Patriots' Top Players to Prioritize in 2021 NFL Free Agency

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IMarch 8, 2021

Patriots' Top Players to Prioritize in 2021 NFL Free Agency

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    It's nearly time for the New England Patriots to begin constructing their roster for the 2021 NFL season. And after going 7-9 and missing the playoffs last year, they've got a bit of work to do to get back to contention.

    Fortunately for the Pats, they're going to have plenty of cap space to work with this offseason. Per Over the Cap, New England is projected to have $66.5 million of cap space (assuming the salary cap is around $180.5 million), which will be the third most in the NFL.

    The Patriots also have quite a few needs they'll need to address, though, most notably at quarterback. But their best option may be to take a new franchise signal-caller in the 2021 NFL draft (perhaps with the No. 15 overall pick), rather than sign a free agent like they did last year, when they brought in Cam Newton.

    With free agency set to begin March 17 at 4 p.m. ET, here are three players New England should prioritize going after.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    No matter who ends up being the Patriots' starting quarterback in 2021, he's going to need a top-tier wide receiver to throw to. And New England doesn't have that on its roster currently, as its offense lacked a true No. 1 playmaker last season.

    That's why the Pats should go after one of the top wide receivers on the free-agent market, such as JuJu Smith-Schuster.

    Although the 24-year-old has been a bit inconsistent on the field over his first four NFL seasons (and drawn attention for his TikTok antics off it), he could give New England a huge offensive boost while getting the fresh start that could benefit him.

    Last season, the USC product had 97 receptions for 831 yards and nine touchdowns in 16 games. Meanwhile, the Patriots had no wide receivers with more than 729 receiving yards or with more than two touchdowns.

    Smith-Schuster possesses big-play potential, and that's something New England's offense needs more of in 2021. While some of its younger receivers may still break out in the future, it would help to have a proven playmaker in the fold moving forward.

Hunter Henry, TE

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    The Patriots' offense has been at its best when they've had a strong tight end, and they got practically no production from the position in the receiving game in 2020. So, it could benefit New England to bring in a top-tier tight end, and there happens to be one on the free-agent market in Hunter Henry.

    After dealing with injuries early in his career, the 26-year-old had a strong showing in 2020, hauling in a career-high 60 passes for 613 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games for the Los Angeles Chargers. He should continue to put up solid numbers, as long as he can stay on the field.

    The Pats had no tight ends with more than 199 receiving yards or one touchdown last season, so Henry could bring a new dynamic to their offense moving forward. And it's possible he'll only keep getting better over the next few years as he continues to gain NFL experience.

    It seems like a great fit for both sides, so the Patriots should do what it takes to bring in one of the best tight ends in the league.

Melvin Ingram III, DE

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    Doug Murray/Associated Press

    Melvin Ingram III was consistently on the field early in his career, but he's dealt with injuries of late, which limited him to seven games for the Chargers in 2020.

    However, the Patriots could benefit from adding to their pass rush this offseason, and the 31-year-old could be the type of player they're looking for.

    Although Ingram didn't record a sack last season, he had at least seven in each of the previous five years. So he could be poised for a bounce-back season in 2021, if he can stay healthy.

    Another possibility for the Patriots could be a reunion with Kyle Van Noy, who played for the team from 2016-19. ESPN's Field Yates reported that the Miami Dolphins are looking to trade the 29-year-old, after it had previously been rumored that he was going to be released.

    Whether it's Ingram, Van Noy, both or another pass-rusher, New England should look to add a player who isn't in the top tier of free agents. Then, it can still use its cap space to address various other needs while also bolstering its defense with the addition of a key free agent.