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The New England Patriots are heading toward free agency with a very large amount of salary cap space for the 2021 season.
The NFL hasn’t decided what the salary cap will be league-wide, with the pandemic making financial matters uncertain during the 2020 season. When the league and the NFLPA finalize that cap number, the Patriots will be among the top five teams in salary cap space. New England should have a huge amount of money to use to retain talent — and add new players.
Let’s look at the 2021 class of pending free agents from New England. We’ll dissect which players are most likely (and least likely) to return to the Patriots.
WR Devin Smith, CB Dee Virgin, G Marcus Martin -- ???%
We've seen so little of these players, it's impossible to know whether New England will retain them in free agency this offseason. They aren't likely to come at a huge cost.
Joe Thuney, guard
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Chances of returning: 20% The Patriots and Thuney have had years to put together an extension, and they haven't agreed to a deal. It feels almost impossible for the Patriots to keep Thuney, especially considering all the depth they discovered on their offensive line, with Jermaine Eluemunor, Michael Onwenu and Justin Herron. Thuney is worth every penny he'll earn -- but only for a team that needs an upgrade at guard. New England has plenty of talent there.
Brian Hoyer, QB
Chances of returning: 30% The Patriots liked Hoyer's experience, both in their system and around the NFL. But when Hoyer played like a rookie in his lone start for New England, his value seemed to diminish significantly. Surely, he helped bring along Jarrett Stidham and, to some degree, Cam Newton while they learned the system. But the Patriots have coaches for that. It's hard to see Hoyer coming back after a rough 2020 season.
Brandon Copeland, OLB
Chances of returning: 40% He came as billed: a smart and versatile defender. The problem is that his quality of play wasn't stellar, and he's now 30 years old. Maybe the Patriots retain him on a one-year deal for the veteran minimum. But they need to focus on upgrading the linebacker position.
Damiere Byrd, WR
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Chances of returning: 30% The struggles with the passing offense were cyclical. Cam Newton struggled because his pass-catchers weren't talented enough. The pass-catchers struggled because Newton wasn't good enough. But considering Byrd's immense snap count (89%, most among WRs) and his lack of productivity (47 catches, 604 yards, 1 TD), it's hard to see the Patriots bringing him back. But perhaps they see his tape and think another quarterback can get more out of the receiver.
Terrence Brooks, S
Chances of returning: 40% The Patriots' safety group will be deep, with Patrick Chung (COVID-19 opt-out) rejoining Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger. Brooks has been a fine fill-in at safety while starting on special teams, but I'm not sure New England will feel they need him back.
Cam Newton, QB
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Chances of returning: 50% The Patriots had nothing but kind things to say about Newton throughout the year. Players suggested he had a tough situation, both following Tom Brady and doing so in a shortened offseason when he had limited time to learn the playbook. Ultimately, he didn't produce. Newton will have to decide if New England is right for him. His market isn't likely to be robust in 2021. And the Patriots will have to decide whether they want Newton back in the competition. From my perspective, the relationship will hinge upon whether Newton is willing to accept a backup role.
Shilique Calhoun, LB
Chances of returning: 50% New England has seemingly been high on Calhoun ever since the team signed him in 2019. But he hasn't actually done much. In 25 games with the Patriots, he has two sacks, 27 tackles and onlny one for a loss. It's time for New England to revamp its linebacker position.
John Simon, LB
Chances of returning: 50% Another linebacker who may suffer from the Patriots potentially desiring to clean out the position. Simon had been very solid for New England as an edge-setting linebacker -- until 2020. He struggled at that role, which was pretty much his biggest contribution to the team. If the Patriots don't have confidence that he can do that, I don't think they'll want him back.
James White, RB
(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Chances of returning: 50% White is at a strange crossroads in his career, and he's a tough evaluation for the Patriots -- and the rest of the NFL. On one hand, White had his least productive season since 2015. On the other hand, he managed 49 catches, 375 yards and a touchdown with 35 carries for 121 yards and two touchdowns while dealing with the grief of losing his father in a car crash. And he did it in an offense that was flailing. That context is necessary in understanding his regression. It will be interesting to see how much interest he gets from the Patriots, who probably want him to return.
Rex Burkhead, RB
Chances of returning: 50% It's tricky because Burkhead has been as dependable as any Patriots running back when he's healthy enough to play. But his injuries have forced them to put him on a snap count, and he's now 30 years old. Is it possible they'd look for a similar player who is younger? (Hint: yes.)
Deatrich Wise, DE
Chances of returning: 60% The Patriots love Wise. He has a big personality that brings players together in the locker room. Though he had a strong start in the NFL, he never developed into a well-rounded, three-down player. It's possible the Patriots put in a bid on Wise. But he could land elsewhere if someone (especially someone running a 4-3) shows more interest in his skill set.
David Andrews, C
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Chances of returning: 65% If he wasn't one of the most important veteran leaders in the locker room, I'd have put him as a 50-50 shot to leave. But because he's notorious for a strong work ethic, toughness, technique and smarts, he checks all the boxes to be a player the Patriots reward with a big contract. The question is whether someone in free agency will reward him with an even bigger deal.
Adam Butler, DL
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Chances of returning: 65% Everything I just said about Andrews is true of Butler. He has risen from a long shot as an undrafted free agent. And in 2020, he was one of the best players on the field for the defense, with a demonstration of smarts, toughness and technique. Butler's role as a defensive interior player is growing in importance in the NFL. He'll almost certainly have to take less to stay in New England.
Cody Davis, safety/special teams
Chances of returning: 65% With reporters unable to see the locker room dynamics this season, it's hard to know what level of leadership Davis contributed. He had been a special teams captain in Jacksonville -- it's possible he was similarly important in New England. But if Brandon Bolden, Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel return, Davis' value as a special teams standout fades. That said, Bill Belichick can never have too many special teams standouts.
Carl Davis, DT
Chances of returning: 70% Davis, who played three games and started one for the Patriots in 2020, strikes me as a player they'd bring in for training camp to compete at defensive tackle. He suffered a concussion which ended his season, but was very good in his limited action.
James Ferentz, C
Chances of returning: 70% New England will need help at center if David Andrews leaves. Ferentz isn't the answer, but he has plenty of experience with the Patriots. He's a safe and inexpensive option to bring in for training camp.
Jakob Johnson, FB
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Chances of returning: 70% Again, I'm not sure Johnson is the answer at fullback for 2021. He has shown remarkable signs of improvement since joining the NFL through the international gateway program. But New England may aggressively pursue top fullback options on the free agency market. Kyle Juszczyk, for example, will be available.
J.C. Jackson, CB
(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)Chances of returning: 70% He's a restricted free agent, and even with a first-round tender, his contract would be team-friendly. Jackson is clearly the No. 2 cornerback, and he has the talent to potentially someday be a No. 1. The one thing the Patriots might do: place a second-round tender on Jackson with hopes that he'll sign elsewhere and New England will get a draft pick in return. That's the one scenario where Jackson leaves -- only if the Patriots get a high draft pick for him.
Lawrence Guy, DT
Chances of returning: 75% It wasn't his strongest season with the Patriots, but he's a player they love. The weak season might ensure that he stays in New England's price bracket.
Nick Folk, K
Chances of returning: 75% He's been so solid for them, it's hard to imagine the Patriots letting him leave. New England tried drafting a kicker and it didn't work out. Unless the Patriots can add another rookie kicker (that's actually good) this year, they will need Folk for another season. The only way he gets away? Another team could swoop in with a better offer, considering his impressive body of work.
Justin Bethel, special teams
Chances of returning: 75% He was really good and really valuable to New England on special teams, a phase of the game where the Patriots had a major advantage -- particularly in the blowout of the Chargers. Bethel isn't flashy, but he's made himself very valuable to the franchise. They'll want him back and they'll have to hope he doesn't draw interest around the NFL.
Jermaine Eluemunor, OL
Chances of returning: 80% There may not be a single veteran Patriot who improved their stock as much as Eluemunor in 2020. He was impressive for New England as a guard and serviceable as a tackle. The trouble with a breakout player? He attracts interest from teams around the NFL. But I think his emergence was quiet enough that the Patriots can retain him -- and perhaps let Thuney go.
Jason McCourty, CB
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Chances of returning: 80% I can't imagine him leaving. He and his twin brother Devin McCourty seem to value their chance to play together. Jason isn't likely to get a huge pay increase by moving on, so he'll return to New England, where he'll be the third or fourth cornerback in 2021.