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Patriots’ needs after the first wave of free agency, ranked from quarterback to punter

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By: Bernd Buchmasser

Photo by Danielle Parhizkaran/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

New England still has plenty of work to do this offseason.

While NFL free agency is not over yet, the initial wave has come and gone leaving most of the big names on the market accounted for. The New England Patriots, who at one point leading into the new league year had an NFL-high $100.3 million in salary cap space available, were quite active as well.

That said, most of their efforts focused on retaining talent rather than bringing players aboard from outside the organization. This resulted in the re-signings of core players such as Michael Onwenu, Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry, and Anfernee Jennings, and placing the franchise tag on Kyle Dugger. However, it also meant that no splash moves were made despite the team having the financial ability to make them.

In total, and including the signing of offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor before the market officially opened, the Patriots brought eight new players aboard. Only two of them signed multi-year deals, with the combined base value of all eight contracts less than $41 million.

Nonetheless, those moves paired with the re-signings did help improve the depth at certain positions. And with the Patriots seemingly focused on the draft as the key part of their roster building strategy, they did set themselves up to make some big(ger) acquisitions in late April.

And when looking at the team’s current needs, those are very much needed to field a competitive team in 2024.

Let’s go through those needs now, starting with the most pressing. As a reference point, here is a look at the Patriots’ roster and projected depth chart as it stands as of Thursday morning.

Major need

Quarterback: Even though the Patriots signed Jacoby Brissett to a one-year, $8 million contract in free agency, they are in dire need of finding a long-term solution at the position. As the owners of the third overall pick in the draft, it seems likely that the solution will come from the college ranks. If that is indeed the case, the belief is that North Carolina’s Drake Maye, LSU’s Jayden Daniels, or Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy are prime candidates to be added to the mix — potentially setting up a scenario where a rookie spends the season behind bridge quarterback Brissett.

Offensive tackle: The Patriots managed to re-sign Michael Onwenu, and the plan is for him to remain at tackle rather than move back inside to guard. While that ensures stability on the right side of the line, where the Sidy Sow/Onwenu combination showed promise in 2023, the left end is a major question mark. Gone is Trent Brown, with no clear replacement on the roster behind him. At the moment, the aforementioned Chukwuma Okorafor or returning veterans Calvin Anderson and Conor McDermott look like the top options. Needless to say, there is plenty of room for improvement.

Wide receiver: Besides re-signing Kendrick Bourne and bringing in K.J. Osborn on a one-year deal, the Patriots also parted ways with their primary outside receiver of the last two years, DeVante Parker. This move, while understandable from a fiscal perspective, has left the team without a clear option on the perimeter. While Tyquan Thornton, Jalen Reagor or Osborn might be chosen to fill that role, the draft being deep at the receiver position comes in handy as well. Don’t be surprised if a receiver with experience as the X is chosen within the first three rounds.

Significant need

Cornerback: New England’s offense is the biggest concern at the moment, but there also are issues on the defensive side of the ball. Cornerback is the most prominent among them: even though Christian Gonzalez is a Pro Bowl talent, and Jonathan Jones and Marcus Jones are starter-caliber options as well, the depth — particularly on the outside — is shallow. Unless one of the projected depth players currently under contract steps up, the Patriots might be wise to target that position in the draft or via the trade market.

Moderate need

Tight end: Re-signing Hunter Henry and adding Austin Hooper on a one-year pact ensured that the cupboard was not entirely empty heading into 2024. Nonetheless, the group could still benefit from an infusion of youth and developmental talent. There are a few players in this draft that would fit the bill, such as Penn State’s Theo Johnson or Kansas State’s Ben Sinnott.

Defensive edge: The Patriots brought back Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche to keep their core along the edge intact. With Uche on a one-year deal and Pro Bowler Matthew Judon getting up there in age, the position is in a similar spot as tight end: more developmental talent via the draft would make sense, even though it likely should not be expected to come in one of the early rounds given New England’s issues in other areas.

Kicker: Chad Ryland’s rookie season was rough, and the Patriots’ new coaching staff needs to figure out quickly whether his potential is high enough to warrant giving him more opportunities. For the purpose of this analysis, we take the glass-half-full approach while also acknowledging that any hint of his 2023 struggles persisting would move the kicker spot up at least one if not two categories.

Running back: With Antonio Gibson in the fold, the Patriots finally have a receiving back again to complement starter Rhamondre Stevenson. The question they now have to ask themselves is whether the other players currently under contract at the position are capable depth pieces. If so, no immediate follow-up moves might be necessary. The track records of Kevin Harris, JaMycal Hasty and Ke’Shawn Vaughn, however, suggest that the opposite might be the case.

Interior offensive line: New England drafted three interior O-linemen a year ago, but the jury is still out on two of them (Jake Andrews, Sidy Sow). That in combination with starting left guard Cole Strange coming off a season-ending knee injury means that more darts might have to be thrown at the board, unless free agency pickup Nick Leverett or the other depth pieces are viewed as capable to start if called upon.

Minor need

Safety: Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers form one of the best starting safety tandems in football, while Marte Mapu offers promise as a hybrid third option. More depth is never a wrong thing, and adding a true deep safety to the mix would likely also have a positive impact on the group. Nonetheless, if the Patriots run it back with those three as their top guys they will likely still get effective play out of its safety group in 2024.

Interior defensive line: The Patriots effectively swapped out Lawrence Guy for Armon Watts, but time will tell whether the latter will have the same positive impact as the former. Still, the core group is a strong one and should only get better with Christian Barmore continuing to develop and Keion White heading into his second season as a pro. The future is still looking up for the group, even with Guy getting released earlier this offseason.

Off-the-ball linebacker: Free agency signing Sione Takitaki effectively was brought in to replace Mack Wilson as the third linebacker alongside returning starters Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai. That group was good in 2023 and projects to again be among the better ones in the league in 2024 despite a) Wilson signing in Arizona, and b) no household names being under contract. The biggest question mark actually might be how the coaching changes on defense, and at linebacker particular, will impact the room and its members.

Long snapper: Working with rookies at both punter/holder (Bryce Baringer) and kicker (Chad Ryland), Joe Cardona did have some hiccups especially early on in the season. There is no indication, however, that the Patriots are looking into replacing the veteran anytime soon. Maybe the conversation will be a different one next offseason, but the longest-tenured Patriot has earned the benefit of the doubt for now.

Punter: With the Patriots offense struggling mightily in 2023, Bryce Baringer got his fair share of opportunities to showcase his punting abilities. The rookie was not perfect, but he fared well and left little doubt about his outlook as a potential long-term option at the position. Obviously, the same things were said about his predecessor, Jake Bailey, as well, but so far Baringer has shown nothing to suggest he will be subject to a similar drop-off.

Obviously, the ranking as presented here is subjective and there are certainly arguments about moving particular positions into different categories. More than anything, however, the list can be seen as a way of showing where the Patriots roster still has weaknesses even with the first wave of free agency in the books.

The clear points of emphasis remain unchanged: it’s quarterback, first and foremost, followed by left tackle and perimeter wide receiver. Those three positions getting addressed in the first three rounds of the upcoming draft could very well happen.

Originally posted on Pats Pulpit