Following their loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, the New England Patriots are now forced to turn their attention to the offseason. The 35-23 defeat, after all, put an unceremonious end to the team’s 2022 campaign.
“We’ll begin to turn the page and move on to do the things, and start to do the things, that we feel like we need to do to improve our team and be more competitive and have better results,” head coach Bill Belichick said during his end-of-year conference call on Monday.
“As we do every year, we’ll evaluate everything and try to make the best decisions that we can to move forward to be more competitive, to have a stronger team in the future.”
One of the ways to build a stronger team for 2023 is taking care of the team’s free agents. While not all of them should be expected to return, there are some big ones that will surely enjoy priority status.
All in all 21 members of the 2022 Patriots are about to enter free agency once the new NFL league year begins on March 15. The majority of them — 18 — will be unrestricted and therefore head straight to the open market; the other three carry either the restricted or exclusive-rights label.
As of right now, New England is projected to have $36.54 million in cap space to work with (via Miguel Benzan).
Offensive free agents
WR Nelson Agholor (UFA): Agholor joined the Patriots on a two-year, $22 million contract in 2021, but never quite lived up to his price tag. While he did have some encouraging moments during both his seasons in New England, him leaving the team would not be a surprise. The 29-year-old ended the 2022 campaign with 31 catches (t-5th) for 362 yards (6th) and two touchdowns (t-3rd).
OT Yodny Cajuste (RFA): A third-round draft pick in 2019, Cajuste is headed for restricted instead of unrestricted free agency because he missed all of his rookie year on the non-football injury list. Given that he ended the year as effectively the fourth option at right tackle, however, even receiving the lowest of the three tender levels is no guarantee.
OT Marcus Cannon (UFA): Cannon will turn 35 in May and spent the last two months of the season on injured reserve because of a concussion. While he might be brought back on the cheap to offer depth and experience, the three-time Super Bowl winner just retiring seems equally likely.
OL James Ferentz (UFA): Ferentz is no world-beater, but he has proven himself a reliable backup option along the interior offensive line. Until somebody else emerges to challenge him — second-year men Chasen Hines or Kody Russey, for example — the Patriots will likely want him back. That said, retaining him will not be a priority given his age (33) and limited upside.
RB Damien Harris (UFA): Missing time with three separate injuries, the final year of Harris’ rookie deal was a struggle. When ready to go, however, the former third-round pick was still productive: he carried the football 106 times for 462 yards and three touchdowns, ranking second on the team behind Rhamondre Stevenson in all three categories. Harris was a very good rotational option this year, and the Patriots do like him.
OT Conor McDermott (UFA): The Patriots brought their former sixth-round draft pick back in-season, poaching him off the New York Jets’ practice squad. He was solid as an emergency option at right tackle, and ended up starting the final six games of the season. Upgrading both tackle spots will be crucial this offseason, but McDermott re-signing on a cheap deal does not appear to be out of the question.
WR Jakobi Meyers (UFA): The Patriots’ number one wide receiver the last three seasons, retaining Meyers will surely be a priority for New England this offseason. While he is no WR1 in the classic sense, he is a valuable chain-mover who has built some good chemistry with quarterback Mac Jones. The former rookie free agent finished 2022 with 67 catches (2nd) for 804 yards (1st) and six scores (1st) and should be in line for a nice pay day. Ideally, it will be coming from the Patriots.
WR Kristian Wilkerson (ERFA): Wilkerson found his way to injured reserve following a training camp concussion, and sat out the entire season. He might be tendered to offer depth at the wideout spot, but should not be expected to suddenly break out in Year 3.
OT Isaiah Wynn (UFA): Wynn went from a solid starting left tackle to a liability at right tackle within one season, and his market will be a reflection of how teams view him. If they see him on the left side and think they can bring him back to his pre-2022 levels of play, he might get some solid offers on the market. If they too view him as a right tackle, he likely will be available on the comparatively cheap. Either way, the former first-round pick returning to New England seems like a long-shot at this point in time.
Defensive free agents
CB Myles Bryant (RFA): Even though he was involved in some bad plays in the regular season finale, the Patriots do like Bryant. Will that result in him receiving anything higher than the original-round tender as a restricted free agent? Probably not, but he should be expected back nonetheless — and if only to compete for a roster spot over the summer.
DT Carl Davis Jr. (UFA): The rotational defensive tackle had some solid moments in a limited role, and he looks like one of the “always available” players the Patriots have from time to time (similar to James Ferentz on offense). Accordingly, he is a candidate to re-sign on another cheap one-year pact.
DT Daniel Ekuale (UFA): Ekuale will likely draw more interest than Davis, but he too should be retained on the cheap. Having depth along the defensive line is never a bad thing, and the soon-to-be 29-year-old has proven himself a solid depth piece.
CB Jonathan Jones (UFA): The Patriots’ biggest free agent on the defensive side of the ball, Jones moved from the slot to the outside in 2022 without batting an eye. The team will likely try to upgrade at cornerback this offseason and possibly add a true No. 1 to the equation, but bringing the 29-year-old back would still be in New England’s best interest. Jones, after all, is a valuable commodity due to his experience, communication skills, and positional versatility. With long-time starting safety Devin McCourty possible off to retirement, having that combination in the secondary would be big.
LB Raekwon McMillan (UFA): McMillan’s first year back from a torn ACL had its ups and downs, which will likely contribute to the market developing slower than his former second-round status would suggest. New England bringing him back is possible — it might be an either/or situation with Mack Wilson — but he will not break the bank.
S Jabrill Peppers (UFA): Coming off a torn ACL, Peppers delivered a strong first season for the Patriots. He might draw some interest on the open market, but New England will likely want to keep him in the fold for the foreseeable future — especially given the uncertainty surrounding the aforementioned Devin McCourty.
CB Joejuan Williams (UFA): A second-round selection in 2019, Williams has had a disappointing stint with the Patriots so far. Whether it was injuries or inconsistent play, he never lived up to his draft status and is likely headed out the door.
LB Mack Wilson Sr. (UFA): New England acquired Wilson as part of the trade that sent Chase Winovich to Cleveland in 2022, and he did have some solid moments. That said, he did not play a single defensive snap over the final five games of the year and was exclusively used on special teams down the stretch. His return is not a given.
Special teams free agents
LS Joe Cardona (UFA): As noted above, Cardona is off to unrestricted free agency. Despite an ankle injury costing him the final three games of the season, the 30-year-old coming back seems to be merely a formality. He has been a reliable player and respected locker room leader ever since his arrival in 2015.
S Cody Davis (UFA): Davis will turn 34 in June and is coming off a season-ending knee injury. If the Patriots want, they will likely be able to bring him back to help on a cheap deal to help get the special teams unit back on track. However, him simply stepping away could also be an option.
P Michael Palardy (UFA): Even with Jake Bailey’s status up in the air following a late-season team suspension and subsequent grievance filed on his behalf, Michael Palardy coming back seems unlikely. The 30-year-old did not play good football as a replacement for the former All-Pro, and an upgrade should be available either through free agency or the draft.
WR Matthew Slater (UFA): If Matthew Slater wants to continue his career for a 16th season, he will be back with the Patriots no questions asked. However, that “if” is a big one: the long-time team captain and should-be future Pro Football Hall of Famer calling it a career is a realistic option. He would leave a massive hole both on and especially off the field.
Besides the 22 players listed here, the Patriots also have another big name facing an uncertain future. Long-time captain Devin McCourty, as is mentioned above, is a candidate for retirement as well. The 35-year-old has been a core member of New England’s defense and locker room ever since his arrival in 2010, but after 229 career games and three championships has little left to prove.
McCourty’s status in general is an interesting one. He is technically under contract for 2023 with a $9.7 million cap number, but his deal will void on the first day of the new league year. If not re-signed or retired at that point, he would enter unrestricted free agency with the $9.7 million remaining on New England’s books as dead money.
If he does retire, however, the team could spread out the cap impact over the 2023 and 2024 seasons by processing it post-June 1.