New England Patriots' 2020 NFL free-agent signings: QB Brian Hoyer returns

NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2020 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from Bill Barnwell. The new league year began on March 18, meaning free-agent signings can be made official after that. The first round of the 2020 NFL draft begins April 23.

Here's a breakdown of every 2020 NFL free-agent signing by the New England Patriots and how each will impact the upcoming season:

Brian Hoyer, QB

The veteran returns for a third stint with the Patriots on a one-year deal.

What it means: The Patriots are tight to the salary cap, needed to add a third quarterback regardless, and figure that Hoyer's steady hand and professionalism will benefit 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham as the team assesses if Stidham can elevate to the No. 1 spot. Furthermore, in an offseason when there might be limited practice time (if any at all), Hoyer's value to New England is even higher considering his knowledge of the system from having been with the team prior to being cut in September of 2019. So it's Stidham, Hoyer and Cody Kessler on the QB depth chart, and that will be how the Patriots enter 2020 training camp unless they draft a signal-caller.

What's the risk: The finances are limited, which reduces the risk to almost nothing. So the main risk is devoting one of the QB spots to Hoyer instead of a possible different option who might have more upside.

Devin McCourty, safety

The veteran safety will be returning to the Patriots on a two-year deal.

What it means: McCourty is one of the greatest leaders in Patriots history, having been named a captain in his second season and continuing in that role since. He's also still playing at a high level, with high-end speed in a role that is essentially like a coach on the field. It's a deal that has a positive trickle-down effect both on and off the field.

What's the risk: He turns 33 in August, and after the Patriots re-signed 34-year-old special teams captain Matthew Slater, the Patriots are investing their initial free-agent dollars on older players. Sometimes there can be a concern for teams voluntarily getting older in free agency, but that's a minor concern in this situation.

Joe Thuney, guard

The Patriots placed the franchise tag on their left guard on Monday.

Franchise tag salary: $14.781 million

Seasons: Four

Career highlights: First player to start in a Super Bowl in the first three years of his career.

Why he was tagged: A 27-year-old who has started every possible game over four seasons, and played at a high level, he is an extremely valuable commodity.

What he brings: Thuney had a 97% pass-block win rate, according to ESPN's metric that uses NFL Next Gen Stats to determine which linemen can sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer, which was second best among all guards. If the Patriots ultimately believed an extension wasn’t likely with Thuney, they could also view him as a valuable trade chip.

Matthew Slater, wide receiver

The Patriots are bringing back their longtime captain, with the sides agreeing to a two-year extension.

What it means: Slater is an inspirational leader, and his return before he officially hit free agency was a top priority. The Patriots are undergoing a coaching transition on special teams with Joe Judge now the head coach of the Giants, so Slater's presence could be even more important in 2020.

What's the risk: Slater turns 35 in September, and the Patriots finished last season with the oldest roster in the NFL. There's some level of risk with age and the possibility of declining performance, but Slater's presence and leadership offset any minor concern along those lines.

Beau Allen, defensive tackle

The Patriots signed Allen, a six-year veteran who played the last two seasons with Tampa Bay, to a two-year contract.

What it means: The Patriots needed to replace Danny Shelton (Lions) with another big-bodied DT to play next to Lawrence Guy, and Allen fits the bill. He's 6-foot-3 and 327 pounds and is known as a strong player against the run (similar to Shelton). Assuming he makes a good transition to the Patriots' system, he likely would be used on early downs and then come off the field in passing situations.

What's the risk: Shelton was a known commodity who had experience in the system, whereas Allen is more of a projection in terms of being able to adapt to the techniques the Patriots teach. Mike Pennel was a good example of this in 2019. He had been signed to a similar contract after having played in a different system with the Jets and was projected as a starter. But Pennel didn't make it out of training camp.

Damiere Byrd, wide receiver

The Patriots agreed to a one-year deal with the speedy wideout.

What it means: The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Byrd, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2015 out of South Carolina, is coming off a career-high 32-catch season in Arizona. He is known for his speed, with a track-and-field background, running a 4.28 time in the 40-yard dash at his 2015 pro day. The Patriots had one of the slowest skill-position groups in the NFL last season, and Byrd brings an element of speed as a low-risk option.

What's the risk: On a modest one-year deal, with Byrd projected as a No. 4-5 option, there is little.

Adrian Phillips, S

The Patriots agreed to a two-year contract with safety Adrian Phillips.

What it means: The 27-year-old Phillips is a core special teams player who also has played a variety of roles on defense -- from free safety, to strong safety, to a "money" linebacker-type role. He was also a signal-caller, which reflects his intelligence. The Patriots liberally use different packages so a player with his skill set -- with a special teams background -- fits well.

What's the risk: Phillips essentially replaces veteran Nate Ebner, who signed a free-agent deal with the Giants. Ebner was a known entity, so the risk with Phillips is that the coaching staff doesn't have the same background with him. That's a limited risk, of course.

Danny Vitale, FB

Former Packers fullback Danny Vitale agreed to a deal with the Patriots.

What it means: The Patriots use the fullback as much as any team in the NFL, and when they lost the two on their roster to season-ending injuries in 2019, they were left short-handed and forced to improvise. So the position was always going to be a focus this offseason, especially given the uncertainty of James Develin's future. Develin had a neck injury and plays a high-impact position, which means relying on him to be available in 2020 is no sure thing.

What's the risk: This is unlikely to be a rich financial deal, so there is limited risk.

Brandon Copeland, OLB

The former Jets linebacker agreed to a deal with the Patriots.

What it means: After losing linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins in free agency, the Patriots need to start filling in some depth on the edge, and Copeland will compete for a roster spot. His most productive season came in 2018 as a situational pass-rusher (5 sacks) and he should also be a factor on special-teams units. The Patriots have John Simon, Chase Winovich, Derek Rivers and Keionta Davis on the OLB depth chart, and Copeland now joins them.

What's the risk: Copeland's one-year deal qualifies for the minimum salary benefit, meaning that while it's worth $1.05 million, the salary-cap charge is less than that. Thus, it's a deal with extremely limited risk.

Cody Davis, S

The former Jaguar will compete for a role on special teams with New England.

What it means: The Patriots annually place a heavy emphasis on special teams and that is Davis' forte -- he had a blocked PAT last year and caught a pass on a fake punt. The 30-year-old has made his mark in the NFL since 2013 as a core special teamer and he'll be a candidate to replace the departed Nate Ebner, likely for a fraction of the cost.

What's the risk: Similar to most of the modest Patriots' free-agent contracts, since they are tight to the salary cap, this falls into the low-risk financial category. With players like Davis, the other aspect of risk is potentially devoting a roster spot to them instead of a player who might contribute more on defense. Competition will ultimately dictate how that unfolds.