National Football League
Why haven’t cap-rich Patriots splashed with free-agent additions?
National Football League

Why haven’t cap-rich Patriots splashed with free-agent additions?

Published Mar. 18, 2024 2:38 p.m. ET

The New England Patriots appear to be mostly sitting on their hands in NFL free agency.

They seemed like the most-eligible bachelor for the league's top free agents, at least in a fiscal sense. New England had more than $100 million to spend, the most in the NFL. And yet the team's biggest moves (so far) have been tagging Kyle Dugger and re-signing guard Michael Onwenu, tight end Hunter Henry and edge Josh Uche

New England is doing what it can to hold onto its core of talented players. And on the one hand, those are four excellent players for the Patriots to retain. On the other hand, they went 3-14 in 2023 and they haven't gotten tangibly better during 2024 free agency. Beyond those four players, New England also re-signed linebacker Anfernee Jennings and receiver Kendrick Bourne

There's nothing wrong with any of these moves. The issue is the lack of any major supporting moves to bring in new talent.


It was foolish to expect the Patriots to "burn some cash," as new head coach Jerod Mayo joked about in mid-February and later walked back. But the Patriots made sense for several younger free agents, who could have provided value in longer-term deals to push New England into an accelerated rebuild.

So far? It has been an unimpressive haul.

QB Jacoby Brissett 
WR K.J. Osborn 
TE Austin Hooper 
OT Chukwuma Okorafor 
RB Antonio Gibson 
DT Armon Watts 
LB Sione Takitaki 
OL Nick Leverett

The biggest headline the Patriots made was in their failed attempt to pursue receiver Calvin Ridley, who landed with the Tennessee Titans on a four-year, $92 million deal. Maybe the Titans' contract with Ridley was an overpay for a receiver who is 29 years old (nearing the age when wideouts tend to decline). But maybe it was a missed opportunity for the Patriots, who so badly needed (and still needs) help at receiver to support their next starting quarterback, presumably the rookie they pick at No. 3 overall in the 2024 NFL Draft.

Where do the top QBs end up in Joel Klatt’s mock draft 2.0?

[READ MORE: 2024 NFL Draft prospect rankings: Top 100 big board led by Caleb Williams]

But that list above? There's a potential starting linebacker (Takitaki), a backup QB (Brissett), a depth option at tackle to back up Onwenu (Okorafor), a third-down RB (Gibson), a depth interior offensive lineman (Leverett), a rotational defensive tackle (Watts) and a TE2/3 (Hooper). Osborn is compelling in the same way that Bourne was compelling when the Patriots signed him in free agency a few years ago. But even so, Osborn has never risen past WR2 on the Vikings' depth chart and spent most of his time in Minnesota as WR3.

Ultimately, the Patriots' plan seems to be one of patience. New England is just 10 days into what looks like a three- to four-year rebuild. Apparently, de-facto GM Eliot Wolf doesn't want to make any false moves out of the gate. But in that patience and conservatism, the Patriots have missed out on a handful of good players at positions of need. New England still has about $54 million in cap space in 2024, second most in the NFL. It has $226 million in 2025, per, the most in the NFL by a margin of $60 million. The Patriots can make the team better.

Apparently, it's a matter of waiting for the right deal.

What might that look like? Well, we saw receiver Mike Williams hit the market right around the time Ridley went off the market. We saw Tee Higgins request a trade near the outset of free agency. Receivers Justin Jefferson and Brandon Aiyuk, cornerback L'Jarius Sneed, edge Josh Allen and defensive tackle Jonathan Allen might be on the move. We might see key offensive linemen and edge players hold out for long-term extensions during training camp. That might be when New England pounces on players of an even higher caliber than the ones currently changing teams in free agency.

That's the common refrain about free agency, after all: It never features the best players in the league. 

Why? Because the best players never make it to free agency. They either get extended or traded. Just look at Aaron Rodgers, Christian McCaffrey, Stefon Diggs, Odell Beckham Jr. (back in his prime), A.J. Brown, Tyreek Hill, Jalen Ramsey and Khalil Mack. At the peaks of their careers (or thereabouts), they were traded. The previously available free agents in the 2024 class had major warts. Almost all of them. Even Ridley. 

But it's one thing to want to smartly acquire talented players with draft picks (like the Dolphins and Rams have done) and it's another thing to actually do it. To this point, we've yet to see the Patriots broker a deal. We've yet to hear they were in the mix on any of the trades that have already taken place, which include receivers Diontae Johnson, Jerry Jeudy and Keenan Allen.

The Patriots are likely considering all avenues of rebuilding, but to this point, it's starting to feel like they'll only participate in the area where they are forced to: the draft. It's the place where so many teams have smartly rebuilt. But it's also such a crapshoot that it can be fool's gold. Even really good GMs have trouble hitting in the draft. And we're not totally sure about the caliber of GM the Patriots have in Wolf (who is not yet technically the team's GM).

If the Patriots are putting their focus into rebuilding through the draft and, largely, ignoring the other areas to acquire talent (trade/free agency), then they had better draft well. They might have the third overall pick, which they seem to have no interest in trading, but they have only seven total selections. That doesn't feel like much in terms of draft assets when it comes to turning around a 4-13 franchise.

Look at the analytics and the history around building through free agency and you'll see mixed results — just like through the draft and through the trade market. But we know the Patriots need a long-term solution at quarterback. They need more high-level talent across their roster. Their efforts to pursue such talent have not produced results. Given what's left in free agency, the Patriots aren't likely to change that.

Putting it all together, the Patriots have missed major opportunities to improve their team. Will there be more? Yes. Many. But it's important to acknowledge the limitations this organization has encountered in its early building process.

Out-of-house free agents are not drawn to New England. It was fairly clear that offensive coordinator candidates were not drawn to New England. (Rams assistant Nick Caley turned down the job after interviewing, according to multiple reports.) Uche took a pay cut to play for Mayo for another season, according to a league source. So Mayo has a reputation in New England. But neither he nor Wolf has done a stellar job bringing in outside talent — and that'll be how this team gets better.

The Patriots' patience and conservatism seem to have led them into inactivity and maybe even complacency in their first opportunity to improve their team. Unless they have big plans in the trade market or they nail every selection in the draft, they don't look like a team that will rapidly improve in 2024. 

That means New England may yet again have an ugly team. And even worse, the Patriots may be looking at a long rebuild.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.


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