NFL teams
Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer 50d

New England Patriots free-agency overview: Big needs at QB, WR, TE and DL

The New England Patriots enter 2021 NFL free agency coming off a 7-9 season in 2020 and have 21 unrestricted free agents.

The Patriots have an abundance of salary-cap space in an offseason when many teams are feeling a crunch, which could be to their advantage. There is an opportunity for them to think big to fill glaring needs -- at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end and the defensive front seven.

Here's what to expect from the Patriots when the NFL offseason hits high gear with the start of free agency on March 17:

QUARTERBACK

Under contract: Jarrett Stidham, Jake Dolegala

UFA: Cam Newton, Brian Hoyer

Game plan: The past month has been devoted to exploring all options -- draft, free agency, trades -- in an offseason when 15 to 18 teams could emerge with new QBs. The carousel is spinning. The best-case scenario might be to acquire the original Tom Brady succession plan, Jimmy Garoppolo, from the San Francisco 49ers. But San Francisco needs to be convinced it has an upgrade before moving in that direction.

RUNNING BACK

Under contract: Damien Harris, Sony Michel, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden

UFA: James White, Rex Burkhead

Game plan: Stay the course as the returning pieces provide a solid foundation, while making sure the "passing back" role is accounted for with White or a lower-cost option.

FULLBACK

Under contract: Jakob Johnson, Danny Vitale

UFA: None

Game plan: Continue to watch Johnson grow into the role, with Vitale as insurance as he returns after opting out of the 2020 season.

WIDE RECEIVER

Under contract: Julian Edelman, N'Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Matthew Slater, Marqise Lee, Devin Smith, Kristian Wilkerson, Isaiah Zuber

UFA: Damiere Byrd, Donte Moncrief

Game plan: Upgrade. In a big way. That starts with monitoring which potential top targets are assigned the franchise tag (e.g. Chris Godwin, Allen Robinson II, Kenny Golladay) and then working the mid-level of free agency and the trade market as well.

TIGHT END

Under contract: Ryan Izzo, Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene, Matt LaCosse

UFA: None

Game plan: Upgrade. In a big way. If this sounds familiar, it's because wide receiver and tight end fall into a similar category without a surefire No. 1 option. This means monitoring if top free-agent targets are assigned the franchise tag (e.g. Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith), and then exploring trade options.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Isaiah Wynn (LT), Shaq Mason (RG), Mike Onwenu (G/RT), Marcus Cannon (RT), Justin Herron (OT), Korey Cunningham (OT), Marcus Martin (C/G), Najee Toran (C), Yodny Cajuste (OT), Ross Reynolds (G)

UFA: Joe Thuney (G), David Andrews (C), Jermaine Eluemunor (OT/G), James Ferentz (C)

Game plan: After assigning Thuney the franchise tag in 2020, keep tabs on his market this year in an attempt to bring him back, knowing it is probably a long shot. That would make it imperative to ensure the return of Andrews. Also, a decision on Wynn's fifth-year option in 2022 is a big part of the offseason plans, as that would guarantee his salary in both 2021 and 2022.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Under contract: Byron Cowart, Beau Allen, Rashod Berry, Nick Thurman, Bill Murray, Akeem Spence

UFA: Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise Jr., Carl Davis

Game plan: Make a strong effort to bring Guy back, as he has been one of the better free-agent signings of coach Bill Belichick's 21-year tenure. Butler is also a valuable cog as an interior rusher and warrants strong consideration to return. The Patriots weren't as stout up front in 2020, so this spot is a notable need.

LINEBACKER

Under contract: Dont'a Hightower, Ja'Whaun Bentley, Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Terez Hall, Tashawn Bower, Cassh Maluia, Michael Pinckney, Brandon King

UFA: John Simon, Shilique Calhoun, Brandon Copeland

Game plan: Hightower's projected return after opting out of the 2020 season changes the complexion of the group in the short term. Then, it's primarily about the development of younger linebackers such as Winovich, Uche and Jennings -- all high picks in recent years who have upside.

CORNERBACK

Under contract: Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson (RFA), Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams, Myles Bryant, Dee Virgin, Michael Jackson, D'Angelo Ross

UFA: Jason McCourty, Justin Bethel

Game plan: Address Gilmore's $7 million base salary for 2021, which fuels the question of whether he'll be on the roster as that is well below market for a player of his caliber. Then tender Jackson at either the first- or second-round level, which would make it unlikely another team would take a run at him. Those are critical first steps, and then the idea would be to keep building quality depth.

SAFETY

Under contract: Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Patrick Chung, Kyle Dugger

UFA: Terrence Brooks, Cody Davis

Game plan: Put Dugger, last year's top pick (37th overall), in the best position to succeed and become a blue-chip player in the scheme. With three high-quality veterans around him, that's a great spot for him to be. Then look to add more youth and upside with the future in mind.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Under contract: Roberto Aguayo (kicker), Justin Rohrwasser (kicker), Jake Bailey (punter), Joe Cardona (long-snapper)

UFA: Nick Folk

Game plan: Attempt to bring Folk back after his solid 2020 campaign, but be prepared for backup plans in the event that doesn't happen. Aguayo and Rohrwasser are no sure bets to fill the void.

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