With the 2022 offseason in full swing for the New England Patriots after their abrupt playoff exit, it’s time to take a look at the plethora of big decisions the team will be facing before the start of next season. The Pats have a whopping 20 free agents to handle this offseason including some big defensive pieces and veteran leaders, including 4 of their 5 captains from 2021. It could be a significant turning point for the franchise depending on the direction Bill Belichick takes the team. The opening day roster could look quite a bit different next season. Let’s look at some of the biggest free agents on the Pats.
1. J.C. Jackson, CB
After moving on from one of the best corner backs in football, Stephon Gilmore, Bill Belichick handed the #1 reigns to J.C. Jackson and seemingly committed to him going forward. As a whole, he had a great season and did a really nice job shutting down the opposing team’s top receiver on a weekly basis. He played in all 17 games and made his first Pro Bowl thanks to 8 interceptions and a career-high 23 passes deflected. There were some moments of struggle down the stretch, but a lot of that can be attributed to the awful depth at corner behind Jackson and the complete lack of a pass-rush in the last month of the season giving opposing QBs tons of time to read the defense and throw. If Belichick decides not to pay Jackson, he’ll have a hard time bringing in another #1 corner at a reasonable price and the Pats secondary could be in for another rough year.
Prediction: Jackson takes a small hometown discount (keyword is small), but gets paid handsomely and appropriately to stay in New England for the next few years as the #1 corner. It will solidify the top spot in the secondary and then allow Belichick to fill-in behind him.
2. Devin McCourty, S
The 27th pick in the 1st round of the 2010 draft has proven to be a critical mainstay with the Pats. Devin McCourty started as a corner after being drafted out of Rutgers, but was moved to safety a few seasons into his NFL career and it was a great decision. McCourty has anchored the Pats secondary for the last decade and at 34, this is a big decision for both him and the Patriots. One possible outcome on the table is that McCourty decides to retire and doesn’t give the Pats a chance to make a decision. If he decides to keep playing, Belichick will likely not want to give someone of his age a large contract. It might come down to how much McCourty wants to stick around in New England and how much he’s willing to budge on salary to make that happen.
Prediction: McCourty is beloved in New England and with a young child at home, I imagine he won’t want to uproot his family for a year or two elsewhere unless he has no choice. As long as the Patriots offer him a fair deal, he decides to keep playing and comes back on a team friendly 1-year deal and then retires following the season.
3. Matthew Slater, WR
Slater may be one of the most underrated players on the Pats roster. As a team captain and primary special teams player, Belichick loves Slater and his ability to impact special teams on a consistent basis. His ability to stay on the field (he hasn’t missed a game for the Patriots in 4 years) and lead the special teams efforts make him an important person to re-sign. His intangibles are his greatest asset, as he is often praised by the coaches for his leadership and recognized for his contributions to the community off the field. While Slater is another potential retirement candidate as he will turn 37 in September, his workload primarily on special teams may allow him to play deeper into his 30s than someone on the field for more snaps.
Prediction: I’m a bit more torn on this one, but think Slater will follow in McCourty’s footsteps and sign a 1-year deal to finish his career a Patriot. Like McCourty, I think this upcoming season could be his last in the NFL.
4. Trent Brown, T
One of the largest people in the league, Brown’s 6’8″ 380lb frame helps him protect the QB from the tackle spot when he’s on the field. In his 2nd stint with the Patriots in 2021, just 7 snaps into his season he hurt his calf and didn’t return until week 10. When healthy, Brown is a great tackle and is a strong QB protector and at 28, is still pretty young, but he hasn’t played a full schedule of games since 2018 (his previous Patriots season). Last year with the Las Vegas Raiders, Brown only appeared in 5 games after an IV was incorrectly placed and caused air to enter his bloodstream and nearly caused cardiac arrest. While it was a freak accident, it does add to his reputation of not being able to stay on the field. As players get older, they tend to have more injuries pop-up as well, so there is some concern for Brown long-term when he’s already struggling to stay healthy in his 20s.
Prediction: As good as Brown is, his inability to play a full season consistently will prevent the Pats from giving him starting tackle money, while another team who is worse off on the offensive line may. My guess is that Brown will sign a surprisingly large contract with another team (like he did when he went to Las Vegas) and the Patriots will either draft a depth offensive lineman or pick one up in free agency.
5. Dont’a Hightower, LB
Super Bowl hero Dont’a Hightower returned this year after opting out in 2020 due to COVID. For his standards, Hightower had a relatively quiet season this past year and didn’t seem to have nearly the same impact he’s had in the past, both in stats and with the eye test. As a point of comparison, he had just 1.5 sacks this year as opposed to 6 in 2019 and had fewer tackles overall compared to 2019. The sack dip makes sense with the addition of DE Matthew Judon’s pass-rush ability (at least until the final month of the season) and the lack of secondary depth forced Hightower into some different positions in coverage, but it just felt like Hightower had less of an overall impact in 2021. Hightower is still a leader of the linebacker core and that’s critically important, but you have to wonder whether this year was a small blip or a sign that things are beginning to decline a touch.
Prediction: The Pats move on from Hightower despite his history and leadership because they believe he is beginning to decline at soon-to-be 32 years old. Another team desperate for leadership on defense will snap him up and he’ll have one or maybe two more strong seasons in the NFL.
Honorable Mention: James White, RB
There couldn’t be a worse time for White to have a season-ending hip subluxation injury than in week 3 of a contract year. White is an important leader in the running back room and has been a strong pass catcher out of the backfield for the Patriots for years. He’s been a critical piece in multiple super bowls and definitely has earned the respect of fans and coaches. It’s a tough spot for White and the Pats given the injury, but Bill Belichick and the entire Patriots roster love and respect White and his leadership (sense a trend with this crop of free agents?).
Prediction: White comes back on a cheap deal to prove he’s healthy again and be a veteran leader for the young RB core. He’s only 29 and in a rotational backfield like New England, he’ll play a small but important role on 3rd down. He’ll also be able to step in when Damien Harris and/or Rhamondre Stevenson get injured, because both have a tendency to miss time with nagging injuries in their young careers.
Overall, this free agency class is filled with known veterans and secondary leaders. There are some exceptionally difficult decisions to be made, especially with 4 of their 5 captains from 2021 being free agents. Depending on the direction the franchise feels they are going, they could either continue to go all-in on this group of leaders for another year or two, or Belichick could decide that now is the time to move on and allow the next crop of leaders to step up. Despite last year’s free agent spending spree, this offseason might be even more interesting than last for the Pats.