Patriots Mailbag: Making Sense Of Pats’ Quiet Start To Free Agency

Plus: What's next for New England's O-line?

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March 18

Tackling all of your New England Patriots mailbag questions after a two-week stretch that was hectic and unpredictable across the NFL but relatively subdued — perhaps concerningly so — in Foxboro:

@brienlp
what the F is happening?

I received more than 70 submissions for this week’s mailbag, and more than half of them were some variation of this same question (often with even more colorful language).

And I get it. The legal tampering period opened five days ago, and to date, all the Patriots have done is:

— Sign cornerback Terrance Mitchell

— Sign hybrid running back/receiver/kick returner/special teamer Ty Montgomery

— Trade Chase Winovich to Cleveland for linebacker Mack Wilson

— Trade Shaq Mason to Tampa Bay for a fifth-round pick

— Re-sign Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, James White, Brian Hoyer, Nick Folk and James Ferentz

— Place a second-round tender on Jakobi Meyers

— Let J.C. Jackson, Ted Karras, Brandon Bolden and Jakob Johnson walk in free agency

All six of the players New England re-signed are over 30 years old, and McCourty, Slater, Hoyer and Folk are 34-plus. Mitchell will be 30 in May, and his contract structure (just $350,000 guaranteed) means he won’t be a roster lock this summer. Montgomery is 29 and hasn’t been a productive offensive player in several years.

The Patriots’ roster is undeniably worse now than it was at the end of the season, and a number of AFC foes have gotten better. That includes the two-time defending AFC East champion Buffalo Bills, who threw a bundle of cash at Von Miller to bolster their pass rush, and Josh McDaniels’ Las Vegas Raiders, who already have added Pro Bowlers Chandler Jones and, in a Thursday night stunner, Davante Adams. New England is not off to a particularly inspiring start to the new league year, especially as fans have watched loads of players viewed as potential Patriots targets sign elsewhere.

But this is also what the Patriots do. Their shopping sprees in 2021 (when they added seven outside free agents on the first day of the tampering window) and 2017 (when they brought in big names like Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks) were outliers. In most years, they sit out the opening salvo of free agency, eschewing big-ticket players and before diving into the second tier of more affordable — and, they hope, undervalued — veterans.

Here’s a look at the players they added in the opening week or so free agency since 2015, excluding the ’17 and ’21 classes:

2020: Adrian Phillips, Damiere Byrd, Cody Davis, Brian Hoyer, Brandon Copeland, Danny Vitale, Beau Allen, Marqise Lee

2019: Michael Bennett (trade), Mike Pennel, Terrence Brooks, Maurice Harris, Bruce Ellington, Matt LaCosse, Brandon Bolden

2018: Cordarrelle Patterson (trade), Jason McCourty (trade), Danny Shelton (trade), Matt Tobin, Jeremy Hill, Adrian Clayborn, Troy Niklas, Luke Bowanko

2016: Chris Hogan, Chris Long, Martellus Bennett (trade), Ramon Humber, Frank Kearse, Shea McClellin, Donald Brown, Jonathan Cooper (trade)

2015: Jabaal Sheard, Jonathan Freeny, Scott Chandler, Chimdi Chekwa, Kevin Dorsey, Brandon Gibson, Travaris Cadet, Bradley Fletcher, Robert McClain

(A handful of other players, like Jamie Collins, Ben Watson and Demaryius Thomas in 2019, signed later in the offseason.)

Not a lot of marquee names on that list.

Based on this history, no one should have expected the Patriots to come out swinging in free agency, despite their cap space-aided approach a year ago. Definitive conclusions on this free agent haul shouldn’t be drawn until it’s complete.

But that doesn’t change the fact that there are holes on this roster that need to be filled, and that having a quarterback like Tom Brady for all those years made it easier to be thrifty and still win. The 2022 Patriots badly need offensive linemen. They need at least one more cornerback. They need linebackers, both inside and outside. They could really use another wide receiver.

New England isn’t flush with salary cap room, but the Mason trade and Kyle Van Noy release freed up some space for additions. The Patriots also could create more space through contract restructures or extensions — avenues they’ve used in the past but not yet this year. They should be heavily exploring the trade market.

More moves undoubtedly are coming. They must be. For now, fans will just need to stay tuned.

@DLPatsThoughts
Was there an motive other than cap space to the Mason trade? There?s got to be an easier way to clear money

I can’t see one other than the financial benefit. Mason is one of the best guards in football and was one of the Patriots’ best offensive players this past season. But trading him did clear roughly $7 million in much-needed cap space for a team that does not have nearly as much money to play with this offseason.

For that reason, the Mason trade in a vacuum was not especially surprising. I wrote months ago that he could be a surprise trade/cut candidate, and I wasn’t the only one floating that idea. What was surprising was that the Patriots traded Mason after letting fellow starting guard Ted Karras walk in free agency, and that they were only able to get a fifth-round draft pick back in return.

If the Patriots had kept Karras, who signed with Cincinnati for three years and $18 million ($6 million AAV), they could have kept him at left guard and slotted Mike Onwenu in at right guard, his primary position at Michigan. That would have left them with just one remaining question mark: right tackle, with Trent Brown still un-signed and taking free agent visits.

Now, if Brown leaves, the Patriots will be looking at a near-total O-line overhaul, with the versatile Onwenu as their only desirable internal replacement for any of their three vacancies.

I’ll reserve final judgment until we see what the Patriots’ plan is to replace these players, but these are not concerns you want to have about the unit that will be protecting a young franchise quarterback. Especially since that group will be led by a new position coach, and potentially one (Matt Patricia) who doesn’t have much recent offensive experience.

@qualitysmoke
Is there any buzz about year 2 WR Tre Nixon, he has size and speed but struggled to catch ball but with a year on the PS, that is likely to improve. Could he make an impact and prove Earnie Adams right again?

Nixon, the Patriots’ seventh-round draft pick last year, wasn’t especially noticeable in his rookie training camp. He then spent the entire season on the practice squad with no gameday elevations. The Patriots signed him to a future contract, so they clearly want to continue working with him, but he’ll need a much stronger camp to lock down a roster spot in Year 2.

I do think Belichick would have something of a soft spot for Ernie Adams’ final draft pick, though, so Nixon has that working in his favor.

@christie_fin
Is Logan
Ryan a realistic addition ?
Probably not since he moved to safety two years ago and the Patriots are well-stocked there. But if he’s interested in switching back to cornerback or playing a hybrid role, he’d be an interesting option. Ryan was a solid player for the Patriots from 2013 to 2016 and a team New York Giants team captain under Joe Judge, who now is back in New England as an offensive assistant.

Reporters certainly would welcome a Ryan return. He was one of the team’s best interviews during his first stint here.

(UPDATE: That was quick. One day after being cut by New York, Ryan has agreed to a deal with Tampa Bay, reuniting with Brady.)

@mcginnis_nolan
Why haven?t we traded for Isabella

I wouldn’t hate a straight-up N’Keal Harry-for-Andy Isabella trade. I’m not convinced the UMass product would fare any better with the Patriots than he did in Arizona, but his pure speed could make him a worthwhile flier.

It seems clear to me that Harry will never become a reliable contributor in New England, so why not flip him for someone who might?

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