By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Free agency is on the horizon in the NFL, and the Patriots have a good chance to be as active in 2016 as they have in any year during Bill Belichick's tenure. The team does not necessarily need to break the bank, but could use ancillary pieces at several key positions, after a rash of injuries exposed their lack of depth and contributed to their eventual fall in the AFC Championship Game.
The Patriots often dig through the scrap heap in free agency, seeking good value and leaning on Belichick's coaching staff to get the most out of players they sign. Dion Lewis' emergence in the first half of the 2015 season was a shining example of such a strategy paying off. Expect the team to make similar moves this offseason and hope for a few to stick.
With core defensive players like Malcolm Butler, Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones, and Dont'a Hightower approaching the end of their rookie deals, the Patriots need to clear cap space and save some real money in order to retain all of them on fair-value contracts (Jones is the odds-on favorite to be traded or walk to free agency). That's why they are unlikely to lock up a long-term deal with any high-priced free agents this year and instead opt for one-year "prove it" deals with players coming off injuries or down seasons, or simply failing to meet expectations.
The Patriots often make low-risk free agent signings that don't excite you - or simply make you say "Who?" But these players could sign for short money and potentially deliver a great return on investment, or easily be cut loose with minimal losses if they do not meet or exceed expectations. Again, see Lewis, Dion.
Here are 12 cheap free-agent options who could potentially fit in well with the Patriots and bring good value to the roster.
Wide Receiver: Rod Streater, Raiders
UPDATE (3/10/2016, 4:54 p.m.): Rod Streater visited the Patriots as a free agent.
With Danny Amendola's contract situation up in the air, and Brandon LaFell a candidate to be cut after taking a big step backward in his second season, the Patriots could stand to acquire a receiver or two. Oakland's Rod Streater could be available after being a healthy scratch for most of the 2015 season, which should lower his price tag considerably. The 28-year-old Streater is a big, athletic receiver with playmaking ability outside the numbers, something the Patriots offense could always use to complement the short, inside passing game.
Brian Quick, Rams
UPDATE: Quick has re-signed with the Los Angeles Rams.
Quick has shown flashes of his big-time potential but has mostly failed to live up to expectations - certainly not his last name - in St. Louis. He is not likely to get more than an inexpensive one-or-two-year deal. The former second-round pick has good hands and has steadily improved his route-running ability, and has also shown a knack for using his size to make plays on the ball in the short-to-intermediate passing game, which would make him an ideal fit for Tom Brady and the Patriots offense.
Right Tackle: Eric Winston, Bengals
The Patriots need to get better and deeper on the offensive line arguably more than at any other position, particularly at tackle. 32-year-old journeyman tackle Eric Winston, pictured above attempting to chokeslam Rosevelt Colvin, could be a serviceable backup right tackle for Sebastian Vollmer. He would also be an upgrade over the struggling Marcus Cannon and a good veteran presence for a mostly young, developing group. The Patriots have had success in the past signing veteran linemen, such as Brian Waters, so Winston could be a similar value if the team goes that route.
Right Tackle: Chris Clark, Texans
Like Winston, Clark could bring a veteran presence and added stability to the offensive line as a third tackle who can play on the right side and even shift to left tackle in a pinch. But ideally, Clark would come in and be a veteran depth piece for the line and, again, be an upgrade over Cannon with his experience alone.
Running Back: Robert Turbin, Cowboys
It's a bit concerning that Turbin has not been able to stick with an NFL team since being waived by the Seattle Seahawks, and couldn't even hold down a roster spot on the Cleveland Browns. But guess who also couldn't stick on the Browns? Dion Lewis. Shows how much they know! Turbin is still just 26 years old and showed flashes of his tough running style with the Dallas Cowboys. He is a strong downhill runner who could be a good fit as the Patriots' early-down back.
Running Back: Jacquizz Rodgers, Bears
At 5-foot-6 and under 200 pounds, Rodgers doesn't have the ideal size to carry the rock in the Patriots offensive scheme. But he is a powerful runner between the tackles for his size and is very decisive at the point of attack, which is pretty much exactly what the Patriots look for in an early-down back. He can also pass-block and return kicks. Belichick would love Rodgers' versatility and competitive spirit.
Linebacker: Lamarr Woodley, Cardinals
It's no secret how much Belichick likes to have smart, versatile veteran players at the linebacker position, and Woodley fits that mold well. The former Pittsburgh Steeler and Arizona Cardinal still has a high motor as a pass-rushing linebacker, even at age 31, and could play either as a defensive end in a base 3-4 defense or linebacker in a 4-3.
Linebacker: Chad Greenway, Vikings
Speaking of veteran linebackers, the 33-year-old Greenway wants to stay in Minnesota but could perhaps be lured to New England as a one-off signing in an effort to go for a Super Bowl ring (although he may feel he has that chance with the Vikings). Greenway had somewhat of a renaissance season in 2015 as he was used in a limited role, and Belichick could be trusted to deploy him only in situations that put him in a position to succeed.
Cornerback: Morris Claiborne, Cowboys
Among the under-30 players set to hit the free agent market in 2016, Claiborne arguably has the most untapped potential. The former sixth-overall draft pick has been a disappointment in his first four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, intercepting just three passes in 40 career games. He didn't look good in 2015 against the Patriots, either, getting emasculated by Julian Edelman. But Claiborne is an athletic, aggressive cover corner when he's at his best; with a change of scenery and a limited role in the secondary, the Patriots could have a chance to get the most out of his abilities as they have with draft busts in the past. See Ayers, Akeem.
Cornerback: Patrick Robinson, Chargers
Robinson may not exactly qualify as a "scrap heap" player, but he may not command more than a two-or-three-year deal with an annual value of $2-3 million. The 29-year-old veteran plays well in the slot and could also line up outside, and you know how much Belichick loves versatility. He could flourish as the slot corner in the Patriots defense if he can avoid matchups with elite receivers.
Defensive Tackle: Al Woods, Titans
The Patriots seem well-off on the interior of the defensive line with the performance of Alan Branch and Akiem Hicks, as well as the emergence of Dominique Easley as a pass rusher. However, Easley has lived up to his well-earned "injury-prone" label, failing to make it through either of his first two seasons without injury, and Hicks could depart as a free agent and get a better payday than he would in New England. This would free up a need for depth at the position and Woods is the kind of jack-of-all-trades lineman that Belichick would have fun with; he could line up either inside or outside and play in both 3-4 and 4-3.
Defensive Tackle: Henry Melton, Buccanneers
As good as Branch and Hicks have been for the Patriots, the Patriots could use another interior pass rusher to back them up and provide insurance for Easley. Melton is extremely one-dimensional, a strong pass rusher but a complete liability against the run, which could turn the Patriots off, but he could also provide defensive depth and succeed in a pure pass-rushing role as he has in Tampa Bay and Chicago.
What other free-agent gems do you think the Patriots could unearth from the scrap heap? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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