Five explosive receivers for Patriots to pursue in 2024 free agency originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The Patriots are one month away from the official start to free agency on March 13. And they have work to do. Fortunately for them, they have plenty of funds with which to do it.
Head coach Jerod Mayo and personnel chief Eliot Wolf have $66 million in cap space to play with this offseason, according to Over The Cap. That number could balloon to about $80 million if and when the team releases corner J.C. Jackson.
Where should they turn, then, when the league-wide free-agent spending spree commences?
Quarterback? Unlikely, it seems, unless they pursue a cost-effective option.The Patriots know they are going to have an opportunity to draft one of either Caleb Williams, Drake Maye or Jayden Daniels at the end of April. The No. 3 overall selection is the highest Robert Kraft’s team has drafted since he purchased the franchise, and if it looks like any of those three have face-of-the-franchise potential, then don’t expect boatloads of Kraft’s money to be spent on a free-agent quarterback more than a month before the draft begins.
The Patriots also need tackles and wide receivers. Clearly. It’s gotten to the point that even new head coach Jerod Mayo has acknowledged publicly that, along with quarterback, his team has very real needs at those two essential offensive position groups.
The problem with needing a tackle in free agency, however, is that this year’s crop of veterans isn’t all that voluminous. The Patriots have a pair of free-agent tackles set to hit the market: Trent Brown and Mike Onwenu. But Onwenu’s best position may be at guard, and Brown’s open discontent with the franchise throughout the course of last season may make him less likely to return.
Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith is set to hit free agency as well, but he’s been in Dallas for the duration of his 13-year career, and it may be hard to coax him up to Foxboro. Jets tackle Mekhi Becton (whose career has been beset by injury) and Jonah Williams (who flipped from left tackle to right tackle last season) also are set to hit the market.
They may be worthy of pursuit, but it looks like a deep tackle draft, meaning the Patriots potentially could find themselves a starter in the second round.
Then there’s the receiver spot.
That appears to be a deep position in this year’s draft, too, but given New England’s history of drafting wideouts — and given the possibility the team lands a quarterback and a tackle with its first two picks — then free agency might be the best route for Mayo and Wolf.
Stock up at that position in March. Then, in April, the Patriots might not feel forced to use a high-end selection to give their young passer the security-blanket he needs.
Let’s take a look at some of the free-agent receivers who could be available to the Patriots a month from today…
Higgins is a quality “X,” which the Patriots have lacked for some time. DeVante Parker has been their boundary 50-50 option. But Higgins is younger and has a recent history of being more explosive with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2021 and 2022.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, there seems to be a high likelihood that the Bengals keep him around — either with an extension of the franchise tag — in order to make the most of a championship window with Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase.
More of a possession receiver than a game-changing athlete, Pittman still has posted impressive numbers while working with less than impressive quarterbacks the last few seasons. He’s a massive target (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) who has had 109, 99 and 88 catches the last three seasons. He fell just 75 yards short of 1,000 yards in 2022, but he eclipsed that mark in both 2021 and 2023.
With a big-time catch radius, sure hands and a proven track record of durability (just two games missed over the last three seasons), he’d be a nice option for a young quarterback if he isn’t franchised by Indy.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, they say, which might be a good thing in Evans’ case, since at the age of 30 he knows nothing other than 1,000-yard seasons. He posted his tenth straight such campaign in 2023 working with Baker Mayfield, and he would give a young quarterback in New England looking for bail-out options one of the best bail-out options in football.
If they want him, though, the Patriots might have to be willing to pony up more than $20 million per year for multiple years. That’s the going rate for high-end pass-catchers these days, and Evans still qualifies.
If the Patriots want to add pure explosiveness to their offensive attack, Brown may be one of their best options. At 5-9, 180 pounds, Brown isn’t going to give his next quarterback the biggest strike zone. But he can threaten safeties to the point that he may open up the underneath areas for his teammates while occasionally providing the kinds of explosive gains the Ravens thought they’d be getting when they drafted him No. 25 overall in 2019.
He averaged 11.3 yards per reception last year. Because he hasn’t been incredibly productive, he may be one of the best bargains on this list. Could the Patriots land him for a deal similar to the one they gave Nelson Agholor in 2021?
If Higgins and Pittman get tagged, Ridley might be New England’s next-best option. After missing all of 2022 due to a gambling suspension and half of 2021 when he left the Falcons for mental health reasons, the former Alabama star racked up a 1,000-yard season in 2023. He’s a more explosive option than Pittman, and he’s a bigger player than Brown (6-foot-1, 190).
Going into 2024 the draft with both Ridley and DeMario Douglas locked in as top-three receivers isn’t going to be enough to wow the rest of the NFL. But it’s an upgrade over what they’ve had. Plus, Ridley’s ability to function in multiple receiver roles would allow the Patriots the flexibility to pursue the best receiver option available to them — inside? outside? — in the draft.
Per Pro Football Focus, Ridley could command a deal that pays him about $16.5 million per season. If so, the Patriots could give him a three-year deal that would carry a first-year cap hit of about $9 million, leaving them with plenty of money to play with to sign, for instance, a free-agent No. 2 quarterback and a starting-caliber tackle.