The New England Patriots finished last season with seven wins and nine losses and missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season. That win-loss record is not terrible, but when you have been at the top for so long it sure does feel like it. Also, that 2008 season was a fluke since the Patriots won 11 games that year and only dropped five.
The first post-Tom Brady season has been tough for New England, but there are a few things to look forward to. Per Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, sources say there is a good chance that linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon will be back with the team after opting out of the 2020 season.
The Patriots have the third-highest, projected salary cap in the league with $66,520,056. Historically, the team does not make big splashes in free agency, but if they want to improve they need to open their wallet this offseason.
With the salary cap expected to be lower next season, teams will have to make difficult roster cuts. This is also a deep free agent class. But New England may opt to get some players via trade due to preference, fit, and theoretically, less competition.
Here are two targets for the Patriots to consider.
Patriots Targets: Marcus Mariota, QB, Las Vegas Raiders
Cam Newton was not the answer for the Patriots. It’s not entirely his fault, as he had few weapons to work with, but his play has been getting worse, perhaps the wear and tear of all those years with the Carolina Panthers have taken their toll on him.
Right now, the Patriots are not in a position to get a franchise quarterback. They do not have the assets of teams, such as the New Jersey Jets or Miami Dolphins to pull off trades involving the likes of Deshaun Watson. New England has the 15th overall pick, which is too far down to select one of the higher-rated prospects and head coach Bill Belichick usually does not trade up.
This is where Mariota comes into the picture for the Patriots. He stayed on the Las Vegas bench as a backup to Derek Carr and played one game all season long. In terms of cap space, the Raiders are in a bit of a bind and might consider $11,350,000 too high of a number for a backup quarterback. Las Vegas can cut him with no dead money, but it would be wiser if they trade him for an asset in return.
Mariota projects as a high-floor, low-ceiling starter. Any team that signs him — take note, Patriots — should not expect a return to his 2016 form, where he threw for 3,426 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine picks. He can be a fairly accurate passer and has good mobility. Mariota will greatly benefit from playing behind one of the best offensive lines around. He can make the offense perform decently, while the organization waits for and develops their new, franchise quarterback.
The Patriots could trade for him in exchange for a fourth-round pick.
Odell Beckham, Jr, WR, Cleveland Browns
For years, the narrative with New England was that the system and Brady were so good that the receiving corps was of secondary or even less importance. Looking back, the biggest name who played wideout for the Patriots was Randy Moss. This was not the case last year as the team fielded one of the least productive receivers out there, including the tight end.
If the Patriots acquire a player in the same tier as Mariota, then he is going to need a lot of help from the receiving corps and preferably has a true number one target.
The Patriots know that Beckham had a forgettable and injury-shortened 2020 season. Even when he was gone, the Cleveland passing attack kept on chugging. This is not a knock on Beckham, he is still a very talented wideout, it’s just that with Beckham unavailable quarterback Baker Mayfield spread the ball more evenly to his receivers.
He has a cap number of $15,750,000, which compared to what the top receivers in the free agent class, such as Chris Godwin and Allen Robinson will make is reasonable for the Patriots or any other prospective employer. OBJ is under contract until 2023 and can be cut with no dead money. He is a speedy and elusive receiver, who can make difficult catches, although he has not reached the same heights at the start of his career.
The trade that makes sense for both parties and fills positions of need would be swapping Beckham with 2019 Defensive Player of the Year and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. One trait of the Patriots has been to let go of players one year too early rather than one year too late. The two players sustained injuries in their 2020 campaigns. Gilmore is only two years older than OBJ and is entering the last year of his contract.
The downside to trading Gilmore is the hefty dead money of $8,920,834. Perhaps, the Patriots can get an additional pick in the deal.