New England Patriots' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
NFL free agency can be a dangerous siren, with big contracts and flashy headlines in the spring often offering empty promises of results in the fall. Not all big-money free-agent signings are bad, of course, but relying upon free agency as a means of propelling oneself to instant contention is a dangerous path.
The New England Patriots have largely avoided those pitfalls under Bill Belichick, typically opting for middle-class value over top-class money. By relying primarily on the draft and player development, the Patriots have minimized the fallout from spectacular misses like Jonathan Fanene and Leon Washington, to name two recent examples.
With roughly $9.5 million of projected cap space (before Steve Gregory's release last Friday), per ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss, the Patriots do not have much money to make big free-agent splashes anyway. When factoring in the cap room set aside for draft picks and in-season moves, the Pats will not be players for the biggest names on the market.
That's not to say it will not be eventful, for the Patriots have some well-defined areas to address. In composing this list, it's important to keep one overriding question in mind: What will most help the Patriots capture that elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy?
With that in mind, here are five moves that could set the Patriots on a promising path for the 2014 season.
*All salary data courtesy Spotrac.com.
5. Continue Trimming the Cap
Shedding Steve Gregory's salary saved $2.85 million in cap space, according to NFL.com's Kevin Patra, and the veteran safety will not be the only one to go.
There are a few obvious cuts, like defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga and safety Adrian Wilson, which will save the Patriots about $2.6 million combined. Borderline starters like Dan Connolly and Tommy Kelly could also be on the chopping block—letting those two go would net the Pats an extra $5.15 million in 2014—and Logan Mankins and Stephen Gostkowski could receive extensions to reduce their cap numbers.
The elephant in the room (no pun intended) is defensive cornerstone Vince Wilfork, whose staggering $11.6 million cap number trails only Tom Brady as the highest on the roster. Wilfork's age and body type are significant concerns in his recovery, but as Tom Pelissaro of USA Today notes, Achilles injuries are having fewer long-term ramifications than ever before:
But rehab has become more aggressive to avoid the issues of ankle stiffness and calf atrophy, rebuilding range of motion and strength without compromising the success rate. Athletes who undergo surgery, as any NFL player would, have a re-injury rate of 3%, Matava said.
One NFL personnel director, speaking on condition of anonymity for competitive reasons, told USA TODAY Sports teams are less concerned "to a degree" these days about Achilles injuries, with timing and its impact on return date a factor in free-agent decisions.
Wilfork is obviously no sure bet to return to his old dominance, and even if he does, the Patriots will likely try to limit his snaps next season. But given how fundamental Wilfork's two-gapping control of the line is to the Patriots' defensive scheme, it seems more likely we will see an extension that reduces the cap hit and ensures his long-term security in New England.
4. Begin Extension Talks for Young Stars
Whatever cap space the Patriots save from cuts and extensions does not entirely need to be dedicated to 2014. Indeed, the Pats have been proactive in locking up young stars they see as integral parts of their future, getting a slight discount while ensuring the player's long-term security.
Safety Devin McCourty is this year's prime candidate to receive the extension. Though he is not a free agent until after the 2014 season, he has emerged as a clear on- and off-field leader. Since moving to safety, McCourty has excelled as a roaming center field security blanket. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him as the best safety in the league last season, a testament to his combination of range and instincts.
Indeed, while many point to Aqib Talib's arrival as the turning point for the New England secondary (more on him later), McCourty's move to safety played nearly as pivotal a role. Because he hit numerous incentives, the two-time All-Pro now has a cap number of $5.12 million for 2014, sixth-highest on the team.
Consequently, an extension seems like a no-brainer for the Patriots, as they can secure the long-term future of a vital defensive centerpiece while also reaping some short-term cap space benefits. McCourty likely will not receive an extension until after the free agency dust settles, but once New England has a clearer picture of its salary commitments, expect talks to move quickly.
Other candidates for the early extension include Nate Solder, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Solder has progressed into a rock-solid blindside protector for Tom Brady and is the most likely of the trio to get rewarded. Ridley and Vereen have exhibited spurts of game-changing ability, but New England's back-by-committee approach makes extensions for either less likely.
3. Sign a Veteran Wide Receiver
With the trio of Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins entering their second seasons, the Patriots seem highly unlikely to invest any significant draft resources at the wide receiver position.
However, even if New England re-signs free agent Julian Edelman, the Pats might have a bit of work to do to supplement their young core. While the ideal solution would be in-house progression from the three sophomore receivers, the Pats must protect themselves in case they disappoint.
That likely means a few low-cost veterans. New England inked Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet last year, and many, like WEEI's Christopher Price, believe their interest will be rekindled this offseason. While Sanders is not a game-changer, his inside-outside versatility could make him a nice third or fourth complementary option in the passing game.
If Sanders signs elsewhere, an under-the-radar possibility might be the Arizona Cardinals' Andre Roberts. Roberts himself seemed doubtful about a return to the desert, per ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss, and he has done solid work as a possession receiver who attacks in the short to intermediate areas of the field.
Kenny Britt and Danario Alexander also represent a couple no-risk veteran options the Patriots might bring in for camp. Both have shown flashes of excellence with extended snaps in the past, but injury woes (and off-field transgressions in Britt's case) have sent their stocks plummeting.
The second-year trio provides the Patriots some buffer space, allowing them to seek out insurance rather than top-dollar solutions. However, there's one other position where a minimum salary veteran might not be enough.
2. Add a Pass-Rusher
Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, the bookend tandem of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich accounted for 19.5 out of New England's 50 sacks, with Chris Jones the only other player accruing more than three. While having reliable three-down players like Jones and Ninkovich is a great luxury, the top-heavy pass-rushing construction left the Pats prone to long droughts of nonexistent pressure (see: AFC Championship Game).
Thus, it would behoove the Patriots to add a third rusher, preferably a proven veteran who could immediately play significant passing-down snaps. Besides the extra layer of depth, one of New England's most dangerous packages involved Chandler Jones kicking inside on third down, where his quickness and long arms allowed him to overwhelm lead-footed interior linemen and generate interior pressure (example here).
The solution may arrive from a pair of Minnesota Vikings free agents. The 31-year-old Jared Allen has amassed at least 11.0 sacks in eight of the past nine seasons, but his age, combined with diminished production, (PFF rated Allen 28th out of 37 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rushing productivity last season) might depress his market a bit. If Allen is amiable to a pay cut as a situational rusher, the Patriots figure to be a prime contender for his services.
His teammate, Everson Griffen, might be a likelier solution, even though his lesser name-recognition value would generate less excitement. Per NFL.com's Jason LaCanfora, the Patriots nearly drafted Griffen in 2010, so they have a history of interest. The 26-year-old Griffen is more than a pure situational pass-rusher and would likely fare better than Allen in handling a three-down load in case either Jones or Ninkovich went down.
1. Re-Sign Aqib Talib
While most of New England's free agency plans revolve around adding insurance and depth, the Patriots do have one glaring goal they must accomplish: re-signing top cornerback Aqib Talib. Unlike the other priorities on this list, Talib is a player who affects the very foundation and philosophy of the Pats defense.
That's not to say he is irreplaceable, nor is he Deion Sanders circa 1994. However, big cornerbacks who can successfully play physical man coverage are difficult to find, and the Patriots have not had a corner like Talib since the halcyon days of Ty Law. ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss suggested Talib could see a three- to four-year deal making somewhere between $6-$8 million per year.
It's certainly far from an unreasonable pact, so long as New England protects itself from Talib's injury history with some contract language. Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported that Talib and the Patriots met at the NFL Scouting Combine, though how much progression they made was unclear.
On the surface, the pieces are in place for a reunion. Talib has repeatedly praised the Patriots culture and expressed a desire to stay, and the Pats have in turn placed tremendous responsibility on Talib and highlighted his ability.
With healthy returns from numerous starters, the Patriots have an extremely promising defense, as the unit showed during the first month of the season. Devin McCourty has already raised some eyebrows with bold proclamations of Seattle Seahawks-caliber play, but it's really not a stretch to suggest the Patriots could be one of the league's 10 best defenses next season.
However, those heights are nearly unreachable without a top corner who can match up toe-to-toe with the league's best outside vertical threats. Talib provides that ability, and his return to Foxboro is the clear key to a successful free agency period for the Patriots.
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