Six Patriots Thoughts After Opening Day Of NFL Free Agency

A quiet opening salvo for New England


Mar 13, 2023

Day 1 of NFL free agency was a relatively quiet one for the New England Patriots.

The opening hours of the legal tampering period saw the Patriots re-sign a key starter in Jonathan Jones and a defensive depth piece in Carl Davis, and ship much-maligned tight end Jonnu Smith and his bloated contract to the Atlanta Falcons in a surprise trade.

But as of 8 p.m. ET on Monday, New England had yet to make any external additions, and its biggest-name internal free agent, Jakobi Meyers, remained unsigned in a slow-developing market for wide receivers.

Things can change quickly at this hectic stage of the NFL calendar, but here are a few quick thoughts on the moves the Patriots have and haven’t made thus far:

1. There was a fair bit of grumbling on social media about the Patriots’ lack of early activity, but it shouldn’t have been surprising given Bill Belichick’s track record.

With a few notable exceptions, like the 2021 spending bonanza and the Stephon Gilmore signing in 2017, the Patriots typically prefer to sit out the first wave of free agency, then make their moves after the initial flurry subsides.

2. New England did reportedly make a run at offensive tackle Andre Dillard, who instead agreed to terms with the Tennessee Titans. Dillard wasn’t one of the top tackles available after only starting nine games over four seasons in Philadelphia, but he was a first-round draft pick and would have been an intriguing reclamation project.

As of Monday night, two of the top four tackles (Orlando Brown Jr. and Kaleb McGary) still were unsigned, with a substantial dropoff in available talent after them. Veteran Kelvin Beachum, who played for new Patriots O-line coach Adrian Klemm at SMU, is a potential lower-tier option.

Offensive tackle remains the Patriots’ biggest roster need with only Trent Brown, Conor McDermott and Andrew Stueber currently under contract.

3. Good on the Patriots for admitting failure and taking whatever they could get for Smith, whom they agreed to trade to the Atlanta Falcons for a 2023 seventh-round pick.

The four-year, $50 million contract Smith signed in 2021 will go down as one of the worst of the Bill Belichick era, and his 2022 restructure really limited New England’s options this offseason. Per the terms of that contract adjustment, straight-up cutting him would have triggered a massive $19 million dead-money charge and actually subtracted $1.8 million from the Patriots’ salary cap space. Trading Smith still left the Patriots with $12.7 million in dead money, but it freed up $4.4 million in cap space this year and more than $18 million in 2024.

Smith played 30 games in a Patriots uniform and caught 55 passes for 539 yards and one touchdown. And nine of those catches came in his first two weeks. Not great.

Now, with Hunter Henry entering the final year of his contract and only a pair of practice squadders (Matt Sokol and Scotty Washington) behind him on the depth chart, look for the Patriots to add at least one tight end this offseason. Fortunately for them, it’s a great year to need one, with a good crop of solid veterans available in free agency and the 2023 draft class looking like one of the best in years.

Check out this story for more on New England’s potential tight end targets:

4. Retaining Jones was a smart move for the Patriots’ secondary, and he reportedly took a hometown discount (two years, $19 million, with an additional $1 million in incentives) to stay. The question now is how New England plans to deploy Jones this season.

Will they keep him at outside cornerback, where he started for the first time in 2022 and, outside of a few tough matchups against Justin Jefferson and Stefon Diggs, played well? Will they bump him back into the slot, his primary position for his first six seasons? Or will they order another position change and move him to free safety, where they now have a gaping hole following Devin McCourty’s departure and no obvious internal replacement?

Jones doesn’t have extensive safety experience but has made several cameos there in the past, most notably playing 17 snaps as a deep safety against the Los Angeles Rams as part of New England’s masterful Super Bowl LIII game plan.

For what it’s worth, McCourty tweeted that he expects the versatile Jones to play multiple roles for New England, and that his exact usage will depend on which other defensive backs the team adds this offseason.

Moving cornerback Jalen Mills is another possibility, especially after he tweeted Monday afternoon that he “really play(s) safety.” And with the exception of Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell, most of the top free agent safeties still were on the board late Monday.

5. As of Monday night, not a single free agent wideout had agreed to terms with a new team. Meyers could set that market as the best player available, with the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Allen Lazard and Odell Beckham Jr. also headlining an underwhelming group.

McCourty mentioned Meyers as a player who could step into a prominent leadership role in New England this season, but the chance of him leaving for a more lucrative contract elsewhere remains very real.

6. A few notable ex-Patriots were in the news.

Jimmy Garoppolo landed in Las Vegas, where he’ll replace Derek Carr and reunite with former New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Another of Tom Brady’s old backups, Jarrett Stidham, got up to $10 million over two years to sign on as Russell Wilson’s understudy in Denver. The salary-shedding Buccaneers reportedly put veteran guard Shaq Mason on the trade block one year after acquiring him from the Patriots. And Chase Winovich became the latest Pats alum to join Nick Caserio’s Texans.

Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images
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