What do the Patriots Need to do this Off-Season to get Back on Track?
Although the new league year in the NFL is about two months out, the New England Patriots have kicked off their offseason with a bang. Via an official team press release, the team announced long-term extension talks with defensive assistant Jerod Mayo have begun. And on top of that, announced that a search for a new offensive coordinator will begin next week. Simply an unprecedented move in the Bill Belichick era, news of this sort has never been dealt with in this fashion. Hard to interpret this in any other way rather than the Krafts have stepped into team affairs after an 8-9 season, and now 25-25 in the last three.
Beyond that, the Patriots should be busy between now and the end of April. Just last week, it was announced that the coaching staff will be participating in the East/West Shrine Bow, one of the two major Draft Eligible player events held before the big weekend in April. Should have more on that later this month, but the Patriots have taken several players that have participated in the last few drafts. Just last year they took Tyquan Thornton and Jack Jones after they played in the Shrine Bowl.
This is also an interesting free-agent group the Patriots have. Names like Jakobi Meyers, Isaiah Wynn, Jabrill Peppers, and Jonathan Jones top the list of those who may not be back for the 2023 season. Furthermore, players like Josh Uche, Kyle Dugger, and Michael Onwenu are in line to receive contract extensions heading into the final year of their rookie contracts. Balancing that out while trying to improve on what is objectively a solid base of a roster could be tricky, but the Patriots are in a solid spot with cap space, especially in 2024.
Worth mentioning as well, it's likely, the Patriots won't hit every single thing here, and that's fine. However, these are the areas where they need to address some things going into next season. Hitting the key spots here would go a long way, even if some of the solutions (draft picks used/traded) overlap. Without further adieu, here's where the Patriots stand going into the offseason, and some things they should prioritize over the coming months (excluding coaching changes/a certain AFC North signal caller who is linked to the Patriots via the betting market. More on that another time).
Patriots Offseason Inventory as of Wildcard Weekend
Cap Space going into the next two offseasons (via Sportstrac)
2023: $44,114,524 2024: $152,981,578
Picks going into the next two Drafts
2023: 14th Overall, 46th Overall, 76th Overall (via Carolina Panthers), 104th Overall (via Los Angeles Rams), 114th Overall, 170th Overall (via Las Vegas Raiders), 173rd Overall (via Carolina Panthers, 180th Overall.
(2023 Comp Picks: Fourth Rounder for loss of J.C. Jackson, Sixth Rounder for loss of Ted Karras, Seventh Rounder for loss of Brandon Bolden)
2024: In control of all their own picks with the addition of the Las Vegas Raider’s sixth-round selection, but the loss of their own seventh-round selection.
2023 Patriots Offseason Checklist
No. 1: Improve the Tackle Situation
Seeing that the Patriots can get out of Trent Brown's two-year deal early (saving 10 million dollars) and Isaiah Wynn is hitting the open market in under 60 days, there's a good chance one of the two will not be here next year at the very least. I also think there is an argument that neither should be back based on their play in 2022. Both Brown and Wynn ranked near the top of the league in lineman penalties, with Wynn averaging just shy of a penalty a game. Brown meanwhile racked up five false starts, good for fifth most in the NFL, on top four additional penalties.
Here's where the Patriots run into a bit of trouble. Unless there are some surprise releases, this offensive tackle free-agent class isn't deep whatsoever. The most notable name is Orlando Brown Jr from the Kansas City Chiefs, but there are some issues with bringing him in. If you bring him in, the Patriots will likely overpay in doing so. According to RG3, Brown turned down a six-year deal worth 24 million dollars annually in late August. Now that wouldn't be so bad if Brown pressures allowed numbers weren't as high as they are, despite producing an 88.7 pass-blocking grade (third best among left tackles) from Weeks 10-18. In short, if the Patriots could get him for a significantly cheaper price, I would be interested. If not, I wouldn't be upset if another team is willing to blatantly overpay for his services.
Since the Patriots also currently have the 14th overall pick in the draft, picking up a tackle right out of the gate is on the table. Guys like Paris Johnson from Ohio State and Brodrick Jones from Georgia would make the most sense at that spot. But the Patriots have demonstrated over the years that they can find offensive linemen gems deeper into the draft as well. Michael Onwenu, a sixth-round pick in 2020, was probably the biggest First Team All-Pro snub in the entire league at left guard this season, as a recent example. So if the Patriots don't take a tackle right away, I wouldn't be too worried.
Final Verdict: Move Trent Brown to Right Tackle and draft a Left Tackle between Rounds 3-6).
Backup Option: Sign Mike McGlinchy to play Right Tackle, and keep Trent Brown on the other side.
No. 2: Find a Devin McCourty Replacement
Nothing is official yet, but there is no guarantee that DMac is in a Patriots uniform this upcoming season. As he mulls over his future, he is also technically slated for free agency via a built-in contract void. Assuming the Patriots are prepared for any outcome on this front, finding some option to replace McCourty from both an on-field and leadership standpoint is paramount. Luckily, there is a fantastic option that is likely going to hit the open market barring anything last minute, Jessie Bates.
The one thing I love about the Patriots' safety room is the versatility everyone brings to the table, but McCourty was an absolute rock playing in center field. Bates, just shy of 26 years old, can slot right into that role on day one while giving you just as good, if not better production. Now, acquiring Bates is going to cost a good deal of money, but Bill Belichick has shown he's willing to spend in the secondary. Before this last season, Devin McCourty was making 11.5 million dollars per season on a two-year contract. Bates will likely go for more than that, but not to the point where you'd get cold feet. Assuming he wants something in the range of Marcus Williams (five years 70 million dollars), I would be all over that.
Final Verdict: Sign Jessie Bates to a long-term contract, so long as Devin McCourty retires.
Backup Option: Bring in a veteran bridge player, Jimmie Ward for example (highly versatile).
No. 3: Set the 2020 Draft Class up with New Deals
It has been a hot minute since the Patriots have been in a spot to give big second contracts to drafted players, but that should change here shortly. Josh Uche, Michael Onwenu, and Kyle Dugger are all eligible for some nice paydays the moment the new league year kicks in, and the Patriots would be wise to get those done sooner rather than later. I would rather not see them go in the direction of the Red Sox with Xander Bogaerts.
Onwenu I believe should be the easiest contract to sort out. Going off of some recent high-profile guard deals, the Michigan product could command anywhere between 14-17 million dollars annually, with a more notable range of guaranteed money percentage. Just several weeks ago, Packers left guard Elgton Jenkins signed a four-year 68 million dollar deal, with 24 million in guarantees, and the same sum in the form of a signing bonus. Jenkins is actually a great comp for Onwenu, since both are Pro Bowl caliber on the inside, and have the ability to kick outside if needed.
Dugger, ending a career season in year three where he received All-Pro votes, and finished as the No. 7 safety in football via PFF, is priority one of these three players. His blend of size, speed, power, knack for the football, and versatility was on full display in 2022, and the Patriots can't afford to let him walk. Based on the notable safety contracts from 2022, Dugger could realistically command anywhere between 10-19 million dollars. The good news (and the same thing applies to both Onwenu and Uche) is this wouldn't hurt the Patriots' cap situation this offseason, save for any money distribution shenanigans.
Uche is easily the most interesting case of the three players here. His third season was as good as it looked, but he didn't get the chance to show off what he can do in his first two seasons. This, however, opens up an interesting question. Would Uche be willing to take a contract before the season begins, say in the neighborhood of four years at 13 million dollars per? Or, bet on himself, have another double-digit sack season, and hit the open market?
If scenario two happens, the chances are he would get a massive payday. For example, Bud Dupree, after an 11.5 sack season in 2020, playing on a 15-million-dollar franchise tag, went to the Tennessee Titans on a five-year deal worth 16 million dollars annually. There is a real chance he is a cap casualty after year two, putting up seven sacks and 31 total pressures. My point is, teams have shown that they will overpay for pass rushers. It's a premium position and teams will try to get some by any means necessary. The Patriots would be wise to not waste any time with Uche.
Final Verdict: Sign all three of Josh Uche, Kyle Dugger, and Michael Onwenu prior to the start of the 2023 Regular Season.
No. 4: Soft Reset the Tight End Room
The Patriots' tight end production, save for Hunter Henry last year, has been nowhere close to the days of Rob Gronkowski. Despite dishing out over 25 million a year on Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, neither played much of a major role in the passing attack. With that in mind, I can envision Bill Belichick being willing to release/trade one of these two in the near future, just to give everyone involved a fresh start.
I was a big advocate for the Patriots' bringing in Jonnu Smith in 2021, and sure enough, he was the very first guy they signed on that first day of free agency. The thought process was that he would be someone that would get a handful of targets per game in and around the LOS, and could do some serious damage after the catch. Additionally, being a guy who could be used out of the backfield on occasion. In fairness, some of this has panned out, but not at the level that everyone would probably want. Here are the issues with cutting bait with Smith. Firstly, cutting him before June 1st would lose the Patriots' 1.5 million against the cap. Secondly, it's hard to envision the Patriots getting much, if at all, for Smith in a trade. With that said, I would air on the side of keeping him for at least one more season.
Looking at the raw numbers, Hunter Henry didn't drop off much from 2021, save for in the touchdown department, but on the eye test, it was clear that this was a down year for him. Would have probably helped the entire offense in the red zone if he was used more but I digress. Here's why I believe Henry is the more likely of the two to move, however. Regardless of if he goes via release or trade, the Patriots will gain 10.5 million dollars in cap space. If traded, I believe Henry could realistically land the Patriots a fourth-round pick, but a third at the absolute highest.
Now you may be wondering, what would be the endgame in doing this? There's an absolute freak of a tight end that just declared for the draft out of Georgia, who I think checks several boxes for the Patriots. Say hello to Darnell Washington.
6'7, 265 lbs, and will only be 22 years old when next season comes around. Washington is an absolute monster in the run and pass-blocking game, putting up some downright silly tape, especially considering he's in the SEC. I don't think it's hyperbole to say he's the best blocking tight end to enter the draft in 10 years, he's that good.
Washington also is a good receiver, although wasn't used much as you would think. Having Brock Bowers as your teammate does that. He's shown that he can be a YAC guy, a jump ball receiver, and a mismatch nightmare in the red zone, all of which the Patriots could use. Depending on how the Combine goes, he could sneak into the first round, but the consensus is that he is a round-two guy right now.
Final Verdict: Cut/Trade Hunter Henry and draft Darnell Washington in the second round of the draft.
Backup Option: Ride it out.
No. 5: Add Size to the Cornerback Room
The Patriots appear to have found a pair of high-quality corners in the form of Jack and Marcus Jones, but, both stand at 5'11 and under. Marcus specifically was picked on a bit going up against the 6'4 Tee Higgins several weeks back. Despite some good coverage on two deep shots down the sideline, you can't teach height. Along with the fact Jonathan Jones is slated for free agency, this might be a good time to address this issue.
Going the draft route is the Patriots' best option, as nothing jumps out enough on the free-agent market as it stands. As long as they have that 14th overall pick by draft weekend, they will have some blue-chip options that fit the bill. Kelee Ringo out of Georgia, who just erased first-round wideout Quinten Johnson in the National Championship game last week, is likely the top option. No guarantee he makes it to 14, but he has all the physical traits the Patriots are looking for.
Next would be Christian Gonzalez, who after spending three years at the University of Colorado, received First Team All-Pac-12 honors in his lone season at Oregon. He's been quite the popular name in draft circles as of late and seemingly finds himself as a mid-round one prospect at this juncture. One final note, Gonzalez had quite the revenge game against Colorado, coming away with two interceptions on the road in Boulder last November.
A couple of other options are first, second-generation talent Joey Porter Jr. out of Penn State. On top of being 6'2 (same as Gonzalez and Ringo), he has super long arms to match. In the limited film that I have seen, he also transitions well out of his breaks and has some good recovery ability. Some other draft-eligible corners (although not as tall in two of the three cases) that bear watching are Devon Witherspoon out of Illinois, Cam Smith from South Carolina, and Eli Ricks out of Alabama.
Final Verdict: Draft Kelee Ringo, Christian Gonzalez, or Joey Porter Jr in the first round.
Backup Option: Draft Devon Witherspoon, Cam Smith, or Eli Ricks in later rounds.
No. 6: Revamp the Kicking Game
It wasn't a disaster of a season for Nick Folk in 2022 as it relates to putting points on the board, but he missed four kicks between 40-49 yards out after missing none last season. But when he had to come in to handle kickoff duties in place of Jake Bailey, things went as badly as you could expect. Folk forced just three touchbacks on 35 kicks, and as a result, the Patriots allowed three kickoff return touchdowns, including two in the final game of the season in Buffalo.
Given that Folk has been great in New England as a whole in his four years here, I'd guess he may get some camp completion again, but as long as he doesn't retire, the kicking duty is his to lose. The punting situation on the other hand is a bit dicier. Bill Belichick seemed standoff-ish when asked about Bailey after the season finale, and it seems there are some bad feelings on both sides. For Bill Belichick, there is a punter going into the draft that checks some crucial boxes. 1.) He's from Rutgers. 2.) He was coached by a Belichick confidant (Greg Schiano). 3.) He's from Rutgers. Very important now.
The gentleman in question is the pride of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, Adam Korsak. Schiano flat-out called him "the best punter that I’ve ever been around in 35 years". His average net punt in 2022 was 44 yards on the dot, but Korsak also hit a 77-yard bomb at Minnesota. If Korsak was left-footed, he would be an absolute lock, but the Rutgers checkmark makes him as close to a sure thing as possible.
Final Verdict: Keep Nick Folk for Field Goals/XPs. Draft Adam Korsak for Punts/Kickoffs.
No. 7: Aquire a True Top Wide Reciever
Although this is the final thing listed, this might as well be the most important thing for the Patriots to do. Let's roll the clocks back to 2020. The Minnesota Vikings were close to dealing Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills but went to another team to see if they would match their standing offer. That team declined and Diggs was off to BillsMafia. The team that opted to stand pat was the New England Patriots. Three months later, the Vikings, selecting one pick before the Patriots in the draft, picked up Justin Jefferson, and the Patriots traded out of the first round just moments later. Two chances for the Patriots to get some real talent at wideout and for varying factors, they got neither. This year, they all but have to trade to get what they need. Entering year three with Mac Jones, Bill Belichick has no excuses to use to not give his quarterback a game-changing wideout.
DeAndre Hopkins has quickly become a popular candidate to move to New England and with good reason. After serving a six-game PED suspension, he averaged 95.6 yards a game on 8.1 per, with three touchdowns total in his first half dozen games. Hopkins cooled off after that hot start, but he can still be a top option on a majority of NFL teams. I'd mention Devante Adams as well, but in his own words, he wants to ride it out in Vegas. Back to Hopkins though, his contract carry cap hits north of 20 million these next two years and may bump down his trade price, so long as the Patriots don't ask the Cardinals to eat a significant amount of money.
Another option is Tee Higgins of the Cincinnati Bengals. He isn't slated to hit free agency until 2024, however, the Bengals' have a laundry list of key guys going into free agency at the same time, not to mention, Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase down the line as well. Not a guarantee the Bengals go down this road, but then again, the same thing could be said about A.J. Brown last year with the Tennessee Titans. Higgins had to become a WR1 with Chase going down earlier in the season, and in that four-game stretch, put up 370 yards, including two outings of 148 and 111 yards against the Steelers and Titans.
Higgins also put up some monster numbers in the postseason last, putting up 299 yards on just 17 catches, including 100 yards and two touchdowns in the Super Bowl on just four catches. Not everyone has the ability to show it off, but having the ability to show up when the chips are down is a trait I'm big on. The blend of size, speed, catch radius, and jump ball ability, isn't too shabby either.
He would cost significantly more than Hopkins in a trade based on past precedent, but the Patriots would absolutely be able to sign him to a long-term extension. If the price to get him is in the ballpark of what the Eagles gave up for Brown, that would be hard to pass up. Additionally, if the Bengals want a receiver back, that shouldn't be a deal breaker. Both receivers would be great adds, but how far is Bill Belichick willing to go?
Final Verdict: Aquire DeAndre Hopkins for a third-round pick and additional assets.
Backup Option: Aquire Tee Higgins for a first-round pick and additional assets.
Main Image via Getty Images/Winslow Townson