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Sunday Patriots Notes: Upgrading at wide receiver doesn’t necessarily require a big splash

Related: Lions reportedly releasing former Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers after three seasons

NFL: AUG 29 Jaguars Training Camp

With the NFL Scouting Combine firmly in the rear-view mirror, the NFL will turn its attention to free agency soon. The legal tampering period will begin in Monday, followed by the official start of free agency on Wednesday.

Needless to say that the New England Patriots will be quite busy over the next few days. Before all of that, however, let’s dig into our Sunday Notes.

1. Upgrading at wide receiver doesn’t necessarily require a big splash. It is no secret that the Patriots need an upgrade at wide receiver to keep up with the modern game and continue to develop quarterback Mac Jones at a rapid rate. After they met with some of the draft’s top wideouts at the Scouting Combine, there was a report this week that they have been doing extensive research on some of the league’s top free agent options as well.

Allen Robinson is a name consistently brought up, but don’t sleep on a lower-cost option such as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ D.J. Chark. A player of Robinson’s caliber, after all, may be too expensive. That is especially true after Amari Cooper was ultimately dealt from Dallas to Cleveland, making Robinson the cleat-cut WR1 on the market.

Chark, meanwhile, can also play the X position — a spot where New England has been looking to upgrade at for several years — and would give the Patriots a true number one receiver for Mac Jones albeit at a fraction of the cost. Signing a second-tier wideout or acquiring one via trade (i.e. Robby Anderson) may be the most realistic route for New England to go simply because they would be getting a pro-ready player that can instantly make an impact on the offense.

For comparison, drafting a wide receiver at No. 21 may take some time. I wouldn’t rule out the Patriots signing someone like Chark to try to find an upgrade over Nelson Agholor while also drafting a speedy, yards-after-catch machine on Days 2 or 3 in April’s draft. A big splash, however, is not necessary to move the needle.

2. Trey Flowers’ return to New England seems inevitable. A player who thrives in New England, gets the bag elsewhere, becomes available and rejoins the Patriots to rejuvenate his career — a tale as old as time.

Earlier this week, Detroit Lions edge rusher Trey Flowers was informed that he will be released as a cap casualty at the start of the new league year. The move will make him a free agent for the first time since he left New England to become the league’s highest paid edge rusher at the time following the 2018 season.

Don’t get it twisted, just because Flowers didn’t pop as much as he did in New England, he can still play at a high level. Both parties should therefore be interested in joining forces again.

Returning to the Patriots on a short-term deal would help the 28-year-old rejuvenate his career, and possibly set himself up for another trip to free agency. Just ask former teammate Jamie Collins, who left New England in 2016, returned in 2019, and left again the following offseason — coincidentally to Detroit — on a three-year, $30 million contract.

From New England’s perspective, he would add some stability to an edge group that is looking for more production aside from Pro Bowler Matthew Judon. The team has a lot inexperience after Judon, which means that Flowers would be able to earn a prominent role — and possible another big contract in 2023.

3. Dont’a Hightower staying with the Patriots should not be ruled out. With the legal tampering period set to begin on Monday, Hightower, who celebrated his 32nd birthday on Saturday, will be a name to watch. It is clear that the long-time Patriots team captain is on the back nine of his career and with him set to hit unrestricted free agency for the second time in his career, there is uncertainty if he will be back in New England to ultimately finish his career.

With the Patriots trying to get more younger and athletic at the position, and with Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins all set to hit the open market, there might be a lot of change for the position group on the horizon.

Hightower, who has been the heart of the Patriots’ defense for over a decade now, is set on playing in 2022 and, from my understanding, would like to finish his career in New England. It remains to be seen if that will indeed happen, but keep an eye on Hightower coming back on a team-friendly, short-term deal over the next few days.

4. Patriots set to face just one of the big-name players traded this week. The NFL saw some blockbuster trades this week. Quarterback Russell Wilson was moved from Seattle to Denver, followed by Carson Wentz leaving Indianapolis to join Washington. Edge Khalil Mack returned to the AFC West after getting acquired by the Los Angeles Chargers. Finally, the aforementioned Amari Cooper was sent to the Cleveland Browns.

With the exception of Wentz, all of them are elite players. Luckily for New England, it will face just one of them this year: Cooper and the Browns are scheduled to host the Patriots at FirstEnergy Stadium in the regular season.

5. Brandon Bolden remains cancer-free. In December, the Patriots’ veteran running back revealed that he had been diagnosed with epidermoid carcinoma, a form of skin cancer, during the 2018 offseason. He underwent surgery, even temporarily losing function on the right side of his face, but was able to continue his career.

Earlier this week, Bolden took to social media to let the world know that his latest cancer scan showed an encouraging result:

Bolden is set to enter unrestricted free agency this week. Appearing in all 18 of the Patriots’ games in 2021, the veteran set a new career mark with 658 total yards from scrimmage on 89 combined touches.

6. There is cause for concern at the cornerback position. Ever since Aqib Talib joined the Patriots in 2012, Bill Belichick has made it a priority to have a lockdown cornerback on the perimeter of his defense. From Talib (2012-13) to Darrelle Revis (2014) to Malcolm Butler (2014-17) to Stephon Gilmore (2017-2020) to J.C. Jackson (2018-), the Patriots have had over a decade of elite cornerback play at that outside spot.

With free agent Jackson all but gone, however, a multi-year stretch of having some of the deepest depth and talent at the cornerback position in the league appear to be over.

In case Jackson leaves, Jalen Mills will be only cornerback on the roster that saw consistent time in 2021. The Patriots will therefore likely take the sign-and-draft approach this offseason.

With slot cornerback Jonathan Jones back in the fold in 2022 after his season-ending shoulder injury, the Patriots can focus on filling their big need at outside corner. They could land a future CB1 if they were to stand pat at pick 21 in April’s draft — Andrew Booth Jr., Kaiir Elam, Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon are names to keep an eye on. However, having them come in Day 1 and be able to play the same role we have seen the Patriots’ cornerbacks play over the last decade is an unrealistic expectation for a rookie.

Look for the Patriots to therefore add a veteran on the open market that can come in and play competent on the outside while the Patriots invest a high pick in April’s draft on their future CB1.

7. Robert Kraft gets honored. The Sports Business Journal announced this week that Patriots owner Robert Kraft will be honored with its Lifetime Achievement Award. The 80-year-old, who has owned the Patriots since the mid-1990s, will receive the trophy in a ceremony on May 18.

“His vast success in sports, entertainment and event management includes six Super Bowl titles for the Patriots and five Eastern Conference championships for the Revolution, along with $1B worth of construction and real estate development projects,” an accompanying statement says about Kraft.

Sunday Patriots Mailbag

Whether it is receiver, linebacker or cornerback, it would make sense for the Patriots to double-dip at some position this draft. They could use some youth, added depth and competition at all three of those spots, after all.

Let’s go with cornerback for this example simply because Jalen Mills is the only corner on the team that is a competent starting outside option. An early-round/late(r)-round double dip could look something like Andrew Booth Jr. (Clemson) or Kaiir Elam (Florida) in Round 1 followed by Cam Taylor-Britt (Nebraska) or Tariq Woolen (UTSA) late on Day 2 or early Day 3.

Great minds think alike as I published a scouting thread on Hill on Friday morning. He is an intriguing option for the Patriots and it certainly wouldn't be shocking to see the Patriots trade back and select him early on Day 2.

Hill, who is listed as a safety, brings a ton of versatility to his game due to his athleticism and play speed. He ran in the low 4.3s last week in Indianapolis and could see time at safety, slot cornerback or even some outside cornerback at some point in his career. Although he’s listed as a safety, he’s more of an “athlete” that would be able to find success at any position in the New England secondary.

Hill reminds a lot of draft analysts of a young Devin McCourty coming out of Rutgers.

It’s certainly a possibility that the Patriots feel more comfortable than fans do at the linebacker position. They started to bring in more modern and athletic linebackers last offseason by signing Raekwon McMillan and drafting Cameron McGrone — both of whom missed all of 2021 rehabbing knee injuries.

The release of Kyle Van Noy, on the other hand, was a tell-tale sign that the Patriots are looking to turn this position over to the younger guys. Josh Uche should see more action in 2022 with the departure of Van Noy, while getting McMillan and McGrone back in the mix will allow the Patriots to play a bit faster at the off-the-ball spot.

Linebacker is still definitely a position of need and it is almost a given that New England will add to its current group in the draft. It is just a matter of when and how quickly they can contribute as a rookie.

The Patriots likely have four to five players on their board that they feel are worthy of that pick at 21. If none of them is available, a trade-back would make the most sense. Looking at past drafts, the Patriots typically like to have up to five picks inside the first 100 selections. Currently slated to select at 1-21, 2-53 and likely somewhere in the mid 80s, I feel a trade-back is ultimately what they will do.

This draft class is loaded with talent but also quite unique: there is not much of a drop-off between the 15th ranked prospect and the 60th ranked prospect on whatever big board you are looking at. Trading out of 21 and picking up additional picks on Day 2 would allow the Patriots to have multiple selections between the mid-30s and pick No. 100.

This would allow them to select pro-ready and talented players at multiple spots such as wide receiver, cornerback or linebacker.