New England Patriots Free Agent Targets for 2022

The New England Patriots fell short of making a deep postseason run this past season. That said, 2021 should largely be considered a success. Mac Jones proved to be the right man to lead the team into this next phase of Patriots football. After a 10-7 season, New England is right back in the mix and ready to build on a foundational year in which many key players were in their first season in Foxborough.

One reason for the 2021 season dawning a new era of Patriots football was due to the historically large amount of free-agent signings Belichick made. After dealing out a seemingly endless amount of high-end contracts last year, the new 2022 crop of free-agent talent looks to be equally fruitful. If the Patriots can find the cap space, they would be well equipped to go on a deep run in 2022.

How much cap space do the Patriots have in 2022?

Miguel Benzan aka @patscap on Twitter lists the Patriots cap room for the 2022 season at just $3,282,056M. That number sounds daunting but it’s not permanent. Benzan estimated that the Patriots could get to the $35M-$40M range before free agency begins without making significant cuts when appearing on the Patriots Beat Podcast.

Each offseason teams move money around to create more cap room, and the Patriots have plenty of opportunities to do so. Benzan also noted that the Saints were able to create about $110M in cap space without making major cuts before the 2021 season.

There are many players on the current roster that have convertible money to adjust cap hits into signing bonuses. There are also a number of players eligible for an extension that would spread cap hits over more years. In reality, don’t get too worked up over cap space because Belichick can create more of it (to a reasonable degree). Davante Adams is not walking through that door but there are plenty of high-value players on the table despite the low cap space at the moment.

Priorities for the Patriots This Offseason

The first order of business will be to figure out what they are going to do with J.C. Jackson. He will have a large effect on how much cap room the Patriots will have entering free agency. The next priority has to be to add a legitimate number one receiver, preferably in the Z or Y/slot role. It’ll be interesting to see if they plan on addressing this positional need via free agency or the draft. After that, the Patriots need to either re-sign or replace long-time Safety Devin McCourty and off-the-ball linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

One concern I have about the Patriots’ ability to retain their veteran free agents is the likely departure of Jarod Mayo. Not only did McCourty and Hightower play with Mayo, but many veterans were reportedly on his side of the Steve Belichick/Jarod Mayo defensive leadership battle. There are reports that Bill Belichick, Steve Belichick, and Mayo all were in charge of the defensive game planning in different weeks, which likely led to the downfall of a defense that appeared to be elite by midseason. If the veterans sided with Mayo during these constant game plan changes, he could recruit them to his new team on short-term deals.

Now that we have our priorities straight, let’s look at the top free-agent targets for the New England Patriots:

WR Chris Godwin – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (PFF #3)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: Four years, $70 million

Pro Football Focus ranks Chris Godwin as the third-best free agent available, a high honor in a loaded free-agent class. Godwin is a perfect fit for the Patriots because he is at his best as a Z-receiver, which is the most dynamic element of the Patriots offense. Kendrick Bourne had a career year as the Z-receiver in 2021. Chris Godwin has the ability to bring back the offense to the days when Julian Edelman kept defenses up at night (though Edelman played far more Y/slot than Godwin would).

With Godwin thrashing zone defenses over the middle, a deep threat like Agholor would be able to stretch the field more effectively, and Henry would not be able to receive as much attention leaving him open as well. Not to mention, Godwin himself would have perennial 100+ yard games as the focal point of the passing game.

After a season-ending ACL and MCL tear in 2021, it is possible that the Patriots could benefit from a slight discount for the star receiver entering his age 26 season. If Brady decides to hang it up (which I find unlikely) I would expect Godwin to land elsewhere. He could not reach an agreement on a multi-year deal last offseason before signing a one-year deal with the reigning Super Bowl Champions.

CB J.C. Jackson – New England Patriots (PFF #6)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: Four years, $72 million

Jackson is going to be the Patriots premiere free agent entering the market this offseason. With a lack of cornerback depth, it will be absolutely essential to retain Jackson’s services to continue this team’s upward trajectory. Jackson will significantly alter the Patriots plan no matter what decision is made.

If he walks, the team has a lot more cap room to play with, and we will see if Belichick puts those resources back into defense or shifts to a high-powered offense approach to keep up with Buffalo and Kansas City. Belichick’s good friend, Nick Saban, recently changed his mindset of roster construction in this direction to keep up with modern times.

The key for the Patriots will be to sign Jackson to an extension, avoiding the franchise tag altogether if possible. The reason an extension is so important is that a long-term contract would allow the Patriots to draw out the cap hit over the course of multiple years. A franchise tag contract of an estimated $17.2M would create a cap hit of almost double the amount a multi-year deal with an average annual value of $17.2M would.

There are many reasons for this result, but the key is to extend Jackson. A franchise tag would handicap the team’s spending ability, and letting Jackson walk would be a massive mistake. Jackson is one of the best cover corners in the league and arguably the best ballhawk as well. Jackson should be made a cornerstone of this next phase of Patriots football. Having a quarterback on a rookie deal should allow the team to get this deal done.

WR Mike Williams – Los Angeles Chargers (PFF #7)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: Four years, $68 million

Mike Williams is essentially exactly what Belichick was hoping N’Keal Harry could become. Williams is a 6’4″, 220-pound deep threat with the ability to stretch the field vertically and give Jones a chance to show off his deep ball accuracy. Williams would also become a reliable red-zone target for Jones, joining Hunter Henry and the stable of running backs.

While I would love to see how Mac Jones plays with a legitimate deep threat, Williams is not the type of player that the Patriots should look for to revamp their offense. The Patriots have always had success utilizing a dynamic Z-receiver, like Julian Edelman and most recently Kendrick Bourne. Williams is a clear X-receiver (farthest from the line of scrimmage). While he would be a clear upgrade over Nelson Agholor, the Patriots offense has always gotten more accomplished when the best players on the field are over the middle.

The Patriots came much closer to their typical offense when Hunter Henry was signed, but they desperately need to find an elite option to fill the void that Edelman left behind. Williams is not that player, though he would be a fun addition.

WR Allen Robinson – Chicago Bears (PFF #10)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: Three years, $48 million

Allen Robinson might be my favorite realistic option to upgrade the receiving core. I think the Patriots do have a chance to bring in Godwin, but Robinson will be much more attainable. He will almost certainly hit free agency with the intention of never coming back to Chicago and will not break the bank like Davante Adams or Chris Godwin.

Robinson is a complete receiver that does not have to be locked into one specific role and is more than capable of being a true number one target. He has never experienced high-level quarterback play or elite coaching, yet has been a top-tier receiver for a long time. It would be very enticing to see what he would do with Jones and Belichick leading the way.

The former Bear is not only a talented route runner but exceptional at the catch point. He has great hands, knows how to gain leverage in the air and stay in bounds. After a dumpster fire of an offensive season for the Bears in 2021, it would be mutually beneficial for the 28-year-old to land in New England.

LB De’Vondre Campbell – Green Bay Packers (PFF #27)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: Two years, $13 million

With Hightower and Bentley set to hit free agency, the Patriots are in desperate need of inside linebackers. While the Packers will likely do everything they can to re-sign the First-Team All-Pro linebacker, Campbell HAD to make an appearance on this list.

Campbell is a great story and a perfect example of how coaching impacts these players’ potential. He spent four seasons with the Falcons and one with the Cardinals, always behind another highly touted linebacker. The Packers signed him and immediately made him the leader of the linebacking core, which resulted in an All-Pro season from the 28-year-old. He mentioned how he’s always been the Robin to another player’s Batman, and that the Packers really let him prove how good he really is.

If he does hit free agency, the Patriots would be an ideal landing spot. Campbell is a three-down linebacker that would thrive in the Patriots 3-4 heavy scheme. Belichick is the greatest defensive coach of all time and has a full season of tape to see how to optimally utilize Campbell’s skillset.

Green Bay is the first team to fully believe in Campbell, at a time when his resume did not necessarily warrant the position he was awarded. I doubt he would leave that front office or coaching staff, but if he does test free agency, Belichick should be aggressive in his pursuit.

WR Odell Beckham Jr. – Los Angeles Rams (PFF #36)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: One year, $14 million

The Patriots could really use an upgrade from all three passing scheme positions (X,Y,Z) and Odell Beckham Jr. would certainly bring some upside to all three facets of the passing scheme. While I believe OBJ has plenty of talent to line up wide as the X-receiver (replacing Agholor), I would love to see what he could do as the Patriots slot receiver.

Beckham Jr. is a phenomenal route runner and has plenty of quickness to shine in the Patriots’ infamous passing role. The slot would allow Beckham Jr. to run free off of the line and increase his ability to get the ball in space. OBJ also has elite hands, but that is so well documented that it’s barely worth mentioning.

Belichick and Beckham Jr. reportedly have mutual respect for each other, and I would bet that Beckham Jr. would be added to the long list of talented players whose careers are revived in New England should he choose to make Foxborough his next home. That said, McVay is doing a pretty good job of doing that himself, and Beckham Jr. openly wanted to make Los Angeles his home since his mid-season free agency. His Rams teammates have supported him all of the way and his career is back on the rise after a shaky stint in Cleveland.

If he can be pried away from Los Angeles, New England could be a great fit for the phenom.

WR Juju Smith-Schuster – Pittsburgh Steelers (PFF #42)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: One year, $8 million

Juju Smith-Schuster has the potential to be an absolute steal this winter. He was drafted at such a young age that he is a 25-year-old entering his sixth year in the league. Smith-Schuster is a big, physical receiver with great hands that I believe would dominate in the slot for the Patriots. He does not physically profile as the typical slot receiver, but he’s shown signs of struggling as an X-receiver in single coverage against number one corners. He also excels at catching balls in traffic and gaining extra yards in space.

Smith-Schuster is not as quick and explosive as Edelman or Welker but he’s bigger and can truck his way over the first-down marker. Mac Jones and Smith-Schuster would be a great pairing as well. Jones has similar ball placement tendencies as Big Ben, while also showing a willingness to throw into tight windows and let the receiver make a play. Juju is great at making contested catches where the corner is only a half-step behind.

If the Patriots were run by a young coach, I’d worry about Smith-Schuster’s diva, TikTok tendencies, but Bill Belichick has put much more troublesome players in their place. While I hate Smith-Schuster’s TikTok garbage, I understand players trying to market themselves and build a brand.

Smith-Schuster is an ideal target because he is coming off of a shoulder injury that limited him to five regular-season games before reappearing in the Wild Card round. Between his injury, lack of correct usage in a dysfunctional offense, and off of the field diva actions, Juju should have a significant discount. All of those issues are worth taking on for a 25-year-old who caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2018. If Pro Football Focus is even close to accurate with the one-year, $8M contract projection, I’d sign him immediately.

S Marcus Maye – New York Jets (PFF #44)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: One year, $6 million

As I stated earlier, the Patriots’ cap situation is fluid but they are going to have to find some diamonds in the rough to truly contend for a Super Bowl in 2022. Marcus Maye is a player whose value is higher than his price tag at the moment.

I listed Marcus Maye as a potential free-agent target because he would be a worthy replacement for Devin McCourty. The 28-year-old is a true free safety coming off of an Achilles tear in Week 9 of the 2021 season. Maye is strong in zone coverage and excels at stopping the run. There are only a few players that would fit into McCourty’s role on the Patriots, and Maye would be one of them.

It has been heavily reported that McCourty does not plan on retiring and would like to return to New England. I would much prefer that scenario playing out but it’s always good to have a backup plan. Marcus Maye is a quality option should a deal fall through with the longtime Patriot captain.

LB Dont’a Hightower – New England Patriots (PFF #53)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: Two years, $15 million

Hightower is one of the two defensive captains set to hit free agency this winter. On top of his looming free agency, Hightower has to decide if he wants to continue to play. He will be 32 years old by next season and has had a plethora of injuries over his nine-year career, all of which were played in New England.

Many people on Twitter demand a younger defensive core and claim that it is time for Hightower to hang it up. I don’t see it that way at all, and just they are as wrong on Hightower as they are on McCourty.

Hightower has and will continue to be limited to early-down work at this stage of his career, but still has plenty of value on a short-term contract. He should come back for one more year and give some on-field coaching to Cameron McGrone, a second-year linebacker who missed his entire rookie season with an ACL tear he suffered during his final season at Michigan.

Hightower still has plenty of pop and can be a very productive linebacker in the run game or as a pass rusher. His time in pass coverage should be limited, and McGrone will likely take some of those responsibilities. That said, Hightower is still incredibly strong and capable of taking on lineman one-on-one before getting to the ball carrier/quarterback and making a play.

LB Anthony Barr – Minnesota Vikings (PFF #65)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: Two years, $14.5 million

Anthony Barr is a player that I would love to see the Patriots acquire, particularly if Hightower does decide to move on. At 6’5″, 255 pounds, Barr is one of the largest off-ball linebackers in the league.

Barr’s size and pass rush capabilities resemble Hightower’s prime better than just about any player in the league. Barr will be 30 years old at the start of the league year but still has plenty of juice left in the tank.

Like Hightower, Barr is an exceptional pass rusher and run stopper. His coverage skills do not stand out but that is why he could step right into Hightower’s role.

His projected contract is cheaper than I would have imagined and make Barr very enticing. Barr has dealt with pectoral, knee, and hamstring injuries over the last couple of years that will limit his earning potential.

CB Charvarius Ward – Kansas City Chiefs (PFF #67)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: Three years, $28.5 million

I do not expect Ward to end up in New England, especially if Jackson returns. I see Ward as a luxury that would put the defense over the top in 2022. He is an appealing option, particularly for the Patriots.

Charvarius Ward is an outside corner that thrives in man coverage. As many of you know, the Patriots defense shows many looks but is a man coverage defense when the personnel matches the scheme. The Patriots want to be a man coverage team and a combination of Ward and Jackson would be a perfect duo to run that system. Ward is a sufficient number one corner but would be an amazing number two corner to pair with Jackson.

The other area that stands out in Ward’s game is his tackling. According to PFF, Ward has a 5% missed tackle percentage, first among all 75 outside corners since 2019. If you’ve ever heard Belichick talk about defense, you probably have heard him say the most important part of defense is tackling.

If Jackson leaves in free agency, the Patriots would have to find some outside help. Ward would be the most obvious candidate assuming Carlton Davis III is franchise tagged by the Buccaneers.

OT Trent Brown – New England Patriots (PFF #79)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: Two years, $20 million

I already wrote about Trent Brown in my article about the Patriots 2022 Free Agent Class, and my stance has not changed much. The only point I would add is that after a season in which Brown missed seven weeks with a calf injury, his price tag has certainly lowered. This comes directly after a two-year stint with the Raiders where he only played 16 games.

I stand by my main point that Brown and the Patriots should have a mutual interest in a long-term reunion. Brown has talked about his love for his time in New England and he’s played his best ball for the Patriots.

The Patriots’ offensive line took a step down after Brown’s first departure in 2019, and they looked even worse when he was off of the field early in the 2021 season. Once he returned and Karras took over at left guard, the line became a strength for the team.

Both sides should be aggressively working towards an extension.

S Devin McCourty – New England Patriots (PFF #82)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: Two years, $12 million

Devin McCourty is reportedly looking to return for a 13th season in the league after another successful year for the leader of the defense. Ideally, he would finish his career with the Patriots, in what would likely be his last season.

McCourty will be entering his age 35 season but his play has not dropped off. In 2021, McCourty had just seven missed tackles, which was at the top of the position. Both tweets from Evan Lazar really make my point for me as I feel exactly the same way.

I hope and fully expect that Devin McCourty will continue his role as a Patriots defensive captain and starting free safety in 2022.

WR Will Fuller V – Miami Dolphins (PFF #89)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: One year, $10 million

Will Fuller V is another player that is a want, not a need. He is an explosive deep-threat receiver that can spark an offense with just one play. However, he has struggled mightily to stay on the field and cannot be relied upon as a starter. In six seasons, Fuller has only been active for 56.7% of his career, or 55/97 games.

The gamble is that when healthy, Fuller is a highly productive receiver that can score on any play. In 2020 it only took Fuller 11 games to rack up 879 yards and 8 touchdowns. In 2021, the Patriots’ top pass catcher was Jakobi Meyers, who had 866 yards in 17 games.

If Fuller could stay on the field, I believe that he would be much more productive than Agholor in the same X-receiver role. Fuller would force the safety to follow and open up the field for other passing threats while being capable of outrunning a double team for a downfield touchdown at a much higher rate than Agholor.

Fuller also could play a similar role to Phillip Dorsett, who provided a spark off of the bench for the Patriots from 2017 to 2019. Fuller is a much better player that could do even more in that role as well.

Fuller cannot run the full route tree, but his ability to stretch the field is special and his contract should be affordable given the fact that he’s never completed a full season at the NFL level.

WR Jamison Crowder – New York Jets (PFF #95)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: One year, $4.5 million

Jamison Crowder has made this list for one reason, he’s one of just a few true slot receivers in this free-agent class. Crowder is just 5’9″ and does not have breakaway speed, but he is quick and knows how to get open in the slot.

The Patriots haven’t had a true slot receiver since Edelman’s departure, especially since Gunner Olszewski has not been given much of a chance on offense. Having Crowder would increase the success of the slot position, which would benefit Mac Jones’s playstyle immensely.

G/C Ted Karras – New England Patriots (Unranked)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: N/A

Karras grew on me this season more than just about any other player on the team. I have always thought of Karras as a versatile backup that could fill in anywhere on the interior and keep the line together. It’s clear now that Karras is an above league-average guard at the NFL level.

I would be thrilled to extend Karras with the intention of starting him as the left guard. The team does need to find a larger role for Michael Onwenu, but Karras earned a starting role with his play in 2021.

LB Ja’Whaun Bentley – New England Patriots (Unranked)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: N/A

Ja’Whaun Bentley has been a quality player for the Patriots and even became a team captain in 2020. I would not even be able to guess what kind of contract offers Bentley will receive but I would be interested in an extension for the 25-year-old interior linebacker.

Bentley was a huge factor in stopping the run in 2021, with 68 solo tackles and 109 combined tackles. He works well with Hightower as the two larger linebackers use their size and strength to take on linemen one-on-one.

If Hightower returns and the Patriots plan to utilize McGrone in his first healthy season, Bentley’s playing time will be capped. However, injuries are constant in the NFL, Hightower is always banged up and McGrone is coming off of a season in which he was hurt the entire year.

Bentley would allow Hightower to come in and provide a spark to the defense off of the bench while preserving the health of the soon-to-be 32-year-old.

RB James White – New England Patriots (Unranked)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: N/A

White suffered a season-ending hip injury in Week 3 of the 2021 season and will now be a free agent at 30 years old. However, White is arguably the best pass-catching back in the game and would be a high-quality third-down weapon for Mac Jones if re-signed.

RB Brandon Bolden – New England Patriots (Unranked)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: N/A

Despite just turning 32-years-old, Bolden had somewhat of a breakout season in 2021. He had his third-best rushing season in terms of yards (226) and far surpassed his career-high in receiving yards (405).

Bolden has already expressed on Twitter that he has no intentions of retiring anytime soon and that should be considered good news for the Patriots. He had one big-time blunder in the Wild Card game where he dropped a wide-open pass that rightfully frustrated the New England fanbase. However, he routinely bailed the offense out on third-and-longs and regularly made plays when there was seemingly nothing there.

Bolden should return and battle White for third-down usage. He also can be an early-down runner behind Harris and Stevenson – both of which take a beating with their hard-nosed run style.

QB Brian Hoyer – New England Patriots (Unranked)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: N/A

Brian Hoyer does not have to play a down to be an extremely important piece of the organization. Hoyer is Mac Jones’s quarterback coach and the biggest connection to Tom Brady on the team. Hoyer is the only player that sat in the quarterback meetings with Brady every day for years and can transfer Brady’s genius forward.

One small thing Brady did to excel in cold-weather games was to wear a scuba suit under his uniform. Hoyer passed that information along to Jones, who used that strategy a few times in 2021. Those seemingly small tips are part of why Brady always had an edge on the opposition. Hoyer knows all of Brady’s tricks and can pass them along to Jones over the first few years.

One more note, with McDaniels’ departure, it will be increasingly important to keep the rest of the room around Jones the same. Many young quarterbacks are ruined by constant coaching changes, Hoyer should be considered a coach/mentor at this stage.

FB Patrick Ricard – Baltimore Ravens (Unranked)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: N/A

Patrick Ricard is a 311-pound fullback. The Patriots love fullbacks and would surely be able to utilize Ricard in a unique way. Ricard is a seemingly unfair mismatch as a lead blocker that can be included on some heavy packages and pack a punch. He also is a surprisingly good pass catcher, with 29 receptions for 167 yards in 70 games for the Ravens.

Ricard is from Massachusetts and went to school in Maine so he would likely have an interest in joining the Patriots. I imagine the Ravens will be looking to re-sign Ricard, who fits perfectly in their run schemes. However, any fullback that hits the market is attainable with a few million dollars, and there is already a hometown connection.

FB Jakob Johnson – New England Patriots (Unranked)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: N/A

I’d prefer to see what the Patriots do with Ricard, if possible, but Johnson is a solid fullback. If he returns, great. If not, the Patriots could find a replacement relatively easily.

Johnson has improved over the years and has years in the Patriots’ system, which is an advantage. The Patriots also get a roster exemption in the preseason with Jakob Johnson, meaning they can carry 91 players instead of 90. This is a small advantage given as a part of the NFL’s International Pathway Program, which encourages teams to sign players from other countries. Johnson is from Germany.

WR Danny Amendola – Houston Texans (Unranked)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: N/A

Julian Edelman was under the impression that he and Amendola were retiring together the last offseason before Amendola signed with the Texans. That anecdote and his age do not bode well for Amendola continuing his career in 2022.

Should the 36-year-old receiver decide to keep going, the Patriots should give him a shot, at least in training camp. A slot receiver with experience in the system and the ability to consistently come through in the clutch would add an element the 2021 team did not have.

While 36 is quite old for a receiver, Amendola would simply have to find the weak spot in zone coverage, sit and catch. Edelman talked about how he could get open forever with his savvy before hanging up the cleats last offseason. Amendola would play the same role.

Last season Amendola had 24 receptions for 248 yards and 3 touchdowns in just 8 games for a dysfunctional Texans team. He suffered a meniscus injury in Week 12 and was put in season-ending injured reserve after opening the season with a groin injury that cost him games as well.

WR Isaiah McKenzie – Buffalo Bills (Unranked)

Pro Football Focus Contract Projection: N/A

Belichick likes to poach players who have had success against the Patriots. In Week 15, McKenzie caught 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. In the Wild Card game, McKenzie caught three passes for 45 yards with three rushes for 29 yards.

McKenzie’s track speed was on full display in both games he played against the Patriots in 2021 (McKenzie missed the blizzard game). He will be 27 years old for the 2022 season and has developed into a productive player behind Cole Beasley as a slot receiver.

If the Patriots could turn the rival onto their side in the AFC East race, they could utilize his elite speed on crossers, dismantling opposing slot corners. His speed is more aligned with what Jones had at Alabama, where he was a National Champion and Heisman finalist. The Patriots desperately need more speed and athleticism from their skill players.

The Patriots took a step in the right direction with the most recent draft class featuring athleticism over fundamentals, but there is plenty of work to do to catch up to the Bills and Chiefs. McKenzie has the most upside of all of the unranked players on the list.

If you liked this article, check out my take on the Patriots free-agent class!