Tee Higgins might have represented the best-case scenario, but Calvin Ridley has felt like the most realistic free-agent option for the New England Patriots.

The Bengals on Monday placed their franchise tag on Higgins, and it’s believed the Indianapolis Colts will do the same with star receiver Michael Pittman. With those wideouts off the board, veterans Mike Evans and Ridley will become the most sought-after in free agency.

There’s an argument to be made that Ridley, who doesn’t have the same resume as Evans, might even make more sense for the Patriots.

The 29-year-old Ridley, who’s played 66 career games across five seasons, has less tread on the tires than the 30-year-old Evans, who’s played 163 career games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay reportedly is working hard to retain Evans.

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Ridley is not the same player as Evans, who has 10 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. On free-agent lists this offseason, Ridley ranked No. 16 on NFL.com, No. 23 on ESPN and No. 24 on Pro Football Focus. Evans ranked 10th, 12th and 13th on those three lists, respectively. Evans is the better player.

But Ridley, the No. 26 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, possesses a versatility to play both inside and outside. He showed off his explosiveness in 2023 as he put up his second 1,000-yard season (1,016) and finished with 76 catches and eight touchdowns. And that was after not playing for a season and a half.

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Ridley missed the 2022 season due to violations of the league’s gambling policy after not playing during the second half of 2021. At the time, he stepped away to focus on his mental health. Again, less tread on the tires. Ridely has taken five seasons of NFL hits while Evans has taken 10. Ridley seemingly fits New England’s timeline better.

He would be a great addition for whichever quarterback is behind center for the Patriots in 2024.

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Ridley, who reportedly gained interested from Bill Belichick’s Patriots before the 2022 trade deadline, also might come cheaper than Evans. Spotrac projects Ridley will sign a four-year, $68 million contract worth $17 million annually. Spotrac projects Evans will receive a contract in the neighborhood of four years and $95 million with a AAV of $24 million.

The Patriots have $86 million in cap space, according to Pats Cap expert Miguel Benzan. Releasing cornerback J.C. Jackson would add nearly $14 million to that number for a total of more than $100 million. So while finances aren’t exactly tight, those savings could help New England address another hole on its roster.

Spending on one of the top wideouts available would go a long way, especially before an NFL draft where the Patriots could go a few different directions at No. 3 overall.

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