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Free Agent Forecast: WR, TE

The new NFL year begins Wednesday, March 14, and with it, the advent of 2018’s free agent marketplace. Leading up to that first day, we’ll examine the landscape from a Patriots perspective, continuing with a grouping of potentially important positions for New England: wide receivers and tight ends.

PATRIOTS FREE AGENTS

Wide Receivers: Danny Amendola

Tight Ends: Martellus Bennett (released)

OTHER NOTABLE NFL FREE AGENTS

Wide Receivers: Eric Decker (Tennessee Titans), Jarvis Landry (Miami Dolphins, franchise tag designee), Terrelle Pryor (Washington Redskins), Allen Robinson (Jacksonville Jaguars), Sammy Watkins (LA Rams)

Tight Ends: Tyler Eifert (Cincinnati Bengals), Antonio Gates (LA Chargers), Jimmy Graham (Seattle Seahawks), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (NY Jets)

POSSIBLE PATRIOTS

Wide Receivers: Robinson, Pryor, Watkins, Michael Campanaro (Baltimore Ravens), Taylor Gabriel (Atlanta)

Tight Ends: Graham, Seferian-Jenkins, Ed Dickson (Carolina Panthers)

ANALYSIS

Obviously, the biggest story involves a player already under contract with the Patriots. A resolution – one way or the other – to the uncertainty surrounding Rob Gronkowski will be crucial to determining how New England addresses its tight end roster this offseason.

Assuming a best-case scenario (i.e., he doesn’t retire prematurely), New England needs to beef up Gronk’s backups, or potentially add another 1B complementary player like Martellus Bennett, who was released this week. In that scenario, Graham might seem like a logical target, but Seferian-Jenkins is potentially a more reliable pass catcher at this stage of their careers. Dickson and Virgil Green (Denver Broncos) are considerations for this role as well.

The Patriots might also be interested in a younger, versatile player in the mold of Trey Burton (Philadelphia Eagles) or Luke Willson (Seattle Seahawks), who might not be starting caliber, but would help fill a need for quality depth. Other names include Lee Smith (Oakland Raiders), a long-ago Patriots draft choice whom the team probably wanted to keep back then, but lost as a rookie in a procedural cut-down at the end of training camp; Troy Niklas (Arizona Cardinals) and Richard Rodgers (Green Bay) can’t be discounted, either.

Eifert might be the best tight end talent available this offseason, but he, like Gronk has before, is dealing with a back surgery recovery at the moment. However, if Gronkowski does the unthinkable and leaves football, Eifert might become a priority for New England.

Meanwhile, at wide receiver, the Patriots are fairly stacked, yet Amendola could determine how active the Patriots are in the free agent market at his position.

If Amendola re-signs, he’ll be paired with Julian Edelman (returning from a season-ending knee injury), Brandin Cooks, and Phillip Dorsett for that smaller, quicker receiver spot along with 2017 rookie practice squad player Riley McCarron. New England also has Chris Hogan and Kenny Britt, two taller receivers with talent, as well as practice squad alum Cody Hollister.

Regardless of whether Amendola stays or goes, the Patriots might want to explore younger options at the slot spot. Gabriel (5-8, 165) has NFL starting experience and could be a consideration. As the Patriots often tend to target unheralded players, Campanaro (5-9, 190) could be of interest, as he also possesses punt return abilities.

Having signed Miami’s franchise tag, speculation is that he is angling for a trade, although the Dolphins dealing with division foe New England might be unlikely. However, bigger-bodied, big-play receivers are also plentiful this offseason, should the Patriots so desire to pursue one or more. Robinson (6-3, 210) of Jacksonville is intriguing. He has put up big numbers in the league, but is coming off a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 of last year. Perhaps his teammate, Marqise Lee, might be more affordable.

Watkins (6-1, 210), meantime, is well-known to the Patriots from his years in Buffalo and thus could warrant interest. Another name that has cropped up on New England’s radar in the past is Pryor (6-4, 230). The Patriots came close to signing him a few years back. Perhaps the second time around might be right for both parties.

It’s not uncommon for the Patriots to target restricted free agents, and a couple might be possibilities this year: Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead of New Orleans, whom New England has seen close-up in recent joint training camp sessions, and Tyrell Williams of the Chargers are names to keep in mind.

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