Patriots' Last-Minute Guide to 2021 NFL Free Agency

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IMarch 14, 2021

Patriots' Last-Minute Guide to 2021 NFL Free Agency

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    NFL free agency begins Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET, with the legal tampering period (when teams can negotiate with players) starting Monday. However, the New England Patriots have already started shaping their roster for 2021 as they look to bounce back from a down season.

    The Pats are bringing back Cam Newton. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Friday that the former NFL MVP will be returning on another one-year deal. That may not prevent New England from selecting a quarterback in the 2021 NFL draft, but Newton looks set to be its starter to open 2021, and it may not add a free-agent quarterback.

    New England has also acquired offensive tackle Trent Brown in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders, per ESPN's Field Yates, and re-signed special teams standout Justin Bethel, per ESPN's Mike Reiss. But there's still plenty that the Patriots need to do this offseason.

    The Pats have financial flexibility. With the league's salary cap set at $182.5 million, New England has $65.89 million in available cap space, according to Spotrac, which is the third-most in the NFL. So the Patriots could be fairly active when free agency begins.

    Here's a last-minute guide for New England's top storylines as it enters free agency.

Offense in Need of Several Top Playmakers

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    Jeff Bottari/Associated Press

    Newton struggled in his first season as the Patriots quarterback, but part of the reason for that could be the lack of top playmakers around him. It's clear that New England's top need this offseason is at wide receiver and/or tight end. Boosting those units could help Newton, or whomever is under center, have better results in 2021.

    With so much cap space, the Pats could go after one of the top receiving options on the free-agent market. The top available receivers include Kenny Golladay, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Will Fuller V and Curtis Samuel, while Hunter Henry is the top tight end who will be a free agent.

    No Patriots wide receiver had more than 729 yards or two touchdowns last season. At tight end, New England got practically no contribution to the passing game, with Ryan Izzo (199 yards and no touchdowns), Devin Asiasi (39 yards and one touchdown) and Dalton Keene (16 yards and no touchdowns) making little impact.

    If New England doesn't land any of the top-tier receivers/tight ends available in free agency, it should sign at least one or two offensive playmakers. It's likely the only way the Patriots offense can take steps forward, perhaps even getting Newton back closer to his MVP form.

    Even though it may take a good bit of cap space to add some strong playmakers this offseason, it will be worth it for the Patriots to make a big splash.

Will Pats Bring Back Any of Their Free-Agent Defensive Linemen?

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The Patriots are going to need to sign some interior defensive linemen, whether that's bringing back several of their players who are hitting the market or seeking help elsewhere.

    Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr. are all about to hit free agency. They have all spent the past four seasons with the Pats and have provided a reliable presence for New England on the defensive front. During that stretch, Butler has played 63 games, while Guy and Wise have each played 62.

    Maybe the Patriots will try to bring all three back, or perhaps they will only pursue one or two of them. If they lose all three, though, they are going to have to hit the free-agent market to find some players who are capable of replacing that production and consistency on the defensive line.

    Dalvin Tomlinson is one of the top defensive tackles on the free-agent market, and the 27-year-old could be a strong fit for New England if he opts not to return to the New York Giants. Tomlinson hasn't missed a game through his first four NFL seasons and has seven sacks over the past two years.

    This is a need for the Pats, as they don't have enough interior defensive linemen on their roster. And they have several options when it comes to addressing the situation.

Linebacker Corps Could Be Improved

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    If the Patriots want their defense to return to the dominant form it showed in 2019, one way they could improve the unit is by adding some outside linebackers/defensive ends. New England had only 24 sacks in 2020, which ranked 27th in the NFL.

    It could make sense for the Patriots to reunite with Kyle Van Noy, who was recently released by the Miami Dolphins. Van Noy played for New England from 2016 to 2019, and he had 69 tackles and six sacks in 14 games for Miami last season. The soon-to-be 30-year-old has proved to be a strong fit with the Pats before.

    Among the top pass-rushers on the free-agent market are Shaquil Barrett, Bud Dupree and Yannick Ngakoue. Those players are all likely to receive big contracts, so New England will have to decide how much it will be willing to spend to improve its pass rush.

    Perhaps a reunion with Van Noy will be enough for the Patriots to feel confident with their edge-rushers, as they already have Chase Winovich and Josh Uche. However, it could be beneficial for them to add another player to that rotation.