The Patriots are heading into an offseason that already projects to have significant changes to their coaching staff, per a team release about an offensive coordinator search last week.
Although a fresh perspective is needed offensively from a coaching standpoint, the nature of the NFL's roster-building process is that New England will also have significant personnel turnover. In most cases, that'll be a step forward for a team still deficient in certain key areas.
Due to successful drafting and adding reliable veterans in free agency two offseasons ago, the Pats are in a much better place from a roster talent perspective. However, the Patriots are still missing blue-chippers at premium positions, which needs to be the focus this cycle.
After holes were created by trading longtime starter Shaq Mason and losing steady Ted Karras in free agency, the Patriots used their premium asset in the 2022 offseason, their first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, on left guard Cole Strange. Strange had an up-and-down rookie campaign but was rounding into form down the stretch and has the makings of a starting guard.
New England filled a need in their starting lineup and signs point toward Strange being a solid player. However, his impact was lessened because he's an interior offensive lineman. That's not on Strange. It's just not a needle-moving pick or position. The Patriots must remain focused on targeting players at impactful positions that are also their biggest areas of need.
As is the case every year, the Pats have their own free agents to address, with wide receiver Jakobi Meyers and cornerback Jonathan Jones at the top of the list. Still, this offseason needs to be about adding premium talent at premium positions. According to cap wizard Miguel Benzan, the Patriots have at least $36.5 million in cap space with plenty of avenues to create more wiggle room. This should be another aggressive offseason in New England, maybe not a repeat of the 2021 spending spree, but aggressive.
Here are their biggest areas of need heading into the offseason:
1. Offensive Tackle
There are two reasons why attacking offensive tackle with high-end assets is an absolute must. New England had arguably the worst tackle play in the league this past season with a stationary pocket passer who doesn't have elite escapability.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Pats OTs had a blown block rate on all plays this season of 3.4 percent, which was the tenth-highest in the NFL. Plus, the position group was called for 27 penalties, with starting left tackle Trent Brown's 13 flags ranking tied for second-most among all OLs. With Cannon and Wynn on injured reserve, due in part to injury but also because of poor performance, the Pats had to sign McDermott off the Jets practice squad in late November, and the journeyman right tackle ended up starting the last six games. From the jump when the Pats flipped Brown (RT to LT) and Wynn (LT to RT) in camp, offensive tackle was a weak point of the team that hurt their offense as much as anything.
The Patriots could be heading for a complete overhaul at offensive tackle. Although Brown had streaks of serviceable play and is under contract next season, the Pats left tackle earned all his playing-time incentives this past season, making his 2023 cap number $12.25 million. Releasing him would create $11 million in cap space, while the revolving door at right tackle are all free agents (Cannon, McDermott, Wynn).
Looking at potential offseason targets in the early going, the free agency class has two intriguing options at the top in Chiefs LT Orlando Brown and 49ers RT Mike McGlinchey. We'll also discuss first-round prospects Paris Johnson (Ohio State), Peter Skoronski (Northwestern), and Broderick Jones (Georgia) throughout draft season. We'd like to see the Patriots sign and draft a pair of tackles with two premium assets (cap space, top-50 pick).
2. Wide Receiver
Free Agents: Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor
The Patriots are again chasing the Holy Grail, a bonafide number-one receiver. Once upon a time, you could hear arguments that having a "guy" at receiver was overrated and not worth the price tag. But glancing at the AFC's playoff field makes it challenging to make that case anymore. The Chiefs have Kelce, the Bills have Diggs, the Bengals have Chase, and so on. That's the game now, and the Pats offense lacks a game-changing weapon that demands attention and impacts how opponents structure game plans when they face New England. It stresses their current pass-catcher to punch above their weights and on quarterback Mac Jones to make plays. Until they finally land a star receiver, it's hard to envision the Patriots having an elite offense, but how do they go about getting that guy in the building?
The easiest way to land a player of that caliber with any position is through the draft. However, this is not a position that the Pats successfully draft. There are three first-round prospects worth mentioning TCU's Quentin Johnston, USC's Jordan Addison, and Ohio State WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba. In free agency, your own guy is the top dog. Meyers, who hits the open market at age 26, projects to make around $13 million per year as an unrestricted free agent. With somewhat underwhelming options there, the trade market is New England's best bet. DeAndre Hopkins will be moved, and the 2020 draft class will begin looking for extensions (Jeudy, Lamb, Jefferson, Higgins). The first three names have fifth-year options that'll likely be picked up. But keep an eye on Higgins and Jeudy, who could be available. Mike Evans is another interesting pre-agent receiver (2024 UFA).
3. Outside Cornerback
As long as Bill Belichick is the head coach, the Patriots will play a significant amount of man coverage defensively. However, New England's man coverage rate has been on a downward trend over the last few seasons, which speaks to how dangerous it is to live in man-to-man against elite passing attacks. But it's also an indication that the Pats don't have the same faith in their corners, especially on the outside.
According to NextGen Stats, the Patriots played zone coverage on 64 percent of their defensive passing snaps this season. Here is the trend over the last four seasons: 64.0%, 54.4%, 51.9%, and 32.3%. A significant shift towards zone coverage after the man coverage days of 2018-19.
Belichick's defense is at its best when it has a Stephon Gilmore, Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib, or Ty Law-level talent at outside corner to play man coverage. Belichick's five-man rush package and cover zero sequencing are terrific in those critical situations. But New England needs to be able to hold up on the perimeter. This season, The Pats were sitting in soft zones more and more often, and it hurt their effectiveness on third down (21st) and against great quarterbacks.
The Patriots ought to do everything they can to retain free-agent CB Jonathan Jones, who held up admirably in a career-high 778 snaps at outside corner. But Jones, along with rookie Marcus Jones and RFA Myles Bryant, is under 5-10. They need more size and man coverage talent at outside corner, returning JJones to his natural spot traveling with speed demons and slot receivers, while a new shutdown corner plays traditional number one receivers. The good news is that the draft is loaded with big, athletic outside corners in the top 100. They'll have options.
4. Free Safety
Along the same lines as the need at outside corner, the Patriots man coverage system is predicated on having a stud in centerfield who can provide help over the top to the CBs. We've written about Belichick's divider rules in the past, but a quick summary is that their corners typically play with outside leverage to funnel receivers to their safety help (robber/post-safety).
Over the last decade, future Patriots Hall of Famer Devin McCourty has manned that spot. In his prime, McCourty's range, recognition, and positioning were elite, and he's still a heady, positionally-sound player now. If McCourty retires, it leaves a big void in the deep middle that will likely take a village to replace rather than one player.
The problem with the transition to more split-safety zone coverages in the pros but especially in the college game, is that true ball-hawking center fielders are harder to find. Still, it's a spot where the team would ideally address McCourty's heir this offseason. They have options on the roster in Kyle Dugger and potentially transitioning a corner to Safety (Jalen Mills?). They could also buy into the league-wide trend of playing more two-high shells.
Also, keep an eye on Bengals free-agent safety Cincinnati's Jessie Bates. Bates is playing on the franchise tag this year with no long-term extension imminent. It would be very Belichickian to pay the cheaper secondary position instead of overextending at corner while addressing corner in the draft again as they did with the Joneses in 2022. Bates has excellent range and ball skills to play the deep part of the field, with a contract projection at around $11 million per season if he hits unrestricted free agency. That has Belichick written all over it.
5. Off-Ball/Inside Linebacker
Along with searching for a game-breaking receiver, it feels like the Patriots want to get more athletic at linebacker every offseason. Veteran leader Ja'Whaun Bentley has developed into a prototypical Belichick stack linebacker, and the team re-upped Jahlani Tavai, a versatile, do-your-job type. But this unit still needs a sideline-to-sideline run defender and someone who can play in space at a high level. If the Patriots continue transitioning to zone coverage, having 255-pound plodders dropping into middle-of-the-field coverage won't work. Yes, they use their hybrid safeties (Dugger, Phillips, Peppers) at the second level to add more speed and range in coverage. Still, ideally, you get your hands on a more dynamic middle linebacker at some point.
Repeating a point made on Patriots Unfiltered this week, using significant cap space on a linebacker might not feel like their biggest need. But we'd rather chase high-end talents than overpay because it's a big need. It's hard to envision him leaving Buffalo, but Tremaine Edmunds is on our radar. The 16th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft who pairs freakish athleticism with Patriot-like size. A Stephon Gilmore redux.
6. Receiving/Third-Down Running Back
Free Agents: Damien Harris (early-down RB)
We all know the Patriots success over the years with receiving backs, a necessity when your quarterback's legs aren't their own check-down. After retiring in training camp following a severe hip injury, the Pats missed James White badly this past season. In fact, they missed Ty Montgomery, too, which says a lot. Third-year running back Rhamondre Stevenson made positive strides in the passing game this year. But separation quickness at the break point isn't Stevenson's game, and Mac had issues with both Damien Harris and Stevenson regarding timing and landmarks on their routes. By season's end, the lacking threat and chemistry with the QB out of the backfield was an issue. The Pats might see second-year RB Pierre Strong Jr. as the answer here or could dip back into the draft.
7. Specialists (Punter, Kicker, Long Snapper)
Free Agents: LS Joe Cardona
Yep, we are doing it. The Patriots could be in the market for multiple specialists this offseason. With a selection in the fifth round, you know there's a good chance they'll take a specialist there. Cardona will likely re-sign coming off the injury, but the Pats are heading towards a split with punter Jake Bailey, and kicker Nick Folk is 38 years old. The punting and kickoffs were a disaster down the stretch that ultimately cost the Patriots games. It needs to be addressed.
8. Tight End/Fullback
Free Agents: none
The Patriots big 2021 free-agent signings, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, didn't exactly bring the TEA party back to New England. Henry has been a rock-solid addition in the passing game and is part of the solution on offense. But he'll enter the final year of his three-year deal, while the team might be looking to escape the last two years of Smith's contract, which won't be easy. The Pats could use a post-June 1st designation on Smith to get out of his deal, but cutting him before then would cost them significant cap space. We'd like to see the Pats re-integrate a fullback into their offense, while they could use a young tight end on the depth chart to prepare for the next steps at the position. New England only carried Henry and Smith on the 53-man roster, and when injuries came up, they had to rely on practice-squadders Matt Sokol and Scotty Washington. A TE/FB hybrid who can be the third guy on the depth chart is a low-level need, but we'd like to see someone brought in that fits the mold.
9. Defensive Line/Edge Defender
You can never have too many big bodies on the line of scrimmage in the NFL. But the Patriots are pretty set here next year, and we'd urge them to bring back Ekuale as a situational interior pass-rusher, where he logged three sacks and 22 QB pressures this past season. The coaching staff feels like Davon Godchaux is doing his job as an early-down NT, hence the extension, so we'd look more outside here with another edge rusher/defensive end. The 2020 day-two guys, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, are entering contract years.