Why the Patriots may have to overpay for big-name players in free agency

Eliot Wolf knew the free-agent period that lay ahead might not be a smooth one. Still, the New England Patriots de facto general manager made his pitch during the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis for top players to come to New England despite the team’s 4-13 record a year ago, a largely subpar roster and poor prospects for 2024.

“We’re heading in the right direction,” Wolf said of his pitch. “It’s a new era. We have leadership with Jerod Mayo that is going to be tremendous.”

That all may be the case. But with free agency less than a week away — it begins Monday with the legal tampering period — the Patriots are finding out that some of the top free agents aren’t particularly interested in joining their rebuild.

The Patriots’ priority in free agency is landing a difference-making wide receiver, according to a team source. But that could prove to be difficult. They had planned on making a run at Buccaneers free agent-to-be wide receiver Mike Evans. But even before Evans agreed to a two-year contract Monday to stay in Tampa Bay, the receiver had no interest in coming to the Patriots, according to a league source. The same may be the case for his quarterback.

The Patriots are very familiar with Baker Mayfield. Wolf was the assistant general manager when the Browns drafted Mayfield first overall in 2018. Alex Van Pelt was the offensive coordinator in Cleveland with Mayfield in 2020 and 2021. Given those connections, it’s not surprising the Patriots would be interested in signing Mayfield, who will be a free agent after a Pro Bowl season in Tampa.

But it doesn’t appear that interest is mutual. Early indications are that Mayfield plans to consider other options — likely the Buccaneers, Vikings and Falcons — before the Patriots could become serious contenders for his services. He could command more than $30 million per year, according to a league source. In short, despite the Patriots’ connections to Mayfield, New England is not expected to be at the top of his wish list.

Those two examples highlight the unfortunate reality in which the Patriots find themselves.

To many within the team, their ample resources — highlighted by the No. 3 overall pick and the fact that they’re projected to enter free agency with the most cap space in the NFL — make the Patriots an appealing destination and a candidate for a quick rebuild. But, already, two of the top free agents have signaled they don’t want to come to New England.


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Of course, that may end up being meaningless. It doesn’t matter if 15 players pass on the Patriots if the few they sign become impactful acquisitions.

Still, it’s a sign that the Patriots may have to pay what amounts to a tax — essentially an overpay — to land marquee-level free agents.

“Yeah, in some ways, but I think that’s kind of free agency as a whole,” Wolf said last week when asked about overpaying. “Teams can put their best recruiting pitch on, but at the end of the day, oftentimes, (players) will go to whoever is offering the most money.”

That’s what the Patriots are hoping for even if the early indications from Evans and Mayfield are less than positive.

The Patriots don’t have to view free agency as a one-stop shop. While the free-agent class is light on the team’s biggest positions of need (QB, WR, OT), the draft is quite deep at wide receiver and offensive tackle. And the Pats have a great opportunity to draft a quarterback at No. 3.

Besides, free agency isn’t Wolf’s preferred way to build a roster. He’d rather develop draft picks and re-sign the ones who work out.

But it’s still not ideal for the Patriots that some of the top free agents don’t appear to be very interested. It speaks to how the rest of the league views the situation in New England.

While locally there’s some optimism that the Pats can restock the shelves with some good finds in free agency and a good draft class in April, the sentiment expressed by multiple people at the combine was more skeptical. Most of the rest of the league views the Patriots as an organization in a transition period that will likely take two to three years to return to the playoffs. And that’s if they find the right quarterback.

For now, Mayfield, the second-best free-agent quarterback, seems likely to prefer other destinations. The would-be top wide receiver wasn’t interested either.

None of that will matter, though, if Wolf and Mayo can lure top free agents who change the outlook. Receiver Calvin Ridley (Jaguars) will be a free agent and could match the productivity of Evans over the next three years. The Patriots will probably pivot to making him their top priority now. Marquise Brown (Cardinals) is another receiving option, though Tee Higgins (Bengals) and Michael Pittman Jr. (Colts) appear likely to stick with their current teams.



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At quarterback, you could make the argument that Mayfield, 28, wouldn’t be a great fit for the Patriots considering his potential cap hit and the team’s need to embrace a long-term rebuild. So perhaps his lack of interest is doing them a favor, especially if they get Drake Maye or Jayden Daniels with the third pick and he turns into a franchise quarterback. The Pats can also look for a bridge quarterback in free agency like Jacoby Brissett, someone who can compete with a rookie for the starting job in training camp. The money that would have gone to Mayfield can instead be used on a receiver like Ridley and investing in an offensive tackle like Mike Onwenu or Tyron Smith (Cowboys).

But they won’t come cheap. It can be hard, after all, to persuade free agents that a four-win team a year ago under the best coach of all time is suddenly going to be a contender again the very next season. So with free agency a week away, the Patriots may have to be ready to hand out some eye-popping contracts and utilize their massive cap space to convince top-flight players to come to New England.

The Athletic’s Dianna Russini contributed to this story.

(Photo: Kim Klement Neitzel / USA Today)

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