NFL Free Agency: Ranking the 4 Players the New England Patriots Must Target

Last year, the New England Patriots turned the football world on its ear in free agency, signing pretty much every single free agent available. Or at least, it seemed that way. A franchise that has never been that big a player in free agency went on a frenzied buying spree last year, bringing in 11 players for a for a record $163 million in guaranteed money.

Because of all that splurging, the Patriots are forced to be a bit more thrifty in 2022. With less than a month before the start of free agency, the Patriots have less than $3 million available under the salary cap. That amount will surely increase after players are cut or their contracts are restructured, but it will have an impact on who the team looks to bring in, and whom among their own free agents they choose to keep. Here are four players the Patriots should be focusing on as free agency arrives:

J.C. Jackson, CB

The anchor of the Patriots secondary in 2021, Jackson is finding out what so many Patriots players have discovered long before him: It’s business, not personal. Jackson has become a defensive backfield star, with eight interceptions and a league-leading 23 deflected passes in 2021. But all it’s gotten him this offseason is a phone that won’t ring.

Tuesday was the first day teams can apply the franchise tag to a player of their choice. Jackson, who is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent after making $3.4 million in 2021, thought he might get tagged on Day 1. If so, it would earn Jackson a $17 million deal for 2022.

But the day came and went and a frustrated Jackson was left with hurt feelings.

“I guess they feel like they don’t need me,” Jackson told NBC Sports Boston. “I guess I can’t be that important to them. I know I am, but they’re not showing me. I love the game. If they tag me, I’m gonna go out there and play.”

Because of their current cap status, the Patriots will probably wait until after they’ve created extra cap room by releasing some players and restructuring the deals of others to make a decision on Jackson. Perhaps his agent should also remind Jackson that the Patriots typically wait until the last day of the franchise tag window – in this case March 8 – before applying it.

Better late than never for both Jackson and the Patriots, who are almost certainly letting safety Devin McCourty go, making Jackson an even bigger priority for 2022.

Chandler Jones, EDGE

The Patriots traded Jones to the Cardinals back after the 2016 season and got guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick in return. Of course, what the Patriots really got was the cap space to sign Dont’a Hightower and Stephon Gilmore, and the second-round pick got flipped, which resulted in the drafting of Joe Thuney, so no complaints from the Patriots’ side.

But after what happened to the defense down the stretch in 2021, the Patriots might want to revisit that transaction and bring Jones back into the fold to put pressure on Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, especially if Hightower and Jackson leave via free agency themselves.

Michael Gallup, WR

At some point, the Patriots have got to do something about their abysmal wide receiver situation. It’s not doing Mac Jones any favors. The Patriots tried to fix the problem last year in free agency with the likes of Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, but neither showed the kind of consistency the Patriots needed.

Gallup wouldn’t even be an option for the Patriots if not for his torn ACL in Week 17. Before that injury, Gallup was set to be a top 3 or top 5 free agent signing at the position. Even with his lengthy rehab likely keeping him out the first few weeks of the 2022 season, he could well re-sign with the Dallas Cowboys. But if Dallas lets him walk, his injury discount could be enough to get on the Patriots’ radar.

A healthy Gallup would be one of the best deep threats the Patriots have had in years. As great as they were guys like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman were not field-stretchers. This is what the Patriots need, and Gallup would give it to them.

Leighton Vander Esch, Kyzir White, LB

Vander Esch has the talent, but can’t stay healthy. That will also keep him at a discount price. If he can stay on the field for a full 17-game season in 2022, he could be a huge addition for a Patriots team with only one reliable linebacker on the roster in Kyle Van Noy.

White is another player who excelled in 2021 but lacks a long track record, which should suppress his salary demands. But he is young enough that his breakout season could be just the start of bigger things to come without having to break the bank to land him.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

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