When the 2021 NFL free agency period officially opens on March 17, the New England Patriots will come in flush with salary cap dollars with which to woo potential signees in a time when many teams might be reluctant to spend due to the pandemic’s effect on their finances.
The question is: how many of the Patriots’ free agent signings will be familiar faces?
The Patriots currently have 27 free agents to make decisions on in the coming weeks and months, including some well-respected veterans and, notably, a big-name quarterback. Some of those choices could be difficult even for a team often known for letting productive players leave in free agency for salary cap savings.
With that in mind, here’s a breakdown of the five New England Patriots ranked by Pro Football Focus as the team’s five most valuable free agents, as measured by PFF’s offensive and defensive grades and its wins-above-replacement (WAR) values.
Joe Thuney, G
Put simply, Thuney has been one of the league’s best at his position during his time as a Patriot, Over the past three seasons, he has ranked in the top 10 of both PFF’s grades and WAR metrics among qualified guards.
“A starter from Day 1 as a rookie,” PFF wrote, “Thuney has yet to miss a game in his five-year career while showing continual improvement….In pass protection, Thuney struggled with power players early in his career, but he’s improved every season and his 88.0 pass-blocking grade ranked third among guards in 2019.”
That production and availability has Thuney in line for a big-time payday. Over The Cap projects he could sign a four-year, $57 million deal ($14.25 million per year, $35 million guaranteed) next year.
While the Patriots certainly could foot that bill — the team has just over $62 million in cap space heading into this season — it’s also notable that they opted to put a $14.7 million franchise tag on Thuney last year rather than sign him to an extension. If the team likes second-year lineman Michael Onwenu enough to serve as a suitable replacement at left guard, Thuney could end up being the latest Patriots free agent to seek a significant payday someplace else.
Cam Newton, QB
The Patriots could well be planning to upgrade their quarterback room in the 2021 NFL Draft if given the opportunity. But that doesn’t necessarily rule out Newton returning to New England. Bill Belichick has reportedly praised Newton repeatedly despite the quarterback’s uneven performance last year.
But the realities of last year’s subpar performance, whether it was related to Newton contracting COVID-19 or throwing to below-average receivers, can’t be ignored. Newton’s 0.64 WAR, while being the highest such number among Patriots free agents, ranked 27th among quarterbacks last season. Moreover, he has cracked PFF’s top-10 quarterback list only twice in his 10 seasons, including his MVP campaign in 2015.
Still, Newton might well perform better given a complete offseason to prepare and better health. Despite his accuracy and decision-making issues, PFF explains, “He’s been a mid-level passer with the added upside of what he brings to the run game. Newton is a monster in short yardage, and an effective offense can be built around that skillset.” Also, Over The Cap suggests the Patriots could bring him back on a relatively cheap one-year, $5 million contract — a true low-risk, high(er)-reward move.
In any case, Newton is not a long-term answer at quarterback and would likely not be guaranteed a starting job with the Patriots even if re-signed, especially if a newly drafted signal-caller comes to town.
David Andrews, C
Another highly dependable offensive lineman, Andrews put up a solid bounce-back year after blood clots in his lungs forced him to miss the 2019 season. While his 67.7 PFF grade ranks him 16th among qualified centers, his 0.18 WAR places him in the top 10 at his position.
PFF notes Andrews posted a career-low pass-blocking grade in 2020 but praises the sixth-year pro’s well-rounded body of work. “He ranks in the 87th percentile in pass-blocking grade on true pass sets since 2015,” his profile reads. “In the run game, Andrews has one of the lowest negatively graded play percentages in the league, and that dependability should be valued among a thin group of centers.
Andrews’s projected price tag comes in much lower than Thuney’s, according to Over The Cap, which could make it more likely for the former player to stick around. OTC’s potential three-year, $18 million contract ($6 million per year, $8 million guaranteed) is a solid raise over the $3 million Andrews earned last year but would be a bargain compared to the contracts for the NFL’s top centers.
James White, RB
A long-time Patriots mainstay and PFF darling, White slogged through a down year along with the rest of New England’s offense in 2020. His 0.04 WAR in 2020 ranked 55th among running backs, a precipitous drop in value after two seasons that saw him earn top-10 WAR honors at his position.
While White’s reduced productivity didn’t noticeably affect his grades as a pass-catcher or runner, his 26.7 pass-blocking grade last season was by far the worst of his career. PFF had never graded him under 69.9 as a pass protector before then. That’s not promising for a back whose primary value comes on passing downs and not as a ball-carrier.
“As a runner,” PFF writes, “White generally gets what is blocked, as he’s averaged just 2.0 yards after contact during his career. However, he can still be an effective pass-game weapon in the right offense.”
It’s quite possible that offense won’t the Patriots’ this coming season.
To be clear, White would still add value as a receiver that New England’s other top backs, Damien Harris and Sony Michel, currently don’t. Plus, Rex Burkhead, another of the Patriots’ pass-catching backs, is also a free agent and could miss the start of the season while recovering from an ACL tear. But running backs are one of the most disposable position groups in the league. As such, it feels more likely that New England would let the respected veteran walk than extend him to OTC’s predicted two-year, $10 million ($5 million per year, $5 million guaranteed) contract.
Deatrich Wise Jr, DL
The Patriots’ defensive line is riddled with question marks heading into this offseason period, with Wise being one of the most intriguing cases.
The 2017 fourth-round pick has demonstrated clear value as a pass-rushing specialist, according to PFF: “Wise has 57 total pressures on 452 pass-rushing snaps over the past two years and a top-10 pass-rush win rate over that time.”
The problem is he hasn’t offered much in the way of run support, grading especially poorly as a run defender the last two seasons. To that end, he ranked just 37th in WAR (0.08) and 31st in defensive grade (70.6) among edge defenders in 2021 despite his ability to get after the quarterback. On top of that, Josh Uche and Chase Winovich both offer similar effectiveness as edge defenders and are still on their rookie contracts.
It seems unlikely, therefore, that the Patriots would re-sign Wise for $21 million dollars over three years ($7 million per year, $12 million guaranteed). But, adds PFF, “If he lands in a spot that cares less about the run than New England, his best football could be in front of him.”
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