Ryan L. Fox
Coming off a lackluster 2020 NFL Season that saw the team go 7-9 and missing the playoffs for the first time in over 10 years, the New England Patriots enter the 2021 NFL Offseason with a little over $68 million in cap space and a lot of soon-to-be free agents on their roster. This includes a few key players on both sides of the ball like RB James White, WR Damiere Byrd, DT Lawrence Guy, and G Joe Thuney just to name a few.
Now history has shown that the Patriots have rarely gone out and spend huge bucks on the free agent market when they have the cap space. They instead use the money to try and resign their own free agents (usually at a team discount).
With so many players ready to declare free agency on the roster, there are a few that Patriots should keep. Even if it means paying a little extra than in the past to prevent them from getting poached by a rival NFL team.
Honorable Mention: CB/ST Justin Bethel
I say this with a little tongue and cheek because everybody knows that Patriots coach Bill Belichick is heavily invested in special teams. That being said, current special teams captain WR/ST Matthew Slater is going to turn 36 when then regular season starts and they need a reliable veteran on special teams. Bethel has proved serviceable in the past and is a former Pro Bowler (2013-2015 with the Arizona Cardinals).
5. DT Adam Butler
Butler may not be as flashy or as high profile as some of his other teammates on the Patriots defensive side of the ball but he has quietly had himself a solid career playing for the Patriots. In 4-years with the Patriots, he’s amassed 15.0 sacks, 96 total tackles, 20 tackles for losses, and 22 QB hits. In 2020, Butler was 2nd on the team in sacks (4.0), was tied for 2nd with teammate DE Chase Winovich for 2nd on the team in tackles for losses (6), and tied with fellow DT Lawrence Guy for 3rd on the team in QB hits (7). Not to mention that with his size, Butler can play the traditional DT in a 4-3 scheme or be a DE spot in a 3-4 scheme should the Patriots decide to go either way.
4. RB James White
White is the prototypical Patriots player. He understands his role on the team (primarily a 3rd down/receiving running back), he doesn’t mouth off in the media and throw teammates or coaches under the bus, he leads by example with his play over the years, and he was one of former QB Tom Brady’s go-to weapons on offense (outside of former TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Julian Edelman.
Prior to last year, White has had 5 consecutive seasons of 40+ receptions, 400+ receiving yards and 3+ receiving touchdowns (2015-2019) after his rookie year in 2014. Although his numbers dipped in 2020 (49 catches for 375 yards and 1 TD), White was still 3rd on the team in reception yards and lead the team in catch percentage with 30 targets or more (79.0%).
3. C David Andrews
Next to the quarterback, the center position is one of the more important positions on the offense side of the ball. He’s essentially the one who is barking out blocking assignments on the line and helping the quarterback identify any sort of blitzes the defense is planning to do. Since coming into the league in 2015, Andrews has been the anchor in the Patriots offensive line.
It was very unfortunate that he missed the entirety of the 2019 NFL season due to a blood clot in his lungs but has shown the determination and willingness to get back onto the field and play. Not to mention that the Patriots offensive line looked very susceptible when Andrews was out of the lineup and they currently do not have any capable backup centers on the roster that can just simply take over should Andrews does not return.
2. CB J.C. Jackson
He came into the league as an undrafted rookie free agent, was a key contributor for the Patriots late in the season, and helped them win a Super Bowl in his rookie year. No, it’s not Malcolm Butler (although the similarities are a little be too close if you ask me) but J.C. Jackson. Since 2018, Jackson has become a quality cornerback for the Patriots. He’s more suited to a man-coverage style but he still was able to match up against a lot of No. 1 and No. wideout options throughout this season and his career.
Jackson also has a nose for the football.
In 2020, Jackson amassed 12 turnovers (9 interceptions and 3 fumble recoveries) which was the most by a Patriots defender during the Belichick Era. He ended up leading the team in interceptions (9), fumble recoveries (3), and passes defended (14) and got voted in as a Pro Bowl alternative as well.
With the Patriots relationship with Jackson’s teammate and fellow cornerback Stephon Gilmore souring, the team cannot, under any circumstances, let Jackson walk and test the free agency market.
1. G Joe Thuney
Thuney is an invaluable piece the Patriots can ill-afford. As of right now, he’s ranked in the top 20 in a lot of 2021 NFL free agents lists currently out there and for a good reason.
Since coming into the league back in 2016, Thuney has been the iron horse of the Patriots offensive line. He was a starter day one and has played in every single Patriots game since that time (80 starts in 80 regular season games and 10 starts in 10 playoff games). In fact, if you look at the percentage of snaps for his entire career, Thuney’s been on the field for nearly every snap in his entire Patriots career (100% 2016-18, 99% in 2019, and 97% in 2020). But was makes Thuney valuable to the team is his ability to play not just one position but multiple positions on the offensive line. He’s had experience playing at left tackle and center, filling in while others were out with injury.
This will definitely cost the Patriots a nice chunk of change to retain Thuney’s services to say the least.
Last year, Thuney was tagged with the franchise tag prior to the start of the season, which counted for $14.78 million against the cap. Should the Patriots decide to franchise tag him yet again, it’ll cost $17.736 million against the cap (120% increase from last year). It’s not ideal to tie so much money on the offensive line (fellow RG Shaq Mason is making about $10 million per year with his deal) but with so much uncertainty of who will be taking snaps under center for the team in 2021, you need some sort of stability.
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