Who should the Patriots target in free agency?


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The perfect New England Patriots free-agent scenario could be summed up in five words: “Hunter Henry, come on down!”

Henry, the Los Angeles Chargers‘ top tight end, would help fill the Patriots’ most notable void. The problem with that scenario, however, is the Chargers are expected to make a concerted effort to retain him, whether it’s via extension or the franchise tag.

The Patriots need help at tight end. And adding another receiver would be ideal. History suggests they’ll cast a wide net at those positions, and others, in search of what they view as the best combination of talent and value.

There are multiple avenues to do so — free agency, the 2020 NFL draft, trades and the waiver wire among them — with free agency first on the list because it begins March 18. Teams can begin negotiating with agents of players on other teams starting March 16.

Here are five players who caught my eye as those who might be of interest, with additional insight from ESPN NFL Nation reporters.

My take: If Henry isn’t an option, the 6-foot-4, 254-pound Hooper is next on the list. Because the draft isn’t considered deep at tight end, it could lead to a more competitive pursuit of Hooper, upping his contract to a level the Patriots wouldn’t want to go. So while the scheme fit looks solid, the economics could be the biggest deterrent as demand outweighs supply at the position.

NFL Nation take: “He has steadily evolved into a reliable pass-catcher thanks, in part, to spending extra time in the offseason alongside quarterback Matt Ryan in California. His hands are solid as he had just one drop last season. And his route running is on point. Maybe the only drawback is his blocking, but Hooper has worked on that as well. Coaches around the league are well aware of Hooper being a middle-of-the-field threat and red zone target. Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur saw Hooper take a dramatic leap in Kyle Shanahan’s offense when LaFleur was the Falcons’ QBs coach. Shanahan obviously knows what Hooper can do, though the 49ers have their tight end in George Kittle. And the Washington Redskins are interested in Hooper, a source told ESPN. — Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure

My take: The Eagles selected Agholor in the first round of the 2015 draft (No. 20 overall) and the Southern California alum hasn’t met the high expectations that come with that draft position. He’s more of a slot receiver, and could be worth a flier on a lower-cost, prove-it type deal if that’s the way the market unfolds. One of the dynamics in play is the draft is considered deep at receiver, which could have a trickle-down effect on the free-agent class.

NFL Nation take: “Agholor is a gifted slot receiver who struggled with consistency during his five years in Philadelphia. He was one of the 10 fastest receivers in the NFL this past season according to GPS tracking data, general manager Howie Roseman said, and is a technician when it comes to route running. He shook off confidence issues early in his tenure to have a career year in 2017 (62 catches, 768 yards, eight TDs), which included a nine-catch, 84-yard performance in Super Bowl LII. But there were plenty of valleys to go with the peaks. He had some big drops, was not great at tracking deep passes, and struggled to win 50-50 balls. Given that he is coming off a knee injury and a down season before that, Agholor should be an affordable option. A one-year, prove-it deal might be best for all sides.” — Eagles reporter Tim McManus

My take: When the Dolphins waived Phillips in October 2018, the Patriots were among a handful of teams to put in a claim (they weren’t awarded Phillips because other teams had priority based on an inferior record). The Patriots have veteran Lawrence Guy returning for the last year of his contract in 2020, and then a void to fill next to him as Danny Shelton is scheduled for unrestricted free agency. Phillips would be a nice addition, depending on how rich his market becomes.

NFL Nation take: “He set a career high in 2019 with 9.5 sacks. The 6-6, 340-pound 3-technique defensive tackle pushed Bills first-round pick Ed Oliver for playing time early in the season, before taking the starting job altogether midway through the year. Oliver eventually won the job back, but not before Phillips proved he deserved a spot in the rotation. Despite seemingly orchestrating his way out of Miami in 2018, Phillips bought into the culture in Buffalo, making himself into one of the premier interior defensive linemen on the free-agent market. He has likened his stats to those of a top-three defensive tackle and will look to get paid like one; size and athleticism like his is hard to find and although he probably won’t get Aaron Donald money, he should have a healthy market.” — Bills reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques



Adam Schefter, Keyshawn Johnson and Rick Smith debate whether the 49ers should bring back wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

My take: While there would be risk in adding another 30-plus wideout to the mix alongside Julian Edelman (33) and Mohamed Sanu Sr. (30), it would have to be a consideration if Tom Brady returns because Brady seems to mesh best with players in the later part of their career. Similar to Phillips, the Patriots had previously shown interest in Sanders, signing him to an offer sheet as a restricted free agent, but that was a long time ago (2013).

NFL Nation take: “The 49ers and Sanders were basically a perfect match when San Francisco dealt third- and fourth-round picks to Denver for Sanders and a fifth-round choice before the 2019 trade deadline. Sanders immediately gave the Niners a steady presence with sure hands and served as a mentor for the team’s many young wideouts. In return, the Niners offered Sanders a chance at another Super Bowl ring. Sanders has maintained that his next foray into free agency won’t be all about money. He wants to win in a place he feels comfortable. The Niners check those boxes. Still, it’s fair to wonder if San Francisco can and will compete when it comes to the dollars. Sanders’ last deal was for three years and $33 million. Although he’s about to turn 33 (on March 17), he can still play and figures to be one of the best wideouts available. Considering this might be his last big bite at the free-agent apple, it wouldn’t be a surprise if his price tag came in somewhere close or just south of that deal.” — 49ers reporter Nick Wagoner

My take: The Patriots signed under-the-radar safety Terrence Brooks last offseason because of his special-teams prowess and potential to be part of different sub packages on defense, and Phillips could fall into a similar category. With core special teamer Nate Ebner scheduled for unrestricted free agency, there could be an opening to fill.

NFL Nation take: “Adrian Phillips is a versatile performer who can line up at all three linebacker spots, along with strong safety and free safety for the Chargers. He also served as the team’s defensive playcaller in a pinch. Phillips is smart and has the trust of defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, and he’s a core special-teams player, so he perhaps has more value to the Chargers than other teams in the league. He returned to the Chargers on a team-friendly, one-year, $2 million deal as an unrestricted free agent last year. But maybe the 27-year-old receives more interest if he hits the free-agent market this time around.” — Chargers reporter Eric Williams

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