The 2023 NFL new league year and Free Agent market has lacked superstars, lacked big trades, and lacked sizzle.
Yes, 39-year-old quarterback Aaron Rodgers will eventually end up in New York at some point and some big-name offensive tackles shuffled between teams, but overall, the excitement and buzz has been missing.
In New England, the big moves were bringing back cornerback Jonathan Jones and swapping wide receiver Jakobi Meyers for Juju Smith-Schuster. Not exactly the free-agent frenzy of 2021 on replay.
However, the re-signings, releases, trades and smaller deals have been typical Bill Belichick as he attempts to build some competition, say goodbye to some bad decisions and improve the overall depth of the roster.
RECAP OF FREE AGENCY TO DATE:
At wide receiver, Jakobi Meyers–who was universally loved by fans but was limited to the slot–left for Foxborough West (aka Las Vegas) while Juju Smith-Schuster, a health risk due to his physical playing style, slides into his spot. Nelson Agholor–who should have been a great fit in the New England offense at slot receiver but was used outside–is a free agent and unlikely to return.
There was turnover at running back as Damien Harris is looking for work and unlikely to find the payday he may have anticipated in free agency. Surprisingly, James Robinson–who looked terrible after being traded to the Jets–was scooped up in free agency to spell Rhamondre Stevenson. Robinson is a better pass catcher and did have a knee injury last year. Also, Ty Montgomery is still on the roster and in the mix for playing time.
At tight end, the disappointing Jonnu Smith was shipped out to Atlanta where he will back-up Kyle Pitts and be reunited with coach Arthur Smith. They can hopefully figure out how to use him because Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia had absolutely no clue what to do with him.
To replace Smith, the Patriots signed Miami tight end and constant thorn in their side Mike Gesicki. Gesicki is long and quick with great hands and should be a better fit with Hunter Henry at tight end. At long last, the two tight end offense could return to New England.
With offensive tackle a desperate need, former first round draft pick Isaiah Wynn remains on the market looking for a team to give him a shot. New England did some bargain-basement shopping (us older folk will think of “Filene’s Basement” kind of deals) scooping up veteran Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson.
The Patriots still have Trent Brown (hopefully moving back to the right side where he played better and has been vocal about preferring) and re-signed restricted free agent Yodny Cajuste. They already have Conor McDermott and Andrew Stueber on the roster at tackle and are all set at the position until the draft.
Rounding things out on offense, New England brought back James Ferentz as the emergency center/guard on a cheap deal.
On defense, the Patriots have run it back with their own players. Cornerback Jalen Mills was cut to free up cap space and safety Devin McCourty retired.
The key signing was cornerback Jonathan Jones who moved to the outside cornerback position. He should hold down the spot opposite impressive rookie Jack Jones. Jones number three, the electric Marcus Jones, looks to be the slot cornerback going forward.
Restricted free agent Myles Bryant was tendered at a level that should keep him in New England. He is behind Marcus Jones in the slot but could get playing time at free safety next season (which could be a better fit for him on defense).
Speaking of the safety position, Julius Peppers returned on a two-year deal after finally finding a defensive coach with a clue about how to utilize him effectively. With Peppers, Adrian Philips and Kyle Dugger, the Patriots have playmakers at the strong safety/small linebacker position.
At linebacker, Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson return to provide depth behind and versatility at cheap prices. Same at defensive tackle as bargains Daniel Ekuale and Carl Davis return to provide an inexpensive layer of depth.
After last season’s follies on special teams, the Patriots put a premium on improving. Veteran Matthew Slater is back for one more season and Cody Davis was re-signed. Chris Board, long a special teams ace who made Bill Belichick’s heart go aflutter, was signed.
Long-snapper Joe Cardona was also re-signed and is now the highest-paid long-snapper in the NFL. The Patriots still need to find a punter for him to snap the ball to, however.
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NEXT STEPS IN FREE AGENCY
Waiting for the NFL Draft
While there are still a few holes on the roster, Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ front office will turn to the NFL Draft at the end of April to address some of those weaknesses. For example, look for another double dip at cornerback after the success of Marcus and Jack Jones last season.
The Patriots are likely to look for another edge rusher in the NFL Draft with Matt Judon getting older and Josh Uche getting towards the end of his rookie deal. A young free safety to develop to take over the role Devin McCourty filled for a decade is a possibility as well.
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New England will look to the later rounds of the NFL Draft to grab a developmental third-string quarterback again (as Bailey Zappe has looked like a solid pick). Depth at the interior offensive line is best served via the draft (considering the bums available in free agency).
However, based on the release of Jalen Mills to free up cap space, there are positions where Belichick and Co. are looking to pick up some bargains in free agency:
Another off-the-ball linebacker is likely via free agency. The starters, Ja’Whaun Bentley and
Jahlani Tavai, are “solid”. They re-signed Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson, but neither are assured a roster spot. I am alone on my island already beating the drum for Olakunle Fatukasi, an undrafted free agent from Rutgers who was with Tampa Bay and Denver last year, he’ll have to earn his way on the squad via special teams. But keep an eye on him in camp. He has substantial size and is fundamentally solid.
Out in free agency, there are still several options:
- While Bobby Wagner is priced out, there are intriguing names at linebacker who could sign a short-term deal for cheap money.
- Zach Cunningham has long been linked to New England and could be due for a bounce back this season after injuries slowed him in Tennessee.
- Rashaan Evans, a former first-round draft pick for Tennessee who played in Atlanta last season, seems like a Belichick with good length and a strong tackler.
- Myles Jack is only 27 years old as a potential reclamation project.
- Denzel Perryman is a run-stopper who played in a similar defense in Las Vegas last season.
- Old friend Kamu Grugier-Hill was a sixth-round draft pick back in 2016 who couldn’t get through waivers to the practice squad.
A couple of intriguing names remain at edge rusher. For the second consecutive season, Matt Judon ran out of gas at the end of the season as the team faded from playoff contention. Another edge rusher to join the rotation with Uche and Judon is a real need.
Fortunately, the market is slowly developing for edge rushers. With the draft thin at the position, free agency could be where New England finds some bargains.
The Patriots have already had Trey Flowers and Andrew Van Ginkel in for visits. Both are possibilities as the prices drop each day the free agency market continues to languish.
Veterans Bruce Irvin and Robert Quinn are on the market. Ditto Carlos Dunlap and Melvin Ingram. While these veterans may be past their prime, there are still some intriguing names.
- Yannick Ngakoue is only 28 years-old and still can pressure the quarterback with 19.5 sacks combined over the past two seasons.
- Jadeveon Clowney has always been respected by Belichick. At age 30 and after a tough season in Cleveland last year, he may be amenable to a one-year prove-it deal with a respected defensive Hall-of-Fame head coach.
- Bud Dupree, who was released by Tennessee, may not see the market he anticipates at age 30 after two down years in Tennessee and could be open to taking a shot at resurrecting his value in a 3-4 defense like in Foxborough.
Interior Offensive Line
While set with their starters, the Patriots’ depth inside is limited to James Ferentz. Ferentz can be stashed on the practice squad and at age 33, another depth guard/center is needed. While some of the overflow at tackle could slide inside if there is an injury, other than undrafted free agent Kody Russey.
There are not a ton of options for quality depth on the free agency market after the few starter-quality players signed quickly. There are plenty of bodies, but they’re there for a reason–they’re at the JAG “just a guy” phase of their careers. With the starting roles locked down with Cole Strange, David Andrews and Michael Onwenu, the Patriots back-up role is less appealing.
The Patriots will address the interior offensive line with one or more of their late-round draft picks, but a camp body is likely.
- Denver’s Dalton Risner is the best interior offensive lineman available at the time of publication. However, he’s looking for starter money and an opportunity to start, which is not there in New England.
- A name to consider is veteran A.J. Cann, who was released by Houston when they traded for Shaq Mason. He comes from an offense with similar concepts and was heavily linked to the Patriots when he was coming out of South Carolina in 2015. He’s already 31 years old but could be an inexpensive depth piece in 2023.
A veteran boundary wide receiver should still be the target of the Patriots. Yes, they should be heavily involved in trying to trade for DeAndre Hopkins or Jerry Jeudy / Courtland Sutton if these players are available.
Odell Beckham Jr. is still available as a free agent but is very unlikely to choose New England to resume his career. While it makes sense as far as a one-year re-establish value deal, he wants a bigger spotlight, and someone already considered a title contender
The wide receiver market was bereft of talent before the best players got picked over. A couple of players who could catch the eye of Belichick and come in for short money and a chance to compete for a roster spot remain:
- Mecole Hardman could replace Nelson Agholor’s ability to run fast and not catch footballs at a fraction of the price. The former second-round draft pick of the Chiefs must be getting frustrated at how his market in free agency has been slow to develop. The Patriots could swoop in and add a speedy outside receiver for depth.
- Chosen Anderson (aka Robby, aka Robbie) has long been linked to the Patriots and he claims Belichick recruited him in the past. His free agency market has been slow to develop. He’d have to come in on an incentive-laden package and accept he could be behind Tyquan Thornton (a similar style wide receiver). Not sure I see it, but anything is possible when players get desperate.
- Finally, I’m going to just throw the name Jamison Crowder out there. Crowder is a pure slot receiver with much familiarity as Belichick had to scheme against him when he was with the Jets and then the Bills. Injuries derailed his 2023 season, but he is shifty and has capable hands in the slot. A known traditional slot receiver on the cheap of the Troy Brown/Wes Welker/Julian Edelman/Danny Amendola mold seems like a fit with the Patriots
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