The NFL free agency picture came into sharper focus Tuesday after the passing of the franchise tag deadline, allowing the New England Patriots to zero in on a number of free-agent targets ahead of the new league year’s kickoff a week from Wednesday.
A few of the Patriots’ dream options, like wide receivers Allen Robinson of the Chicago Bears and Chris Godwin of Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, received the tag and will stay with their respective teams as expected.
But several other potential free-agent prospects will hit the open market after not getting the tag, including one unexpected addition.
Here are five players that might interest the Patriots most as the official beginning of free agency draws nearer, starting with the new biggest name in the bunch:
Kenny Golladay, WR
The Lions made arguably the most surprising move of Tuesday by declining to place the franchise tag on Golladay, something they had been widely expected to do. Golladay now becomes the top free-agent receiver on the board with Robinson and Godwin staying put.
And while Detroit can still re-sign Golladay, the Patriots should be on the phone with him right this very second to see what it would take to bring him to Foxborough.
The big wideout produces as a true No. 1 receiver, posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2018 and 2019 with Matthew Stafford. He also racked up an absurd 628 yards on deep targets in 2019 (via PFF), good for second in the league behind Stefon Diggs that season.
Here’s what PFF’s free-agent primer has to say about him: “Golladay has the size and athleticism required to be a big target on the outside, along with that contested-catch prowess, but he also possesses enough nuance in his route running to function well in any system.”
Before photoshopping that Patriots jersey onto Golladay, here are a few major caveats:
- He’s been injury-prone, missing significant time in two of his four seasons due to hamstring problems.
- He’ll also be quite expensive; PFF’s Brad Spielberger projects he could earn a four-year, $85 million deal ($21.25 million per year, $57 million guaranteed).
Even for as much cap space as the Patriots currently have, it feels hard to picture New England shelling out that kind of money for a receiver with injury issues. One could argue the team ought to at least consider it given how un-explosive the passing game was last year. But the Patriots more often than not have tended to rely more on middling, savvy receivers paired with stellar tight ends.
To that end, it’s natural to expect the Patriots to aggressively pursue…
Hunter Henry, TE
Even if he’ll never quite be the same after the ACL injury that robbed him of his potential breakout 2018 season, Henry is still a very good player.
“He is a productive and capable tight end with plenty of tools to be an excellent receiver in any offense,” PFF writes in its free-agent rankings. “Henry has the size to box defenders out underneath, the savvy to find holes in a defense, and enough route-running skills to separate over the middle.”
He topped 50 catches and 600 yards receiving in both seasons post-ACL injury and might have even more opportunity in a New England offense that traditionally leans heavily on tight ends.
Also, in case you haven’t heard, Bill Belichick likes Henry. A lot.
The biggest question mark with this move comes with Henry’s potential price tag, with PFF cap analyst Brad Spielberger estimating Henry could command a four-year deal for around $48 million ($12 million per year, $23.5 million guaranteed).
One wonders if that number might be too rich for the Patriots’ blood even with the mountain of cap space it maintains even after signing Trent Brown to an $11 million contract for next year. On top of that, the Chargers sound more than willing to re-sign Henry themselves.
If New England loses out on the Henry sweepstakes, they could look toward the next-best free-agent tight end…
Jonnu Smith, TE
While Henry is the more well-rounded of the two tight ends, Smith is more of a receiving specialist. Smith even posted a better receiving grade and higher catch percentage than Henry last year according to PFF.
And he has a way of creating yards once you get the ball in his hands.
“Smith’s calling card in the NFL has been his work after the catch,” states PFF, “where he has averaged 6.8 yards after the catch per reception over his career. In 2019, he broke 14 tackles on just 41 receptions to average 7.5 yards after the catch per reception.”
Most of the volume numbers (48 catches, 448 yards) won’t blow you away, but that’s not surprising with Derrick Henry running the ball almost 400 times last year and receivers A.J. and Corey Brown putting up big seasons. Smith still posted eight touchdowns, tied for fifth-among tight ends. He also averaged 5.8 yards after catch per reception last year, fourth among tight ends, and produced a passer rating of 110.1 when quarterbacks threw his way.
Smith has also improved as a run-blocker every year according to PFF’s grades, though it’s still not a strength of his. That said, he’s improved as a receiver every season and could be a candidate to break out given more opportunities.
Of course, it also wouldn’t hurt to surround him or any other tight end the Patriots potentially pick up with a standout receiver like…
Will Fuller, WR
Fuller hasn’t always been the most available thus far in his career, struggling with injuries throughout his first four seasons and getting suspended six games for violating the NFL’s substance use policy in his first truly healthy season last year. (He still has one more game of that suspension to serve in 2021.)
But when he’s on the field, there might not be a defensive back in the league that can run with him.
Fuller caught 53 balls for 879 yards and eight touchdowns in just 11 games last year. He also ranked 14th among all receivers in yards per route run (2.28), making him among the most efficient wideouts in the league. For perspective, only Jakobi Meyers was above league average in that department last year for the Patriots.
He’s also largely eliminated the drop issues that plagued him his first two seasons, catching no worse than 69 percent of passes thrown his way from 2019-2021.
Fuller isn’t just a “speed” guy. He’s a real, productive NFL receiver who happens to also be faster than everyone else. The mere threat of his presence makes offenses more dangerous, especially for a team lacking in exceptional speed like the Patriots.
Furthermore, while he’s projected to fetch a hefty bill (five years, $17.5m per year, $87.5m total, $25m guaranteed), he’d still be less expensive than Golladay.
But lest we focus only on the Patriots’ offensive needs, there’s also a newly minted defensive free agent New England should look into in the next few weeks:
Shaquill Griffin, DB
The Seattle Seahawks were never likely to use the franchise tag on Griffin, which would pay him the average of the five best cornerbacks in the league, even if they weren’t in a salary cap bind.
They do still hope to re-sign Griffin in free agency, but the opportunity is there for a team like the Patriots to swoop in and offer him a payday.
The former 2017 third-round pick started coming into his own in 2019 when he posted a PFF grade of 78.0 and recorded 13 pass breakups. “He hasn’t managed to replicate that level of play this [past] season,” says PFF, “but he has been dealing with injuries and has still flashed high-end play, like against Miami where he didn’t allow a single reception all game long.”
The Patriots need to plan for a future without Stephon Gilmore, who could likely be traded despite reports that his quad injury is cramping his trade value. Griffin is a Pro Bowler who could fill in admirably at a portion of Gilmore’s price, assuming he signs for around the projected $33 million over three years ($11 million per year, $18.5 million guaranteed).
Get Boston.com's browser alerts:
Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.