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Patriots Mailbag: Should the Patriots Actually Focus on Defense in Free Agency?

With free agency fast approaching, could the pool of defensive players be more enticing for the Patriots than addressing needs on offense?

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The Patriots are heading into an offseason where everyone is understandably clamoring for upgrades on offense.

After finishing tied for last in scoring offense in 2023, New England should undergo a significant overhaul on the offensive side of the ball, starting with the quarterback position and trickling down to the supporting cast.

With the unofficial start to free agency at the NFL Scouting Combine next week in Indianapolis, we'll get a gauge for which marquee names will hit the open market. Teams can start placing the franchise tag on players today, Feb. 20, with the deadline to tag players on March 5th. Plus, there are often discussions in Indy where teams and agents get an idea of a player's value in the marketplace.

Things can change rapidly until the 2024 league year begins with the legal tampering period on March 11. However, the pool of free agents is expected to be more robust on the defensive side of the ball. Despite needing to invest heavily in offense, the best course for the Patriots may be to reinforce a strength by continuing to stack talent on defense.

New England ranked ninth in DVOA on defense last season. With new head coach Jerod Mayo being a defensive-minded coach, it's worth noting that 15 of Pro Football Focus's top 20 pending free agents are defensive players. In particular, edge rusher and defensive line are deep.

Offensively, the only clear upgrades on the open market are Bucs receiver Mike Evans, Jags wideout Calvin Ridley, and possibly Texans tight end Dalton Schultz. Based on current reports, Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman Jr. are expected to be tagged. At quarterback, Tampa Bay is making a significant push to retain Baker Mayfield, leaving a 35-year-old Kirk Cousins coming off a torn Achilles as the only starting-caliber free-agent quarterback, who will likely seek a contract worth $35 million per year.

Along the offensive line, the tackle market leaves a lot to be desired. One of the Pats own guys, Mike Onwenu, who might be a long-term starter at guard, is the best available lineman. Then, you have 33-year-old Tyron Smith or injury-prone dart throws like Jonah Williams and Mekhi Becton — it's not a good free-agent group at OT, especially compared to the draft class.

We'd all love to see the Patriots rebuild their offense in free agency, and there are certainly players who could help point the ship in the right direction. However, the Pats ought to learn from their 2021 spending spree and chase top-tier talent, which is mostly on defense.

In 2021, the Patriots paid market price for veteran skill talent, leaving them with a two-year core of Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor, Hunter Henry, and Jonnu Smith. The group wasn't awful in the 2021 season, but we can all agree it wasn't good enough. Sure, the Pats could've added more wisely to their veteran core. But that level of skill players is usually available in free agency, not the game-changing talent.

Besides staying active in the trade market, where blue-chip receiver talent could be available, the Patriots should follow the talent in free agency. Although it's all about offense right now in New England, that might mean making their bigger splashes on defense. The Pats can turn their attention entirely to the offense in April's draft with the defense set.

Let's empty the Patriots Unfiltered mailbag with the offseason ramping up at the combine next week:

Q: Which wide receiver would you pay in the free-agent market and why? - Luc G

Assuming the Bengals and Colts maintain team control over Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman, Calvin Ridley would be my top free-agent target for the Patriots. Ridley's game has always been intriguing as a highly efficient route runner who can create explosive plays before and after the catch. Ridley has good alignment flexibility to play the X or the Z spots, is a top-tier route runner with his initial burst and separation quickness, and has averaged 1,195 yards in his last two full seasons. Ridley would give OC Alex Van Pelt another Amari Cooper, with Cooper coming off back-to-back productive seasons in Cleveland under Van Pelt. You can't go wrong with future Hall of Famer Mike Evans, but Ridley is over a year younger and likely cheaper.

Q: Is there any scenario where you could see the Patriots rolling with Mac Jones next season? - @PatsSavage

No, I don't see a scenario where Jones is brought back as the presumptive starter, and I'm surprised that's gaining traction amongst Pats fans. Besides the obvious struggles that Mac's had on the field, HC Jerod Mayo needs to set the right tone with the rest of the team. What does it say to the other 52 players in the locker room if the Pats ride with Mac again? It was pretty clear that the locker room lost faith in Jones last season, and it's hard to envision Mac inspiring much confidence in his teammates again. Both sides need a fresh start.

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1).
Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1).

Q: Where do you currently stand on the Patriots potentially trading for Justin Fields? - Keroack B

In my tri-weekly reset of my stance on acquiring Fields, I was a big believer in Fields's talent in the 2021 NFL Draft as many QB2 in that class (behind Trevor Lawrence). With the right offensive system and supporting cast, Fields has the playmaking traits to be a winning quarterback (mobility, arm talent) despite his limitations as an in-structure passer.

However, the fact that the Patriots would need to part with valuable draft capital to trade for Fields makes acquiring him less enticing. If he was a free agent, I'd take Fields in a similar move to the Bucs signing Baker Mayfield last offseason. But giving up picks for Fields that would take New England out of drafting a quarterback in the top 100 is not my preferred path. In a world where it was Fields plus a day-two rookie, like Michael Penix or Bo Nix, sure. Unfortunately, the asking price for Fields will likely be so high that he's your guy. I'm not putting all my eggs in the Justin Fields basket.

Q: Have you covered which quarterbacks are the best fits for the Bears and Commanders in the draft? It could determine who is available for the Pats at No. 3. - Bob M

Great question. For Chicago, new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron's offensive system comes from the McVay tree with less condensed formations and more spread concepts in Seattle. Personally, I think Caleb Williams is too good for the Bears to pass up, and although I'd rather see Caleb in a Reid/Philly-inspired system, his talent should hold up in any scheme.

As for Washington, the fit between Drake Maye or Jayden Daniels in Kliff Kingsbury's offense is a great debate. It's worth noting that Maye has played in an air raid system at North Carolina. But he'd be better suited in a system with more under-center concepts than a traditional Kingsbury scheme. Maye has a big arm and can throw on the run, so putting him in a more traditional pro-style offense with play-action and moving pockets would allow him to unlock his vertical passing ability while simplifying his footwork and reads.

Based on what Kingsbury did in college and with the Cardinals, Daniels's dual-threat ability to scramble out of trouble and throw the deep ball from spread formations seems like an ideal fit. Maye is a better off-script creator as a passer. But Daniels's timing in the drop-back pass-game and ability to impact the game with his mobility on designed runs and scrambles would allow Kingsbury to use his entire playbook. The only hesitation with Daniels is that Kingsbury might not want to go down the same road as he did with Kyler Murray, who was similarly reliant on his mobility being a game-changing factor.

Still, Daniels would be my pick in Washington, leaving the Patriots with Maye, assuming they're also going quarterback at No. 3. My guess is the Pats and OC Alex Van Pelt would be ecstatic with Maye.

Q: How did the Patriots lose Steve Belichick to a college team (University of Washington)? Was he offered a position on Jerod Mayo's staff? - Shane O

There's reporting out there that indicates the Patriots offered Steve Belichick a position on Mayo's staff, with ESPN's Mike Reiss floating the possibility of an assistant head coach title at one point. I believe there was an offer on the table for Belichick to return to the coaching staff, but similarly to Bill O'Brien, there was a sense that Mayo should hire his own staff. Plus, DeMarcus Covington was ready to be the defensive coordinator, and having Steve in the building would've set up a potentially awkward situation where the former play-caller was looking over Covington's shoulder. Belichick and Mayo were close during their time in New England, with Mayo being more the front-facing spokesperson while Steve was the play-calling maestro. For better or worse, the split seemed to be a decision for each to forge their own path.

Ohio State receiver Marvin Harrison Jr.
Ohio State receiver Marvin Harrison Jr.

Q: Although Marvin Harrison would be a good choice for any team, why would he be chosen before any of the top three quarterbacks in this year's draft? - Dave B

Besides his undeniable blue-chip talent, the argument for Harrison Jr. is taking a long-term approach to a rebuild by stacking talent on the roster. Rather than looking for the instant fix by hitting on the quarterback, the Patriots could view their situation as a multi-year rebuild. In that case, the best thing to do would be to take the best player available to improve their overall roster talent. Eventually, when the roster is in better shape, you drop the quarterback in with a supporting cast prepared to hit the ground running with a young QB.

The flaw in that logic is that you only have so many opportunities to pick this high in the draft, and there's no guarantee the quarterback class will be as strong in the future. It's really simple: if the Patriots are sold on one of these quarterbacks, you have to take him, but otherwise, slow-playing the rebuild by taking Harrison Jr. is also a viable plan. It will just take patience from the top brass in the organization and the fanbase.

Q: What are the chances the Pats try to get Derrick Henry in free agency as a No. 2 running back to Rhamondre Stevenson? - Tony E

Normally, I'd be a hard pass on paying a veteran running back any significant guaranteed money or committing multiple years to a running back in free agency. History tells us that investing in aging running backs who had hefty workloads throughout their careers is unwise, especially when you can get similar value at various points in the draft.

With that said, Henry is among a group of free-agent running backs that's impressive: Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard, and Austin Ekeler are also pending free agents. Based on the markets for Ezekiel Elliott and Dalvin Cook last offseason, and Barkley and Jacobs, two premier backs, struggling to sign long-term deals in their current homes, you wonder if the position is becoming undervalued. If that's the case, it could be a zig while everyone is zagging type move for the Patriots, who will be run-heavy under Van Pelt. With several top backs available, it could saturate the market, and a potential 1,000-yard back could be a bargain. If that's the case, I'd entertain pairing another star running back with Rhamondre. My preference would be either Ekeler or Pollard, who could be a lightning to Rhamondre's thunder.

Q: What is the plan at tight end? We need someone who can develop into a long-term starter. - Spencer

Along with running back, tight end is the other offensive position where the Patriots could find value in free agency. It would benefit the Pats to have a proven commodity in the room before the draft since 1. Rookie tight ends don't typically produce in high-volume roles immediately, and 2. This tight end class lacks day-one impact starters besides Brock Bowers (Georgia, top 20) and Ja'Tavion Sanders (Texas, top 40).

It's worth exploring a short-term contract to retain Hunter Henry, an above-average starter and now a team captain in New England. But there are also younger options in Dalton Schultz and Noah Fant, while Gerald Evertt's ability to create yards after the catch in a heavy play-action scheme would be a good fit in AVP's offense. Schultz's skill set and production are similar to Henry's; he's just younger. Everett and Fant bring more big-play ability to the offense – all three would be good fits.

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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