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Patriots Mailbag: Assessing the Opening Week of Free Agency, Wide Receiver Options, and More

With free-agent Calvin Ridley signing with the Titans, what are the Patriots other options at wide receiver? 

mailbag-eliot-wolf

The Patriots methodical approach to the first week of free agency presents an interesting question to fans: How patient are you?

Following their free-agent spending spree in the 2021 offseason, Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft expressed his skepticism about building a competitive roster through free agency. The Pats were in a unique position that offseason due to a salary cap crunch following the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving New England as one of a few teams with cap space.

With an advantage in the open market, the Patriots had a record-breaking free agency that expedited their rebuild once they selected former first-round quarterback Mac Jones. However, as Kraft and others in the organization were weary of, the success was short-lived.

"In the end, if you want to have a good, consistent, winning football team, you can't do it in free agency. You have to do it through the draft," Kraft told reporters in March 2021.

Fast forward to the present day, where the Patriots most notable moves are retaining their core players. New England isn't repeating its unprecedented approach from three years ago despite entering free agency with over $100 million in cap space. Instead, the Pats have retained OL Mike Onwenu, TE Hunter Henry, and WR Kendrick Bourne, among others, while bolstering their depth with mid-level veteran signings as they try to rebuild a 4-13 team.

For de facto general manager Eliot Wolf, the conservative approach in free agency is expected given his mentors in the business, mainly Hall of Fame father Ron Wolf. The Packer Way has always been to draft, develop, and build from within. Green Bay hasn't typically been a big spender in free agency, opting for a similar approach as the Patriots are taking now. The roster-building strategy worked for Wolf, Ted Thompson, and current Packers GM Brian Gutekunst.

Still, the lack of urgency to improve the roster is frustrating. Although the Patriots found out the hard way that winning free agency doesn't guarantee sustained success, that still shouldn't preclude them from adding difference-makers on the open market. There should be a middle ground where the Patriots target one or two high-impact free agents but don't fall for instant gratification by overpaying players.

Let's not forget that Ron Wolf's Packers made the first major free-agent signing. In the 1993 offseason, the first year of true free agency in league history, the Packers signed Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White to a four-year, $17 million contract. White spent six seasons in Green Bay, winning Super Bowl XXXI vs. the Patriots. Wolf also added quarterback Brett Favre via trade a year earlier, so it wasn't all draft and develop for the Packers.

Based on their actions, it seems the Patriots went into free agency with a small handful of premier free agents they were willing to extend for financially. One was their own, Mike Onwenu, who is returning on a three-year deal. The other was free-agent WR Calvin Ridley. The Pats lost out on Ridley to the Titans, but the point remains that the spending would be calculated.

Ultimately, it's important to remember that the offseason is far from over after only three days have passed when teams can agree to terms with external free agents. There's still talent on the open market and trade possibilities to upgrade the roster before we get to the draft.

However, bringing it back to our original question, how patient is Patriots nation if they continue a deliberate approach? As frustrating as it is that New England isn't spending big on external free agents, the evidence heavily favors teams who build the roster through the draft and calculated spending – buckle up. It could be a long ride.

Without further ado, let's empty the Patriots mailbag during the opening week of free agency:

Q: Are you happy/sad they did/didn't sign Calvin Ridley? - Mike Dussault

Thanks for the question, Mike. I'm sad they didn't sign Ridley, but I also understand. Most fans don't want to hear it, but the contract the Titans signed Ridley to is a massive overpay. The Pats would've needed to top it and then some with the differences in state taxes, cost of living, etc. It can sting that they didn't get the player while also acknowledging it would've been risky business for the Patriots to compete with Tennesee's offer.

My guess is the goal was to go into the draft with a solid WR2-4 on the depth chart, with Ridley serving as a No. 1 receiver for the time being. Then, you draft receivers, hoping a younger playmaker eventually develops into a star pass-catcher. With so much depth and talent this year, there's a good chance this cycle produces a true No. 1 on day two of the draft. Unfortunately, that plan is now foiled slightly. The Patriots will need to find another path to adding a veteran receiver with WR1 upside.

Q: I saw that the Chargers might offload or need serious renegotiation on contracts for Keenan Allen, Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, and Mike Williams. Could these be targets for us? - Rob

For those that aren't aware, a salary cap crunch in Los Angeles forced the Chargers to release wide receiver Mike Williams on Wednesday, and LA could still look to move other veterans to create more flexibility. Although he's coming off a torn ACL, I'd be a yes on Williams for the Patriots. While doing mock drafts recently, finding true "X" receivers on day two of the draft is challenging. It's Keon Coleman, Tez Walker, and Brended Rice. From a stylistic standpoint, I'd prefer the Z-slot options like Ladd McConkey, Roman Wilson, Xavier Legette, Ricky Pearsall, and the other Washington WRs for the Pats (Polk and McMillan).

However, to draft from that list, the Patriots would lack a true "X" who can handle large exposures to press-man on isolation routes. Williams might feel like DeVante Parker 2.0 for some as a big-bodied X who doesn't separate. But he's better than Parker and shouldn't break the bank coming off an ACL. If the Pats aren't serious about pursuing Tee Higgins, I'd sign Williams and pair him with one of those explosive off-the-line receivers.

Q: What veteran wide receiver do the Patriots turn their attention to in the trade market? - Chris W

This was the number one question in this week's mailbag. The Patriots are aggressively pursuing upgrades at wide receiver and will continue shopping for high-end receiver talent after losing out on Ridley. However, that might mean waiting until the draft. I'd be stunned if they don't use a premium asset on a receiver this offseason. With that said, let's go over some of their other options:

- 49ers wideout Brandon Aiyuk is a pipe dream from this perspective. San Francisco should be looking to lock up Aiyuk long term. He has developed into their best outside receiver and, for my money, their second-best playmaker behind Christian McCaffrey. Aiyuk has surpassed Deebo Samuel and George Kittle at this stage and is only 25. Why are the 49ers trading him? I doubt they will.

- Bengals WR Tee Higgins is the most obvious big splash the Patriots could make. The Bengals keep kicking the can down the road with Higgins, opting to place the franchise tag on him. It's clear Cincy is wary of extending Higgins due to a large bill coming due for Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase. Eventually, they'll need to get something for Higgins in a trade or lose him for nothing in 2025. I'm guessing the Patriots could pry Higgins out of Cincinnati with the right offer, which would start with the 34th overall pick. Maybe the 34th pick and a 2025 second or third?

- Chargers WR Keenan Allen could be available via trade. Allen wouldn't be my first choice because of his age (31) and a history of nagging injuries. Allen is still playing at a high level, but for how much longer? I'm not a hard no on Allen because he would qualify as a bridge WR1 with younger players coming in, but it's not my first choice.

- After trading Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton might be off the market. If not, Sutton is only 28 years old and fits the same mold we described with Williams (big-bodied X). I'd call the Broncos and see if they're still interested in dealing with Sutton, who was available along with Jeudy.

- This falls into the pipe dream category, but I'd at least call the Eagles on DeVonta Smith. Smith will be a free agent in 2025, so he needs an extension. With an extremely high payroll in Philly, could Smith be available? Probably not, but it's worth a call.

Q: Is there a wide receiver you want the Patriots to sign in free agency?

Although sitting out free agency with an eye toward trades and the draft would be the preferred approach, the Patriots could pivot to Marquise Brown along with Williams. Brown has had some injuries lately and is a rare 5-9, 180-pound receiver who primarily plays on the outside. However, the per-game production was there when he and Kyler Murray were healthy in Arizona, and the Pats don't have a proven deep threat. I'm wary of Brown because of the redundancies to Pop Douglas and declining product. Could his smaller frame be deteriorating?

The other name being floated is Bengals wideout Tyler Boyd. Boyd has been an efficient slot receiver over the years in Cincy but is the same age as Ridley (29). The difference between the two players is speed and production. Boyd is more technician than burner, similar to Jakobi Meyers, while his targets have declined with Chase and Higgins emerging. Boyd would seem redundant to Kendrick Bourne, though, which is why my preference is to give those reps to a rookie.

Q: With the lack of receiving talent available, why is there not more focus on drafting Marvin Harrison Jr.? - Willie the Kid

I totally understand the appeal for fans with Harrison. We've been clamoring for a wide receiver with his talent level for years, and there's a strong case to be made he'll be the best overall player on the board. However, MHJ at this juncture makes no sense. You don't start a rebuild with a wide receiver, and that's not me saying that. It goes back to Bill Walsh's theory that the receiver should be the last piece to the puzzle.

Rebuilding a football team is like building a house. Would you start building a house with state-of-the-art appliances and fancy granite countertops? No, of course not. That's doing it backward. You start by laying a solid foundation and build up from there. That's scheme, quarterback, and offensive line in football. We all want shiny new toys, but where will you put that granite countertop if you don't build the house first? On a pile of dirt? Didn't think so.

North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye.
North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye.

Q: Convince me why Drake Maye is the guy because I'm not seeing it so far. - Ethan J

Everyone probably knows my preference is Drake Maye for the Patriots in the first round. I'll have a more detailed analysis shortly on all these quarterbacks, but here's a quick sales pitch on Maye: Over the last two seasons, Maye led all college football with 79 big-time throws, which are those franchise QB-level plays. In that same timeframe, Maye has a very good turnover-worthy play rate of 2.2%. In short, you have a combination of a high-level playmaker on and off-script with a quarterback who doesn't turn the ball over. That's a solid foundation to build on moving forward, with Maye hopefully cleaning up the details mechanically in the pros.

Q: What are your thoughts on the Patriots trading the No. 3 pick to the Giants for No. 6, No. 47, and a 2025 first-round pick? - Melvin B

According to the MMQB's Albert Breer, the Giants have called teams about trading up in the draft presumably for a quarterback. The bottom line for the Patriots is it depends on how much they like the quarterback class. If they love Daniels or Maye, they should be the pick. If they don't, they should absolutely trade down to a QB-needy team. After the Falcons signed Kirk Cousins, the Giants (No. 6), Vikings (No. 11), Broncos (No. 12), and Raiders (No. 13) are the most likely trade partners.

The trade with the Giants is the one I'd entertain as New England. It still allows you to stay in range for a blue-chipper like Joe Alt, Olu Fashanu, Malik Nabers, or Rome Odunze while adding the extra picks. Again, I'd stick at three for the QB. But if the Pats aren't sold on these quarterbacks, that's the best trade down scenario. I hate losing out on a blue-chip prospect by trading out of the top 10 – this team needs elite talent.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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