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Curran: Which free agents make the most sense for Patriots?

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First things first, has a more wonderfully ridiculous term than “NFL’s Legal Tampering Period” ever been coined?

“Whatcha got planned for today?”

“Tampering.”

“Really??”

“Yeah. It’s legal though.”

“Cool. Can I watch?”

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Anyway, teams get the green light to tamper their fool heads off with prospective unrestricted free agents beginning Monday at noon. (Which likely means the illegal tampering has already begun. Be that as it may.)

And there’s a good chance we’ll be looking for signs of life in Foxboro. It will be a far cry from last year when, flush with cash and motivated to spend after a 7-9 season, Bill Belichick looked like a Supermarket Sweep contestant, filling his carriage with wideouts, tight ends, corners and edge rushers in a frantic effort to buy the team he failed to draft.

The Patriots were so tired of the slings-and-arrows being launched at them for their post-Brady roster decline, they stepped outside the box. For years, New England may have been the only team to observe the legal tampering letter of the law: Agreements could not be entered into or announced before actual free agency started. In 2021, they were whales walking into the casino and they flaunted it.

 

This year? Probably penny slots and $5 tables. The Patriots guaranteed a total of $163M to free agents like Matthew Judon, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith last March. The deals they signed were worth close to a quarter-billion. It was record-setting. It was wildly uncharacteristic. It probably gave Robert Kraft a temporary tic. And it won’t happen again.

The Patriots have about $10M in available cap space. If they want to get in on big-ticket guys, they will have to tweak existing contracts to free up space. They also have a fleet of current players who are hitting the market. J.C. Jackson seems as good as gone but Devin McCourty and Trent Brown, for instance, would be big losses if they move on.

Top 2022 NFL free agents: QB | RB | WR | TEOL | DL | EDGELB | CB | S | KTop 25

So here’s your Patriot-centric 2022 free agent primer including the ones who’ll get away, the ones not worth the dough and the ones who may not be household names but could wind up in critical roles. We’re sticking to wide receivers, corners, linebackers, tackles and the stray edge defender since those are the team’s main needs

In this economy?!?!

J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots, CB

Age: 26

Ridiculously productive, as we all know, but Jackson’s most likely going to sign a deal with an APY north of $18M and a total value between $70M and $80M. And for that kind of dough, you need a shutdown corner. Jackson isn’t that.

Von Miller, Los Angeles Rams, EDGE

Age: 33

A pure pass-rusher and perhaps a future HOFer who can still get it done, the Patriots already have a guy whose main forte is sprinting after quarterbacks – Matt Judon. Versatility, youth with a price tag under $10M APY would be valued more than Miller, who’ll likely be over $15M APY.

Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals, EDGE

Age: 32

Jones said this week he’d like to pick a place where he got to choose how he’d be deployed. Drafted by the Patriots and traded to the Cardinals, the big-ticket EDGE rusher isn’t going to want to be setting the edge in New England in the twilight of his career. Plus he’s still a $15M-plus APY guy.

Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks, ILB

Age: 31

A definite HOF-player and generationally great linebacker, Wagner is most likely going to go to a team with a better chance of winning a title in the immediate future than the Patriots have. The Patriots just finished a season in which they paid Dont’a Hightower a premium salary to play less than 60 percent of the team’s defensive plays and give ordinary results. Wagner’s nearing the point where the dropoff comes quickly.

 

Allen Robinson, Chicago Bears, WR

Age: 29

Robinson has rolled up big numbers in both Chicago and Jacksonville despite not having top-tier quarterbacking. And he’s the best wideout in a shallow free-agent class at that spot. But he’s a strapping 6-2, 220. Do you know the last time a wideout that big and burly was a success for the Patriots? Roll through the names from the past decade: N’Keal Harry, Kenny Britt, Michael Floyd, Josh Gordon, Aaron Dobson, Brandon LaFell … only LaFell was a standout and that was short-lived.

The most productive 6-2 or taller wideout has been Jakobi Meyers and he’s a streamlined 205. Maybe I’m just gun-shy about that kind of frame succeeding in the Patriots offense. If the Patriots aren’t, Robinson may be their guy if the price tag ($15M-plus APY) doesn’t scare them off. Robinson isn’t a burner but he is truly physical (not peekaboo physical like Harry has been). Definitely has buyer beware written on him, IMO.

Marcus Williams, New Orleans Saints, Safety

Age: 25

A smart, strong free safety who’s been excellent for the Saints, Williams could be a consideration. But he’s going to cost nearly as much as J.C. Jackson would in APY, so go with the guy who knows your scheme – Devin McCourty(Editor's Note: McCourty announced his return to the Patriots on Sunday night.)

Jadeveon Clowney, Cleveland Browns, EDGE

Age: 29

He always misses at least a few games and he’s probably seeking one more cash bonanza after his nine-sack season for Cleveland but if the Patriots could get him for around $8M APY – and that may be a longshot – his fit would be excellent because he is versatile and can be a lion against the run.

Yeah, maybe five years ago

Stephon Gilmore, Carolina Panthers, CB

Age: 31

He’s the best in the business still at locking down receivers 1-on-1. But from the undressing he got in the 2019 regular-season finale at Foxboro to a less-than-engaged 2020, to a December injury in 2020 and the ensuing low-simmer drama that lingered into 2021, the Patriots already enjoyed the best parts of the Steph Gilmore Experience.

Dont’a Hightower, New England Patriots, LB

Age: 32

The Patriots are clearly trying to get younger and faster on defense. And maybe cheaper too. Despite all the highs Hightower brought and all the leadership he could conceivably still bring, he’s not young and he’s not fast anymore. A tough guy to move on from but it seems inevitable.

Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills, EDGE

 

Age: 33

Hughes is still a pretty talented EDGE rusher but he’s a situational player at this juncture and a one-trick pony.

Patrick Peterson, Minnesota Vikings, CB

Age: 31

A probable Hall of Famer and formerly the best in the business, Peterson’s in the twilight of a great career. He played 98 percent of the snaps for Minnesota last season and allowed just a 56.6 completion percentage and two touchdowns. But his Pro Football Focus grades were atrocious. He was on an $8M deal with Minny last year. If he’s willing to play for a low, low price, there’s merit in taking a chance with Jackson gone. But it would be a gamble.

T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts, WR

Age: 32

Hilton will be 33 this season. He would be along the same lines as the 2011 and 2012 versions of Deion Branch. Occasionally useful. I wouldn’t hate it but I wouldn’t hold my breath on it either.  

Who he???

Foyesade Oluokun, Atlanta Falcons, LB

Age: 27

A skinny (6-2, 218 pound), sideline-to-sideline producer who had 102 tackles, three picks, two sacks and four TFLs in 2021. A sixth-round pick in 2018, he doesn’t fit the Patriots linebacker profile at all but if they want speed and production, he’s an option.

UPDATE: Oluokun is joining the Jacksonville Jaguars on a three-year deal, per reports.

Josey Jewell, Denver Broncos, LB

Age: 27

Jewell played 93 percent of the Broncos snaps in 2020 and had 66 tackles. Jewell tore his pec early in 2021 and missed the rest of the season. He’s a former fourth-round pick from Iowa who isn’t huge – 6-1, 234 – and isn’t overly speedy (4.82 40) but does have excellent quickness and reaction time. Under-the-radar prospect for the Pats.

D.J. Reed, Seattle Seahawks, CB

Age: 25

He’s just 5-foot-9 and played that Cover-3 zone with the Seahawks but if the Patriots are going to transition from playing mostly man since they may not have a shutdown corner, Reed would be a prospect to consider. Loves to hit and support the run. Could play outside or spell Jonathan Jones at slot corner.

Donte Jackson, Carolina Panthers, CB

Age: 26

Really fast (4.3 40), pretty productive (12 picks in four seasons) corner from LSU who was taken in the second round by Carolina. He’s 5-10, 180 pounds and – while he isn’t a scheme fit either – if he’s got versatility to play man and zone then he could be an option

Broken ...

Odell Beckham Jr., Los Angeles Rams, WR

Age: 29

In the Super Bowl, OBJ tore the same ACL he ripped in 2020. He’s played 16 games just once since 2016.  When he’s healthy, he’s a handful. When he’s not healthy, he can also be a handful. The Patriots courted Beckham and he said he considered. Would he take a deal with a low base and a decent per-game bonus? He’d make a difference, no doubt.

 

Michael Gallup, Dallas Cowboys, WR

Age: 26

Gallup played just nine games in 2021 and tore his ACL in Week 17 so he’s a question mark as a free agent. A strained calf at the start of the year put him on IR and he missed seven games. He’d be an interesting add because of his versatility. He’s similar in build to Kendrick Bourne but has had a higher depth of target during his career. Could be a second-wave free agent because of the injury.

UPDATE: Gallup and the Cowboys agreed to a five-year extension on Sunday.

Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys, LB

Age: 25

After a terrific rookie season (140 tackles), he battled neck injuries the next two years. He played all 17 games in 2021 and had 77 tackles.  He’s a bit of a dice roll because of the injury history but he’d be a two-down linebacker fit for the Patriots.

I know him!!

Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs, S

Age: 30

Still a durable and productive playmaker, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Mathieu can play everywhere. The Patriots have Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger under contract and McCourty is coming back. Is Mathieu an upgrade over McCourty? Probably not given McCourty’s scheme experience and reasonable price tag compared to what Mathieu will command.

Akiem Hicks, Chicago Bears, DT

Age: 32

Still a very talented run defender. He’s played just 29 of the past 49 regular-season games and may at this point be interested in joining a team closer to a Lombardi than the Patriots might be. But he’s a force up front when healthy.

Haason Reddick, Carolina Panthers, EDGE

Age: 28

Skinny pure pass rusher who has 23.5 sacks over the past two years. He’s most likely going to be a big-ticket item for someone and – at 6-1, 235 – wouldn’t be the edge-setter the Patriots would like in the running game.

UPDATE: Reddick is signing a three-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, per NFL Media.

Melvin Ingram, Kansas City Chiefs, EDGE

Age: 33

Beefier than Redick but getting up there in age. He wouldn’t be someone the Patriots could ride for too many snaps at this juncture in his career but has enough versatility for an inquiry.

Trent Brown, New England Patriots, RT

Age: 28

A human eclipse. The 6-foot-8, 380-pound Brown is a handful when he plays but has been too dinged up the past three seasons to feel great about handing a lucrative contract to. He’s missed 24 of the past 49 games.

Will Fuller, Miami Dolphins, WR

 

Age: 28

Played just three games for Miami this year. A true field stretcher and arguably would be an upgrade over Nelson Agholor but he’s so brittle that any significant financial commitment would seem unlikely.

Don't hate it!

D.J. Chark, Jacksonville Jaguars, WR

Age: 25

There’s a lot to like about Chark, a second-round pick in 2018 who is a big downfield threat. He’s coming off a broken foot that ended his season after four games. He’s pretty surehanded (nine drops in four seasons) and has very good size (6-4, 198 pounds). He’ll be at least a $10M APY guy but, again, would likely be a scheme and downfield upgrade over Agholor.  

Anthony Barr, Minnesota Vikings, LB

Age: 30

Barr played in a 3-4 as an OLB in college and has played 4-3 OLB since coming to the NFL. At 6-5, 257, he’s been a productive, three-down player throughout his career. A four-time Pro Bowler, he’d be a player that the Patriots could use but he may be more inclined to stay in Minnesota.

Steven Nelson, Philadelphia Eagles, CB

Age: 29

Though Nelson once said, “Screw the Patriots,” when asked if he’d rooted for them in the 2018 Super Bowl, the former Steeler, Chiefs and Eagles corner has started 84 of 86 games going back to 2016. He’s not a top-tier corner but neither was Jalen Mills and he managed fine. In the absence of a top-tier No. 1, Nelson could be an experienced stopgap to steady the spot until the Patriots unearth their next guy.  

Braxton Berrios, New York Jets, WR

Age: 26

Fits the suit, that’s for sure. The former Patriots draftee was released in 2019, hooked on with the Jets and pretty much did what the Patriots envisioned he could do both as a receiver and returner (30.4 KOR average in 2021). He caught 83 balls over the past two years and had one drop on 60 targets in 2021. Simply put, he’d help Mac Jones plenty.

UPDATE: Berrios reportedly is re-signing with the Jets on a two-year contract.

Isaiah McKenzie, Buffalo Bills, WR

Age: 27

Same deal as Berrios. He’s even smaller than Berrios – 5-8, 173 pounds – and had just 50 catches the past two years but the Patriots saw up close the damage McKenzie can do as he caught 11 of the 12 passes sent his way for 125 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots in December. That was the only game McKenzie saw more than three targets in a contest and he amassed more than half his total of 20 catches in that game. He’d be a low-budget add with upside for Mac Jones.

UPDATE: McKenzie and the Bills agreed to a two-year extension on Sunday.

Anthony Averett, Baltimore Ravens, CB

 

Age: 27

Lean corner with good length that started 14 games for Baltimore last season. A fourth-round pick in 2018 out of Alabama, he’s possibly an ascending player the Patriots could target as a low-budget option.

Love it!

Trey Flowers, Detroit Lions, DE

Age: 28

The former Patriot was released by Detroit last week. He made more than $54M in his three seasons with the Lions but played just 14 games the last two years and had 27 tackles. He could follow the Jamie Collins path back to New England and – if he has better luck with health – could be a real stabilizer. A low-cost deal to bring back a solid leader who understands the defense and the program? No-brainer.  

De’Vondre Campbell, Green Bay Packers, LB

Age: 28

A 6-3, 232-pound tackling machine who had 146 stops last year and hasn’t missed a game since 2016, he’s a three-down player who holds his own in coverage. He played on a $2M deal with the Packers last year and should be seeking a major bump. For a team that needs a youth and speed infusion at the second level, the Patriots should absolutely get in on a player like Campbell.

UPDATE: Campbell is staying in Green Bay, per reports.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers, WR

Age: 25

The JuJu that was so electric in his first two seasons is shrinking in the rearview. Bill Belichick is a fan, though, singling out Smith-Schuster for praise publicly and privately. The big (6-1, 215-pound) slot played just five games last season because of a shoulder injury but he’s so young and has so much demonstrated ability that – even though he can be a lot, he’d be the perfect buy-low add for New England.

Charvarius Ward, Kansas City Chiefs, CB

Age: 26

He will be a cut below J.C. Jackson in terms of cost but he may give comparable skill level. He’s 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, is a more sure tackler than Jackson (10 missed tackles in three seasons compared to Jackson’s 20) and allowed 81 completions the past two years compared to Jackson’s 101.

Ward is still going to be costly – probably more than $14M APY – and the Patriots will have to be creative to sign him and still have room for other additions but if they want to keep playing man as often as they do, Ward is the best option to get that done.

Christian Kirk, Arizona Cardinals, WR

Age: 25

Coming off a 77-catch season, Kirk can play inside or outside and has the speed to stretch the field. At 5-10, 201 pounds, Kirk is probably not the ideal size/quickness complement that the Patriots have had with slots like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, who showed more suddenness and after-the-catch ability. But he showed with Arizona that he can be a mid-range threat (12.9 and 12.8 YPC the last two years) and find the end zone (11 TDs in 2020 and 2021). His cost may be a tad high initially but if he hangs around …

 

UPDATE: Kirk reportedly is joining the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency.