What Players in Free Agency Will Belichick Target?
By: Andrew Metcalfe
After dominating the AFC East for two decades, the New England Patriots are officially going into the dreaded “Rebuild”. They expect to return all eight of the players that opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID, which will mainly help them on the defensive side of the ball. The offense in 2020 was the worst that we’ve seen from them during the Belichick era, ranking third-worst in passing yards and 27th in scoring.
I don’t know who will be the starting QB for NE in 2021, but whoever it is will need major upgrades to the receiving options. The Patriots don’t typically sign skill position players to large contracts, so I don’t expect any of the big names to land there. Here are the Top 5 free agents they should target:
Corey Davis, WR
The former first-round pick has been a disappointment for Tennessee after they took him fifth overall in the 2017 NFL draft. He did have somewhat of a resurgence this season, posting career highs in Yards (984) and TDs (5). The Titans have declined his fifth-year option while AJ Brown has thrived as the top WR, so it is likely they will be moving on from Davis.
Davis only saw 92 targets in 2020, but his efficiency was very impressive. His Yards per route run and Yards per target were both top 10 in the NFL. He also gained 15.1 Yards per reception which was good for 15th best among WRs. At 26 years old, he is still in his prime and should be affordable based on the limited production to start his career.
John Ross III, WR
Speaking of 2017 NFL draft busts, the Bengals selection at ninth overall is the next name on my list. John Ross III was never able to get his career going during his four years in Cincinnati, mainly due to various health issues. Tyler Boyd is signed through 2023 and Tee Higgins flashed huge potential as a rookie in 2020, so the Bengals have no reason to keep Ross around.
We have yet to see Ross on the field for a full season, but he had his most productive year in 2019 when he caught 28 passes for 506 yards in 8 games. That’s a full season pace of 56 receptions for 1,012 yards. Don’t forget that he still holds the all-time fastest 40-yard dash record, when he ran a 4.22 in 2017. Putting that type of speed on the field to threaten defenses will help any offense.
Marvin Jones, WR
New England has one of the youngest WR groups in the NFL, so they could explore adding an experienced veteran to the room. Marvin Jones just finished a five-year stint with the Detroit Lions, who appear to be going into a rebuild themselves. They have multiple WRs with expiring contracts and will likely prioritize retaining Kenny Golladay and/or acquiring young talent through the draft.
Jones is usually a complimentary WR, but the hip injury to Kenny Golladay forced him into more of an alpha role in 2020. He saw a career high 115 targets and put up a respectable 978 Yards and 9 TDs. He is still better suited as a #2 WR, but I expect for him to have 2-3 more productive years as a deep receiving threat.
Hunter Henry, TE
The Patriots should also look into TE options, which is a position that has been severely lacking production for them since Gronk left. Hunter Henry played the 2020 season on the franchise tag. If the Chargers want to tag him again, it would cost them $12.7 million in 2021. They have expressed interest in bringing him back, but they also have Donald Parham rostered, who was signed before the season. Parham was a star in the XFL and has flashed with limited opportunities at the NFL level. He would be a viable option for LA, if they can’t agree on a long-term deal with Henry.
This is a shallow free agency class of TEs and Henry has the most production by far out of all options. If New England wants to make a splash while avoiding the high costs of premier WRs, Hunter Henry is the guy. Bill Belichick had glowing remarks towards him during this press conference from December:
Jonnu Smith, TE
Jonnu Smith got off to a hot start with the Titans in 2020, scoring 5 TDs and averaging over 55 receiving yards per game through the first 4 weeks. From week 6 on, there were only 3 games that Smith saw more than 5 targets. He also battled with both other TEs for targets/snaps throughout the second half of the season, which could be a sign that the Titans are open to letting him walk.
Although Smith is a superior athlete and has shown to be a receiving threat at TE, he is also an elite blocker that played a major role in Tennessee’s rushing attack led by Derrick Henry. New England would be elated to have a real dual threat at the position that would elevate both the pass and run game. Belichick has also publicly praised Smith, this was a quote from him in January: