It seems fair to suggest that the New England Patriots fans don’t really know what to do with themselves just now, as the current situation is far and away from anything that a generation will have experienced.
The team is 2-5 and there’s little sign of a drastic turnaround coming, so it does leave them with a decision to make going forward.
Bill Belichick often bemoans the lack of preparation for the next season when his team makes the Super Bowl because they are behind everyone else, but you could argue that he’s now miles ahead as attention could already be turning to next year.
He’s admitted today that trades will be unlikely as he looks to preserve cap space ahead of next season, while The Boston Herald indicated that the cap could drop by as much as $23m next year so that leaves the Pats in a tremendous position.
They are projected to have the fourth highest amount to spare going into the off-season and they are also bolstered by other teams having their spending power reduced by a lack of cap.
There are some very interesting names who could hit the market at the end of the season, so let’s have a look at players who could help put the franchise back on the right track next year, while also looking at some of the current roster to see what could lie in store for them.
Possible Trade/Cut/restructure candidates – Credit to Spotrac for projected cap hits
Sony Michel – Running Back – $3m+
Next year could be a contract year for Michel unless the Pats decide to pick up his 5th year option, and the emergence of Damien Harris should relegate him to second on the depth chart at best.
He’s regularly bashed by a large section of the supporters and it’s understandable in a lot of situations, but it’s not like he’s been a complete and utter bust.
It’s easy to forget his mammoth contributions in the 2018 post-season where he came up with the goods in so many moments. From running over the Chargers, to the vital TD on 4th and 1 late in the game vs The Chiefs and he also had a couple of huge runs to seal the Super Bowl win over the Rams.
His problems have come since then where he’s regressed and looks incapable of breaking any tackles, so he’s starting to look like nothing more than a limited back who can’t do much in the passing game and will only gain the yards that are blocked for him.
The 1st round pick still hangs over him and it doesn’t look like good value in hindsight, but there could still be some teams who want to take a chance on him bursting out in his career year.
It would be tough to get much more than a 5th round pick* for him, but it would make sense if it created some extra cap and gave the Pats another pick in the late round draft lottery.
*That pick will probably be used on a kicker but that’s an entirely different conversation
Julian Edelman – Wide Receiver – $6,666,666
While the cap hit is entertaining from a Satanic standpoint, there is absolutely no way that Julian Edelman can be worth that outlay next year.
He’ll be 35 when the season starts so there’s no guarantee that he’ll even be back, but he surely won’t want to go out like this in an injury-plagued losing season.
He won’t have much draft value and it’s hard to see anyone other than the Bucs making a pitch to sign him, so he could still have a major role as a locker-room leader while being a useful contributor on the field.
He would need to restructure into a more team friendly deal, but if they can dig out a couple of receivers to take some of the attention from the defence then Edelman could still wreak havoc over the centre of the field.
There’s also no point in hauling him back onto the field this season if current results continue, so he could be rejuvenated if he’s given months to get over his injuries and recharge.
Marcus Cannon – Right Tackle – $9.9m
First of all there’s absolutely no way that Cannon comes back next year on those terms, so something will need to be done.
He was starting to look like a weak link in the the Offensive Line last year and he’ll be 33 when the 2021 season starts, while it’s unlikely that coming in cold after a missed season will help him either.
It’s also worth taking into account that he decided to opt-out this season after he was deemed to be “high-risk” due to an underlying condition, so there’s no guarantee that he’ll be back if the Covid situation hasn’t completely improved by next year.
He could also suffer with Michael Onwenu and Justin Herron looking like solid choices from this year’s draft. It will mainly give him some real competition to even regain a starting spot, while it could also give Belichick the confidence to replace him with another late round pick next year too.
You can’t justify paying almost $10m to an ageing tackle who appears to be past his best when there are cheaper options waiting in the wings, so it won’t be a surprise if he’s cut or needs to restructure if he does come back.
Stephon Gilmore – CB – $17m+
The reigning DPOY is still playing at an elite level and is a cornerstone of this defence, but this could be one of the most interesting stories to follow next year.
At the time of writing he’s had plenty of trade interest but the Pats are holding firm with their valuation of a first round pick and then some, so it certainly looks like he’ll finish this season in New England.
That cap hit is too high for a cornerback who will turn 31 in September next year, but it also means there won’t be a lot of value on the trade market either.
It would be madness to cut him completely, but it’s unlikely that Belichick will want to keep him unless he agrees to restructure his deal.
The Patriots do have J.C Jackson waiting in the wings who will also need to be paid, while there are certainly signs that he and Jonathan Jones could take over the starting spots in the defence, but that would be a gamble too.
The most friendly situation for NE would see him restructure his contract that would keep him in Foxboro for his final elite years with an option that makes it easy to move on in two or three years, but that might not be in Gilmore’s best interests.
This could be one of the toughest decisions for Belichick to make.
Patrick Chung – Safety – $5m+
The defence is missing Chung just now and it’s not like free agency will be teeming with strong safetys next year, but that is also a big cap hit for a 34 year old safety next year.
It’s also worth noting that Devin McCourty is the same age and will be on a hefty hit of over $11m in 2021, so it would be a big call for Belichick to have so much of the cap going towards two ageing safetys.
Chung’s future could also hinder on the development of Kyle Dugger throughout the rest of this season, but he would probably have interest if he became available.
It’s always easy to link Patriots defenders with Matt Patricia in Detroit if he’s still there, but the Pats should be in a strong position here if the rest of the league is struggling to balance the books.
He would be a great player to keep around if that deal can be restructured, and it’s probably in his best interests to do so in terms of continuity at this stage of his career.
Dont’a Hightower was set to hit free agency this summer, but it now looks like the contract will roll over to next year with a cap hit of around $12m. His situation has been strengthened by the inability of Ja’whuan Bentley to prove that he can step up, while the others haven’t really impressed either. Uche and Jennings could still develop in time, but Hightower is sorely needed in the defence right now and that should embolden him when it comes to negotiations.
Matthew Slater is also projected to come in at over $3m and there is no way that he should be cut when the team is going through a transformation period, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that one be renegotiated too.
Shaq Mason and Devin McCourty are the two other major salaries at almost $10m and $11m respectively, but they are both vital players so it’s hard to see them being cut or traded.
Patriots free agents – who to keep?
The current estimation shows that the Pats would have around $70m in cap space as things stand in 2021, but that could still be cut by $23m so it will be interesting to see who will be kept on. In theory the Pats could save close to that $23m figure in cuts/trades/restructures to the players above, so they should be in a position to re-sign any of their existing roster who are headed for free agency.
Priority: Joe Thuney, David Andrews, J.C Jackson
Thuney and Jackson could be hitting free agency at the worst possible time, as they have played well enough to cash in on a massive deal but there’s a high chance they’ll have less suitors.
Andrews also has a big influence on the line and it’s important that he’s kept. They’ve managed to get by in recent times when Andrews has been forced to miss games, but there’s a noticeable drop-off when he’s out of the side.
It’s also vital to keep the line together if Belichick wants to proceed with a running game, while buying an extra second or two will make a world of difference to the QB.
The franchise tag is also in play for Jackson and Andrews, although it wouldn’t make sense to place it on Thuney again as he’ll end up earning much more than the market value.
Getting Andrews and Thuney on 3/4 year deals and Jackson on a longer term one would be considered a major win in the team building process.
Keep at the right price: Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy, John Simon, Rex Burkhead, Jermaine Eluemunor, James White, Justin Bethel
Keeping variety in the run game is important to keep opposition defences on their heels, so it would make sense re-sign White and Burkhead. White is still dangerous out of the backfield and Burkhead is a warrior who won’t let you down, although his injury record is always suspect.
The situation with Butler, Guy and Simon is interesting because they are part of a defensive front that is being decimated in the run game, but they can still be useful role players who know the system. They aren’t enough to build a defence around but they are good players, so there’s a case for keeping all of them around.
It could come down to a choice between Marcus Cannon and Jermaine Eluemunor, but the latter is younger, cheaper and hasn’t let anyone down so far.
Justin Bethel is vital in a special teams role alongside Slater, so it would be good to see him stay.
Maybes: Cam Newton, Damiere Byrd, Terrence Brooks, Deatrich Wise
Newton and Byrd can probably be counted as a duo here, as they’ve got a good partnership and Byrd could stick around as a third or fourth choice receiver.
After three weeks it was a no-brainer to keep Newton, but he’s torpedoed his stock in recent weeks with some lacklustre performances. Initially it looked like he was playing to win a massive deal at the end of the season, but now he’s simply trying to prove that he’s still worthy of a starting QB job in the NFL.
He’s still only 31 so he could have plenty of time left, but if his mechanics continue to dumbfound then he’s unlikely to attract a lot of interest, so the Pats could still bring him back on a reasonable contract depending on their situation.
Brooks and Wise have had their moments and could still earn a new contract, but they would probably be on the roster bubble at cutdown time next year.
Time to move on: Jason McCourty, Nick Folk, Derek Rivers, Shilique Calhoun
Jason McCourty could be a tough choice because of Devin, but it’s hard to see Belichick getting caught up in sentiment when making his roster decisions. Jason will be turning 34 next season so he’s on the decline phase, and it’s time to give Joejuan Williams a chance to prove himself in a more prominent role.
Nick Folk is actually pretty reliable from under 40 yards and he’s only missed 1 of 12 attempts from under 50 yards, but there’s just a feeling of unease when he comes out to kick. It’s never a good sign when you have to plan your attacking game around your kicker’s deficiencies, so they need to find a more suitable option next year.
Derek Rivers has had so many injury issues so it’s sad that we’ve never been able to see his full potential, but it just looks like it’s not going to happen and it’s time to move on from him.
Calhoun will be 29 going into the new season but the line-backer group needs to be rebuilt, so there’s little sense in keeping him around.
Not good enough: Brian Hoyer, Brandon Copeland, Carl Davis, James Ferentz, Nick Thurman, Cody Davis.
Hoyer might be a positive influence in the QB room but he’s proven that he can’t be trusted on the field, so he might be worth keeping around as a coach if he retires but he can’t be taking up a roster spot next year.
The others have been signed to patch up the roster with due to injuries over the season but they aren’t good enough to have an impact, so there’s no point in keeping them around.
FREE AGENCY TARGETS
Due to the available cap space this is going to be one of the biggest areas of focus for New England in the off season, but it will be important to get the right blend of role players and to coin a Madden term – X-Factors
There are a lot of holes in this roster so the cap can’t just be thrown at 3/4 elite players in the hope they will make the difference, but the offence really does need some talent that will keep opposing coaches up at night as they try to figure out a game plan.
It’s worth pointing out that there’s plenty of time for these players to agree new deals with their current franchises and the franchise tag could even make an appearance, but they all appear to be available at the time of writing – You can view the full list on Spotrac here.
Dak Prescott – Quarterback – Dallas Cowboys
Prescott’s situation has probably turned into a worst case scenario for both he and the Cowboys, and it’s not really clear what they plan to do with him next year.
He’s out for the season after a gruesome looking ankle injury so nobody knows what he’ll be like on his return, but he was also playing under the franchise tag so that puts him in a difficult negotiating position with Dallas.
You can’t see them franchising tagging him again with the uncertainty around his injury, but it would be foolish of him to take a new long term deal at less than market value without testing free agency, so the Pats could have a window here.
Obviously everything comes down to the injury, but he was leading the league in completions and yards before that injury so he’s clearly an elite level QB who could lead the franchise for years.
It would probably come down to finding him some decent weapons but he would simply be seen as the QB replacing a lacklustre Cam Newton rather than Tom Brady, so that could make the Patriots a more enticing destination for some.
This would be a high risk-high reward type signing, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Cowboys decide to give him a huge long term deal without waiting to see if he’s fully recovered.
Other notable QB options – Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, Mitch Trubisky, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston
Allen Robinson – Wide Receiver – Chicago Bears
Robinson probably represents the best option in terms of being elite and still having some peak years left as he’ll turn 28 at the start of next season, while it also looks like he’s unhappy in Chicago so it’s likely that he’ll reach free agency or force the tag.
He’s a true number one receiver who’s the clear leader in the free agent class in terms of production this season with over 630 yards receiving already, and it would finally give this offence a focal point who will produce while also freeing up space for the others.
If the Patriots keep Thuney and Andrews then the line should be able to hold up long enough for Robinson to get deep – something that Chicago can’t do just now.
Other notable WR options – A.J Green, T.Y Hilton, Larry Fitzgerald, Sammy Watkins, Will Fuller, Marvin Jones, Keelan Cole, John Ross, Nelson Agholor, Kenny Golladay and…. Antonio Brown
Hunter Henry – Tight End – Los Angeles Chargers
Quite simply – something has to happen with the tight end position next year. Belichick spent some draft picks on Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi who have been a non event so far, while Ryan Izzo isn’t someone who can be relied upon.
Henry has over 300 yards this season and he’s the best option in terms of quality and age, although he would probably expensive after earning over $10m this campaign, and you have to take Bill Belichick’s stubbornness into account here.
The last thing he wants is to put the media in a position where they can say “we told you so”, so it won’t be a surprise if he takes a punt on several lesser known players in the position rather than spending big to try and fix the problem.
Henry has also been praised for his blocking ability by Anthony Lynn so that should go down well at Foxboro, but they really have to add a tight end next season.
Other notable TE options – Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Tyler Kroft, Jacob Hollister, Tyler Eifert, Gerald Everett, Jonnu Smith, Mo Alie-Cox, Dan Arnold
Brandon Scherff – Guard – Washington Football Team
It’s hard to see the Patriots spending any serious money on the O-line next year due to their current options, but Scherff would be the best candidate if they needed a high quality option to replace Thuney if he moved on.
He’s spent his entire career at Washington but they look unlikely to be a contender unless they find a new QB, so Scherff could decide that he wants a change of scenery.
He’s been selected to the Pro-Bowl three times and is clearly one of the better guards in the league, but the Pats would still have Mason and Onwenu even if Thuney goes so it’s hard to see this happening.
It’s also worth noting that Thuney leaving would probably give the Pats a good comp draft pick in return, so that makes a big money replacement look even less likely.
Other notable O-Line options: Trent Williams, David Bakhtiari, Alex Mack, Forrest Lamp, Kelechi Osemele, Austin Blythe
Shelby Harris – Defensive Tackle – Denver Broncos
Stopping the run has to be a key focus for New England going into next year, but there aren’t any real game changers who will be available in free agency.
Harris may be the pick of the bunch because he’s capable of making contributions in different ways – he can stop the run, get to the QB and also has a handy habit of knocking down the occasional pass attempt in critical moments, so that should appeal to a coaching staff who like players who can do a bit of everything.
History tells us that Belichick will look to improve the defensive front with various additions and contributions from multiple players instead of relying on one or two stars, so Harris would fit into that philosophy.
He’s well graded by PFF and described as a valuable addition who could be elite level without costing a huge amount, so he’s probably the best option available
Other notable DT options: Ndamukong Suh, DaQuan Jones, Jonathan Hankins, Corey Peters, Sheldon Rankins, Christian Covington
Leonard Williams – Defensive End – New York Giants
The DE options are interesting because there are so many talented players who will be available, but every single player has some kind of flaw or character issue that could outweigh the potential upside.
Leonard Williams was franchise tagged by the Giants last summer and there’s no sign of a new contract just now, while you just know that Belichick would love to take a former Jet and turn him into the star he was supposed to become.
He’s a versatile defender who can help stop the run and get after the quarterback as evidenced by multiple sacks and run stuffs this year, and it’s easy to see him becoming a versatile star for the Pats.
He’s never played for a contending team so he could have to chose between money and ambition next off-season, but it’s possible that the Pats can offer him both.
Other notable DE options: Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue, Justin Houston, Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, Everson Griffen
Shaq Barrett – Tampa Bay – Linebacker
Dont’a Hightower should be a welcome return to the linebacker group next season that’s made up of unproven rookies or underperformers, so it’s important to get plenty of help.
Barrett hasn’t quite managed to continue his sacking form of last year where he made 19.5, but he’s still managed 3 sacks and 5 quarterback hits which is something the current defence struggles to do.
He’s also managed five tackles for loss which suggest he would also help as part of the puzzle to stifle the run game, and he could cause havoc with the strong coverage deeper down the field buying him time to get after the QB.
In some ways a more quiet season this year could help the Pats as it drives his price down a bit, and he instantly gives opposing sides something to fear in the pass rush so that can disrupt a game plan.
Other notable LB options – Von Miller, Matt Judon, Bud Dupree, Olivier Vernon, Lavonte David, Eric Wilson, Aldon Smith, Samson Ebukam, Jayon Brown, Matt Milano
Cornerback – Nobody
There are some interesting options on the market if Belichick loses more than just Jason McCourty and he wants to add a veteran presence, but it’s hard to see any major additions coming here when he has Gilmore, Jackson, Jones and Williams at his disposal.
Notable CB options – Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, Logan Ryan, Xavier Rhodes, Desmond King, Shaquill Griffen
Keanu Neal – Safety – Atlanta Falcons
Adding safety help will depend on the futures of Chung and Phillips, while it will also be interesting to see if Dugger develops throughout the rest of this year and some regression from Devin McCourty could also lead Belichick making a move.
Keanu Neal fits the mould of a talented player who’s lost his way a little bit, so he certainly wouldn’t be the first player like this to be picked up by New England and given a new lease of life.
He’s struggled a bit with injuries over the past two seasons so he’s not been able to contribute much to the Falcons, but they are in a mess when it comes to their cap so it’s hard to see them being in a position to keep Neal on.
He’s only recorded one career interception so that would need to improve, but he’s capable of coming up and getting after a QB or making a tackle so that does go in his favour.
He’s the kind of player who probably won’t attract big offers because he rarely makes massive contributions that show up on the stat sheet, but he could be a good fit as a rotation option at safety.
Other notable safety options: Anthony Harris, Justin Simmons, Duron Harmon, Daniel Sorensen, Marcus Maye, John Johnson, Jaquisky Tartt
Kicker: Younghoe Koo – Atlanta Falcons
There is a feeling about the one that got away with Koo, as he spent some time with the Pats on the practice squad before being overlooked for various options last year.
He does have some PAT issues which need to be cleared up, but he’s got a 95% success rate on 20 tries and a long of 54, so it wouldn’t result in panic stations when a kick of more than 40 yards appears.
We all know that Belichick loves his special teams and Koo has demonstrated that he can deliver an onside kick that gives his team a real chance of coming up with the ball, so there’s some added value there.
Other notable kicker options – Randy Bullock, Graham Gano, Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Succop
The main priorities need to be finding some capable receivers and some defenders who can stop the run, but there’s plenty of suitable options out there so there’s every reason to believe the Pats will bounce back next year.
It’s also worth noting that the draft could be more of a lottery than ever due to various disruptions and opt outs in the college game, so that could result in some prospects sliding due to a lack of game footage. It does mean that there could be some real gems in the later round, but Belichick’s drafting history suggests it’s even more vital that they use free agency to their advantage.