Patriots

How the Patriots’ free agent and draft pick situations look going into the 2022 offseason

Several starters on the Patriots' defense are set to hit the open market.

J.C. Jackson headlines the list of Patriots players who'll become free agents. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)

The Patriots’ turnaround season came to a quick end in the playoffs, with New England losing 47-17 to the Buffalo Bills in the wild-card round on Saturday night.

Coming off a playoff berth, it’s hard to argue against the Patriots being in a better spot this offseason than they were was last offseason. They appear to at least have a solution at quarterback for the foreseeable future in Mac Jones. He’s under contract on his rookie deal for at least three more seasons, but the team will have to decide if they want to pick up his fifth-year option before the 2024 season.

But New England doesn’t sit in the same spot that it sat in last offseason in terms of free agents. Six starters are set to become unrestricted free agents and a seventh will become a restricted free agent.

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Headlining the group of free agents to be is Pro Bowl corner J.C. Jackson. For the second straight season, Jackson was second in the league in interceptions, recording eight this season after he had nine in 2020. Jackson was a restricted free agent a year ago, staying in New England on a second-round tender contract worth $3.4 million.

Jackson’s expected to get paid a lot more than that this time around. One cap expert predicted in November that Jackson will become one of the league’s highest-paid corners in the upcoming offseason, projecting a possible multi-year contract that’s worth around $17 million per year.

There are multiple avenues in which the Patriots can handle Jackson’s situation. They can re-sign him to a multi-year deal, place the franchise tag on him and have him either play on it or trade him, or just let him walk. NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport said in October that he viewed a long-term deal as the “least likely” outcome between Jackson and the Patriots, but does think the Patriots could franchise him.

If the Patriots do franchise Jackson, he’d be under contract for one year on a fully guaranteed deal if Jackson signs it. The franchise tag for cornerbacks next offseason is projected to be around $17.5 million, according to Pro Football Focus’s Brad Spielberger.

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The Patriots don’t have to use their franchise tag on Jackson though if they don’t want to and could instead opt to use it on any of their other free agents. The only other player who appears to be a possible option for the franchise tag is starting right tackle Trent Brown. But the projected $16.5 million franchise tag for offensive linemen this offseason might be too steep of a price to pay for Brown, who missed eight games this season due to a calf injury. Brown helped stabilize the Patriots’ offensive line when he returned in Week 10 as the team played multiple players at right tackle in his absence with little success.

There are a few Patriots free agents that could end up retiring this offseason. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower and special teams captain Matthew Slater will become free agents in March, while McCourty’s contract could be easily voided. Slater, the longest-tenured Patriot, already gave a non-committal answer on if he’ll play again in 2022.

McCourty, who’ll be 35 in August, contemplated retirement after winning Super Bowl LIII in 2018, but hasn’t shared any plans on when he might call it quits since then. Hightower, who turns 32 in March, returned for the 2021 season for the final year of his contract after sitting out the 2020 season due to COVID-19. Rumors of Hightower retiring did come up before he returned to the team in 2021, but he denied those rumors in June.

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“The opt-out was for 2020, and that was 2020,” Hightower said then. “All the rumors about retirement, y’all had me thinking someone was trying to kick me out.”

Ja’Whaun Bentley, who was the Patriots’ other starting inside linebacker this season, is also an unrestricted free agent. Bentley, 25, could be in-line for a decent pay day after leading the team in tackles with a career-high 109. He also led the team in forced fumbles with three.

A few notable vets that could be on their way out are running backs James White and Brandon Bolden, linebacker Jamie Collins, center Ted Karras, and quarterback Brian Hoyer. All five players are unrestricted free agents.

White re-signed with the Patriots on a one-year deal last offseason, opting to stay after the Buccaneers reportedly showed interest in him. White, who was second on the team in receptions in 2020, went down for the season in Week 3 due to a hip injury. Bolden, who opted out of the 2020 season, stepped up in White’s place, recording a career-best 41 receptions for 405 yards. So, while the Patriots’ ground game is mostly settled with Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson in place, it’ll look like they’ll have to address their pass-catching situation out of the backfield in one shape or another.

Collins came back to the Patriots for a third stint in October after he was released by the Lions, recording 20 tackles, a sack, and a pick in 10 games. Karras returned to New England this past offseason on a one-year deal. While he was expected to backup center David Andrews, he ended up becoming the team’s starting left guard. Hoyer has served as the team’s backup quarterback since he returned in 2020.

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Receiver Jakobi Meyers, who led the Patriots in receptions and receiving yards in 2021, is a restricted free agent – which allows the Patriots to match any offer he gets in free agency. The Patriots would have to put a tender on him though, which would allow them to get draft pick compensation in return if they chose not to match another team’s offer. Receiver/returner Gunner Olszewski is also a restricted free agent.

Kicker Nick Folk is set to become a free agent after his strong season. The 37-year-old stated Thursday that he wants to play in 2022. Despite all of the attempts to jinx him, Folk made every field goal he attempted within 50 yards this past season.

With all of the spending the Patriots did last offseason, they won’t have as much cap space this time around. Patriots salary cap guru Miguel Benzan currently projects the Patriots to have just $2.5 million in cap space for next season. Of course, there are several ways the Patriots can create cap space – such as cutting players, trading players, or restructuring contracts.

The Patriots have several notable players entering the final year of their current deals in 2022, including Harris, Isaiah Wynn, Nelson Agholor, Jonathon Jones, Davon Godchaux, and Kyle Van Noy. They could look to sign those players to extensions to find a way to create cap space for the upcoming season.

As for the draft, the Patriots have each of their picks in the first four rounds and the Rams’ sixth-round pick. They aren’t projected to get any compensation picks due to free agency but they could receive a third-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft if Jerod Mayo is hired to be a head coach by another NFL team due to the Rooney Rule.

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The Patriots will hold the No. 20 or 21 overall pick depending on what happens in Sunday night’s Steelers-Chiefs game.

Here are all the Patriots’ free agents this offseason:

  • CB J.C. Jackson (UFA)
  • RT Trent Brown (UFA)
  • LB Dont’a Hightower (UFA)
  • C Ted Karras (UFA)
  • WR Matthew Slater (UFA)
  • RB James White (UFA)
  • RB Brandon Bolden (UFA)
  • WR Jakobi Meyers (RFA)
  • LB Ja’Whaun Bentley (UFA)
  • K Nick Folk (UFA)
  • FS Brandon King (UFA)
  • QB Brian Hoyer (UFA)
  • OLB Jamie Collins (UFA)
  • WR Gunner Olszewski (RFA)
  • LB Harvey Langi (UFA)
  • FB Jakob Johnson (RFA)
  • TE Troy Fumagalli (RFA)
  • LB Terez Hall (ERFA)

Here are all of the Patriots’ picks in the 2022 NFL Draft:

  • 1st round pick (their own)
  • 2nd round pick (their own)
  • 3rd round pick (their own)
  • 4th round pick (their own)
  • 6th round pick (via Rams)

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