Phil Perry

Patriots Mailbag: Under-the-radar free agents who could help in 2024

Phil Perry covers free agency, the 2024 draft, and more in a brand-new Pats mailbag.

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Bailey Zappe and the New England Patriots are off to Buffalo as they look to sweep the season series vs. the Bills. They'll look to play spoiler, as a win would prevent Buffalo from clinching a postseason berth in Week 17.

Before we turn the page to Sunday's matchup, let's jump into this week's mailbag.

Like this question, Mark. I'll give you a few names, keeping the Patriots in mind. 

Ravens guard Kevin Zeitler remains rock-solid as he approaches his mid-30s, and in a league where durable (on pace for 1,000 snaps in eight of his last nine seasons) and competent offensive linemen are lacking, he could help solidify things for an ailing protection unit. Rams guard Kevin Dotson would be a nice fit for New England gap schemes and deserves a mention here, too.

Commanders safety Kam Curl isn't a big name. He was a seventh-round pick. He plays in Washington. But he has the kind of versatility that the Patriots would covet, able to play both safety spots and in the slot.

His teammate Kendall Fuller is a versatile secondary option as well -- he can play both inside and out -- and should help fill out a starting defensive backfield somewhere as a free agent this offseason. 

One more underrated position group to hit would be defensive tackle. Baltimore's Justin Madubuike isn't the space-eater the Patriots usually like inside, but he's been a sack-production machine in 2023 with 12 to go along with a whopping 31 hits. He may get more money than folks are expecting since he's not exactly a household name.

Cincinnati's D.J. Reader is a bigger body who has dealt with injury, but he's a veteran who's consistently effective when on the field. 

Andrew, it's actually sounding like Baker Mayfield and the Bucs are destined to agree to a longer-term contract after the year he's had (26 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 7.2 yards per attempt). Anyone hoping he might be available to the Patriots in March may have to start setting their sights elsewhere.

What's fascinating about where the Patriots sit at the moment is they may feel as though they're forced to do something at the quarterback position before they even get to the draft. If they sit at No. 4 overall and there's no guarantee they get one of the top-three passers in this year's draft -- USC's Caleb Williams, UNC's Drake Maye, and LSU's Jayden Daniels -- then bolstering the position for 2024 may mean dipping into free agency. 

Even if they like Bailey Zappe enough to give him a shot to be a legitimate No. 2 or a bridge to The Next Guy, would a Day 2 or 3 pick behind him be enough for a team looking to claw its way out of the NFL's basement? Even if they want to bring back Mac Jones as some measure of insurance, wouldn't it behoove them to add one more signal-caller they trust to get them through a handful of games?

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Among the free-agents-to-be at the position? Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill, Jacoby Brissett, Joe Flacco, Tyrod Taylor, Jameis Winston, Gardner Minshew and Sam Darnold.

Cousins is coming off a season-ending injury and would likely be the most expensive name on this list. Tannehill and Brissett may sniff $10 million as veteran backups. (Brissett signed a one-year deal worth $8 million to go to Washington last offseason.) The others would likely be considered less expensive fliers.

Different flavors for different teams in different situations. But no matter what the Patriots do when the new league year begins, they may want to add one of the above just so they don't end up in a scenario where they have Zappe, Jones, and a Day 2 rookie as their quarterback options. Even as a rebuilding team, they'll likely want a little more certainty there.

If you're asking me, the best option for them would be to keep Zappe, sign Brissett -- who has a reputation as being a positive locker-room influence and might be more comfortable in a reserve role -- and draft one of the three best quarterbacks in the class. 

On Jones, trading him to Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco -- or another of Shanahan's coaching disciples -- would make all the sense in the world. Shanahan reportedly considered taking Jones at No. 3 overall in 2021, and Jones would give the Niners another young quarterback in a similar mold to Brock Purdy to potentially run one of the most talented offensive huddles in the league.

I don't think that's what happened with Mike Onwenu, Lloyd. They've simply always seen him as a guard. That's how he was viewed out of Michigan. And even once the Patriots found out he could play tackle early in his career, they still believed his best spot would be inside where his size and physicality would allow him to excel. 

To be fair to the Patriots, I get it. If you feel you have a player who can be a starting-caliber tackle or an All-Pro-caliber guard, where do you play him? I see both sides of that argument. As a matter of fact, in New England, I think you could argue that having the best possible interior three is sensible in that you have pocket quarterbacks in Jones and Zappe who need to be able to step up into space inside the pocket in order to avoid pressure.

But give Onwenu credit. When it became painfully obvious the team needed tackle help, he was ready to make that move, and outside of a rough outing against the Chargers, he's been nails. 

I believe Brenden Schooler has the potential to be an elite special-teamer, Darryn. He was a year ago as an undrafted rookie. He's one of Matthew Slater's favorites for a reason.

But he's had moments this year, unfortunately for him and his team, that have encapsulated what has been a consistent issue for the Patriots kicking game in 2023: lack of discipline. The Patriots have the third-most special-teams penalties in the NFL this season (16), and Schooler is responsible for a quarter of those.

Not much at tackle in free agency, Setti. Outside of Trent Brown and Mike Onwenu, one of the best on the market would be Dallas vet Tyron Smith.

It's a deep draft of tackles, though. The only question is... will many make it to the second round? Of those who might, I like Houston's Patrick Paul. Great athlete. Great size. Just a little unpolished.

It's tackle, Jake. Both spots. I think Sidy Sow has shown enough to warrant more time to prove he can start at right guard. Cole Strange needs to return healthy for 2024, but if he does, he's good enough to start. It's not a flawless interior revolving around the still-excellent David Andrews, but it's good enough.

At tackle... there are no answers under contract. Time to get to work there.

You're good at No. 4, in my opinion, Robby. I consider Jayden Daniels to be in the class of Caleb Williams and Drake Maye. I actually like some aspects of his game more than the other two, and it wouldn't surprise me -- after talking more to evaluators who've followed these players much more closely than I have -- if I saw Daniels as the best in the class come the spring.

Regardless, you're getting one of Williams, Maye, Daniels, or Marvin Harrison Jr. at that fourth spot.

After that, you're likely looking at one of a couple of excellent tackles. That wouldn't get me as excited because a tackle can only do so much to get a team closer to contention.

Still, as much as you'd like to be in the top two picks, you're going to get a franchise-altering player somewhere in the top four, and you're going to get a very good player in the top six.

No. Not in my opinion. Take a quarterback so long as you view him as a face-of-the-franchise guy.

Not every team gets an opportunity at one of those. To pass on it -- even for a haul of picks to be used on rolls of the dice on linemen or receivers -- would be foolhardy.

Tee Higgins, though Cincinnati may tag him. After that, don't scoff, but it's probably Mike Evans from Tampa Bay. Headed to his 31-year-old season in 2024, he's closer to the end than the beginning, but all he does is post 1,000-yard seasons and score touchdowns.

How about this stat: Evans is one of five receivers in NFL history with at least five seasons with at least 12 touchdowns. The other four are Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, and Randy Moss.

That one was borderline mind-blowing for me. Especially considering the non-Tom Brady quarterbacks he's played with in Tampa Bay.

KO! I think it's two offseasons to get back to playoff-caliber if they hit on their early picks and don't blow their oodles of cap space. Easier said than done. But if you get it right -- particularly at quarterback, as Houston has shown -- the rebuild can hit hyperdrive.

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