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Patriots 2022 free agency targets: Will New England bolster its defensive edge next week?

Related: Patriots free agency targets: Will New England make more moves along its defensive line?

Arizona Cardinals v Detroit Lions Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

The New England Patriots made some notable investments along their defensive edge over the last few offseasons. They used high draft picks to bolster the group and also made some moves on the free agent market, most notably acquiring Matthew Judon on a four-year, $54.5 million contract.

Judon will also lead the unit heading into 2022, but the depth behind him is a collective question mark — especially after the team released veteran Kyle Van Noy earlier this week. With Van Noy no longer a part of the equation, the group now looks as follows:

  • Matthew Judon
  • Josh Uche
  • Ronnie Perkins
  • Chase Winovich

A Pro Bowler in 2021, Judon is the top edge on New England’s roster. Josh Uche, Ronnie Perkins and Chase Winovich, meanwhile, were all selected on the second day of the draft in the last three years: Uche was picked in Round 2 in 2020, bookended by third-rounders Winovich and Perkins in 2019 and 2021, respectively.

Thus far, however, the three have not carved out regular roles. Winovich led New England in sacks in 2020, but that was more the result of circumstance rather than his pass rush prowess; Uche showed his talent in flashes but was a role player his first two years in the NFL; Perkins was redshirted as a rookie last season.

The question now becomes whether or not New England trusts those three to replace Van Noy, who was on the field for 76.1 percent of defensive snaps in 2021 and registered five sacks. Regardless of the answer to that question, some reinforcements through free agency appear to be possible — even though the Patriots’ lack of cap space will prevent them from swinging big and going after marquee players such as Von Miller or Chandler Jones.

Dorance Armstrong Jr. (UFA): The former fourth-round draft pick was used primarily as a rotational pass rusher in Dallas last year, and he had found success. Appearing in 14 games, Armstrong Jr. notched five sacks and 22 combined quarterback disruptions.

Derek Barnett (UFA): Barnett has not quite lived up to his first-round status in Philadelphia, and might benefit from a change of scenery. A solid edge-setter in the running game and experienced pass rusher — he had 24 quarterback pressures last year — the 25-year-old seems like a solid complementary player, at the right price.

Lorenzo Carter (UFA): After spending the last two seasons under Joe Judge in New York, could Carter reunite with him in New England? It seems possible, given that the 26-year-old offers a solid foundation to take over as a rotational outside linebacker in the Patriots’ scheme. He also would likely not be expensive.

Dante Fowler Jr. (UFA): The Patriots have never shied away from giving former first-round picks a chance, and Fowler Jr. is just that: the third overall selection in 2015, he has bounced around the league a bit and most recently played in Atlanta. Fowler was OK, but his production during his two seasons with the Falcons — 7.5 sacks and 39 total pressures — does not qualify him among the top free agent edges this year.

Charles Harris (UFA): Harris’ 2021 season in Detroit was the best of his career. He notched 7.5 sacks and 34 combined quarterback disruptions while also looking solid setting the edge. At 27, he also is comparatively young for a player of his experience.

Melvin Ingram III (UFA): Despite spending time in Pittsburgh and Kansas City last year, Ingram had a solid season. He registered a combined 28 quarterback pressures and four sacks, and also looked good setting the edge in the run game. While on the older side — he will turn 33 in April — he can still be a serviceable player.

Arden Key (UFA): After three quiet seasons to start his career, Key blossomed after signing with the San Francisco 49ers last offseason. He went on to appear in all 20 of their games, posting 6.5 sacks and total 18 pressures. Key was a bit up and down versus the run and also failed to make a major impact in the playoffs, but he made a good case for himself in a contract year.

Tyquan Lewis (UFA): Lewis’ 2021 season ended in early November but the former second-round draft pick had a good year for the Indianapolis Colts up until that point. Playing roughly two thirds of the team’s defensive snaps pre-injury, he registered 2.5 sacks and the ill-fated interception that saw him hurt his knee during the return. Lewis also set a stout edge versus the run.

Al-Quadin Muhammad (UFA): Another member of the Colts’ defense, Muhammad had six sacks in 2021. While he aligned primarily on the edge, the team did also not shy away from moving him between the tackles on select downs. The Patriots surely would welcome a player of that versatility.

Uchenna Nwosu (UFA): Nwosu was no world-beater for the Los Angeles Chargers in 2021, but he was a solid contributor who was on the field for 67 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. The 25-year-old had 30 quarterback disruptions, including five sacks. He also caught an interception and forced a pair of fumbles.

Emmanuel Ogbah (UFA): If New England wants to swing big, Ogbah might be a player worth taking a look at. The 28-year-old combines experience and an intriguing athletic skillset with solid production: he had 18 sacks over his two seasons in Miami, and also registered a career-best 37 pressures in 2021. His only negative might be his relative one-dimensionality: Ogbah is more of a pass rusher than a run defender.

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (UFA): A rotational player for the world-champion Los Angeles Rams, Okoronkwo was quite solid when on the field. He may have only had seven quarterback disruptions but he looked good moving the pocket and standing his ground against the run.

Haason Reddick (UFA): After three quiet seasons to start his career, Reddick has been outstanding the last two years. In 2021 — his first (and possibly only) year in Carolina — he had 11 sacks and 30 total quarterback pressures. The 27-year-old also looked very good versus the run.

Jordan Willis (UFA): Willis made the decisive punt block in the 49ers’ playoff win in Green Bay, but he also had a solid season outside of that one play. Used as a package-specific edge, he registered three sacks and a forced fumble. Nonetheless, the former third-round draft pick will likely not be overly expensive.

As can be seen, the Patriots have plenty of options to bolster their edge depth in free agency. Will they do that? That is the (multi-)million dollar question, but adding some experience to what is a young group outside of Matthew Judon would make sense.

While Emmanuel Ogbah or Haason Reddick might be pipe dreams — let alone Von Miller or Chandler Jones — the edge group as a whole features some intriguing talent. Whether it’s former first-round picks not yet having lived up to their talent, or serviceable depth options there are some candidates to be brought aboard even without paying top dollar.