After a lackluster start to free agency, the Patriots' season hinges on the NFL draft



FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. All about QB: Former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who still resides in Massachusetts, has been tuned in to local sports-talk radio over the last week. He’s noted how the general fan and media response to the Patriots’ moves in the first week of free agency have been negative.

Ninkovich, who has seldom hesitated to criticize his old team in his former role as an ESPN analyst, views it a bit differently.

“I hear people saying they’re re-signing all these guys and they were 4-13 last year, so why would they do that? To me, the guys they targeted and brought back, I think they are key pieces. And they’re getting guys out of the building they think are the reason they were a four-win team,” he said.

“But the biggest thing to me is that no matter what they did, it’s the draft that is going to make or break their offseason. This could be a home run. At the same time, the scary part is that if they draft a quarterback at No. 3, and he’s not the guy, they’re in major trouble.”

Ninkovich succinctly sums up why director of scouting Eliot Wolf, who has the final personnel say in the first year of the post-Bill Belichick era, is among the NFL executives with the brightest spotlight shining on him.

The bottom line: If Wolf and the Patriots’ coaching and scouting staffs ultimately have conviction in a quarterback at No. 3, they should race their card up to commissioner Roger Goodell on April 25, and then have offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and quarterbacks coach T.C. McCartney immediately put a developmental plan in place for him.

Many assume the choice would be between LSU’s Jayden Daniels and North Carolina’s Drake Maye if the Bears select Southern California’s Caleb Williams at No. 1. Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy, Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon’s Bo Nix are also among the highly-rated QBs with first-round potential, with one NFL executive predicting that McCarthy and Penix could go higher than some currently anticipate.

Ninkovich is still studying the quarterbacks and is open to multiple scenarios for the team, including trading down and/or picking a prospect at a different position.

One week into free agency, Ninkovich sees some positive signs for the Patriots, but believes everything is secondary to what is to come.

“I like the moves across the board, but it’s the draft, and what they decide at quarterback, that will ultimately determine how the team comes together and if they’re trending in the right direction,” he said.

2. Ridley reax: Receiver Calvin Ridley, who chose to sign a four-year, $92 million deal with the Titans over offers from the Jaguars and Patriots, shared insight into his decision-making process on Friday. He said it was his hope to return to Jacksonville, but when things weren’t working out, the Titans had the combination of money and on-field elements he was looking for — which included a receiver in DeAndre Hopkins to play opposite of and help bring out the best in him.

No shame for the Patriots, who were aggressive with their pitch, but it’s reflective, in part, of the reality that the top of the receiver depth chart includes JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kendrick Bourne, DeMario Douglas, Tyquan Thornton and Jalen Reagor.

One reason the Patriots were hot on Ridley — he totaled 768 yards on passes thrown outside the numbers last season, which was the fifth most in the NFL. In 2023, the Patriots ranked second to last in the NFL in receiving yards on passes thrown outside the numbers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. New England’s 1,581 receiving yards on passes thrown outside the numbers last season was more than only the Jets (1,515).

One NFL executive acknowledged the Patriots’ need, but also noted how the 29-year-old Ridley wasn’t always assignment sound in Jacksonville while viewing him more as a solid receiver than a top-tier option.

3. Patriots’ approach: The most frequent question from underwhelmed social-media followers over the last week has been, “What is the Patriots’ free-agent plan?”

Many expected more, perhaps because head coach Jerod Mayo had previously said they would “burn some cash” to bring in talent. Whether the Patriots’ approach will prove to be the right one is fair to debate, and my opinion is summed up this way — they have a lot of holes to fill, some of their best players had contracts expiring, and if they didn’t make it a priority to re-sign them they would be digging themselves an even deeper hole because it’s unrealistic to think more of a free-agent splurge on others would immediately cure all their issues. So they had to work hard basically just to stay in neutral.

As Bill Belichick used to say, the team-building process continues over the course of the year and they still have A LOT of work to do, which is expected to include starting extension talks with promising fourth-year defensive tackle Christian Barmore.

4. Judon’s deal: When the Patriots restructured outside linebacker Matthew Judon’s contract last August, which reduced his 2024 base salary to $6.5 million as some of his money was moved into 2023, it set the sides up to return to the negotiating table this offseason.

Now, with the first wave of free agency over, it opens a window for the sides to work toward a resolution, which they’ve begun to preliminarily explore. Judon’s return from a torn biceps that limited him to four games last season adds a layer to any discussions, as the team will likely want to protect itself with incentives that reward Judon for being on the field.

5. Hooper report: What are the Patriots getting in nine-year veteran tight end Austin Hooper, who they signed to a one-year deal with a base value of $3 million?

One NFL source intimately familiar with him said: “He isn’t a ‘Y’ that you’d consistently put on the line and ask to block, but more of a traditional ‘F’ type receiving tight end — a position blocker at best, and more back side of the runs. You want to make sure you’re not putting him on a defensive end too much; he’s not a road-grader but he’ll compete. He’s better as a blocker than what they had last year in [Mike] Gesicki, who was really more of a receiver than a tight end. He does have the ability to get open, with decent speed and hands.”

6. Takitaki intel: Linebacker Sione Takitaki, who inked a two-year deal with a base value of $6.6 million and maximum value of $10.2 million in New England, had grown into a team leader and signal-caller during his five-year tenure with the Browns. Wolf, the Patriots’ director of scouting, was one of Takitaki’s biggest boosters when working for the Browns and a primary reason the team selected him in the third round of the 2019 draft.

One scouting report from a personnel executive familiar with Takitaki’s style of play described him as “active, not the fastest, but sees the game pretty well; versatile, can rush and blitz — a very solid third or fourth linebacker.” Takitaki had an opportunity to return to Cleveland on a one-year deal, but the Patriots’ willingness to commit to a two-year pact contributed to his decision to depart.

7. Gibson’s skillset: Patriots offensive coaches had identified former Washington running back Antonio Gibson as a top target, with his pass-catching and route-running ability top assets. That highlights, in part, how the new regime was looking for more of a contrast between top running back Rhamondre Stevenson and his backup than they had last season with Ezekiel Elliott. One NFL executive saw value in the signing as long as Gibson picks up the offensive system and shows the ability to pass protect — which can be challenging to project.

8. Trade deadline/emergency QB: The NFL’s annual meeting begins Sunday, March 24 in Orlando, and seven teams (Steelers, Browns, Lions, Jets, Eagles, 49ers, Commanders) have suggested a change to the league’s bylaws regarding the trade deadline, according to a league source. Last season, the trade deadline was after Week 8 games, and the aforementioned clubs are proposing to push it back either by one or two weeks.

The Bills are also proposing a bylaw change that would allow a quarterback to be elevated from the practice squad for a game, and then be listed as the third/emergency quarterback. Under the current rules, a third/emergency quarterback designation is only allowed for quarterbacks on the permanent 53-man roster.

9. They said it: “I think I’d trade down and take the best player, non-quarterback. I don’t think this roster is set to take a quarterback. There are too many holes.” — ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, on Tuesday’s NFL Live program, regarding the Patriots and the No. 3 pick.

10. Did you know: Quarterback Jacoby Brissett is set to become the 30th player to have at least two different stints with the Patriots since 2000, assuming he is on the 2024 opening-day roster and appears in a regular-season game.





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