Note that I focused on potential multi-year signings and avoided ring-chasing veterans for the most part, because it is impossible to project that.
DT Jonathan Hankins
With the Patriots having a lot of money to spend, what if they elect to pursue a game-changing player on the defensive line? Losing Hightower could be offset by adding a youthful 3-down presence up the middle as well. With young talent in-house (Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine) and a big spot open with Branch’s potential departure, the Pats could upgrade on Branch instead of bringing him back.
DT Chris Baker
The bidding on Hankins could get out of control, but Baker seems more attainable, especially as retaining Cousins and his weapons becomes a priority for Washington. A Belichick prototype who plays every down for the Redskins, Baker is a responsible run defender who also gets into the backfield with some frequency. The years might be the sticking point – a 5-year pact for Baker would take him through his age-34 season. But a deep and young crop of defensive tackles (Hankins, Logan, Williams, Short, Poe, Fairley) could take suitors off the market.
DT Stacy McGee
Started at NT for Oakland as a 27-year old and has the length to be an effective 2-gap defensive lineman. Experienced as a run defender and put up surprising pass rushing numbers in 2016. Intriguing multi-year option.
DE Armonty Bryant
The Patriots reportedly sought the troubled but talented 26-year old as a priority free agent, and when Cleveland waived him earlier this year he was claimed by Bob Quinn in Detroit. If Bryant wants to sign a 1-year prove-it deal, New England would be ideal.
DE Jack Crawford
Decent rotational lineman who has played plenty of football and rushed from a variety of spots on the defensive line for Dallas. This versatility and production will endear him to New England, where his experience lining up inside is a plus.
CB Jason McCourty*
One of the more unlikely potential cuts. Despite McCourty’s awful 2016, cornerback is the biggest area of need on the Titans roster, and he is a leader on the team. That said, if J-Mac hits the market, uniting him with his brother seems inevitable. An outstanding tackler who plays fast with the ball in front of him, he could contribute at either corner or safety which adds to his appeal.
TE Dion Sims
The Miami Dolphins typically show no interest in retaining their own middle class, and with a Julius Thomas trade rumored to be on the horizon, this offseason might be no different. Sims is a standout blocker and capable receiver who is four years younger than Martellus Bennett, and who has suited up for 56 out of 64 possible career games – excellent durability for a tight end.
Low end options:
WR Jarius Wright*
After signing an optimistic contract extension, the 27-year-old slot receiver saw his role diminish, ultimately catching only 11 passes in 2016. Wright is the kind of player the Patriots seem to get the best out of, and could be brought to camp if Danny Amendola leaves.
LB Courtney Upshaw
After an entirely predictable failure as an edge rusher, Upshaw has gotten on the field for Atlanta by being a weird DT/LB hybrid. He is physical and instinctive, took Saban 101, and seems like a player the Patriots could use effectively. If the Falcons do not make him a priority, look for New England to make a run at Upshaw.
DE Cornelius Washington
Stiff but powerful 27-year-old who has been dogged by injuries since entering the NFL. Plays on all special teams units for Chicago. Intriguing ability to collapse the pocket without bending the edge, something which is valuable to the Patriots. Washington is worth signing to a near-minimum deal to bring into camp.
CB Marcus Cooper
Another Rutgers-for-Rutgers swap. Cooper surprised many observers with his play in Arizona and could be an alternative to Logan Ryan at cornerback, or at worst, an alternative to Justin Coleman, but one who does more on special teams and can play on the outside.