Gut feeling on Patriots' free-agent class? Expect lots of change in 2021

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Center David Andrews concluded his sixth year with the New England Patriots and fourth as a captain, which sparked some raw emotions from him this week.

Andrews was reflecting on the challenging 2020 NFL season, how much it meant to him to play football again after missing the 2019 campaign because of blood clots in his lungs, and how the Patriots (7-9) fell short of their goals. He also was discussing what's ahead for him, the unfamiliar position of becoming an unrestricted free agent, and at one point the weight of it all seemed to tackle him with the force of a 330-pound defensive tackle.

So with his voice cracking, and eyes glistening, he stopped talking to compose himself.

"I don't know, man. I think if you said six years ago, 'Do you think you'd be sitting here?' I'd probably be like, 'Nah. Maybe I'd have a little shot at the league, and then sell insurance and be a high school football coach and teach school.' It's crazy to be in this position now," Andrews said.

"I came here as an undrafted guy. Not a lot of people came and visited and worked me out, but Coach [Bill Belichick] did, and that always meant a lot to me. I've seen a lot of people be in the position I'm in now [as a pending free agent]. I've been fortunate to get to play this game and not really see the business side of it personally. I've just been able to go out and play; that's why you start playing the game in kindergarten. Now I'm in the middle of the business side of it, and I'm not a business person. So it is what it is, and we’ll see."

Andrews, 28, is one of several key Patriots scheduled for unrestricted free agency in a critical offseason for Belichick to restock the roster after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

While the official salary cap has yet to be finalized, the club is well positioned to have among the most space of any team to maneuver (projected cap space of $51,092,197). Some of Belichick's most important decisions will be with players already on the roster, and the list is plentiful.

A gut feeling on how it all shakes out? Expect lots of change:

Cam Newton, QB: Belichick was effusive in his praise of Newton's leadership throughout 2020 despite being put in a tough spot with limited firepower around him. The key question Belichick is likely asking: Would Newton's accuracy and decision-making be considerably better with better talent around him? If the answer is "yes," the odds spike in favor of Newton returning. There's also the key context of knowing what other options Belichick would be weighing that against, which is why leaving the door open would make sense. Gut feeling on return: 25%

Joe Thuney, LG: The Patriots couldn't have asked for more from Thuney over the past five years. He never missed a game, and for that matter, hardly ever missed a snap while playing at a high level. Now, at 28 and entering his sixth season, he is the type of free agent teams are usually willing to break the bank for, as the Patriots showed last year by surprisingly placing the franchise tag on him at the last minute despite never having substantive contract negotiations on an extension beforehand. Gut feeling on return: 5%

Andrews: Loyalty seems to mean a lot to Andrews, whose value comes in multiple areas -- off-field leadership and setting the protection on the line, among others. Top centers are averaging about $10 million per season, and this is a well-deserved chance for Andrews to secure his financial future. If the Patriots are in the ballpark, they would seem to have the edge to retain him. Gut feeling on return: 80%

Lawrence Guy, DT: Valuable on defense, Guy said Monday: "I want to be back; I've put roots in the ground here." He falls into a similar category as Andrews, with the Patriots previously identifying him as a player worthy of a life-changing opportunity (four-year, $20 million contract), which would seem to give the franchise the inside track to retain him. A similar deal to what Danny Shelton signed with the Lions last offseason (two years, $8 million) could be the range at this stage of Guy's career (30 years old, entering Year 11). Gut feeling on return: 75%

James White, RB: The valuable "passing back" said last week he still feels he has a lot of football left, and as a three-time captain, he's the type of person who would benefit any locker room. His blitz pickup seemed a bit more inconsistent in 2020 than past years, and after enduring the tragedy of losing his father in a car accident in September, anyone could understand if White felt the pull to move closer to his South Florida roots. Gut feeling on return: 45%

Adam Butler, DT: After entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Patriots in 2017, this is his chance to get his first big payday. He had a stretch in 2020 when he was the Patriots' best lineman. Thus, the club would probably like him back, but the market will dictate his return. Gut feeling on return: 40%

Jermaine Eluemunor, OL: He had the best season of his four-year career (41.4% of snaps) and thus could garner some interest on the market. The Patriots could keep the door open with a depth role in mind, but if another team views him as a starter, the odds of a return dips. Gut feeling on return: 50%

Damiere Byrd, WR: He gave the Patriots everything he had, playing 89% of the snaps, which essentially meant he was a No. 1 option. Bringing him back, and projecting him to more of a complementary role, would make sense. Gut feeling on return: 65%

Rex Burkhead, RB: Coming off knee surgery, the veteran is likely looking at a minimum-type, prove-it contract. He's the type of guy any team likes to have around. Gut feeling on return: 75%

Nick Folk, K: The Patriots might have the inside track on retaining the veteran after helping revive his career, something Folk said he has great appreciation for at the end of his best NFL season. At the same time, the Patriots seem to be planning for contingencies by signing two kickers to future contracts (Roberto Aguayo and Justin Rohrwasser). Folk's Texas roots, and being away from his family all season, add another layer to consider. Gut feeling on return: 50%

Jason McCourty, CB: A true pro, he said during 2020 he would weigh his future after the season. Any team would benefit from his leadership as he now projects to more of a niche role. Gut feeling on return: 15%

John Simon, OLB: He played above his projected role in 2020, and it showed at times when opponents attacked the edges with success. But Simon is a solid pro, with special-teams value, and there's no reason to close the door on his return when factoring him as more of a complementary piece than key cog. Gut feeling on return: 40%

Cody Davis, ST: The veteran essentially took over for Nate Ebner and played at a high level to the point Belichick referenced him in his opening remarks after the season finale. Gut feeling on return: 80%

Justin Bethel, ST: While Matthew Slater understandably gets much of the special-teams-based recognition, Bethel turned in a Slater-level season in 2020. A team looking for a Slater-type to anchor their special teams might up the ante to a point that stresses New England's ability to retain him. Gut feeling on return: 40%

Shilique Calhoun, LB: A solid middle-class-of-the-roster signing, Calhoun also shows up on special teams and in a niche role as a sub rusher. Gut feeling on return: 55%

Terrence Brooks, S: Steady as they come, Brooks' primary contributions over the past two seasons came on special teams and sub packages. The Patriots' MO might be to turn more to youth in this spot. Gut feeling on return: 10%

Brian Hoyer, QB: After going from the No. 2 at the start of the season to the No. 3 and a consistent game-day inactive, the Patriots' actions reflect where this would head in free agency. Gut feeling on return: 5%

Deatrich Wise Jr., DL: A 2017 fourth-round pick out of Arkansas, he grew steadily in the team's system and played a career-high 56% of the snaps this season. He's a hybrid fit in the sense he isn't as big as a traditional Patriots defensive tackle, so he could also project as a 4-3 end in some packages. A positive presence in the locker room, this is his chance to secure his financial future. Gut feeling on return: 50%

J.C. Jackson, CB: After totaling nine interceptions, which ranked second in the NFL, Jackson is a restricted free agent. Because he entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, the Patriots can't tender him at that level, which would essentially turn him into an unrestricted free agent. Expect a tender at either the first-round or second-round level, which means if another team attempts to sign him to an offer sheet, the Patriots would get that level of draft pick in return. Gut feeling on return: 99.9%