Patriots

Forecasting the Patriots’ biggest free-agent decisions this offseason

Keeping J.C. Jackson seems like a no-brainer for the Patriots. Whether or not to retain veteran mainstays like Dont'a Hightower might be a more difficult question.

Dont'a Hightower Patriots
New England Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower could be facing the end of his career in Foxborough. (AP Photo/ Jeffrey T. Barnes)
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With the playoffs over for the Patriots, the inevitability of tough offseason decisions is looming large over a team that feels like it’s about to change its guard.

New England head man Bill Belichick spent a wild amount of money last offseason to retool his team on the fly in hopes of returning to the postseason in 2021. Though the team accomplished that goal, with a rookie quarterback to boot, the veteran-heavy squad lost four of its last five games and couldn’t hang with the up-and-coming Buffalo Bills in the wild-card round.

Now, the roster turnover following that loss could include a few fan favorites who are among the most decorated players in the franchise’s history.

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The Patriots currently have 19 players heading to free agency when the new league year begins on March 16, with 16 headed to unrestricted free agency and three (Jakobi Meyers, Jakob Johnson and Gunner Olszewski) restricted by the team.

Here are a few of the most important players the team needs to grapple with before that date.

J.C. Jackson

One way or another, the newly minted Second-Team All-Pro and second-leading interceptor in football is going to get a fat paycheck for at least the 2022 season.

But as Pro Football Focus salary cap expert Brad Spielberger told Boston.com, the Patriots probably aren’t going to let Jackson reach free agency. Spielberger suggests Jackson could get the Joe Thuney/Logan Mankins treatment of years past: hit him with the franchise tag and try to work out a deal during that time/let him go if they can find someone else to replace him.

A long-term deal right now isn’t out of the question here, of course. But the price tag might be high if Jackson is looking for the kind of money the top cornerbacks in the league are making. PFF’s contract projection of four years, $72 million total ($18 million per year, $56 million guaranteed) would bump him above the Bills’ Tre’Davious White in terms of highest-paid NFL corners by average per year.

Jackson is younger than Stephon Gilmore, which at least makes it more likely Jackson might see a deal than his departed counterpart. Still, given the former’s undrafted status and the way the team coaxed a solid season out of reclamation project Jalen Mills, it’s possible Belichick declines to pony up the funds to keep Jackson past next season.

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But one season at $18 million, given everything they committed to free agents last year? You can probably take that to the bank.

Devin McCourty

For free safeties, it’s not all about the plays you make. It’s the plays you prevent that often matter more.

The Patriots tied for second league-wide in fewest explosive pass plays (20+ yards) allowed. McCourty being where he should be is likely a big reason for that. Furthermore, him locking things down in the deep part of the field allows the likes of Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger to make plays all over the field.

New England’s elder statesman in the secondary also didn’t miss a game and routinely played every defensive snap at 34 years old without looking like he lost a significant step.

McCourty will be 35 this fall, but he looks like he has something left in the tank. The Patriots should try to bring him back, and PFF estimates a two-year deal for about $6 million a year (with a likely out after 2022) could do it.

Still, you never know: he wasn’t a fan of the change to a 17-game season, and he doesn’t have anything left to prove on the field. Retirement is not out of the question.

Dont’a Hightower

Speaking of retirement, one wonders whether Hightower might start thinking about it seriously after this season.

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There were moments he looked like the thumper of old coming downhill to smash unsuspecting blockers or burst through gaps with force. His knowledge of the game certainly hasn’t deserted him at any rate, and he routinely helped cause havoc just because knew what was coming before everyone else.

But Hightower simply wasn’t as dynamic as he’s been in years past, whether it was due to age, him missing last season or some combination of all that. He also found himself rooted a bit more to a traditional off-ball linebacker role than the more versatile role New England has deployed him in before.

The Patriots legend stands in stark contrast to the smaller, more lithe linebackers seen across the NFL, and it seems apparent the team can’t field a team with two off-ball linebackers like Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley that mainly stop the run and don’t do much else.

Belichick should at least offer Hightower a chance to stay. But a desire to get younger at the position might convince New England to move on from the 32-year-old. If that happens, it’s hard to think of him playing for anyone else.

Trent Brown

This could be one of the more interesting under-the-radar decisions for the Patriots this offseason.

On one hand, Brown’s durability issues definitely weren’t what the team had in mind when they traded for him and restructured his deal before the 2020 season. After getting hurt in the first series of the season against Miami, he didn’t play around until Week 10 against the Cleveland Browns.

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When he did play, though, he was everything the Patriots hoped they were getting. Brown showed he could still get out in space and crush people as a bruiser in the run game, and he allowed just one sack and nine total pressures in his 10 starts.

The interesting part as well: Brown is still only 28 years old. If he can stay in decent shape, he should have a good deal of juice left.

PFF projects Brown could earn somewhere in the neighborhood of a two-year, $12.5 million deal ($18 million guaranteed) as an unrestricted free agent. That’s a bargain compared to the fully guaranteed $10.4 million the Patriots would be paying Isaiah Wynn after picking up the left tackle’s fifth-year option.

There seems to be little downside to trying to re-sign a solid tackle in Brown, especially if they would rather keep Michael Onwenu inside at guard than kick him out to tackle in Brown’s place.

Jakobi Meyers

At this point, how could the Patriots not keep Meyers around?

All he’s done is get better each year, putting up a career-high 83 catches for 866 yards and his first two NFL touchdowns in 2022. He was also one of the more prolific chain-movers in the league this past season, with 19 of his catches resulting in successful third-down conversions (tied for 10th in the NFL).

Even if you think he’s not a special talent at the receiver position or a true “No. 1,” he’s a solid player and almost certainly the pass-catcher Mac Jones trusted the most when he needed somewhere to go.

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Meyers comes into this season as a restricted free agent, meaning the Patriots can offer him a one-year tender for next year in lieu of signing him to a franchise tag or long-term deal. The team did something similar with J.C. Jackson ahead of last season.

As with Jackson, expect the Patriots to offer a second-round tender to Meyers instead of the original-round tender. (Meyers was undrafted, so the original-round tender would pay him less and might be matched by another team.) That would likely pay Meyers over $3 million next season while New England decides what to do with him long-term.

Given the current state of the team’s receiver room, the Patriots can’t let Meyers leave the building.

Nick Folk

If you had a top-5 list of the most reliable players on the Patriots this season, Folk probably headlines that list.

The 37-year-old was sixth in field goal percentage among the league’s starting kickers and was perfect on 31 field goal attempts inside of 50 yards. That’s about as automatic as it gets.

The Patriots especially needed him in a year that was defined by running the football and trying to play things safe for their rookie quarterback. One could say he was the team’s MVP in New England’s wins over Houston, Los Angeles and the snow-globe game in Buffalo.

New England has gotten away with paying him under $2 million in each of his last three one-year contracts with the team. Though Belichick might not be able to skimp out quite that much in 2022, that’s a solid indicator bringing Folk back doesn’t have to break the bank.

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The bottom line is that the team does still need him until they have a better idea if big-legged Quinn Nordin can consistently kick it through the uprights during actual NFL action. Letting Folk test the market the way the Patriots did when they cut him after training camp might not work out this time.

Matthew Slater

The special teams GOAT did it again this past season, making his fifth All-Pro team in 2021. Even at 36 years old, he hasn’t slowed down or provided the Patriots anything less than excellence and stability.

There doesn’t seem to be any reason he can’t keep it up for another year or two. With his 37th birthday looming before the start of next season, though, he might soon be ready to hang the cleats up.

The Patriots offered him a two-year, $5.3 million contract the last time he faced unrestricted free agency after the 2019 season. He went on to garner two Second-Team All-Pro nods in those two years, meaning he’s more than lived up to his end.

It makes sense, therefore, for Belichick to leave this decision up to Slater. If he wants to play, sign him to a one-year deal. If he’s ready to retire, try to keep him first before letting him ride off into the sunset. (Kidding. Mostly.) Simply letting him walk away without a contract offer is not an option, whatever happens.

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