The New England Patriots completely rebuilt their offensive personnel during the 2021 offseason. Not only did they add quarterback Mac Jones in the first round of the draft, they also made some major investments at the wide receiver and tight end positions in free agency. Among the wideouts added were Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, who served as the team’s second and third options at the position, respectively.
Bourne and Agholor remain under contract for 2022 as well. While Bourne is a lock to return to the team, Agholor’s outlook is far less certain given his $14.9 million salary cap hit. For the time being, however, the two are leading the position depth chart:
- Kendrick Bourne
- Nelson Agholor
- N’Keal Harry
- Kristian Wilkerson
- Tre Nixon
- Malcolm Perry
Behind Bourne and Agholor, the Patriots have a whole lot of question marks. Former first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry continued to disappoint in 2021 and could very well be on his way out, while Kristian Wilkerson, Tre Nixon and Malcolm Perry have yet to show their value on a consistent basis. Wilkerson appears to be the most promising of the trio, but that is based on one regular season game versus the worst team in football (the Jacksonville Jaguars).
The Patriots do have some easy options to bolster that group, however. Two of their players, after all, are headed for restricted free agency and therefore relatively easy re-signings if the team so chooses:
- Jakobi Meyers: Restricted free agent
- Gunner Olszewski: Restricted free agent
- Matthew Slater: Unrestricted free agent
Jakobi Meyers can be considered a lock to be brought back by the Patriots. The main question is what level of tender the team opts to offer him: the first-, second- or the original-round level (i.e. right of first refusal); the second-round tag appears to be most likely given his contributions as New England’s leading receiver in 2021.
Gunner Olszewski and Matthew Slater, meanwhile, are no locks to be brought back. Olszewski is not guaranteed to receive an RFA offer, while Slater might be headed into retirement.
Whatever happens with those two as well as Meyers and the rest of the wide receiver group remains to be seen. What we do know, however, is that the Patriots have plenty of options to upgrade the position this offseason — with free agency offering some potential targets even beyond the unrealistic top-tier players such as Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin or Davante Adams.
Odell Beckham Jr. (UFA): Could this finally be the year OBJ is coming to New England? The star receiver did have talks with the team after his release from Cleveland last November, but ultimately decided to move to Los Angeles (where he promptly won a Super Bowl). The fact that he is coming off a torn ACL suffered in the Super Bowl might change his outlook moving forward, however, and might prompt him to take a lower-level deal.
D.J. Chark (UFA): A former second-round draft pick who was limited to four games in 2021 because of a fractured left ankle, Chark has the size and speed to serve as an upgrade at the X-receiver position. The 25-year-old will likely not break the bank in free agency, but he would be a high-upside investment.
Jamison Crowder (UFA): Despite spending the first seven years of his career in Washington and New York, Crowder has been a consistently productive receiver. In 2021, for example, he caught 51 passes for 447 yards and a pair of touchdowns while part of an abysmal Jets offense. Crowder is no starter but has some role-player qualities.
Will Fuller V (UFA): After signing a fully-guaranteed $10.6 million contract in Miami last offseason, Fuller is headed for free agency again. The 27-year-old has all the talent in the world and if fully healthy can be a game-changing wideout. However, injuries have been an issue throughout his career — and 2021 was no exception: he was limited to just two games because of a thumb injury. Accordingly, Fuller might be an affordable option this year.
Russell Gage (UFA): Gage has quietly developed into a serviceable player for the Atlanta Falcons, coming off a two-year stretch that saw him catch 138 passes for 1,556 yards and eight touchdowns. Capable of playing both on the perimeter and in the slot, the 26-year-old is an intriguing player set to enter free agency.
A.J. Green (UFA): One of the best wide receivers of his era, Green had a productive first season in Arizona. The 33-year-old caught 54 passes for 848 yards and three touchdowns as a Cardinal. While no longer performing at an All-Pro level, he still has some value as a package-specific player.
Mack Hollins (UFA): The Patriots were able to get a close look at Hollins the last three seasons: as a member of the Miami Dolphins, the 6-foot-4 wideout appeared in five games versus New England. While his output was limited to two catches for 18 yards, the team might be willing to give him a shot as a low-cost depth option capable of aligning on the outside of the formation.
Richie James (UFA): One year after Kendrick Bourne, could Richie James be the latest San Francisco 49ers wideout to join New England? He is an interesting option at the very least: James is missed all of 2021 due to a knee injury, but he has some upside as a return man and depth wide receiver. Essentially, he would be a replacement in case Gunner Olszewski is not retained.
Zay Jones (UFA): Jones has played some solid if inconsistent football throughout his five years in the NFL. Entering free agency off a 52-catch, 607-yard campaign that also saw him haul in two scores, he might be worth consideration. Jones, after all, would offer some size and experience as an outside receiver.
Isaiah McKenzie (UFA): New England has a history of signing players it struggled to defend, and McKenzie is one of those. Last season, he caught 14 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown in two games against the Patriots. That alone will not make Bill Belichick open the checkbook, but it might just make him take a close look at the 26-year-old, who spent 2021 with the Buffalo Bills.
Zach Pascal (UFA): In case the Patriots want to upgrade their slot depth, Pascal might be an option. The 27-year-old has had a productive four-year stint in Indianapolis, but had a comparatively quiet season in 2021: he caught 38 passes for 384 yards and three scores — his worst output since his 2018 rookie campaign. As a result, Pascal might be available at a comparatively low price.
Josh Reynolds (UFA): Reynolds had a disappointing 2021 season that saw him spend time in Tennessee and Detroit. However, his combination of size and experience makes him a candidate to be brought aboard by the Patriots: he would add depth on the perimeter at what will likely be a lower price tag.
John Ross (UFA): Ross never lived up to his status as the ninth overall selection of the 2017 draft: he has only caught 62 passes in five years in the NFL. That said, the Patriots have never shied away from taking fliers on talented players who failed to reach their potential elsewhere. The fact that he spent 2021 with New England offensive assistant Joe Judge in New York also has to be considered.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (UFA): Smith-Schuster is entering free agency off a productive five-year run in Pittsburgh, but he did post the worst season of his career in 2021. The Patriots might be able to get him on the cheap, but the question is whether or not investing in the 25-year-old makes sense. After all, he aligns primarily inside the formation — a spot where New England is well-equipped at the moment. If the team does not see this as an issue, though, the team would be getting an experienced and proven player.
Equanimeous St. Brown (UFA): One of multiple Green Bay wideouts set to enter free agency, this year, Brown was primarily a role player and special teamer for the Packers: he touched the ball just 13 times for 113 yards in 2021. He would be a depth option on the outside if coming to New England on a low-cost contract.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling (UFA): Whereas St. Brown has had limited production last year, his teammate Valdes-Scantling posted some good numbers: he had 34 catches for 578 yards and four TDs. A big-bodied player at 6-foot-4, the 27-year-old would essentially be an upgrade over N’Keal Harry as the fourth wide receiver — and maybe even Nelson Agholor as WR3.
As can be seen, there are multiple options available on the open market for New England that would likely not break the bank. The Patriots have only $4.9 million in salary cap space available at the moment, according to Miguel Benzan, so seeing them go after cheaper options and those falling in the low risk/high reward category would not be a surprise.
Of course, a lot can happen over the next two weeks. New England has potential to free up significant cap space, possibly allowing the team to go after A-grade talent. The team could also swing a trade for a player such as Atlanta’s Calvin Ridley.
Realistically, however, the Patriots will go a different route. While one or two players like those listed above might be brought aboard, the team will likely look at its in-house options — i.e. Jakobi Meyers — and the draft to upgrade the position group. That does not mean it will not be active in free agency, but that the focus will likely lie on a deep rookie class at the position rather than some major financial investments.