New England Patriots' NFL free-agent signings 2022: Devin McCourty, Nick Folk back in fold

NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2022 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The first round of the 2022 NFL draft begins April 28 on ESPN.

No team spent more than the New England Patriots in free agency last offseason, but don't expect a similar approach this year. Cap space isn't as plentiful. And there's only so much cash to go around. Plans figure to start in-house with the hope of re-signing or extending key players who might not generate big headlines, but have delivered in recent years (e.g. K Nick Folk, P Jake Bailey etc.). Then New England will consider options from other teams. So unlike last year, when the Patriots swung big, they are expected to be more judicious this time around.

Here's a breakdown of every 2022 NFL free-agent signing by the Patriots, and how each will impact the upcoming season:

Devin McCourty, S

McCourty is returning to the Patriots, agreeing to a one-year deal for $9 million, a source told ESPN on Sunday.

What it means: McCourty is back for a 13th season and the Patriots keep one of their all-time great leaders/culture-builders in place. He can still contribute at safety, where he's essentially the quarterback of the secondary and remains one of the team's fastest defenders. But his sheer presence alone has considerable value in terms of what it means to be a Patriot. Buying another year of that -- in the locker room and on the field -- has obvious value to Bill Belichick.

What's the risk: McCourty turns 35 in August and devoting one year and $9 million to a player at that stage of his career can be considered a roll of the dice. The Patriots enter free agency with about $12 million in cap space, and while more space can always be created, McCourty's deal eats away at it and potentially affects other bigger-ticket signings.

Jabrill Peppers, S

The Patriots and Peppers reached agreement on a one-year deal, sources told ESPN.

What it means: The Patriots play the majority of their snaps with five or six defensive backs, and like some of their safeties to play in the box to support the run, and that's where Peppers could fit best if he makes the team. At 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, he's a similar physical build to former Patriots safety Patrick Chung and current Patriots safety Adrian Phillips. The Patriots have longtime captain McCourty as their top deep safety, with Phillips and Kyle Dugger projected starters alongside him in the "Big Nickel" package. Peppers and 2021 sixth-round draft choice Joshuah Bledsoe (5-11, 201) provide depth and potential upside behind them. Also, Peppers is a top candidate to be the primary punt returner after Gunner Olszewski joined the Steelers.

What's the risk: Peppers ruptured the ACL in his right knee during a Week 6 win against the Panthers last season, so the Patriots are banking on him having no problems returning to his prior form. But the risk is likely mitigated by what is expected to be a modest contract.

Trent Brown, T

The Patriots have agreed to a two-year deal with Brown.

What it means: The Patriots' offensive line, which was already undergoing significant turnover after trading starting right guard Shaq Mason and seeing left guard Ted Karras sign with the Bengals as a free agent, won't have a third layer of change. That's significant. When Brown is healthy and motivated, he's one of the better tackles in the NFL. And protecting QB Mac Jones is obviously a priority.

What's the risk: Brown's availability the past three seasons (two with the Raiders, one with the Patriots) hasn't been ideal. He missed eight games in 2021 with a calf injury. So while the two-year deal is team-friendly, and Brown will earn maximum value by showing he can stay on the field, there's still risk with Brown for a team that has long believed that "availability can be more important than ability."

Nick Folk, K

The Patriots have agreed to a two-year, $5 million deal with Folk, a source confirmed. The deal includes $2.19 million in guaranteed money.

What it means: Folk has a streak of 55 straight field goals within 50 yards -- which stretches back to the start of the 2020 season -- so the Patriots are retaining one of the NFL's most reliable kickers. Folk needs one more to tie the NFL record of 56 straight field goals under 50 yards, set by Ryan Succop of Tennessee (2014-17). The team has Quinn Nordin on the roster as a developmental option, but as long as Folk keeps producing alongside holder Jake Bailey and snapper Joe Cardona, Nordin's time can wait.

What's the risk: The contract isn't a lot for a steady kicker, but Folk does turn 38 in November, which makes him one of the NFL's oldest players. Nonetheless, there is a notable history of kickers still being effective into their 40s.

Malcolm Butler, CB

Butler is returning home, agreeing to a two-year deal worth up to $9 million with the Patriots, his agent, Derek Simpson, told ESPN.

What it means: Given his starting experience, and also his previous time in New England (2014-17), Butler is a top candidate to fill the void created by J.C. Jackson's free-agent departure to the Chargers. Jalen Mills projects to fill one starting spot, and Jonathan Jones is a top option in the slot, and then it will be Butler, Shaun Wade, Terrance Mitchell and Joejuan Williams competing for the other starting spot along with a possible high draft pick.

What's the risk: Butler didn't play in 2021 after being placed on the reserve/retired list by the Cardinals at the end of the preseason ... and prior to that, the Titans had released him after three seasons. So the Patriots are banking on Butler finding his prior form. The contract is modest, which limits the risk.

Ty Montgomery, WR/RB

The Patriots have agreed to a two-year deal with Montgomery, as first reported by Josina Anderson.

What it means: In the best-case scenario for the Patriots, the 6-foot-0, 216-pound Montgomery can be what Cordarrelle Patterson was for the team in 2018 -- part running back/part receiver. The Patriots found ways to get the ball in Patterson's hands that year -- 42 rushes for 228 yards and 1 TD to go along with 21 catches for 247 yards and 3 receiving TDs. Montgomery comes at a low cost (reportedly a max of $4 million over two years), a pact that doesn't necessarily guarantee him a role on the roster. But when considering what the Patriots look for in a WR4 or RB4 -- which factors in special teams contributions as well as a possible returner -- Montgomery's profile makes sense as a possible fit.

What's the risk: The Patriots know what they have at the top of the running back depth chart (Damien Harris/Rhamondre Stevenson) and wide receiver ranks (Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne), so there is limited risk bringing in competition for role players like Montgomery behind them.

Ja'Whaun Bentley, LB

Bentley agreed to a two-year deal to return to the Patriots.

What it means: Bentley was the Patriots' leading tackler last season (108) and is at his best when playing downhill in the running game. But when forced to cover down the field, he can struggle (e.g. against Bills tight end Dawson Knox in the playoffs). So in a spread-it-out passing league, Bentley is more of a throwback player -- very physical. He also has had the green dot on his helmet as the primary communicator with the coaching staff, which adds to his value. If the season started today, he'd likely be on the field alongside trade acquisition Mack Wilson as the team's two off-the-ball linebackers.

What's the risk: Bentley isn't a three-down linebacker, so he's going to be limited in what packages he plays. Against a run-first team like the Derrick Henry-led Titans, he could be a big part of the plan. But against Josh Allen and the explosive pass-first Bills -- a unit the Patriots couldn't force to punt in their last two games against them -- Bentley might be a liability.

Terrance Mitchell, CB

The Patriots have agreed to a one-year deal with the veteran cornerback for $3 million according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

What it means: Mitchell is a stop-gap option as the Patriots adjust following J.C. Jackson's departure in free agency. Mitchell, an eight-year veteran, has played in 83 career games with 51 starts. The Patriots are his sixth NFL team, so he's a journeyman type, but his performance last season against New England might have caught Belichick's eye; Mitchell had seven tackles, one pass defended, and a forced fumble at the goal-line. The Texans signed him to a two-year, $6.5 million contract last offseason -- so he had some value on the open market -- but the club released him March 10 and saved some salary-cap space.

What's the risk: If Mitchell couldn't stick with the Texans, one of the worst teams in the NFL last season, how might he make the Patriots' defense better? In essence, Mitchell provides starting experience at a low cost, but if he's playing significant snaps in 2022, it means the Patriots' hopes to decisively address the position after losing Jackson haven't been realized.

Brian Hoyer, QB

Hoyer has reached an agreement on a two-year contract to return to the Patriots, his agent confirmed. The deal is worth $4 million with $3 million guaranteed and incentives, a source told Schefter.

What it means: Similar to how Josh McCown had a long NFL career and was viewed as a top-notch teammate and mentor to younger quarterbacks, Hoyer is the same. His presence figures to continue to help Jones. Hoyer's institutional knowledge has notable value to Belichick in a year the offensive coaching staff is in transition without Josh McDaniels. Hoyer, a 13-year veteran set to enter his eighth year in New England, arguably knows the offense better than any offensive coach on staff.

What's the risk: The only risk is financial, as the team is committing $3 million in guarantees/bonuses/incentives to Hoyer. That isn't a lot for what Hoyer adds to the team as a mentor and backup.

Matthew Slater, ST

The Patriots have reached a deal with special teams ace Matthew Slater to return for his 15th season with the team, a source told ESPN's Field Yates. The deal is for one year with $2.62 million fully guaranteed.

What it means: In the immediate aftermath of the Patriots' disappointing playoff loss, Slater sounded like a player who wasn't sure if he'd be back for a 15th season. But as time passed, he decided he wanted to play. And the key piece was that Belichick wanted him back, because Slater -- a longtime captain whose niche is covering kicks and punts -- has said he only wants to play for the Patriots. Slater's return ties him with Troy Brown and Julius Adams for the third-longest tenure in team history, behind Tom Brady (20 seasons) and Steve Grogan (16).

What's the risk: A fully guaranteed $2.62 million deal on a one-year term for a special-teams-only player is significant. Slater turns 37 in September and, in his own words, he hopes to do what his father Jackie did in his 20-year career -- "retard the aging process" while hitting a stage in his career that few peers reach.

James White, RB

The Patriots are re-signing the veteran running back to a two-year deal, a source tells ESPN's Field Yates.

What it means: Continuing the culture-based theme of their offseason in which they've retained most of their core veterans, the Patriots and Belichick want to see if White can recapture his pass-catching and blitz-pickup form from before his hip injury in Week 3 of last season. If White can, he projects as a reliable outlet for Jones. If he doesn't, it's a modest investment ($500,000 guaranteed) to keep a franchise pillar around a bit longer as the offensive coaching staff is in transition. Tom Brady once said of White: "He just does everything right and you can never get mad at him."

What's the risk: If the 30-year-old White breaks down, or doesn't recapture his past form, it's a sunken cost of $500,000. The team still figures to groom a young third-down back, and it could be a player already on the roster -- J.J. Taylor.