Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Patriots & free agency: Who goes, stays, signs?


With a total of 13 pending free agents and only $7.6 million in cap space available, the New England Patriots are faced with some tough questions early in the 2014 offseason.

Free agents:

CB Aqib Talib, C Ryan Wendell, OT Will Svitek, LB Brandon Spikes, WR Julian Edelman, RB LeGarrette Blount, TE Matthew Mulligan, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, LB Dane Fletcher, DE Andre Carter, WR Austin Collie, LS Danny Aiken (R), LB Christian Cox (R).

Who goes?

Spikes has worn out his welcome in Foxboro. With the return of Jerod Mayo in 2014 and the strong play by Dont'a Hightower and rookie Jamie Collins at the tail end of last season, Spikes' bags are all but packed. Also, with the departure of linebackers coach Pepper Johnson, it seems like there are not enough people in Spikes' corner to keep him in a Patriot uniform.

Next is likely the veteran Carter. Patriot fans remember the strong 2011 campaign from Carter, when he recorded 10 sacks before getting injured. As a veteran presence this year in light of all the defensive injuries, Carter managed just four tackles and two sacks. But more than anything, there are too many upgrades at the defensive end position in free agency for the Pats to keep Carter.

Other players we don't expect to see back with the Patriots next season are Mulligan, Collie, Aiken and Cox. All four of these players are easily replaceable, and aside from Aiken, really have little importance to a championship run.

Who stays?

The Patriots probably can't afford to use the franchise tag this offseason. If they wish to bring back even a few players from 2013, franchise-tagging a player would certainly end those hopes.

The defense can ill afford to lose Talib. Over the years, coach Bill Belichick has had the mentality of simply replacing key players once it is time for them to get paid. But with Talib, it is now a matter of paying a guy who kept the defense together after pretty much everyone around him fell to injuries.

Before he went down with his bum hip in Week 6, Talib was the best cornerback in football, period. He held Jimmy Graham, A.J. Green and Julio Jones to just 100 yards receiving -- combined -- and no other cornerback on the team is ready to take on opponents' top receivers. See: Demaryius Thomas against Alfonzo Dennard in the AFC Championship game. For the right price, Talib stays.

Meanwhile, with Tom Brady's championship window closing, one thing the Patriots cannot do is take away Brady’s top receiving target for the second straight year. He didn't miss Wes Welker last season, as Edelman put together his best season of his career, so the Patriots shouldn't push their luck. We fully expect the team to do everything in its power to lock this guy up before he finds a new home with top competition like Welker did.

Lastly, Wendell. The Patriots are perfect for Wendell, and Wendell is perfect for the Patriots. Aside from maybe Alex Mack, should he hit the market, the pool of centers in free agency is very shallow. At a reasonable price, Wendell returns. Expect this one to get done sooner than later.

The remaining free agents on the list all served backup roles in 2013, and one major thing the Patriots learned this past season was the importance of depth. Blount, Hoomanawanui, Fletcher and Svitek should all return to the team next season to reprise their secondary roles, though New England should address most of these positions, with the exception of the running game, in either the draft or in free agency.

Who signs?

Expect the Patriots to make a couple splashes in free agency this offseason. Here are a few bigger-name players you could see in a Patriots uniform next season who wouldn't necessarily break the bank in the process:

DE Arthur Jones, DE, Baltimore Ravens
Why not bring Chandler’s older brother to Foxboro? If the Pats are to get rid of Carter, they’re going to need to add some depth to the pass rush. Adding Jones would provide New England with a big body coming off the edge, and it could allow the team to do different things with Rob Ninkovich. That's assuming Jones doesn't get the franchise tag.

Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings
It's highly doubtful the team would bring both Jones and Allen in, but if Allen is willing to take a pay cut to play for a winner, then this move makes a ton of sense. The 30-year-old Allen has enjoyed a stellar career in Minnesota, but one thing that is certainly missing is a championship ring. This could be a match made in heaven for both sides, with Allen needing to play for a contender and the Pats in need of some stability on defense.

Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos
OK, never mind. This one might break the bank. But removing one of Peyton Manning's top targets and putting him in Brady's pass-catching corps is a major double-positive -- and precisely what the Denver Broncos did with Welker last year. Also, he's very familiar with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and New England has enough young wideouts on the roster that it's not likely to go after one early in the draft.

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