Phil Perry

Five players the Patriots should chase early in NFL free agency

Eliot Wolf has the resources to make big changes on both sides of the ball.

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The Patriots haven't waited for the NFL's legal tampering period, which begins at 12 p.m. ET, to lock up some of their own. 

First it was Hunter Henry. Then it was Kendrick Bourne. The team also has acquired a rosterable offensive tackle in Chukwuma Okorafor.

But if the Patriots are set to use their ample cap space -- they at one point had over $100 million to spend -- on a big splash, we're still waiting.

Offensive lineman Mike Onwenu remains unsigned as he represents himself in his first go-round with free agency. Safety Kyle Dugger has been given the transition tag and can still seek out offers elsewhere but must give the Patriots the opportunity to match before signing with another club.

What's the best way for New England to spend the cash it has at its disposal? Glad you asked. Here's one way in which the team could significantly improve its team before heading into the draft next month.

Find a receiver

Even with a number of bodies on the roster -- Bourne, DeMario Douglas, DeVante Parker and JuJu Smith-Schuster -- this team still needs receiver help. Will they be inclined to add a big-ticket item here knowing it's a strong draft class at the position, and knowing there's a significant sum of money already committed to the spot given the contracts handed to Parker and Smith-Schuster last offseason? 

That remains to be seen. But if de facto general manager Eliot Wolf and head coach Jerod Mayo want an immediate upgrade without having to roll the dice in the draft, Calvin Ridley wouldn't be a bad choice.

He's 30 years old and coming off a missed season for a gambling suspension in 2022, but he racked up over 1,000 yards last year in his return to the field. He still has plenty of juice to go along with some real route-running chops to make him an enticing "Z" receiver option who can be used all over offensive formations.

If it's pure speed the Patriots want, Marquise Brown from the Cardinals would make sense. Even if he's a one-trick pony, his trick is valuable. Defenses would have to account for Brown's downfield ability at all times, which could draw safety attention away from other pass-catchers and provide lighter boxes for Rhamondre Stevenson to run. 

A potentially cost-effective signing for the Patriots if they can't land Ridley or Brown as the bigger fish? Houston's Noah Brown. He played just 10 games last season for the Texans but was one of quarterback CJ Stroud's favorite targets in that span, catching 33 passes for 567 yards and two scores.

At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Brown has shown an ability to reel in contested throws, and he has the size to block in what could be a run-heavy scheme under new offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt.

Fortify the offensive line

Right now, the Patriots have a center in David Andrews. They have a guard in Sidy Sow, who in Year 1 impressed NFL evaluators who've spoken to NBC Sports Boston this offseason. That's it. 

Cole Strange has had an up-and-down two seasons as a pro and finished last year injured. Onwenu is a free agent, as is Trent Brown. 

Wolf made it very clear he views Onwenu as a "core" player and would like to sign him to a long-term deal. Should the Patriots accomplish that feat and ink Onwenu to a deal that pays him around $15 million per year, they'd still have to find another tackle.

Rather than reaching on a tackle during Day 2 of the draft -- though this year's class could have talented tackles lasting all the way into the second round, which is atypical -- the Patriots could sign another to play opposite Onwenu (or next to Onwenu, if he'd prefer to play guard.)

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Tyron Smith of the Cowboys, 33, is headed to free agency and would be a gifted short-term stopgap. Mekhi Becton is immense and immensely talented, but injuries make investing in him a challenge. 

Former Patriots lineman Jermaine Eluemunor is, believe it or not, a name worth considering. He's established himself as a starting-caliber right tackle with the Raiders, and if Onwenu would rather play guard, then perhaps a reunion should be in order.

Then there's Jonah Williams, who could play left tackle after switching over to play on the right side in 2023 in Cincinnati.

For a position that is usually extremely hard to fill, there are some playable pieces for both the left and right sides of the line for the Patriots. They're just going to have to be willing to pay.

Get a quarterback

Just one. It's vital.

Even if the team was dead-set on taking a quarterback with the No. 3 overall pick, the Patriots still would need a veteran signal-caller. 

Bridge? Backstop? Either. Both. Get one.

It won't be Baker Mayfield, who's headed back to Tampa Bay. It won't be Russell Wilson, who's signing with the Steelers

Jacoby Brissett feels like the best fit here. He's familiar with Alex Van Pelt and the Cleveland offense that's making its way to New England. He's thought to be the ultimate locker-room guy. And he's good enough to start as a bridge quarterback should the Patriots feel as though whichever rookie they nab isn't ready to go immediately.

Last year, in two spot appearances, Brissett completed 78.3 percent of his passes for 224 yards, three touchdowns and no picks for a passer rating of 146.8. For his career, Brissett is a very Mayfieldian 61.3 percent passer with a rating of 85.3.

If Brissett can be had for a deal similar to the one he signed in Washington last year -- one year, $8 million -- the Patriots should be all over him. 

If New England can't get Brissett, grabbing Ryan Tannehill -- who's familiar with the under-center, play-action bootleg-style offense Van Pelt employed in Cleveland -- might be the next-best option. 

Trading for Justin Fields remains the highest-upside play, though it's unclear as to whether or not New England would be open to dealing a draft pick in order to acquire the Bears quarterback with only one year left on his contract.

Mike Felger, Michael Holley and Andrew Callahan debate whether Jacoby Brissett is really the best the Patriots can do with a bridge QB option in free agency in this week's Heat Check.

Don't forget about defense

Because their offense has been such a mess for two years, it's easy to forget that the Patriots do, in fact, have needs on the defensive side of the ball.

Start on the line of scrimmage. Edge defenders Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche are set to hit free agency. Matt Judon is coming back off an injury, but his contract was adjusted last offseason and may need another adjustment. There are questions here, it's safe to say, and adding a pass-rusher could be hugely beneficial to Mayo's defensive plan. 

Danielle Hunter might be the best pass-rusher remaining after a few tags have been handed out across the NFL recently. He posted over 70 total pressures last season, per Pro Football Focus, to go along with double-digit sacks. He was a menace for Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores and could make a similar impact if he made his way to Flores' former team in Foxboro.

Houston's Jonathan Greenard is another solid option on the edge because he does it all -- which the Patriots would appreciate. He was one of the game's best run defenders on the outside last year, and his relentless pass-rush style led to 53 pressures and 14 sacks.

The Patriots could use a hand in the secondary, too, don't forget. While second-year corner Christian Gonzalez will be asked to shoulder a massive workload in the fall, he'll need a starting-caliber boundary corner to play opposite him

Washington's Kendall Fuller and Cincinnati's Chidobe Awuzie would fit and help make a strong tandem with Gonzalez. Then there's old friend Stephon Gilmore, whose big-but-quick skill set and calm disposition would seem to make him the ideal mentor for a player like Gonzalez, who has some similar traits.

Phil Perry and Andy Hart discuss why a Patriots-Gilmore reunion could be the right move. They also talk about why Tre'Davious White could make sense.

How it might look

The Patriots have enough in the way of cap space that they could pay Dugger on the transition tag, give Hunter a deal that pays him $20 million per year as a premier pass-rusher, and add Gilmore for $10 million on a one-year contract to strengthen the secondary.

They could also re-sign Onwenu, add Jonah Williams to play left tackle, pay Brissett to be the backup, and overpay Ridley to keep him from going elsewhere.

There are five players there -- Hunter, Gilmore, Williams, Brissett and Ridley -- the Patriots can't even talk to until the tampering period begins. Acquiring them would mean a lot of guaranteed money out the door. Those would be some big checks for Robert Kraft to sign. 

But they have the cap space to do it. And depending on how the cap hits were spread out over 2024, they would still have plenty of money to sign their draft picks and have additional funds left over for in-season expenditures.

Add a young dynamic quarterback to this group, as well as a game-changing rookie wideout, and this team would give its fanbase a real shot of hope after two lifeless seasons. 

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