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Kyle Dugger heads Patriots’ list of contract extension candidates

New England has several young players deserving of new deals.

New England Patriots v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The New England Patriots are entering the 2023 offseason among the league leaders in available salary cap space. According to Miguel Benzan, they have $34.06 million to work with at the moment, which gives them plenty of flexibility to address the current needs on their roster.

It also allows them to think longer-term and take a look at some soon-to-be-expiring contracts they have on their pay roll. While not every player set to enter free agency in 2024 or beyond is a realistic candidate for an extension, some very much are.

With that said, let’s take a look at some of them to find out why they might be deserving of new deals coming their way.

Priority candidates

S Kyle Dugger: Dugger is entering the final year of his rookie contract with plenty of momentum on his side. The 2020 second-round draft pick had his best season to date in 2022, finishing with three defensive touchdowns and continuing his growth as a versatile member of New England’s secondary. He is quickly becoming one of the league’s impact players at the safety position and as such worthy of an extension — especially considering that Devin McCourty’s career will be coming to an end sooner rather than later.

OG Michael Onwenu: There’s just something about sixth-round draft picks from Michigan. While Onwenu is obviously not on the same career trajectory as Tom Brady — the position he plays alone will prevent him from ever reaching those levels — he has been one of the most underrated linemen in football the last three years. Now finally settled into a fixed position as the Patriots’ right guard, the 25-year-old has established himself as a core member of the New England offense and a player who the team would be smart keeping around.

Secondary candidates

LB Josh Uche: Uche is not quite in the same building-block category as fellow 2020 draftees Kyle Dugger and Michael Onwenu, but coming off a breakout season he certainly is a player to watch. Uche, after all, was one of the most disruptive players in the NFL down the stretch in 2022 and registered 11.5 sacks over the final 10 games of the year. The Patriots signing him to a long-term deal at this point seems unlikely based on their historic modus operandi at the defensive edge, but him showing even further growth in the offseason and into training camp might just force their hand.

Wild-card candidates

LB Anfernee Jennings: One of the Patriots’ third-round picks in 2020, Jennings is in a curious position. He was up-and-down as a rookie before missing all of his sophomore campaign. Last season, however, he appeared in 16 games as a rotational outside linebacker and played the best football of his career — clearly having made some massive strides since the last time he was on a field. If the team feels confident in his trajectory moving forward, he might just see a new deal coming his way.

Veteran candidates

LB Ja’Whaun Bentley: The Patriots signed Bentley to a two-year, $6 million deal in 2022, meaning he will be in a contract season this fall. He is an interesting case: nobody is going to confuse him with the NFL’s elite off-ball linebackers, but he has proven himself a key cog in New England’s defensive machinery — one that played its best football to date last year. That and his importance as a team leader might prompt Bill Belichick and company to lock him up beyond March 2024.

WR Kendrick Bourne: Coming off a disappointing season, Bourne will under some pressure to prove himself in 2023. If he can do that under new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, he will be an attractive free agency option for teams next spring. The Patriots obviously know that as well, which is why they might be inclined to add one or two years to his contract. If such a move happens, though, it likely will not come until training camp or the early regular season.

TE Hunter Henry: Signing Henry to a new contract would serve two purposes. For one, it would allow the team to lock up its most productive tight end beyond 2023. Additionally, it would likely help bring his $15.5 million salary cap number down. From that perspective, an extension does make sense for both parties: Henry gets longer-term security; the Patriots get some additional cap space to work with this offseason.

As can be seen, several high-profile youngsters on the team’s current roster are not on this list. There is a simple reason for that: per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, players are not allowed to sign contract extensions until after their third year in the NFL has concluded.

While that means that Kyle Dugger and Michael Onwenu, for example, are eligible to receive new deals from the Patriots, this rule disqualifies others such as quarterback Mac Jones, defensive tackle Christian Barmore or running back Rhamondre Stevenson. There might be a case for all three receiving extensions further down the line, but we will deal with those scenarios when they become realistic options for the team.

The same is true for other members of the Patriots’ 2025 free agents class; a group that also includes Matthew Judon, David Andrews, Deatrich Wise Jr. or Jalen Mills. Two years is a long time in the NFL, and making projections that far into the future is a risky business for team and media members alike.