistics: 16 games; 102 catches, 1,250 receiving yards, 6 receiving touchdowns

Allen Robinson could very well receive the franchise tag by a Bears team possibly reshaping its quarterback position this year. If he is allowed to enter free agency, however, one thing is certain: he will be paid as one of the top wideouts in football and could very well get a deal averaging more than $20 million per season. After all, he produced at elite levels in Chicago and Jacksonville while catching passes from the likes of Mitchell Trubisky and Blake Bortles.

Would the Patriots be willing to invest in him despite their salary cap space? That can be questioned considering their approach to the wide receiver position in the past. However, making an exception for a player of Robinson’s talent would make sense: he would give New England a true number one wide receiver and the team’s next quarterback a top-tier perimeter target to work with.

John Ross

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 25

2020 team: Cincinnati Bengals

2020 statistics: 3 games; 2 catches, 17 receiving yards

John Ross’ stint in Cincinnati was a disappointment. After getting drafted ninth overall he caught just 51 passes for 733 yards and 10 touchdowns in four years. His raw talent cannot be denied, but he has yet to show that he can produce at the NFL level. Ross would be a cheap reclamation project that offers intriguing straight-line speed from outside the numbers. He might be worth a shot but will cannot be trusted to suddenly develop into anything more than a reserve option.

Curtis Samuel

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 25

2020 team: Carolina Panthers

2020 statistics: 15 games; 77 catches, 851 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns

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 does not fall into the traditional WR1 mold but could still be a natural fit for a Patriots offense looking to find reliable receiving options.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 24

2020 team: Pittsburgh Steelers

2020 statistics: 17 games; 110 catches, 988 receiving yards, 10 receiving touchdowns

Coming off a highly productive four-year stint in Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster will get his fair share of offers on the open market. Will the Patriots be among those who will show interest? That is certainly possible given that 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.

Of course, the price tag will be the big question from the Patriots’ perspective. The 24-year-old could possibly command upwards of $15 million per year on a new deal, a price that might be too steep for the team.

Sammy Watkins

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Kansas City Chiefs

2020 statistics: 11 games; 38 catches, 434 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns

Despite playing alongside elite talents in Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins caught “only” 38 passes in 11 games last year. He can still be a productive player, though, and likely will not crack $10 million per year on a new deal. New England might therefore give him a look to upgrade its outside receiving corps — all while hoping that he will turn out to be more than a WR3.

Patriots outlook

There is no way around it: the Patriots need to upgrade their wide receiver position this offseason. Given that they have struggled to find consistent contributors via the draft as of late — their most productive additions have been seventh-round pick Julian Edelman and undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers — looking at the market might be the best course of action. However, that does not mean top dollar should be paid to bring the Chris Godwins or Allen Robinsons aboard.

Instead, New England might be better off looking at the second tier of weapons. Signing Corey Davis and Curtis Samuel, for example, would give the team two new starter-level receivers at the cost of one Allen Robinson. The Patriots’ past approach to the wide receiver position might suggest that this will be the direction the team is going rather than spending big bucks on the elite pass catchers available.