NFL News & Analysis

New England Patriots 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; The New England Patriots huddle against the Arizona Cardinals during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The New England Patriots are in unfamiliar territory. Not only do they lack stability at the quarterback position that Tom Brady provided for so many years, but they also have questions throughout their roster. Even if the Patriots are able to land an average to above-average quarterback this offseason, arguably the thinnest receiving corps in the NFL and few returning starters along the offensive and defensive lines make this an important offseason for the franchise.

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The Patriots have the cap space to add talent to their roster. It just comes down to whether they make the right moves and how aggressively they try to remain competitive in 2021.

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $62,778,756 (4th in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 15, 46, 111, 142, 171, 173, 207

Projected 2021 offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB ?
RB Damien Harris 2 / 70 $1.1 million
WR Jakobi Meyers 25 / 127 $0.9 million
WR ?
WR ?
TE ?
LT Isaiah Wynn 7 / 38 $3.6 million
LG ?
C ?
RG Shaq Mason 4 / 40 $9.6 million
RT Michael Onwenu 8 / 38 $0.8 million

As you can see, there are a lot of questions surrounding this group — none bigger than at the quarterback position. Following his one-year deal with the team, Cam Newton appears unlikely to return to the Patriots in 2021. As things stand right now, third-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham is the starter. Even if the Patriots want Stidham to compete for the starting job, they could look to add a veteran through free agency or target a quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

At wide receiver, Meyers is really the only piece New England should feel confident about in its long-term plans after a breakout year on an offense barren of talent last season. Julian Edelman will be 35 years old coming off a knee injury if he returns next season, but there has been some talk about potential retirement, a release or a reduced role for the 13-year veteran.

N’Keal Harry will be competing for another starting job, but the 2019 first-round pick has struggled in his first two years in the league. Harry earned just a 57.8 PFF grade on nearly 600 offensive snaps in 2020. 

At tight end, 2020 draft selections Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene will compete for snaps, but it’s a spot where New England could still look to add more firepower. 

The two offensive line question marks, meanwhile, come in the form of free agents Joe Thuney and David Andrews. If the Patriots succeed in bringing both of them back, they would maintain one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. Marcus Cannon should also return from his 2020 opt-out, which gives the Patriots the flexibility to move Onwenu to guard if they fail to retain Thuney. 

Is Jarrett Stidham a reasonable option for the Patriots in 2021?

If the Patriots are trying to remain competitive, the answer here is no. Stidham has earned a 36.2 PFF grade on his 100 regular season offensive snaps since New England took him in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. That’s coming off a less-than-impressive 65.7 overall grade in his final two seasons at Auburn. It’s unlikely that a player with his profile suddenly develops into a quality starting option in the NFL. 

Still, there is a reason to head into 2021 with Stidham as the starting quarterback. Whether they want to or not, the Patriots need to rebuild. This simply isn’t a roster loaded with ability, and a good portion of the team's high-level talent is aging. 

While quarterback is the most important position in football, New England isn’t well-suited to make a major upgrade this offseason. The 15th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft is more than likely going to leave Mac Jones as their best first-round option, and they’re not an overly desirable destination right now for Deshaun Watson or many free agent options. Barring a massive overhaul this offseason, the Patriots will once again have a below-average receiving corps next season. 

Rolling with Stidham in 2021, adding a few offensive pieces around him, potentially bottoming out and getting your quarterback to build around in the 2022 NFL Draft is a viable strategy for the Patriots this year. 

Could Jakobi Meyers‘ emergence spell the end of Julian Edelman’s tenure in New England?

Meyers was one of the few bright spots within the Patriots' offense during the 2020 season. The 2019 undrafted free agent built on his modest success with the squad as a rookie in 2019, finishing the year as a top-25 graded wide receiver and the Patriots’ most productive pass catcher. His 2020 receiving grade (80.1) marked the only season from any Patriots wide receiver or tight end with a 75.0-plus receiving grade over the past two years. 

Meyers has run over 60% of his routes from the slot since 2019, but he has been productive when lined up outside. In fact, Meyers averages 1.38 receiving yards per route run in the slot compared to 2.55 yards per route run on his 232 routes lined up out wide. It’s not a situation where he and Edelman’s skill sets have too much overlap to coexist. 

However, with Edelman at 35 years old, the Patriots don’t provide a great chance of competing for a Lombardi Trophy in 2021. The veteran could very well opt to retire, or the Patriots could release or trade their long-time wide receiver so he could compete for a championship elsewhere. That uncertainty is why I left him out of the projected starting lineup for next season even though he’s still under contract. 

Re-sign Joe Thuney, David Andrews or both?

New England's biggest free agent decision this offseason is deciding whether to bring back Thuney after he played the 2020 season on the franchise tag. There aren’t many pass-protecting guards in the league who are better than him, and he’s finished each of the past three seasons as a top-10 guard in the NFL, according to PFF WAR. That’s a tough player to part ways with.

However, we’ve seen in the past that the Patriots are willing to make tough decisions on talented veterans. Paying over $14 million per year on a long-term deal for Thuney could be a barrier that New England isn’t willing to cross, particularly with glaring needs at quarterback and receiver. And Marcus Cannon could return to play right tackle after opting out in 2020 while Onwenu moves over to left guard — where he played well in limited action as a rookie. 

If the Patriots do move on from Thuney, re-signing Andrews seems like a no-brainer. He bounced back well in 2020 from a missed 2019 season and graded above 70.0 on over 1,000 snaps in three straight years from 2016 to 2018. Keeping that continuity at the center position seems like the most realistic goal for the Patriots along the offensive line this offseason.

Potential targets at open spots

Quarterback: Marcus Mariota, Ryan Fitzpatrick

The Patriots could very well target a quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft, but it’s hard to expect them to get one of the elite talents at the top of the class. For that reason, I don’t think it makes a ton of sense for the Patriots to look for a rookie quarterback this offseason. 

New England’s offensive line does offer some security for a potential young quarterback, but the past two years have shown that even players like Tom Brady will find it difficult to have success with receivers who can’t consistently create separation. The low-risk tier of quarterback options, including Fitzpatrick and Mariota, is the group that makes the most sense for the Patriots to choose from next season until they improve that situation. 

Mariota has more upside as a long-term option after dealing with significant injuries that limited his career early on with the Tennessee Titans. I explored more in-depth recently why I believe a quarterback-needy team should give Mariota another chance as a starter this offseason. 

Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, is by no means a long-term solution. However, he has played the best football of his career these past few years in Tampa Bay (80.2 PFF grade) and Miami (78.6 PFF grade). At the very least, he would add some excitement with the way he plays the game.

Wide receiver: Jaylen Waddle, Curtis Samuel

The Patriots badly need some juice at wide receiver. There may be no wideout in this draft class who provides more of that than Waddle. He doesn’t simply bring straight-line speed. Waddle also brings bounce, twitch and strength at the catch point that doesn’t match his size. He’s a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball, which this Patriots offense has been missing in recent years. New England shouldn’t hesitate if he’s on the board at No. 15. 

In free agency, Samuel provides a similar type of big-play skill set. He’s coming off a career year with the Carolina Panthers this past season, racking up over 1,000 combined receiving and rushing yards and five touchdowns. Samuel is more of a complementary piece than the true No. 1 receiver the Patriots will eventually have to add, but he’s an intriguing option as a versatile runner/receiver with 4.31 speed. 

Tight End: Hunter Henry, Gerald Everett

Henry is the prize of free agency at the tight end position once again after playing on the franchise tag in 2020. He hasn’t quite been as dominant these past two years as he looked early in his NFL career, but he is still one of the better dual-threat (blocking and receiving) tight ends in the league. He was the sixth-most valuable tight end in the league in 2020, per PFF WAR

Everett would be a cheaper option with upside for New England. He brings athleticism and after-the-catch ability to the table and could give a real boost to the Patriots' offense in more of a featured role than what he saw with the Los Angeles Rams. He earned 76.0-plus PFF grades in 2018 and 2019 before a down year this past season.  

Guard: Joe Thuney, Deonte Brown

If the Patriots decide to cut ties with Thuney — as we’ve seen them do with other talented veterans in the past — Brown would be a different type of guard to add to the rotation. Listed at 350 pounds, he is certainly more in line with the maulers like Mason and Onwenu that the Patriots have added rather than a primary pass protector like Thuney. The guy can move bodies in the run game, and that would play in New England’s gap-heavy scheme. 

Center: David Andrews, Creed Humphrey

The best outcome for the Patriots is if Andrews returns at the center position. He won’t be quite as expensive as Thuney on the market, which increases the likelihood that he’s back for at least another year in 2021. 

If New England isn’t looking to re-sign Andrews, then it’s tough to see the team go after a more expensive free agent target at the position. The draft may be where they look for his replacement. Humphrey can play anywhere along the interior and could feature early after nearly 2,500 career snaps at Oklahoma. He earned 80.0-plus PFF grades in two of his three years as a starter for the Sooners. 

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
EDGE Chase Winovich 33 / 109 $1.1 million
DI ?
DI Byron Cowart 100 / 126 $0.9 million
DI ?
EDGE/LB Josh Uche N/A $1.2 million
LB Dont’a Hightower N/A $12.4 million
CB Stephon Gilmore 61 / 121 $16.3 million
CB ?
CB Jonathan Jones 5 / 121 $7.4 million
S Kyle Dugger 49 / 94 $1.9 million
S Adrian Phillips 38 / 94 $4.3 million
S Devin McCourty 45 / 94 $11.2 million

Few teams run more dime coverage than the Patriots, which is why I opted to include just one linebacker and six defensive backs. That lines up with the strength of this defense still being the secondary. 

Jason McCourty will be a free agent this offseason, but even if New England doesn’t bring him back, Gilmore, Jones and J.C. Jackson is still a very good starting trio at cornerback. There is little chance the Patriots don’t retain Jackson, who is a restricted free agent this offseason. The depth continues at safety, where Patrick Chung’s return adds competition to a group that already boasts McCourty, Phillips and Dugger. 

At linebacker, Ja’Whaun Bentley carried the load in Hightower’s absence, but the Patriots will be welcoming Hightower back with open arms should he return in 2021. They missed him on that side of the ball last year. 

The front seven as a whole is where this New England defense is weakest. 2020 contributors Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise Jr., Adam Butler, John Simon and Shilique Calhoun are all scheduled to be free agents this offseason. We could see former Michigan teammates Chase Winovich and Uche take the majority of snaps on the edge for the Patriots next season if no big moves are made.   

Should the Patriots look to trade their older players in the secondary, such as Stephon Gilmore, while they still have value?

A team like the Cincinnati Bengals shows the danger of holding onto aging veterans into a rebuild. At one point, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap all had a good amount of value to prospective suitors had Cincinnati made them available. Instead, the team held on and will get little to nothing in return following several seasons with few wins to speak of. 

Bill Belichick gives the Patriots a chance to compete even with a talent deficiency, but similarities can still be drawn between the two situations. New England enters next season with 50-1 Super Bowl odds — on the same level as the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles. They’re going to have a difficult time making the postseason let alone advancing. From a team-building perspective, it makes sense to shop Gilmore and Devin McCourty, among others, while they still hold some value. 

Gilmore is coming off easily his worst season with the Patriots in 2020. His 58.5 coverage grade was nearly 30 points lower than any of his first three seasons with the team, and he recorded just three combined pass breakups and interceptions after tallying 19 and 20, respectively, in the two prior seasons. 

Get value for one of the best cornerbacks in the league while you still can and look to reload at the position with younger players that fit your timeline.

How do the 2020 opt-outs fit back into the 2021 version of New England’s defense?

Dont’a Hightower has been the heart in the middle of the Patriots' defense for years. The drop from first in expected points allowed per play in 2019 to 26th in the same metric this past season can’t be attributed solely to his absence, but him not being on the field did factor in. Hightower has picked up PFF grades of at least 63.0 in seven of his eight seasons with the team and gives New England a physical presence when lined up at off-ball and along the edge — both areas of need heading into 2021. 

Likewise, Patrick Chung has been a key piece on the Patriots' defense for years. His 10 seasons of experience with the team alone bring value when it comes to aiding more recent additions, such as Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger. As far as his fit on the team, his role in the box overlaps with what Phillips and Dugger offer — leading to an interesting decision on how to deploy those players should all three end up on the roster to start the year. 

As we’ve seen the past few years, there’s no such thing as too much depth in the secondary. 

Can Josh Uche earn a larger role with the team next season?

Uche didn’t have an easy rookie season, as injuries kept him off the field early on, but he really started to pick things up down the stretch for the Patriots. On just 179 defensive snaps on the year, Uche earned a 77.6 PFF grade while dominating as a pass rusher. 

I have to include the small sample size disclaimer here, but Uche’s 19.6% pass-rush win rate was the highest mark by any rookie edge defender with at least 50 pass-rushing snaps since Joey Bosa in 2016 (20.2%). That absurd success on limited opportunities is similar to what Uche displayed at Michigan. 

The question now becomes whether he can sustain it in a larger role next season. He has some off-ball versatility, and that ability to fill multiple areas of need for New England should help his case for playing time. It will be interesting to see how Uche's play responds to an increased workload if he does get that opportunity.  

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defensive lineman: Kawann Short, Christian Barmore 

I’ll kick things off here by saying you should expect the Patriots to bring back some of their free agents along the defensive line. That said, they could still add a few more high-profile pieces to that group this offseason.

PFF’s Austin Gayle mocked Barmore to the Patriots at 15th overall in his most recent mock draft, and it’s a pick for New England that is growing on me if none of the top three wide receivers are left on the board. The high-quality interior defender options out there in both the draft and free agency are scarce.

Barmore sits at 14th on PFF’s Big Board, and the next interior defender is N.C. State’s Alim McNeil at 47th. Barmore’s performances against Notre Dame and Ohio State in the 2020 College Football Playoff highlight why you take a chance on him this early. 

Short is one of the more interesting veteran options available following his recent release from the Carolina Panthers. He was consistently dominant before injuries limited him to just under 200 combined snaps over the past two seasons. PFF named him the 27th best player in the league entering that 2019 season following four straight years with PFF grades north of 83.0. Even at 32 years old, he should still provide a reliable presence against the run with the ability to disrupt the passing game, as well. 

Cornerback: J.C. Jackson, Jaycee Horn, Gareon Conley 

As I touched on a bit earlier, there is no reason to think Jackson is going anywhere as a restricted free agent. He has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league at keeping opposing wide receivers from getting over the top, and he’s a ballhawk with 17 interceptions across his first three years in the league.  

If the Patriots choose to spend an early pick on the cornerback position, Horn is the type of physical, press-man cornerback that New England should covet. He has a tendency to get a little bit too physical at times, but he was utterly dominant across seven games at South Carolina in 2020. Horn allowed just eight receptions in those seven outings with seven combined pass breakups and interceptions — all in one game in a matchup against Auburn’s Seth Williams. 

Conley is a low-risk flier for New England who could add needed depth if they opt to shop a player like Stephon Gilmore. Conley missed the 2020 season with an ankle injury, but there is still reason to believe in the former first-round pick’s talent within the Patriots' man-heavy defense. He came away from the 2019 season with a respectable 68.0 coverage grade for the Houston Texans after a midseason trade. 

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