BREAKING NEW: The Implications of Acquiring OT Chukwuma Okorafor Through Free Agency for the Patriots

BREAKING NEW: The Implications of Acquiring OT Chukwuma Okorafor Through Free Agency for the Patriots

Four days before the start of free agency week, the New England Patriots have made their first outside signing of the offseason. Chukwuma Okorafor, who spent the first six seasons of his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers before his release last month, was reportedly added to the offensive tackle mix on Thursday afternoon.

NFL: NOV 20 Bengals at Steelers

Details of Okorafor’s contract with the Patriots are not yet known. That said, we can already take a quick-hit look at what signing the 26-year-old means for New England from a big-picture point of view.

Okorafor brings considerable experience to the table

Okorafor entered the league as a third-round draft pick in 2018, and started his career mainly as a rotational backup player. By his third season, however, he had earned the Steelers’ right tackle job. He would hold onto it until midway through the 2023 campaign, when he was benched in favor of rookie Broderick Jones.

Okorafor’s demotion and the speculation surrounding it — he reportedly made his displeasure with then-offensive coordinator Matt Canada known before his benching — ushered in an unceremonious end to his Steelers career, one that was further sped up by the nature of his contract.

But even though Pittsburgh no longer viewed him as starter material, the 6-foot-6, 320-pounder has shown he can play a high number of snaps. In total, he has 61 starts on his NFL résumé.

Will the Patriots ask him to do the same? It’s possible, even though it likely would not be their Plan A.

Instead, the Patriots could use him as a veteran backup piece with some swing tackle ability. He only played two career snaps at the left tackle position in the regular season, yes, but he did line up extensively at left tackle in preseason and should be able to at least fill a No. 3/swing role.

The Patriots bolster their offensive tackle depth

With Okorafor brought in, the Patriots now have six tackles signed for the 2024 season. The former third-round draft pick is joining a group also featuring Calvin Anderson, Conor McDermott, Vederian Lowe, Tyrone Wheatley Jr., and Andrew Stueber. In addition, New England gave guard Sidy Sow some reps at tackle during his rookie training camp last summer.

While quantity is not an issue at the moment, the group’s quality is very much TBD. There are major question marks attached to all six of the tackle options, in fact, and as of right now none of them should be considered a lock to even make the team in September.

In order to address that problem, the Patriots could look to their in-house free agency class consisting of Trent Brown, Michael Onwenu, and Riley Reiff. Reiff is unlikely to return, and Brown is seemingly headed out the door as well.

Onwenu, meanwhile, is the big unknown — especially after not getting franchise-tagged by the team. Keeping him around, either as a tackle or guard, would instantly upgrade a New England offensive line very much in need of that even with Okorafor now signed.

The draft and free agency outlook is unlikely to change

The offensive tackle position was a definitive weakness for the Patriots in 2023, and the team starting from scratch this year would not come as a surprise. Adding Okorafor is the second step in that process after tendering exclusive rights free agent Tyrone Wheatley Jr. earlier on Thursday.

Both players will factor into the mix in some capacity over the coming months. Their presence, however, will not prompt the Patriots to suddenly call it a day at offensive tackle and alter their tactics: they still have work to do to solidify the position long-term this offseason, either by adding experienced talent through free agency or by selecting one or more OTs in April’s draft.

What the moves, especially the one involving Okorafor do, however, is giving New England a baseline to work from.

New England’s cap space will decrease

As noted above, the details of Okorafor’s contract with the Patriots have yet to be made available. However, we can already say that he will impact New England’s salary cap space in some form.

That is because his salary will be at least $1.125 million, which would be the collectively-bargained minimum for a player of his experience. That number will be enough to bump another player from the Top-51 list, meaning that New England’s available resources will be at least $300,000 less with Okorafor now part of the team.

Any non-minimum structure, and the Patriots’ cap space would decrease further with Okorafor on pay roll.

Okorafor will not factor into the compensatory draft picks formula

The Patriots are among the league leaders in salary cap space this offseason, and they have a roster in dire need of upgrades across the board. Accordingly, some big-money signings should be expected to happen once free agency begins this coming week.

As a consequence, the compensatory draft picks formula might not be relevant for the Patriots when looking ahead toward the 2025 draft. Still, we’d be remiss if we did not mention that Okorafor would not be part of those calculations anyway: considering that he was released by the Steelers in February, he is not a compensatory free agent.

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