Rob Ninkovich makes a case for Lamar Jackson to join Bill Belichick and the Patriots. (1:23)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — NFL free agency is off and running, and we’re keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2023 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 15 at 4 p.m. ET. The first round of the 2023 NFL draft begins April 27 on ESPN.
The New England Patriots opened the 2023 league year with more than $30 million in salary cap space but with several key in-house free agents to consider re-signing. Coming off an 8-9 season, the Patriots are also hoping coaching changes on offense — led by new coordinator Bill O’Brien — will spark a turnaround.
Here’s a breakdown of every 2023 NFL free agent signing by the Patriots, and how each will impact the upcoming season:
Gesicki agreed to terms on a one-year deal worth up to $9 million.
What it means: Gesicki will pair with veteran Hunter Henry as the new one-two combination at tight end, with the team hoping it gets better results from the tandem than it did with the Henry-Jonnu Smith duo. The difference with Gesicki is that he’s coming on a short-term, short-money deal. This type of deal is a reminder that teams can still land a potential high-impact player beyond the first couple days of free agency, as Gesicki has hurt the Patriots in the past. This is a big score for New England, as coach Bill Belichick has long been an admirer of Gesicki’s game, and new coordinator Bill O’Brien had recruited Gesicki to Penn State.
What’s the risk: If Gesicki has a big year, he could be a risk to leave after the 2023 season for a more lucrative deal.
New England is keeping Davis on a one-year contract
What it means: Davis is a core special teams player who landed on injured reserve in October (knee) and didn’t play again. Belichick said: “With a player like Cody, you lose that player on five different units. No team has a player that can replace a player like that.” After a down season on special teams in 2022 — when the Patriots allowed two kickoff returns for a touchdown in their season finale — the return of Davis is one of several moves aimed at a bounce-back year.
What’s the risk: One of Davis’ best assets is his speed, and at 33, he’s coming off a knee injury.
The Patriots are adding Board to the roster on a two-year deal with a maximum value of $6.7 million.
What it means: Belichick called the 6-foot-2, 239-pound Board the best special teams player the Patriots would face in 2022. And upgrading special teams, especially after giving up two kickoff returns for a touchdown in last year’s finale, is obviously an offseason goal for Belichick. Last October, he said of Board: “He is a really hard guy to match up against. There are really no weaknesses.”
What’s the risk: There are only 53 spots on the final roster, and devoting one to a player who mostly will play on special teams comes at the expense of someone who might be able to help on offense or defense.
Ekuale agreed to terms on a two-year deal to return to New England.
What it means: Ekuale played 32.2% of the defensive snaps last season, which was a higher-than-anticipated total due to Christian Barmore missing extended time with a knee injury. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Ekuale is at his best as a disruptive penetrator in passing situations. He finished with 14 tackles, 2 sacks and a pass defended in 2022. His return adds quality depth to the team’s defensive line corps.
What’s the risk: Not much on a short-term, modest deal for a player who has fit well in the system.
The Patriots signed Robinson to a two-year contract with a maximum value of $8 million.
What it means: The addition of the 5-foot-9, 219-pound Robinson adds a hard-charging runner behind No. 1 option Rhamondre Stevenson. The player who filled that role last season, Damien Harris, is a free agent and now unlikely to return to New England. Robinson was an ascending player in his first two NFL seasons, with the Jaguars, totaling 404 rushes for 1,837 yards and 15 touchdowns. But things changed with the team’s new coaching staff in 2022, as he was traded to the Jets after playing in five games and never emerged with New York. He’ll look to rebound in New England.
What’s the risk: Robinson was listed on the Jets’ injury report last season (knee) as he fell out of favor, and in 2021, his season ended in December due to a torn Achilles tendon.
The Patriots reached agreement with Smith-Schuster on a three-year, $33 million deal with $22.5 million earned over the first two years of the contract.
What it means: The last time coach Bill Belichick was preparing his team to face Smith-Schuster, this is how he described him: “Instinctive, catches the ball well. He’s got good size, smart. They move him around.”
Those are all qualities the Patriots value in receivers, and 6-foot-1, 215-pound Smith-Schuster now joins the top of a WR depth chart that includes a big boundary target in DeVante Parker (6-3, 219), a burner with the potential to further develop as a nuanced route runner in Tyquan Thornton (6-2, 182), and a high-energy slot in Kendrick Bourne (6-1, 190). Smith-Schuster fits best as a physical slot presence, with the ability to line up at other spots as well.
What’s the risk: In essentially exchanging Smith-Schuster for Jakobi Meyers, who left as a free agent, the Patriots are banking on a player they have less background with in their system. Smith-Schuster’s injury history is notable as well — he missed four games due to a knee sprain in 2019, was limited to five games in 2021 due to a shoulder injury, and he suffered a knee injury in last season’s AFC Championship Game but returned to play in the Super Bowl.
New England has retained Cardona on a four-year deal with a $6.3 million base salary and $1 million signing bonus.
What it means: Cardona has been with the team since 2015, and provides stability in the snap-hold-kick operation in a year when the Patriots are seeking a new punter/holder and veteran kicker Nick Folk could potentially face competition. As a team NFL Players Association rep, the $1 million signing bonus was an important mark for Cardona to hit as he looks to elevate the respect of the position across the NFL.
What’s the risk: Cardona is coming off a partially torn foot tendon that sidelined him for the final three games of the 2022 season. The injury didn’t require surgery.
Wilson will return to the Patriots on a one-year deal.
What it means: Wilson was a backup on defense last season, playing 20.9% of the snaps and totaling 26 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery. He was more of a regular on special teams, playing on multiple units and totaling 10 tackles (third on the team). Wilson’s role on defense ended late last season after a game against the Bills, when Wilson and his sub-package unit struggled with quarterback Josh Allen‘s knack for extending plays. Wilson, who didn’t play on defense over the final five games, will look to re-establish himself in that area in 2023.
What’s the risk: This type of deal — one year, modest financial terms — is consistent for a core special teams player who is still looking for a full-time breakthrough on defense.
The Patriots have come to terms with the free agent tackle on a one-year deal with a base value of $5 million, which includes a $2.7 million signing bonus.
What it means: Similar to the Patriots’ two-year agreement with OT Calvin Anderson, Belichick is prioritizing stocking the depth chart after a season in which a run of injuries at the position hurt the team and led to signing Conor McDermott off the Jets’ practice squad. Reiff, who has experience playing both left and right tackle, will compete with Trent Brown, Anderson, McDermott, Yodny Cajuste (restricted free agent tendered at $2.7 million) and Andrew Stueber for a roster spot. This shouldn’t rule out the possibility of the Patriots selecting an OT high in the draft.
What’s the risk: At 34, it seems fair to say Reiff’s best football is behind him, which is likely reflected in what should be a modest contract.
New England is bringing back Peppers on a two-year contract with a base value of $9 million and a signing bonus of $3.1 million. The deal also includes an additional $2 million in incentives.
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What it means: Peppers played 35.3% of the defensive snaps last season and totaled 52 tackles, with one fumble recovery. He added eight tackles on special teams. The 5-11, 215-pound safety was one of the team’s hardest hitters, bringing an edge to the unit as he worked to strike a balance between his high-energy style of play and staying under control and within the scheme. He had said that his goal in 2022 was to show he was fully recovered from a ruptured right ACL sustained in 2021 when he was with the Giants. He accomplished that, and joins Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips as safeties who are just as likely to play in the box as they are in the deep third of the field.
What’s the risk: Peppers was at his best when playing downhill toward the line of scrimmage, but he wasn’t as much of a sure thing in coverage.
New England has agreed to terms on a two-year deal with Anderson, who spent his first three seasons with the Denver Broncos.
What it means: Anderson, who is 6-5 and 300 pounds and has appeared in 41 career games (12 starts), will vie for a swing tackle role in New England. He also has flexibility to play guard, which is the type of versatility the Patriots generally like. The Patriots found out the hard way last season how a run of injuries at tackle can contribute to major problems, and Anderson is a player they are familiar with, having signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2019.
Trent Brown returns as the team’s starting left tackle (with flexibility to play on the right side), while Conor McDermott and Andrew Stueber are among the options under consideration at right tackle. The Patriots, who were involved with free agent tackle Andre Dillard (who ultimately signed with the Titans), also figure to add to this position in the draft.
What’s the risk: Anderson, 26, has never been a full-time starter.
The Patriots are bringing Davis back on a one-year deal.
What it means: Davis, who is 6-5 and 320 pounds, played 19.4% of the defensive snaps last season as a rotational option on early downs (11 tackles, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery). He is a powerful player against the run, so he’s usually part of the goal-line defense, and has shown the ability to push the pocket at times as well. He provides depth behind Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy and Christian Barmore at a low-level cost that won’t count much more than $1 million on the cap.
What’s the risk: Not much at that cost for Davis, who turned 31 on March 2 and is entering his ninth NFL season.
The Patriots and McMillan have agreed to terms on a one-year deal to keep him with the team.
What it means: McMillan was a top backup off-the-ball linebacker in 2022, playing 22% of the defensive snaps and finishing with 32 tackles, 1 sack and 1 fumble recovery. He also plays on multiple special teams units, including punt protection. This is a low-cost deal (1 year, base value of $1.6 million, with $575,000 guaranteed) for a player who helps the Patriots build quality depth behind Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai.
What’s the risk: Injury history. McMillan, who is 27, played in 16 games last season, as he returned to action after missing the 2021 season with a torn ACL (reportedly his left knee). He had also missed his rookie season in 2017 with a torn ACL in his right knee.
The Patriots agreed to a two-year contract with Jones, who was set for free agency. The deal has a base value of $19 million, which includes a $7.5 million signing bonus and $13 million in total guarantees.
What it means: Jones is one of the Patriots’ top defensive backs, with the ability to play in the slot (his most natural spot), outside, and even at safety. So bringing him back — especially after longtime safety Devin McCourty announced his retirement — provides the defensive backfield an important level of stability and performance. Set to enter his eighth season with the team, his leadership in the locker room continues to evolve as a core piece.
What’s the risk: Jones turns 30 in September and, at 5-10 and 190 pounds, is closer to the “undersized” category of defensive backs, which makes his health/durability the primary risk.
Ferentz re-signed on a one-year deal to stay with the Patriots; the deal includes a base salary of $1.165 million.
What it means: Building depth. Ferentz will compete for a roster spot as a backup on the interior, where the Patriots return left guard Cole Strange, center David Andrews and right guard Mike Onwenu. Ferentz knows the system, is a strong, well-liked presence in the locker room, and is the type of player Belichick likes to have around (e.g., practice squad) in an emergency-type situation.
What’s the risk: Ferentz’ contract includes $200,000 in guaranteed money. He’s 33, which is on the older side for a backup.