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5 New England Patriots free agent targets who can help them return to glory

The New England Patriots finished the 2022 season with a record of 8-9, just narrowingly missing out on the final AFC playoff spot with second-year quarterback Mac Jones under center.

It’s quickly become an entirely different world of expectations ever since Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay. In three seasons since his departure, the Patriots have had just one year with a winning record, finishing 10-7 in 2021. While they made the playoffs that year, they were thoroughly crushed by the Buffalo Bills 47-17.

Related: New England Patriots draft picks 2023

It hasn’t exactly been the smoothest of transitions with Jones taking the baton from Brady. To be completely fair, however, the 24-year-old took over starting quarterback duties right out of the gate as a rookie. And from “The GOAT” no less. But one still has to wonder if head coach Bill Belichick views Jones as the cemented No. 1 quarterback.

Since no one ever really knows what Belichick is thinking, any direction the team decides to take would hardly come as a surprise.

Like any other NFL team going into the offseason, there are expected holes that will need to be filled, too. Particularly on the defensive side of the ball. More on that later.

The great news for Pats fans is that the team will enter free agency with money to spend at $32.73 million — good for sixth overall — in cap space.

Where that money ends up getting spent could go several ways based on what some of the asking prices end up being, as well as the top-secret thoughts running through the mind of Bill Belichick.

With all of that said, we present to you the top five free-agent targets for the 2023 New England Patriots.

Marcus Peters, cornerback

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Jones will be drawing a ton of interest this offseason, with many viewing him as one of the top NFL free agents in 2023. There will be enough league-wide interest to likely price him out of New England’s comfort range, despite his desire to stay.

Enter Baltimore Ravens free agent Marcus Peters. The 30-year-old cornerback plays the perfect physical style of defense and houses the exact “impose-your-will” mentality that Belichick has always sought on that side of the ball.

It also seems like the type of situation and fit that would cause Peters to think long and hard about, and possibly forego some money and years on the contract in order to play for Belichick.

Despite New England’s recent shortcomings, defensive players of a certain ilk — especially veterans — love the idea of playing for “The Bill.”

Jessie Bates III, safety

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New England Patriots
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Following the retirement of Devin McCourty, New England’s need at safety becomes even more apparent. While the 35-year-old defensive back was getting long in the tooth, the Patriots’ coaching staff relied on the veteran defensive back heavily. Now, we turn the page to dynamic Bengals free-agent safety, Jessie Bates III.

Related: New England Patriots insider provides insight on plans for 14th pick

At 26 years old, Bates probably still hasn’t come close to reaching his ceiling and provides an ideal boost of youth at the position, as well as the ideal size of 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. One would think playing in Belichick’s schemes would only lead to further excellence.

A transition from a reliable player like McCourty to Bates would be as seamless as it gets.

But again, the Bengals free agent is hitting the market at 26. His agent likely won’t be shy in insisting that major money is on the table or that conversation probably won’t be much of a conversation.

If that proves to be the case, we can easily see Belichick quickly taking another route by snatching up Buffalo Bills free-agent safety Jordan Poyer. It would be much more of a stop-gap option for the Patriots, but one who comes with a wealth of experience with the added bonus of making a division rival’s fan base completely miserable in the process.

Related: New England Patriots coaches were told ‘not to be too hard’ on Mac Jones

Four interceptions in 12 games last season and nine over the last two? Most teams would sign up for that in a heartbeat.

D.J. Chark, wide receiver

NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions
Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

Free agent D.J. Chark, who spent the 2022 season with the Detroit Lions, feels like a must-call for the Patriots. Adding his size advantage of 6-foot-4 and a five-year career average of 14.4 yards per catch immediately makes Jones’ job that much easier.

  • D.J. Chark stats (2022): 15.4 yards average target distance (4th in NFL), 43.7% route win rate (29th in NFL), 16.7 yards per reception (7th in NFL)

It doesn’t hurt that Chark has appeared in just 15 games over the last two seasons. A signing like this could very well equate to a steal of a deal.

The Patriots love making moves like this and always make a point to seek out scenarios where they are maximizing value without breaking the bank.

For whatever reason, outside of the Randy Moss days, the position of wide receiver has never been New England’s strong suit and is usually never much of a top priority. Sure, DeVante Parker stands 6-foot-3 but his 31 receptions in 2022 aren’t going to cut it and a sudden spike at age 30 is hardly in play.

True size and talent at the position feel long overdue.

Mecole Hardman, wide receiver

NFL: New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver Mecole Hardman sits in a similar situation to that of D.J. Chark. At 5-foot-10 he won’t be bringing the same size to the equation but he brings a boatload of speed. If Patriots free agent Jakobi Meyers walks, insert Hardman and New England barely misses a beat.

Assuming Hardman can stay healthy, this would be considered an improvement in the slot strictly from a talent perspective. Hardman’s speed can be a game-changer when he’s clicking on all cylinders.

Once again, this is the case of a player who was shelved for a considerable time last season — missing nine games for the Chiefs — but had otherwise seen action in every game in his first three NFL seasons in Kansas City. However, in those three seasons, he was competing for targets with the All-Pro wizardry of Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. That’s an understandably tough duo to share the football with.

Hardman is really just getting warmed up as he will turn 25 the day before the official free-agency window opens. An absolute no-brainer replacement for Meyers.

Mike McGlinchey, offensive tackle

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco 49ers free-agent right tackle Mike McGlinchey is a near lock to be playing elsewhere next season. The ‘Niners would love to have him back, but they simply have way too many other players to pay, with Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa being the obvious top priority to extend long-term.

The Kansas Chiefs didn’t place the franchise tag on left tackle Orlando Brown, so that makes for another alluring option for the offensive line, but he’s a lock to be living in another galaxy in terms of the expected haul about to come his way.

McGlinchey will come cheaper by comparison and has been excellent as a run-blocking tackle. He also started all 17 games for the 49ers last season.

If not McGlinchey, Taylor Lewan would conceivably be an ideal stop-gap option who would be far less expensive given his age and his two ACL surgeries over the last three seasons. We’re just not sure a player with such bright feathers would mesh all too well with Belichick’s personality.

As previously mentioned, the Belichick factor keeps us mostly in the dark until the first domino falls. And that’s really what keeps the Patriots interesting even though they’ve been knocked down a peg or three in the post-TB12 era.

It’s still always safe to live by the mantra of never counting a Belichick team out until they are mathematically eliminated. With money to spend and an abundance of draft picks, the Patriots could make big splashes this offseason.

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