5 Remaining Free Agents the New England Patriots Should Target
Nearly all of the big-ticket free-agents that have been connected with the Patriots have signed with other teams. Running back Matt Forte took up arms with the New York Jets, wide receiver Mohamed Sanu will be catching passes from Matt Ryan with the Atlanta Falcons and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks signed with the Chicago Bears.
But for every big-ticket free-agent that signed with another team, there are two or more valuable contributors that can still be signed.
History tells us that the teams that win in March are not usually around to tell about their success in January. Yet, we continue to decry an offseason strategy that is geared toward minimizing that long-term risk without necessarily losing out on the short-term reward—if the Patriots can find someone to fill a role, without breaking the bank to do it.
Name the position of need, and there's a player who can help the Patriots in 2016.
WR James Jones
At 31 years old, James Jones isn't going to be earning many big-money contract offers, but he has proven that he still has something left to contribute to an offense.
Jones doesn't have quite the versatility that the Patriots typically seek in receivers. According to Pro Football Focus, he ran just 8.2 percent of his routes from the slot in 2015. For reference, former Patriots receiver Brandon LaFell ran 23.4 percent of his routes from the slot.
The 6'1", 208-pound receiver has some of the traits LaFell had, though, in terms of his size and capabilities on the boundary and in the red zone. Fans looking for a "deep threat" will be thrilled to know that he caught 42.3 percent of the passes thrown his way that traveled 20 yards or more through the air.
Jones has been highly productive with the Green Bay Packers, but he was still productive with the Oakland Raiders in his one year away in 2014. He has hauled in no fewer than 50 passes, 666 yards and six touchdowns over the past four seasons, and he has maxed out at 73 receptions, 890 yards and 14 touchdowns in that span.
The Patriots have already shown interest in Jones, according to Mike Giardi of CSNNE.com. After the Patriots signed Chris Hogan, though, who knows how they will approach the wide receiver position going forward.
CB Patrick Robinson
It's not a surprise that the San Diego Chargers are letting three of their defensive starters walk away in free agency. As a team, they finished 20th or worse in points, yards, defensive passer rating and in nearly every rushing category that matters.
With that said, there is still some talent left even in those who have not been asked to return. One example is cornerback Patrick Robinson, a 5'11", 191-pound five-year veteran who spent the first five years of his career with the New Orleans Saints as a first-round pick.
Robinson has lined up all over the secondary in his career, but he spent nearly half of his coverage snaps in the slot (202 out of 436 snaps from the slot, per Pro Football Focus). The Patriots need a talented third cornerback to round out their depth chart, but it would be ideal if it's someone who can play both outside and inside.
He was also one of the 20 best slot cornerbacks in all of PFF's efficiency metrics: passer rating (67.7, fourth); cover snaps per target (seven, 11th); yards per cover snap (0.78, third); and cover snaps per receptions (10.1, 17th). One area that could use some work is his tackling. He made 44 total tackles on the season, according to PFF, and he missed five, giving him a missed-tackle rate of more than 10 percent.
At the very least, the Patriots could try to get him in on a short-term deal to see if he can compete for a top job this offseason.
DT Terrance Knighton
It's never too late for what might have been. According to Troy E. Renck of the Denver Post, the Patriots were among four teams interested in defensive tackle Terrance Knighton last year as a free agent. He signed with the Washington Redskins, but now that he's back on the open market, the Patriots should consider Knighton for their defensive line.
The 6'3", 354-pound nose tackle is a load in the running game, but he was not as dominant with the Redskins as he had been with a more talented Denver Broncos front seven. He also generated pressure on the quarterback just 10 times, according to Pro Football Focus, his lowest total since his rookie year.
As a nose tackle, it wasn't usually his first assignment to get after the quarterback, but he didn't offer the trade-off of a gap-stuffing nose tackle.
Maybe he just wasn't played to his strengths. He had his best performances as part of a 4-3 defense when he was with the Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Playing in the Patriots' 4-3 alongside Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich might be exactly what Knighton needs to re-energize his career. Even with that deep group, the Patriots could use an extra lineman to fill out the depth chart after losing free-agent defensive tackle Akiem Hicks to the Chicago Bears.
TE Clay Harbor
With Scott Chandler officially out of the picture, the Patriots are once again in need of a backup tight end. In three years with the Philadelphia Eagles and three more with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Clay Harbor never turned out to be much of a starter at his position, but he showed the potential to be a valuable backup.
At 6'3" and 250 pounds, Harbor isn't a mauler in the running game as a blocker, but he has the quickness to get away from linebackers and enough size to create matchup problems against defensive backs. He hasn't dominated in the stat sheet throughout his career, but he's been steady, with an average of 20 receptions for 216 yards and a touchdown over the past five seasons.
The Patriots don't need to break the bank on a tight end with Rob Gronkowski on the roster, but right now, they have no contingency plan at the position if Gronkowski gets hurt. The All-Pro tight end has stayed relatively healthy over the past couple of seasons, but the Patriots need to continue to stay out in front of any potential issues.
Harbor visited the Patriots last week, per Adam Caplan of ESPN. The Patriots missed out on Jermaine Gresham, but there's still a chance Harbor could make his way to New England.
RB James Starks
Over the course of his career, running back James Starks has had multiple opportunities to claim the throne as the Green Bay Packers' top running back. Those opportunities have passed him by, mostly due to injury. But through it all, he has still proved he can be a valuable contributor in a backfield rotation.
Since 2011 (Starks' first season making meaningful contributions to the team), Starks has averaged 105 carries for 452 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers aren't marvelous, by any stretch, but with what the Patriots have in the backfield right now, they don't necessarily need a bell cow. They just need a back who can come in for 10 to 15 carries per game and run the ball between the tackles.
Starks has never been known for his ankle-breaking quickness, but he did force 19 missed tackles as a runner and two more as a receiver, according to Pro Football Focus. He's also pretty good after contact, with an average of 2.72 yards per carry after first contact that puts him in the top 20 among all running backs last year.
Starks is another player who visited the Patriots last week, per Adam Caplan of ESPN. As the Patriots come into contact with these free agents, they build up a reservoir of players they can contact down the road. Just because Starks took a visit and didn't sign, doesn't mean he can't or won't.