6 Patriots takeaways after the NFL’s initial flurry of signings

The New England Patriots are back to doing what they do best in NFL free agency. They’re sitting back and waiting. The Patriots entered free agency with somewhere below $15 million in cap space after a huge spending spree in 2021. They quickly spent the majority of that money over the last 24 hours on in-house candidates.

New England retained safety Devin McCourty, quarterback Brian Hoyer, special teams ace Matt Slater and center James Ferentz. They also placed a second-round tender on receiver Jakobi Meyers, which should be enough to retain him for 2022. New England lost guard Ted Karras to the Cincinnati Bengals, who offered him a three-year, $18-million deal.

New England seems content to wait and sift through the leftovers of free agency — which may include some of their pending free agents like cornerback J.C. Jackson, kicker Nick Folk, linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Ja’Whaun Bentley and running backs James White and Brandon Bolden, among others.

So let’s dive into what we learned over day one of the tampering period.

JC Jackson says goodbye to the Patriots and hello to $82.5 million. The Patriots' future is far less certain

It’s just as I suspected. Jackson got a massive deal from someone else.

Could the Patriots have afforded this deal? Yes, probably — with some salary cap gymnastics. Will they be happy to have let him walk so they can use money in other ways in the coming years, namely to support quarterback Mac Jones with a strong supporting cast? Time will tell.

In the meantime, Jackson gets what he deserves: a huge deal. He agreed to terms on a five-year deal worth $82.5 million, per multiple reports.

New England officially has issues at cornerback. Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant won’t cut it. They’re going to need to do more to build out their depth chart. And there are a number of good options in free agency. If that doesn’t work, they can look to the draft.

Quick-hit winners and losers...

Winner: WR Nelson Agholor — The Patriots haven’t acquired another wideout, even though a source tells me they were “tire kicking” on Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Agholor remains the No. 1 outside receiver.

Loser: QB Mac Jones — As I mentioned, Agholor remained the No. 1 outside receiver. That’s not great. To make matters worse, the Patriots have yet to extend James White or Brandon Bolden. And they lost guard Ted Karras with the likely prospect of losing Trent Brown.

Winner: CB J.C. Jackson — The dude can make $82.5 million over the next five years. What else need I say?

Loser: CB Jalen Mills — It’s unclear whether Mills’ promotion to CB1 will stand for very long. But he is CB1 for now. Even he probably knows he can’t handle that. That’s a tough spot for him to sit in.

If you're complaining about Brian Hoyer and Matt Slater's deals, stop it

The Patriots were right to retain Hoyer and Slater. New England certainly needs younger players to step into the leadership gap. The Patriots definitely need playmakers at receiver and on the offensive line.

But after losing Tom Brady, the Patriots were right to pay for McCourty, Hoyer and Slater. There should really be no question as to whether the Patriots were wise to pay for McCoury. He remains one of the premier players at his position and his contract is likely to count as roughly $7 million against the cap. It’s a no-brainer.

But Hoyer and Slater? I suppose there are some areas where one might argue it’s a bad call to put money there.

The bottom line is that they’re important parts of the Patriots’ process in looking toward the future. And that may not make immediate sense to some people. But if the Patriots want to move into the Mac Jones era, they need to set him up for success along the way — including keeping around a backup quarterback and mentor like Hoyer. And to make it even more clear, the Cardinals paid Colt McCoy almost double what the Patriots paid Hoyer. The deal made a lot of sense.

As for Slater, the same is true as he begins to mentor other leaders around the Patriots locker room. He can model the leadership and help with player buy-in for another season. And it’ll barely cost the Patriots in the process.

Safety Devin McCourty should help the Patriots manage the departures of J.C. Jackson and Stephon Gilmore

Imagine what the Patriots’ secondary would look like if the team lost McCourty, Jackson and Gilmore in the course of one year.

It’s not a pretty picture, right?

New England needed to keep McCourty, even if it felt it couldn’t hold onto Gilmore or Jackson. Now, it’s fair to criticize and wonder why the Patriots let their top two cornerbacks slip away so easily, with Gilmore leaving for sixth-round pick and Jackson potentially producing a compensatory pick. But because those players are gone, the team’s decision to retain McCourty — a top-flight safety — should help stabilize the secondary.

The Ted Karras departure is a tough loss. Let's look at what's left on the offensive line.

The Patriots were not far off from what the Bengals offered Karras — just a few million away. But of course, a few million is a lot of money to just about everyone. So Karras did what was best for his family and took the cash. (Smart man.) He leaves behind an offensive line in flux.

It seems unlikely tackle Trent Brown will return. So what’s next for the offensive line? Here’s my best guess.

LT: Isaiah Wynn
LG: Michael Onwenu
C: David Andrews
RG: Shaq Mason
RT: Yodny Cajuste/Justin Herron

Just a guess: The Patriots won’t be content with Cajuste or Herron at right tackle and will want to find a replacement (or multiple potential replacements) at the position in the coming months.

The Patriots are going to keep sitting back and rack up compensatory picks. But let's talk free agent options.

Let’s just look at what went down.

The Patriots are likely to continue doing what they’ve been doing. They’ll watch teams spend too much money on the top free agents. They’ll retain their best free agents, if the money is right. And when the dust settles, they’ll begin to explore options.

At what position?

I think they need help at cornerback. inside linebacker, outside receiver and right tackle. That’s where I think they should start. If you’re interested in potential targets, check out the articles linked above.