FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There have been a few notable years in coach Bill Belichick's two-decade tenure when the New England Patriots have spent big at the start of NFL free agency. Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin (2003), linebacker Adalius Thomas (2007) and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (2017) immediately come to mind.
It wouldn't be a surprise if 2021 is added to the mix, because the Patriots are in need of a talent infusion at wide receiver, tight end and defensive tackle and are third in projected salary-cap space ($62.2 million), per OverTheCap.com.
The next few days will reveal if any big-name pass-catchers -- such as Allen Robinson II (Chicago Bears), Chris Godwin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Kenny Golladay (Detroit Lions), Hunter Henry (Los Angeles Chargers) and Jonnu Smith (Tennessee Titans) -- hit the market without the restriction of the franchise tag.
So that's where things start for the Patriots.
At the same time, the majority of the team's free-agent shopping figures to be at moderate to lower levels.
Teams can begin negotiating with agents of players on other teams starting March 15. Here are some players who caught my eye as those who could help fill top needs, with additional insight from ESPN NFL Nation reporters:
My take: The 6-foot, 198-pound Agholor, who was on last year's Patriots' fits list as well, turned in a solid 2020 season that showed he's more than a pure slot. He should command a mid-range market. His speed, position flexibility and winning mentality would fit well in a restocked receiving corps.
NFL Nation take: "Is it a true coming-out party if no fans are there to partake and said guest of honor does not crack 1,000 yards receiving? When it comes to Agholor, absolutely. True, he was a first-round pick by the Eagles in 2015, but he never lived up to that draft standing in Philadelphia. Signed to a one-year, $1,047,500 prove-it deal by Las Vegas, Agholor became quarterback Derek Carr's most efficient wideout with a career-high 896 yards receiving on 48 catches for a career-best 18.7 yard-per-catch average that ranked second in the NFL among pass-catchers who had at least 25 receptions.
"Sure, he still had the occasional drop, but Carr had a 100.5 passer rating when targeting Agholor, who also had 15 catches of at least 20 yards. His six TDs of at least 20 yards were the second-most in the league. Signed more for depth, Agholor became the Raiders' under-the-radar deep threat. And as Carr himself said late in the season, 'We've got to pay that man, and get him back.' But will Las Vegas pony up?" -- Paul Gutierrez, Raiders reporter
My take: If Agholor is out of reach, Bourne (6-1, 190) could be a nice fallback option. Overshadowed by Cooper Kupp at Eastern Washington, he went undrafted in 2017 after running a 4.68-second time in the 40-yard dash, but not to be overlooked was his 6.73-second time in the 3-cone drill -- which reflects short-area quickness that could translate well to what the Patriots value.
NFL Nation take: "Bourne has quietly been one of the best examples of the Niners' commitment to developing their own, working his way from undrafted free agent to one of their top three wideouts over the past couple of seasons. Bourne has the ability to play in the slot and outside and has turned into a solid route runner. He's not a burner and isn't the type who is going to beat you deep, but he's unafraid to go over the middle and takes pride in his ability as a run-blocker. The Niners would like to keep Bourne, who has an infectious energy that his teammates love, but they might not be able to afford what it would take to keep him since he would be the No. 3 wideout, and the 49ers have other needs to fill with what little cap space they have." -- Nick Wagoner, 49ers reporter
My take: A free-agent fallback plan if Henry and Smith are out of reach, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Everett had one catch but played well against the Patriots in December when the Rams pounded away with two-tight-end sets.
NFL Nation take: "Everett is dynamic and proved he has the ability to be an explosive playmaker in the passing game. However, in four seasons with the Rams, he was unable to develop a consistent presence week-in and week-out playing behind Tyler Higbee. Everett was somewhat inconsistent as a pass-catcher and also as a blocker, though his blocking improved each season. In 2019 against Seattle, Everett recorded seven receptions for a career-high 136 yards, his only 100-receiving yard game with the Rams. A second-round pick in 2017, Everett turns 27 in June. A fresh start and a more consistent role that holds his attention could serve him well." -- Lindsey Thiry, Rams reporter
Johnathan Hankins, DT (Raiders)
My take: The Patriots lost big in their Danny Shelton-for-Beau Allen exchange last year, as the lack of size/presence at defensive tackle next to free-agent-to-be Lawrence Guy showed up. Hankins is an eight-year veteran who turns 29 this month.
NFL Nation take: "A dependable three-year starter after signing as a free agent, Hankins has been solid if unspectacular for the Raiders. He is more space-eater than pocket-pusher but has shown an ability to collapse things. He has a combined 2.5 sacks the past three seasons, which is a far cry from the 7 sacks he had for the New York Giants in 2014. Still, at 6-foot-3, 340 pounds, Hankins' 50 and 48 tackles the past two seasons are the second and third-most tackles he's had in his eight-year career. He still has some tread on his tires for whichever team takes a chance on him." -- Paul Gutierrez, Raiders reporter
DaQuan Jones, DT (Titans)
My take: The Patriots are at their best when they have a three-man rotation at the big-bodied DT spot. The top two usually play about 50% of the snaps as run-stoppers who can also push the pocket with power.
NFL Nation take: "Jones is a two-gap run-stuffer who will allow linebackers behind him to come up and make plays. He'll occupy blocks. He's also a surprisingly good pass-rusher. Jones won't get a lot of sacks, but he'll get pressure and is good on tackle/end stunts. Also, he is really good in the community. He donated truckloads of supplies to tornado victims in Nashville, Tennessee last year. I don't think the Titans will bring him back. They really like Teair Tart, an undrafted free agent from last year." -– Turron Davenport, Titans reporter
John Ross, WR (Cincinnati Bengals)
My take: Curtis Samuel (Carolina Panthers) is the type of speedy dual threat who would help any offense, but with the idea his price tag might exceed where the Patriots want to be, Ross (5-11, 194) would be a low-budget gadget option in a similar projected role. When he clocked 4.2-seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2017 combine, he turned heads.
NFL Nation take: "Ross arrived in Cincinnati with great expectations after he was drafted with the ninth overall pick in the 2017 draft. However, the speedy ex-Washington standout was never able to consistently yield production. Ross admittedly struggled with his self-confidence at times early in his career. When he started off well in 2019, his success was hampered by a chest injury that put him on injured reserve for eight weeks. Ross still has the physical tools to be a dynamic receiver that can get behind opposing defenses. And after a rough four years in Cincinnati, a fresh start could be exactly what he needs to tap into his potential." -- Ben Baby, Bengals reporter