Shortly after the official start of the NFL’s 2022 free agency period, the New England Patriots suffered two losses. First, running back Brandon Bolden left the team to join the Las Vegas Raiders. A short time later, fullback Jakob Johnson followed him: the 27-year-old will also sign with the Raiders, thus reuniting with Bolden and former New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
How does the move impact his former team, however? Let’s find out.
New England needs a new fullback
Originally joining the Patriots through the NFL International Pathway Program in 2019, Johnson emerged to the top of the fullback depth chart the following year. With James Develin retired and free agency addition Danny Vitale opting out, the door was open for him to take over.
Johnson has never looked back. Over his three seasons in the league he has therefore now appeared in a combined 38 regular season and playoff games, touching the football 13 times for 83 yards and a touchdown and serving as a lead blocker in the running game — a role that now has to be replaced by the Patriots.
How will they do it? Signing a traditional fullback in free agency would make some sense: the Patriots have traditionally valued the position, and project to be an attractive landing spot for those available on the open market. The free agent fullback still unsigned include the Baltimore Ravens’ Patrick Ricard, the New York Giants’ Cullen Gillaspia, and the Cleveland Browns’ Andy Janovich.
All three are experienced players, with Janovich in particular a name to watch: the 28-year-old would not count against the compensatory draft picks formula if signed.
Obviously, though, the Patriots also could go for an internal replacement. Two players stand out here: tight ends Jonnu Smith and Dalton Keene.
Smith was a high-priced free agent addition last offseason, but his impact on the New England offense was comparatively limited. He still projects as a prime candidate to play a much more prominent role in 2022, that might include taking some backfield snaps in place of Jakob Johnson.
Keene, meanwhile, originally joined the Patriots as a third-round selection in the 2019 draft. However, injuries have limited him to just six games since his arrival. That said, he does have some experience playing the halfback position and thus might be a candidate to take over for Johnson as well.
The Patriots’ running game suffers another blow
New England’s running game was among the best in the NFL in 2021, but the group saw some key members depart over the last few days — Johnson being just one of them.
On Monday, starting left guard Ted Karras agreed to sign a three-year, $18 million contract with the Cincinnati Bengals. The following day, the team moved on from starting right guard Shaq Mason; one of thee best run blockers in the NFL, Mason was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a fifth-round draft pick.
Add the fact that the aforementioned Brandon Bolden was lost as well, and New England’s ground attack projects to look a lot different in 2022. And that might not be all: right tackle Trent Brown is still unsigned in free agency, and a potential departure himself.
Josh McDaniels poaches another ex-Patriot
The New England-Las Vegas pipeline is alive and well. The Raiders’ new leadership — former head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler — both came over from the Patriots, and they continue to bring talent with them. Jakob Johnson is just the latest member of a group that also features Brandon Bolden.
McDaniels also brought some assistant coaches with him: wide receivers coach Mick Lombardi, offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo and assistant quarterbacks coach Bo Hardegree all joined his staff. While no additional coaches should be expected to leave New England for Las Vegas, it would not be a surprise if some more free agents find their way to Nevada when all is said and done.
With Johnson becoming the latest Patriots free agent accounted for, eight players remain left standing: linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins, offensive tackle Trent Brown (although him returning to Las Vegas seems highly unlikely even under a new regime), defensive tackle Carl Davis, special teamer Brandon King, wide receiver/return man Gunner Olszewski, and tight end Troy Fumagalli.
Johnson will likely not move the needle for a compensatory pick
Most free agency additions and losses are factored into the NFL’s compensatory draft picks formula, and Johnson is no exception. However, even before full contract details are available it seems unlikely that he will move the needle too much.
Johnson, after all, plays one of the least valued positions in the game. The Patriots, for example, were unwilling to spend the lowest restricted free agency tender on him at a cost of $2.433 million. Seeing him join the Raiders on a deal paying him more than that in 2022 would be a surprise. Accordingly, Johnson will likely not qualify for consideration as a CFA.
At the moment, the Patriots are therefore still projected to receive two extra selections next year: a third-rounder for cornerback J.C. Jackson plus a sixth-rounder for guard Ted Karras. Obviously, though, any further losses or signings both in New England and beyond could impact this projection.