The trouble with having an obvious roster hole for years is it undercuts a team’s ability to patch it.

Opposing front offices leverage the resulting frustration and desperation during trade talks by making disproportionate demands. Free agents do the same in contract negotiations, believing they can squeeze out an extra couple million.

Having fielded below-average wide receivers for four straight seasons, the Patriots are no strangers to this phenomenon. In 2019, they traded a second-round pick to Atlanta for eight games of Mohamed Sanu and last offseason agreed to pay Nelson Agholor $22 million.

Since then, the Pats have reportedly done “excessive work” on the free-agent receiver market, including taking a hard look at Chicago’s Allen Robinson for a second straight offseason. The Bears kept Robinson with the franchise tag last year for $17.9 million. While his production fell steeply in 2021, he’s still likely to command money worthy of a No. 1 wideout because of the leverage he holds over his suitors.

With Davante Adams staying in Green Bay and Odell Beckham Jr. recently tearing his ACL, Robinson has emerged the best receiver available. Top-tier wideouts usually command at least $15 million per year on the open market. The Patriots have $13.4 million in total cap space, per Over The Cap.

So unless the front office sheds a handful of contracts or ship out salary via trade, Robinson feels increasingly like a pipe dream in New England. However, there are still plenty of potential receiver targets who should fall closer to the Pats’ price range in free agency.

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Here are five names to know:

• Christian Kirk, Arizona: Kirk is hitting the market at the perfect time.

He’s coming off a career year when he posted personal bests in catches (77), receiving yards (982) and catch rate (74.8%). He’s proven he can threaten defenses deep from the slot and outside. And he’ll only be 25 when the regular season kicks off.

Of all the names listed here, Kirk is most likely to price the Patriots out, with projections for his next contract ranging from $11 to $13 million per year. At worst, he provides most teams with a dynamic No. 3 option, but in New England he would arrive as the best receiver on the roster.

•Russell Gage, Atlanta: Another slot weapon, Gage profiles more as a classic possession receiver who creates separation with his route-running and how he attacks leverage. Gage has posted back-to-back seasons with 700-plus yards and four touchdowns. He’s slightly bigger than Kirk at 6-foot and 184 pounds, but doesn’t offer as much against man-to-man coverage.

He also led the Falcons in catches and receiving yards when they lost to the Patriots on Thursday Night Football last November, a performance the front office might remember as it searches for another starting wideout.

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• Cedrick Wilson, Dallas: Unlike Gage, Wilson thrived against man coverage last season, with Cowboys quarterbacks posting a passer rating of 115.8 when targeting him versus man-to-man, per Sports Info. Solutions. He’s a big slot option at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, who comes with obvious upside.

Wilson thrived last season when afforded extra playing time after Dallas temporarily lost its top receivers, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. He yielded 45 catches for 602 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Wilson is more shifty than strong, but that should be OK by the Patriots, who have won with shifty slot receivers for years.

• DJ Chark, Jacksonville: Still 25 years old, Chark offers a potential buy-low opportunity on a player who made the Pro Bowl in his second NFL season.
Chark amassed 1,008 yards in 2019, then succumbed to injury and increasingly poor quarterback play in Jacksonville. Last season, he finished with 154 yards and two touchdowns in four game appearances. But his talent remains undeniable, as a 6-foot-4 deep threat and former second-round pick with No. 2-receiver upside.

• Braxton Berrios, N.Y. Jets: Remember him?

The Jets’ backup slot receiver enjoyed a mini offensive breakout last season, two years after the Patriots were hoping he would do so in New England as a former sixth-round pick. Berrios nabbed 46 passes and scored four touchdowns, two receiving and another two rushing. He also earned All-Pro honors as a punt returner.

Berrios is no game-breaker, but the Pats clearly saw a fit for him in their offense, and now with more seasoning, a cost-effective reunion could be in the cards next week.


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