By: Steve Balestrieri
The 2013 season is over; the lockers have been cleaned out for the spring and the New England Patriots move into the 2014 off-season. But before the team jumps into free agency which begins on March 11, slightly less than two months from now, the Patriots must look at their own free agents and determine who stays, who goes and how they plan on locking up the players they wish to keep.
Bill Belichick has many decisions to make in regards to the team’s free agents this off-season.
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The Patriots have 12 free agents that they must make decisions on. The biggest decisions center upon WR Julian Edelman, CB Aqib Talib and LB Brandon Spikes. But they also have RB LeGarrette Blount, DE Andre Carter, WR Austin Collie, TEs Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan, LB Dane Fletcher, C Ryan Wendell, T Will Svitek, and LS Danny Aiken who is a restricted free agent.
According to Miguel’s salary cap from PatsFans.com the Patriots have (as of Jan. 21) about $120,489,381 tied up with their top 51 contracts, possibly slightly more. With the salary cap for the NFL in 2014 to be $126, 300,000 + Total adjustments of $570,649 + 2013 carryover of $4,024,801, the Patriots 2014 adjusted cap number is about 130,895,450. The cap is based on the top 51 contracts with the team.
It doesn’t give the Patriots a lot of room to maneuver but there are also other options that must be looked at as well. There is also the issue with $7,500,000 in dead money to former TE Aaron Hernandez, that won’t change unless he is convicted of one of the charges against him in 2014 which would release the Patriots from those cap charges.
Cuts or Restructures: With seven draft picks (for now) on the books, some money must be set aside for those but some big decisions loom along the DL. By either cutting or re-working some of these deals will help free up some cash and it starts along the area that was a problem for the team, the defensive line.
Isaac Sopoaga will mostly be cut the veteran NT/DT came in a trade with Philly and never worked out and he was a healthy scratch in the team’s final four games. By cutting Sopoaga, that would be an immediate savings of $2.05 million. But from there things get more interesting.
And the “Elephant in the Room” begins with Vince Wilfork who is slated to make $8 million in 2014 and is coming off of surgery for his Achilles tendon. While it is doubtful that the team would consider releasing Wilfork, paying that kind of money for a run stuffer on the wrong side of 30 and coming off of a serious injury is something the team will want to redo.
It is possible they can work out some kind of extension with bonuses that could ease the cap hit while retaining Wilfork for the remainder of his career. This one will bear close watching, Wilfork is a proud, valuable member of the franchise and the team will have to move carefully on this situation.
Tommy Kelly was brought in to be an interior pass rusher but was hurt in Week 5.
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Other decisions include Tommy Kelly who suffered a serious knee injury against the Bengals and is due $2.15 million. Kelly was signed to be that interior pass rusher that the team has lacked and played well in the first quarter of the season. But he too is on the wrong side of 30 and his fate in New England may decide on how healthy he is this spring.
Safeties Adrian Wilson and Steve Gregory could also be let go which would free up an additional $671K in Wilson’s case and $2.23 million with Gregory. The Patriots wanted to get bigger and more physical at safety last season and brought in Wilson. But possibly due to injury or age, it didn’t work and Gregory who was initially thought to be cut loose played the prominent role.
Guard Dan Connolly, with a $4.08 million cap hit this season may find himself either restructured or cut loose. If he is cut it would save the team $2.5 million in cap space.
Other players who could find themselves released include DE Jake Bequette and S Tavon Wilson but would result in only about $500K in cap relief.
Re-signing the Free Agents:
Julian Edelman presents an interesting case, a converted QB, the WR/PR has had issues staying on the field during his career, but in 2013 he stepped up in a huge way, catching over 100 passes and 1000 yards as a starter.
While last year, no one came calling he should generate some legitimate interest. How hardball the Patriots decide to play with him will bear watching. If they offer a deal similar to the one they offered his predecessor (Wes Welker) in the area of 2 years and $12 million, he may bolt.
Edelman may want more than the team paid for Amendola last season, average of about $6 million (5yrs $31million) and you’d be hard pressed to argue that but frankly the chances of the team paying that kind of cash seems very remote. This won’t be an easy deal to get done.
Cornerback Aqib Talib’s knee injury against Denver may affect his chances for a big payday, if he can’t pass a physical in March, teams may opt to pass on him in free agency. Early reports state that there is no structural damage so he may have dodged a bullet.
Talib and the Patriots may get a long term deal done this off-season (3-4 years) if they can agree to the amount of cash New England will pay and guarantee. I can’t see the Patriots paying more than an average of $5.5 to 6 million a year. Will that be enough to keep Talib here or will some other team offer him more?
Brandon Spikes has likely played his last down in New England, he had hoped to have a big year to vault him into a big payday but that didn’t work out the way he envisioned. He is most likely a two-down player, albeit a fierce, physical intimidating presence in the run game. But he and Bill Belichick didn’t see eye to eye on a few things starting with off-season workouts and Spikes being late for meetings on a snow day didn’t help. Reports then surfaced that his camp didn’t agree with him going on IR with a knee injury that he played through for weeks. Color him gone.
LaGarrette Blount was a pleasant surprise for the team in 2013, given only a 50/50 chance of making the team out of training camp, he shook off the baggage that supposedly had dogged him in Tampa. He had a solid season and stepped up big down the stretch.
LaGarrette Blount has made it clear, he’d like to return to New England in 2014.
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He’s already lobbying to stay in New England and likely could be retained for a team friendly deal possibly in the neighborhood of a 2 to 3 year deal for about $2 million a year. With bonuses and incentives built him, Blount could earn even more.
Ryan Wendell at center has been the target of many rumors that he may be replaced in 2014. I don’t think so, and a look at what Dan Connolly signed two years ago may provide what his compensation may look like. Look for the team to offer 3 years and around $9 million.
I think the team lets Austin Collie walk while retaining him on speed dial much like 2013. With Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, T.J. Moe and Mark Harrison healthy to begin the off-season, I see them exploring other veteran options during free agency.
Andre Carter may opt for retirement this season, he was close to doing that this season and for him it was either New England or calling it a career. But if he chooses to return, it would be at a veteran minimum.
The same goes for Dane Fletcher, Michael Hoomanawanui, Will Svitek and Danny Aiken who can all be signed either at or very close to the league minimum. I think the team will let Matthew Mulligan walk and look for TE upgrades via the draft, free agency or both.
It is a complicated process and the evaluations have already been started deep within the walls at Foxboro but these are some of the decisions that are looming for the team as the 2014 off-season begins.
Once these decisions are made then the team can decide which free agents they will go after. The Hernandez “dead money” issue will hurt them until at least 2015 at which time they may be able to recoup a lot of cap space with that.
But just days after a disappointing end to the 2013 season ended, the 2014 season has already begun.