Facebook Pixel

    Patriots Free Agent Targets: Stephon Gilmore, Donovan Smith Among Potential Fits

    With training camp just around the corner, let's look at some of the best remaining free agency fits for the New England Patriots.

    For the most part, the New England Patriots are a finished product. The players we saw during spring practices will comprise most of the 53-man roster that head coach Jerod Mayo carries into the regular season.

    But the Patriots still have some glaring needs. And, with training camp set to begin on July 24, New England still has time to pursue remaining free agents or explore potential trades.

    With that in mind, let’s look at seven free agents who could make sense for the Patriots.

    Patriots Free Agency: Top Remaining Potential Targets

    (Note: We focused on players who could fill specific needs for the Patriots, rather than simply listing the best free agents available.)

    Stephon Gilmore, CB

    Sophomore Christian Gonzalez is locked in as the Patriots’ No. 1 outside cornerback. But the No. 2 spot remains up for grabs, as veteran Jonathan Jones is still working his way back from an offseason knee procedure, and the depth behind him is either inexperienced or unproven — or both. Furthermore, Jones is at his best when lining up in the slot.

    So, the Patriots have a sneaky-big need at cornerback. They have some intriguing pieces — Alex Austin showed well during the spring, as did rookie Marcellas Dial Jr. when he was healthy — but the depth chart is a house of cards.

    Enter Stephon Gilmore.

    The former Patriot will turn 34 in September and might not be fit for a starter’s workload at boundary cornerback. However, Gilmore played well last season for the Dallas Cowboys while seeing 94% of the defensive snaps. He hasn’t fallen off the proverbial cliff; the belief simply is he could at any moment.

    Gilmore also reportedly is open to a Patriots reunion, a subject he addressed while attending Tom Brady’s Hall of Fame ceremony last month.

    “You never know,” he told reporters. “I don’t rule out any option. It’s a place that I played great ball for. Letting in play out.”

    When asked whether he’d had any contact with the Patriots, Gilmore said, “Nah, not really.”

    At this stage of his career, Gilmore likely prefers to play for a Super Bowl contender. That’s not the Patriots, whom many believe could be one of the NFL‘s worst teams.

    Still, Gilmore is familiar with players and coaches in New England, and if he doesn’t have any better options, a reunion could make sense for both sides.

    Donovan Smith, OT

    The Patriots don’t have to worry about center (David Andrews) and wherever Mike Onwenu plays, be it right guard or right tackle. But everywhere else could be a major issue, including left tackle.

    Chuks Okorafor is the presumed starter, and the former Pittsburgh Steeler played well during the spring. But let’s see how things look in pads for a player who played right tackle the last four seasons and spent half of 2023 on the bench. New England’s next-best options are rookie Caedan Wallace, and veterans Calvin Anderson and Vederian Lowe.

    Wallace played right tackle in college, and though the Patriots insist he can play LT, quickly moved back to the right side for minicamp after playing left during OTAs. Anderson missed virtually all of last season due to a life-threatening bout with malaria and a subsequent heart issue. Lowe is a passable swing tackle at best and a practice-squad player at worst.

    MORE: Patriots’ Top 5 Position Battles to Watch Entering Training Camp

    Could the Patriots still be in the market for a left tackle? They probably should be. And Donovan Smith arguably is the best available on the open market.

    That said, Smith struggled last season for the Kansas City Chiefs — 61st-ranked tackle on Pro Football Focus — and there’s a reason he’s still unsigned. You could argue he wouldn’t even be an upgrade over Anderson.

    But the Patriots can’t afford to allow left tackle to be a disaster for the third straight season. They should throw as many darts at the board as possible, even if it means taking a chance on a declining player like Smith.

    Justin Simmons, FS

    Who’s going to play free safety for the Patriots?

    Kyle Dugger is the favorite, but he’s better playing close to the line of scrimmage. Sophomore Marte Mapu oozes talent, but the Patriots seemingly still haven’t decided whether he’s a deep safety, a box safety, or a linebacker. Fourth-year pro Joshuah Bledsoe, meanwhile, is a decent player but probably not a starter.

    So, there’s a case for signing someone like Justin Simmons, who would allow everyone else to slide into their natural positions. The two-time Pro Bowler remains unsigned after being released by the Denver Broncos and is the best safety available in free agency.

    The Patriots don’t need Simmons, as they have a plethora of safeties and versatile defensive backs. But he would be an intriguing option if New England wants a more traditional free safety.

    David Bakhtiari, LT

    For the same reasons the Patriots should consider signing Smith, they should consider pursuing David Bakhtiari.

    Of course, Bakhtiari is a much different story.

    He was a stud for the Green Bay Packers over the first eight seasons of his career. But he dealt with myriad injuries over the last three campaigns, including a season-ending knee injury in 2023. The jury is out on whether Bakhtiari is even healthy, let alone capable of playing at a high level.

    Plus, Bakhtiari, who was released earlier this offseason, recently said he wants to play for a Super Bowl contender in 2024. That seemingly would rule out the Patriots.

    But the 32-year-old might not have any better options. If nothing else, the Patriots should host Bakhtiari for a free agency visit, and if they’re comfortable with the medicals, add him to the LT mix for training camp.

    Michael Thomas, WR

    Once one of the NFL’s best receivers, Michael Thomas is now 31 years old and coming off four disappointing, injury-plagued seasons. In 10 games last season, he caught just 39 balls for 448 yards and one touchdown. Thomas also causes headaches off the field and might not be interested in a reduced role.

    Nevertheless, the Patriots owe it to themselves to explore all options at receiver. They have five wideouts who are roster locks — DeMario Douglas, Ja’Lynn Polk, Javon Baker, K.J. Osborn, and Kendrick Bourne — but Thomas arguably offers more immediate upside than any of them.

    The Patriots also might have one open spot for a receiver, with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyquan Thornton, Jalen Reagor, and Kayshon Boutte the top candidates. Thomas surely would be an upgrade over all four, right?

    Again, Thomas might be washed up and not worth the trouble. But he’s an intriguing option.

    J.C. Jackson, CB

    The Patriots released J.C. Jackson earlier this offseason, but the veteran corner remains a free agent. That’s likely because he was an on-field liability in 2023 and dealt with mental health-related issues off the field. Jackson initially played well after being traded back to New England last October but was a healthy scratch for the final four weeks.

    So, why would the Patriots entertain a reunion?

    First of all, they know him better than anyone. Jackson has close relationships with players and coaches, including Mayo. And if anyone can get the best out of him, it’s the Patriots.

    Plus, Jackson is still just 28 years old and didn’t show any athletic decline in 2023. He’s a talented outside corner, and the Patriots need more of those.

    This is a long shot, to be sure, but it’s not a crazy idea.

    A.J. McCarron, QB

    The Patriots’ top two quarterbacks in 2024 will be veteran Jacoby Brissett and rookie Drake Maye — in some order. But the No. 3 spot remains a mystery.

    Earlier this offseason, Mayo told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer that he wanted to trim the Patriots’ QB room to three before training camp. That seemingly left the writing on the wall for Bailey Zappe, as the Patriots presumably would want to continue working with talented rookie Joe Milton III.

    Then, on the final day of minicamp, Mayo said he “absolutely” expects New England to carry four quarterbacks into camp. The reason for the shift remains unclear.

    Neither Zappe nor Milton played well in the spring, and both barely saw the field during minicamp. So, the Patriots probably don’t feel great about either, even though Zappe has four wins as an NFL starter under his belt.

    MORE: 1 Free Agent Signing Every NFL Team Should Make Ahead of Camp

    We’re guessing here, but the Patriots might want a veteran third-stringer with experience in a West Coast offense, a version of which will be run by offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt. Multiple free agent quarterbacks fit that description, including 33-year-old A.J. McCarron.

    Currently playing for the UFL’s St. Louis Battlehawks, McCarron knows how to run a West Coast-style offense and has seven seasons of NFL experience. He likely would accept any role, including a demotion to the practice squad. That might be all the Patriots are looking for.

    Ultimately, the Patriots would prefer Milton take the job and run with it. But don’t rule out the No. 3 QB spot being filled by someone not currently on the roster.

    Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast!

    Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast! Click the embedded player below to listen, or you can find the PFN Fantasy Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and all major podcast platforms.  Be sure to subscribe and leave us a five-star review!

    Related Articles