Phillip Dorsett

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address wide receivers?

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: How will team address wide receivers?

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

Like the running back position in New England, the Patriots could roll into 2020 with just about the same group if they so choose.

Julian Edelman is back. Same goes for Mohamed Sanu, N'Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski. Phillip Dorsett is the lone regular contributor from the 2019 receiver room who's set to hit free agency. Matthew Slater, almost exclusively a special-teamer, is scheduled to be a free agent as well. Though Meyers showed promise in spurts throughout his rookie season, only Edelman, Sanu and Harry look like guarantees to be on the roster. 

Will the Patriots be OK with that trio as their top three?

Does Meyers make sense as the No. 4? Or does there need to be a significant upgrade talent-wise made to this unit via free agency, shuffling the depth chart and giving whoever's playing quarterback -- Tom Brady or someone else -- better weapons to work with? What was available at times last season was ugly.

BREAKING DOWN THE CURRENT ROSTER

Julian Edelman: Headed into his 34-year-old season, it's worth wondering exactly how much the Patriots will be able to depend on Edelman. He did -- despite injuries to his ribs, shoulder and knee -- put up one of the most productive seasons of his career, cracking 1,000 yards.

Mohamed Sanu: After a promising start to his Patriots career, including a 10-catch performance against the Ravens midseason, Sanu tailed off. He suffered a high-ankle sprain and had just 14 catches on 26 targets following that game in Baltimore. The Patriots dealt a second-round pick to get him so he's probably not going anywhere ahead of the 2020 season. They'll just have to hope more time in the system, and better health, yields better outcomes. 

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N'Keal Harry: The rookie first-round pick lost the first half of his season to injured reserve and had trouble finding his footing upon his return. He finished the year with 12 catches for 105 yards on 24 targets in seven games. He flashed contested-catch promise with a touchdown against the Cowboys and a leaping grab in Cincinnati that was called back due to penalty -- he was also an effective runner on end-around plays -- but the Patriots will be looking for much more consistency in Year 2. 

Phillip Dorsett: The Patriots signed Dorsett to a one-year deal last offseason, in all likelihood hoping he could reprise his 2018 role as a valuable reserve. Pressed into more regular action, he wasn't as efficient a target for Brady and by the end of the season he was ceding reps to rookies. He could return via free agency this offseason if the Patriots want a familiar face to come back and be able to fill in. But it feels as though both sides might be willing to find a fresh start. 

Jakobi Meyers: After a strong summer, Meyers didn't exactly hit the ground running, but he did end up as the team's most productive rookie wideout. He averaged 13.8 yards per catch -- 0.1 behind what Emmaunel Sanders did in San Fran and what Brandin Cooks did in Los Angeles -- and no rookie caught more contested targets (seven of 10), according to Pro Football Focus.

Gunner Olszewski: The Bemidji State product was the last to make the active roster out of camp but stuck around long enough to play in eight games before landing on injured reserve. He caught just two passes for 34 yards -- both against the Giants in Week 6 when the Patriots were hurting at the receiver spot -- but chipped in as the team's regular punt-returner before his injury. He returned 20 for 179 yards (9.0 yards per return, 20th in the NFL). 

Matthew Slater: Slater heads into free agency after another First Team All-Pro selection as a special-teamer, his fifth. He played 20 snaps in 2019 -- all as a run-blocker.

WHO IS POTENTIALLY ON THE OPEN MARKET?

Amari Cooper: This would be a Ruthian hack in free agency. Cooper might cost almost $20 million per year on whatever new deal he signs. The Patriots, though, have been bold in adding talent to their roster when they see glaring issues. Would they be this bold?

Seems unlikely that the Patriots would devote the necessary resources to land this one-time Nick Saban pupil, but it'd infuse the wideout room in New England with some much-needed, in-his-prime talent. If Tom Brady is willing to take pennies on the dollar to stick in New England with the promise that he'll have more to work with in 2020, Cooper should be the team's top-of-the-list item.

A.J. Green: The Patriots are in need of a vertical presence in the passing game. For years that was Rob Gronkowski. Hard to replicate that skill set at tight end, so it may have to be a receiver. After a year off, it's hard to know exactly how Green would fill this role . . . but it's what he's done for the majority of his career.

He'd be a much cheaper option than Cooper ($9 million per year might get it done), and he might be itching to play for a competitor. Green would make more sense than going after Emmanuel Sanders, another 30-something free agent this offseason, since the Patriots are already loaded up on interior veteran pass-catchers in Sanu and Edelman. 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: FAMILIAR FACE

Danny Amendola: The Patriots might be set in the slot. But wouldn't it make sense to have a trusted option on the inside should Julian Edelman be forced to miss time due to injury? Amendola filled that role admirably in 2014 and 2016 when Edelman was healthy for the majority of the year. It allowed Amendola to sit back for portions of the year and then be used more liberally in the postseason.

He knows the offense. He wouldn't be looking to break the bank at this point in his career. He still holds respect for the organization, and anything he said upon his departure from New England in 2018 would be water under the bridge if Bill Belichick felt as though his receiver group would be better off with Amendola in it. 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: UNDER-THE-RADAR OPTIONS

Breshad Perriman: It wasn't all that long ago that Perriman looked like the perfect Patriots reclamation project. They've had a long list of failed first-round draft picks come through their recevier room -- Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson -- and Perriman could've been the latest.

The only problem? He tore it up at the end of the 2019 season for the Bucs, finishing with career-highs in catches (36), yards (645) and touchdowns (6) while playing for his third team in his four-year career. He'd be a clever solution to New England's vertical issues, but he might've priced himself out of Patriots consideration with what he did at the end of the year.

Travis Benjamin: A much different type of vertical threat than Perriman (who stands 6-foot-2, 215 pounds), Benjamin is a mini-burner at 5-10, 175 pounds. He was placed on injured reserve in October of last season so his numbers were down across the board, but he's averaged over 15.0 yards per catch for his career and he has a wealth of return experience. He might be a cost-effective gamble at the position this offseason. 

Pharoh Cooper: The Rams took Cooper in the fourth round in 2016, and he went on to win First-Team All-Pro honors the following year for his work in the return game. For his career, he's returned 66 punts for 619 yards and 92 kicks for 2,213 yards.

The 5-foot-11, 200 pounder also finished with the eighth-best catch rate from the slot in 2019, according to PFF. He had 25 catches for 243 yards and a touchdown on the season. If the Patriots wanted some young depth in the slot, Cooper might be a good option. Sanu is in the final year of his deal and Edelman's contract runs out after 2021.

Who are Patriots' biggest free-agent priorities after Tom Brady?

Who are Patriots' biggest free-agent priorities after Tom Brady?

The biggest question facing the Patriots this offseason, the biggest offseason question in the history of the franchise, remains whether or not Tom Brady will be back.

We know he's a free agent. We know that for the first time in his career he has the ability to listen to offers from other teams across the NFL. We know he wants to play. 

We also know there's no other pending Patriots free agent who'll have a bigger say on Patriots wins and losses for the 2020 season. Despite the way the season ended for him — numbers down, games against the Dolphins and Bengals pocked with inexplicably inaccurate throws — he still has the ability to execute at a high level when healthy.

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That makes locking Brady in for another year at a reasonable price — the definition of "reasonable" could end up determining his whereabouts next season — a priority for this offseason, in our view.

But what about everyone else? The Patriots have plenty of contributing players set to hit the market this offseason.

Here's how we'd rank 'em, in order of ascending importance...

No. 14: Marshall Newhouse

Signed off the street and smart enough to be able to pick up the Patriots offense on the fly, Newhouse ended up starting eight games for the team with Isaiah Wynn out. But he graded out as one of the worst tackles in the league and had difficulty handling the athletic requirements of the position in today's NFL.

The Patriots have Yodny Cajuste in the pipeline — drafted in the third round last spring — who could end up playing in a reserve role in 2020. This also looks like a strong draft class for offensive tackles. 

No. 13: Nick Folk

Stephen Gostkowski is under contract through next season. He's scheduled to make $3.5 million in base salary and count $5.3 million against the cap. Releasing him would free up almost $4 million.

That's nothing to sneeze at, but if he's healthy, it's hard to see Bill Belichick choosing Nick Folk over the franchise's leading scorer. Folk impressed by making 14 of his 17 field goal attempts and all 12 of his extra-point tries.

No. 12: James Ferentz

The veteran interior offensive lineman has hung around New England since 2017 thanks to his ability to understand the system and play three different positions. He ranks as a low-priority option here, though, because it should be a relatively easy to keep him around if the Patriots wanted to.

The healthy return of Hjalte Froholdt and free-agent decisions on Joe Thuney and Ted Karras could impact how willing the Patriots are to keep things going with Ferentz, who played 203 snaps this year. 

No. 11: Shilique Calhoun

Calhoun fit the Patriots profile as a long and athletic outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme that became their go-to this year. In his only season with the team, he ended up playing 268 snaps and saw his playing time reduced defensively as the year went along. After playing 55 snaps in Week 1, he never cracked the 30-snap mark again. He played 22 snaps defensively in the team's final three must-win games of the year, and ended the season with 16 total quarterback pressures.

One of the team's top special-teamers — he played 235 snaps in the kicking game — Calhoun could end up returning in a similar role. And if the Patriots feel as though they might lose Kyle Van Noy to free agency, then perhaps Calhoun could come back and help fill in more defensively.

No. 10: Nate Ebner

A core special-teamer since his arrival in 2012, Ebner reprised that role again in 2019. He saw 333 snaps in the kicking game and served as the personal protector on the punt team.

He's among Bill Belichick's most trusted special-teams options, becoming somewhat of a coach-on-the-field type along with Matthew Slater. He blocked a punt against the Chiefs and still appears to have plenty of good football left in him. It'd come as little surprise if he ended up back in New England. 

No. 9: Ted Karras

Thrust into the center's role with David Andrews out, Karras started all but one game this season. He was durable and on top of the system to the point that he was able to win the job over early-season acquisition Russell Bodine.

The Patriots missed having their regular starter this season — Andrews' athleticism allowed the team to do things they couldn't with another player in there — but if Andrews is able to return to his regular workload in 2020, then having Karras back in the mix as the do-it-all interior backup would make plenty of sense for the Patriots.

No. 8: Elandon Roberts

Roberts was not a starting-caliber linebacker for the Patriots, but he was named a captain for the first time prior to the season. Why? Part of the reason became apparent as the 2019 year went on and he took on the role of the team's top fullback.

He might not have been thrilled to be considered an offensive player — he played more offensive snaps than defensive snaps in the team's final three games — but he provided a level of toughness the offense needed.

Fullback shouldn't be in his future, but if the Patriots wanted him back as a special-teamer and fill-in linebacker then there could be a place for him on the roster. Belichick values having a certain toughness quotient in his locker room, and there are few people on the team who have a hankering for contact the way Roberts does.

No. 7: Phillip Dorsett

Dorsett's season was largely quiet, and as the season went on he and Tom Brady appeared to be on different pages. Still, he proved throughout the course of 2018 that if he's handed the role of a No. 4 wideout he can bring value to the team.

That might be where he slots in for 2020 if he were to return as Julian Edelman, N'Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu are all under contract next season. If the Patriots view Jakobi Meyers as the better option as a No. 4, then Dorsett's time with the team might be over. 

No. 6: Danny Shelton

In Belichick's 3-4 defense, he needed a nose tackle. It looked like he'd signed one in Mike Pennel before the start of the season, but Danny Shelton claimed the job with a strong training camp and Pennel was released. He continued that effort through the regular season and was one of the team's most consistent front-seven players in 2019, starting every game but two.

Unfortunately for the Patriots, Shelton was inked to just a one-year deal last offseason. Now if there's a team looking for a big-body to play in the middle of their defensive line, Shelton could end up being one of the top options in free agency. 

No. 5: Matthew Slater

The 34-year-old proved that he can still hit top speed and find the football with the best of them.

The captain of one of the league's top special-teams units over the last several years, Slater earned his fifth first-team All-Pro nod for his performance in 2019. As important as Slater has been to the team's kicking-game for the last decade, he's also critical to maintaining the culture behind the scenes.

One of the last links — along with Tom Brady and Stephen Gostkowski — to an era in New England that included players like Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison, one would think that Belichick would do all he can to keep Slater around through the end of his playing days. And maybe beyond. 

No. 4: Jamie Collins

One of the team's top players through the first six weeks of the season — he had an argument as the best player on the league's best defense — Collins' play dipped as the season went along.

According to Pro Football Focus, he had four games with grades exceeding 90.0 through Week 6. He had one game exceeding 70.0 the rest of the way and finished the year with his worst grade of the season (29.9) against the Titans and their power running game.

In a scheme that allows him to blitz and drop into zones, Collins can be a game-changer, but he's not the run-thumper the Patriots often want at the second level. Whether or not he returns will likely depend on how the Patriots — and any potential suitors — view the disparity in his play between the early part of the season and later. 

No. 3: Kyle Van Noy

The Patriots don't tend to pay edge defenders about to make big-time money in free agency. They didn't do it with Chandler Jones. They didn't do it with Trey Flowers.

Van Noy doesn't reach the level that those two did, but odds are — particularly with Patriots-related coaching staffs all over the NFL — that there will be another team that values Van Noy's abilities more than New England does.

If Belichick views Chase Winovich as someone who can play more than just third down as he gets into the second year of his professional career and beyond, then he may be prepared to bid Van Noy adieu after a stay that included three Super Bowl appearances and two Lombardi Trophies. 

No. 2: Joe Thuney

The team's quarterback decision could end up determining how things play out with Thuney.

If Brady is back at a dollar amount that might prevent many other big-money signings, then Thuney could be gone. He ended up having the sixth-best grade of any guard — right or left — in the NFL, according to PFF. He was third in pass-blocking grade.

In a league where interior pass-rushers are among the game's most disruptive players, making sure quarterbacks are protected inside is as important as ever. Thuney's one of the best in football when it comes to that, and smack in the middle of his prime. There's a chance he ends up the highest-paid guard in the league.

If the Patriots free up money by going with an inexpensive quarterback, then maybe Thuney — who's played over 99 percent of the team's snaps since entering the league in 2016 — could be back. Not a bad player, a young core piece, around which to build. Shaq Mason is paid as a top-25 interior lineman based on average annual value.

Would that prevent the Patriots from shelling out big money for Thuney?

No. 1: Devin McCourty

McCourty toyed with the idea of retirement ahead of last year's Super Bowl, but he's made it very clear that he's looking to play in 2020.

Will it be with the team that drafted him in the first round in 2010? If the Patriots want to maintain one of the best defenses in football, they should do what they can to get him back on a deal that keeps him from finishing out his career elsewhere.

The strength of this year's group was in the secondary due in large part to the elite play they received from Stephon Gilmore. But McCourty ended up with five picks himself and served as the secondary's nerve center.

On a defense that changes plans from drive to drive and snap to snap — a defense that's reliant on a young coaching staff — McCourty brought immense value in 2019. He'd do the same in 2020, and it likely wouldn't cost a huge sum over many years the same way it would with someone like Thuney.

Maintaining a level of consistency for the league's No. 1 defense might be their best bet at remaining competitive in the AFC in the short term, and reuniting with McCourty is the simplest way to get started in that direction.

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Rex Burkhead: It's 'been a privilege to play with' Tom Brady

Rex Burkhead: It's 'been a privilege to play with' Tom Brady

On Saturday night, the New England Patriots season came to a disappointing conclusion. Playing in the Wild Card round for the first time since 2009, the Patriots couldn't get past the sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans. They lost 20-13 and now are heading toward an offseason of uncertainty.

The biggest question the Patriots are facing revolves around the status of Tom Brady. The 42-year-old quarterback is hitting unrestricted free agency for the first time in his 20-year career and a return to New England is not guaranteed.

Whether or not Brady returns, his teammates have appreciated the time that they've had playing alongside him.

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"He's been a privilege to play with," Patriots running back Rex Burkhead said. "I've learned a ton from him. His leadership, his ability to come in every single day and prepare like it's his last, I've taken it all in.

"I'd love to keep playing with him, but I understand it's his choice, it's his decision. I'm just going to be happy for him whatever it is."

Brady's choice will surely be a hot topic across the NFL this offseason as he decides where to continue his career. Brady has said that he is unlikely to retire and he has no plans of taking a hometown discount to remain in New England. But neither he nor Bill Belichick would comment definitively on Brady's future with the team.

Whatever happens with Brady, the Patriots and their fans will be happy to have had him play in New England for 20 years. And the players will be thankful for the memories as well.

"You have to cherish the moments," wide receiver Phillip Dorsett said. "I'm just glad I got a chance to play with him."