The New England Patriots’ 2021 season came to a disappointing end on Saturday night. The team of head coach Bill Belichick was blown out 47-17 by the Buffalo Bills in the wild card playoff round, starting the offseason on a sour note.
That offseason that could see some major turnover yet again, with the list of upcoming free agents showing one area where changes might be on the way for the organization. The team that will step onto the field to kick off the 2022 campaign in eight months might therefore look drastically different from the one that played against the Bills in the postseason.
All in all 19 members of the 2021 Patriots are about to enter free agency once the new NFL league year begins on March 16. 15 of them will be unrestricted and head to the open market, while the other three carry the restricted label. The list of New England’s free agents features some big names in all three phases of the game.
Offensive unrestricted free agents
RB Brandon Bolden: The veteran running back played a valuable role for the Patriots in 2021. Not only did he serve as a leader in an otherwise young running back room, he also helped the team fill James White’s role as the receiving back after his season-ending hip injury. Bolden is a prime candidate to return on a cost-effective deal.
OT Trent Brown: When the Patriots re-acquired Brown via trade from the Las Vegas Raiders, the offensive tackle restructured his contract: instead of playing on the two years left on his original deal, he shortened it to one season. New England will likely try to retain the 28-year-old after he started 10 games at the right tackle spot. If unsuccessful, Brown would not count against the compensatory draft picks formula.
TE Troy Fumagalli: Three months after joining the Patriots in mid-May, the team waived Fumagalli with an injury designation. He spent the entire season on IR, but is a candidate to be brought back as a low-cost camp body.
QB Brian Hoyer: Hoyer served as the Patriots’ backup quarterback throughout the 2021 season, filling a valuable role as a mentor for rookie Mac Jones. While he saw only minimal game action, New England could very well decide to bring him back on a cost-effective contract to compete with Jarrett Stidham for the QB2 spot over the summer.
G Ted Karras: Returning to the Patriots after a one-year stint in Miami, Karras started the season as a backup before establishing himself as the starting left guard. He ended up starting 14 of New England’s 18 games and setting himself up nicely for a new deal. Whether it will come from the Patriots can be questioned, though: Karras likely raised his asking price, while the team also has Michael Onwenu waiting in the wings.
RB James White: For a second straight offseason, White is headed for the open market. His outlook is a different one this time around, however: the aforementioned hip injury limited him to just three games while his age — he will turn 30 in February — also does him no favors. The Patriots might just be able to retain him on another comparatively cheap deal.
Defensive unrestricted free agents
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley: Arguably the Patriots’ most improved player in 2021, Bentley does have some momentum hitting free agency for the first time in his career. Teams looking for some early-down physicality might be interested in bringing him in. New England is one of those, but it likely will not overextend to keep the 25-year-old in the fold.
LB Jamie Collins Sr: Collins was a role player for the Patriots in 2021 after they brought him in October. At 32 and coming off a relatively quiet season, he likely will not break the bank on the open market. New England might decide to retain him on another short-term deal, but the goal has to be to get younger and more athletic in the front seven. Collins does not provide youth and his age creates a murky outlook from an athleticism perspective.
DT Carl Davis: One of the under-the-radar re-signings of the 2021 offseason, Davis had a solid overall year in New England. However, he ended the year with a playing time share of only 26 percent and was a healthy scratch for the playoff game in Buffalo. The Patriots will likely look to get more stout up front after a disappointing season versus the run, which makes Davis a tough projection.
LB Dont’a Hightower: A future Patriots Hall of Famer and cornerstone of the team’s Dynasty 2.0, Hightower had an up-and-down 2021 season. Entering his age 32 campaign, he also no longer appears to be the multi-purpose linebacker he was earlier during his career. This might hurt his market and allow the team to bring him back on a cheap deal, but it might also lead to New England looking elsewhere for some off-the-ball linebacker help.
CB J.C. Jackson: The biggest name on New England’s list of free agents, there is no question that Jackson will get paid this offseason. The question is which team will invest in the Pro Bowler and NFL interception leader over the last four years. The Patriots do have an advantage over other teams, however: they are able to use the franchise tag to keep Jackson in the fold if no agreement can be reached ahead of free agency.
LB Harvey Langi: Langi served as a core special teamer and depth linebacker early during the 2021 season, but a sprained MCL suffered in late October eventually kept him out for the remainder of the year. No big investment will be necessary to re-sign the 29-year-old if the team chooses to do so. UPDATE: Harvey Langi was re-signed to a one-year deal on Jan. 21.
S Devin McCourty: In theory, McCourty is still under contract through the 2024 season. However, those next three years will on the eve of free agency. The Patriots and their long-time team captain will likely be able to figure out a solution if both sides want one, but given his age — McCourty will turn 35 in August — every option appears to be on the table when it comes to one of the best players in franchise history.
Special teams unrestricted free agents
K Nick Folk: The 37-year-old already confirmed that he will not retire, but it remains to be seen if this allows New England to keep him in the fold. Folk, after all, is coming off a very good season and might be a popular target for a team looking to upgrade its place kicker position.
LB Brandon King: A core member of New England’s special teams group, King ranked fourth on the team in kicking game snaps in 2021 and third with 11 total tackles. The 28-year-old is well respected inside the organization and a candidate to be brought back on a relatively cheap contract, especially in case another special teamer calls it a career:
WR Matthew Slater: Quite possibly the best special teamer in NFL history, Slater has a decision to make this offseason. He will either continue his career despite turning 37 in September, or head off into a well-earned retirement. One thing will not happen, though: Slater leaving New England in free agency. It’s retirement or re-signing for the team captain.
Restricted free agents
FB Jakob Johnson: The Patriots’ fullback has had a solid third season with the team but will likely not be tendered at the first- or second-round level. As a de facto rookie free agent — he joined the NFL via the International Pathway Program — New England will therefore reserve the right of first refusal but not get any compensation in case he leaves.
WR Jakobi Meyers: The Patriots using the original round tender on Meyers would likely lead to the former undrafted free agent leaving the team. Instead it would not be a surprise to see the team extend a second-round offer to its leading pass catcher of the last two years. The 25-year-old has proven himself a valuable member of the operation, and a player that has developed a solid chemistry with Mac Jones.
WR Gunner Olszewski: One year removed from an All-Pro distinction, the Patriots have to make a call which of the three tenders to use on Olszewski. The original/right of first refusal tender is the most likely. The former rookie free agent is one of the most electric punt returners in the NFL, but his limited upside at wide receiver hurts his value.