Patriots free agency primer: How they can make use of the most cap space in the NFL

A week ago, when the New England Patriots arrived in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine, the buzz around the league centered on the $30 million increase to the salary cap, which was about double the previous projection.

For the Patriots, that means added room to be able to add another defensive starter, which is one of their goals when free agency begins next week. But even without that additional space, the Pats were already going to have the most cap space of any team in the NFL. The boost was probably more meaningful for teams that initially seemed in a cap crunch, but now have room to be active during free agency.

So with the league’s legal tampering period opening at noon ET on Monday — a 52-hour stretch in which teams can negotiate contracts with free agents before being able to officially sign them after 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday — let’s give one last look at the options in front of the Patriots and the players they’re likely to be considering.

Wide receiver

This is the top priority for New England. And there’s some good news and some bad news here, which sort of sums up the Pats’ offseason. The bad news is that there are not a lot of free agent options at the team’s biggest positions of need: wide receiver, offensive tackle and tight end. The good news, though, is that the draft is deep at those positions.

So given the lack of top-end free agents at these positions, the Patriots might have to spend top dollar here, fighting other receiver-needy teams for the good players available.

The top three would-be free agents either received the franchise tag (Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman Jr.) or re-signed with their former team (Mike Evans), leaving Calvin Ridley and Marquise Brown as the top available wide receivers. Look for New England to be active in pursuing at least one of them.

Those two receivers are in a tier of their own among the free agent options with Darnell Mooney, Gabe Davis and Odell Beckham Jr. in the next tier. Those three would cost considerably less than Ridley or Brown.



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Offensive tackle

This is where things could get especially tricky for the Patriots. Both of their offensive tackles last season (Trent Brown and Mike Onwenu) are pending free agents. Same with their top backup (Riley Reiff). The especially difficult part is that Brown and Onwenu are arguably the top two tackles in this free agent class.

It seems unlikely that the Patriots would try to re-sign Brown, but they will try to hang onto Onwenu, whose recent moves complicate an already difficult negotiation. Onwenu fired his agent and plans to represent himself in talks with teams that could be contentious. Teams are likely to use right guard comps for Onwenu — since that’s the position he has played most frequently in the NFL — while he will probably push to be paid like a right tackle, considering he did well there in the second half of last season.

Having reportedly agreed to terms with ex-Pittsburgh Steeler Chukwuma Okorafor, a veteran who can compete with a highly drafted rookie for a starting job on one side of the offensive line, the Patriots’ goal will be landing at least one no-doubt starting tackle in free agency. If a deal can’t be reached with Onwenu, look for the team to target Tyron Smith or Jonah Williams.



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Tight end

Like offensive tackle, the Patriots are in desperate need of tight ends, yet the top player available at the position is their current tight end, Hunter Henry.

Earlier this week, Dalton Schultz re-signed with the Texans on a three-year deal worth up to $36 million. That’s more than Henry will likely get, but it offers a benchmark for this group of free agents.

If the Patriots opt against re-signing Henry, the options aren’t great. Noah Fant and Gerald Everett are likely the top options after Henry, and there’s a steep drop-off after those three. So the Pats would be wise to target one of those three, then supplement that player with an early Day 3 selection in the draft.



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Defensive options

In what may seem like a surprise, the Patriots are interested in adding a defensive starter in free agency, a team source said. Cornerback, defensive tackle and edge rusher are the positions the Patriots will first consider.

Kendall Fuller and Chidobe Awuzie are the top cornerback options, but another to consider is Stephon Gilmore, the former Patriots star. He’s 33 now and no longer in his prime, but the Patriots could use a proven corner opposite Christian Gonzalez, and it could help if that player were an experienced one who could help Gonzalez, who is still just 21 and has only four NFL games under his belt.

Another option is to pair Matthew Judon with a stud pass rusher since the Patriots defense thrived two years ago when Josh Uche was playing well opposite Judon. If they go that route, Danielle Hunter (16.5 sacks last season), Bryce Huff (10 sacks last season) and Chase Young (the No. 2 pick in 2020) could be options.

However, it’s worth noting that New England’s most pressing defensive need might be at defensive tackle, especially after the team cut Lawrence Guy last month and with Davon Godchaux and Christian Barmore entering the final year of their contracts. If the Patriots strike out at wide receiver and offensive tackle but want to use their roughly $88 million in cap space, they could switch gears and go for a home run signing on the defensive line with Chris Jones or Christian Wilkins, two of the better interior defensive linemen in the NFL.

(Photo of Calvin Ridley: Mike Carlson / Getty Images)

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