The New England Patriots have some difficult decisions to make concerning their own free agents in 2014, on offense they have to decide whether or not to lock up Julian Edelman who caught 105 passes in 2013. But a more difficult decision may come down to their defense and the contract situation with CB Aqib Talib.
Talib was traded to New England from Tampa Bay in 2012 along with a 7th round draft pick for a 4th round pick. It worked out quite nicely for the Patriots. Talib has performed outstandingly for the Pats secondary and they transformed that 7th round pick into DE Michael Buchanan.
As soon as he arrived in New England things began to change for the Pats beleaguered secondary for the better. He locked down one cornerback slot and allowed Devin McCourty to move to safety which solidified the back end of the secondary. Last season, he made a big difference until he went down with a hip injury against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.
Talib Starts Season Hot: In 2013 he started off the season on fire, after an outstanding training camp, Talib was arguably the best CB in the league through the first six games. Facing such big name receivers as Roddy White, Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Jimmy Graham, Talib was brilliant, allowing only 13 receptions for 186 yards and 1 touchdown while being targeted 33 times and gathering in 4 interceptions.
Perhaps his best game was against the Saints where he helped shut down Graham, holding the talented Saints target to zero catches in a last minute Patriots win. But he aggravated his hip injury and he missed the next three games.
He was far from 100 percent down the stretch and although his play remained very solid, it was a far cry from the shutdown work he provided earlier in the season. Worse, after suffering a hit during this seasonâ€™s AFC Championship Game, Talib hurt his knee and once again the Pats secondary couldnâ€™t adjust without him and was picked clean by Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, who easily passed over the Patriots enroute to the Super Bowl.
Other Free Agents on the Market: If the price tag for Talib gets too high or he opts to go in search of greener pastures, some of the more notable of the free agent cornerbacks in 2014 include: Alterraun Verner, Sam Shields, Vontae Davis, Brent Grimes, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Captain Munnerlyn
The New England secondary was at its best with a healthy Talib at corner, but can he stay on the field?.
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Why Talib May Go: When traded here in 2012, Talib came with considerable off-field baggage and many thought that it was the Buccaneers who got an incredible steal, garnering a 4th round pick for the 27 year old corner. But Talib has been a good soldier and a solid locker room presence. He is popular with his teammates and those problems appear to be in the past.
One big issue right now is his health. His hip issues have lingered for some time and in the past two seasons in conference championship games; heâ€™s been lost when the team needed him most.
But perhaps his biggest issue now is money, like Edelman his reception on the free agent market last season was tepid, but after the stellar first half of 2013 as he had and now a season and a half with zero problems off-field, he should find plenty of suitors.
Talib wonâ€™t be signing for a 1 year – $5 million dollar deal like last year and it may cost the team more than they are willing to spend on a long term deal to lock him up.
Should the Patriots franchise Talib at corner, it would cost them in the neighborhood of $11 million and would require some restructuring in other areas to make it work considering the salary cap shape the team is in right now.
Why Talib May Stay: The biggest reason for the team keeping him is the play of the secondary while heâ€™s been on the field. When heâ€™s been healthy, the New England pass defense has been very good and younger players such as Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan feed off of Talibâ€™s confident play.
Heâ€™s been a difference maker in the secondary and has elevated the play of those around him. The coaching staff can look at the two conference games where he went down and see a vastly different unit once heâ€™s not on the field. It wasnâ€™t a coincidence, and they know how valuable a piece of the puzzle that Talib is.
If the team allowed him to walk and went with a cornerback trio of Dennard, Ryan and Kyle Arrington, it would probably mark a return to those soft zone coverages that opposing teams picked apart in the past.
Bottom Line: Expect the Patriots to make a concerted effort to keep Talib in a Patriots uniform in 2014. But as always it comes with the caveatâ€¦ at their price. They wonâ€™t and shouldnâ€™t break the bank for a player that has never been able to stay on the field for an entire 16 game season.
As valuable as Talib has been on the field for the Patriots, paying him as one of the top corners in the league doesnâ€™t make sense from both a health standpoint and a production one. Would he still remain a hungry player bent on proving himself or would he lapse into a comfort level with a fat new contract that would affect his play.
The franchise tag may very well be applied to Talib and although heâ€™s looking for a long-term deal, an $11 million dollar tag would essentially double his salary and essentially place him in the unenviable position of having to prove it all over again. While not the preferred method here, it may be the most practical.