NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots enter the 2013 offseason with over $16 million in available cap room, but must distribute that cash between free agency and the NFL Draft; it will be difficult to sign all or even most of their twenty free agents without spending beyond the NFL’s salary cap. Before turning their attention outside of their own organization towards other free agents and 2013 NFL Draft prospects, the Patriots would be wise to determine which of their own free agents they would like to re-sign and which of those prospects they can afford. So who’s worth re-signing? Read on for more information regarding New England’s free agent crop this offseason.
RB Danny Woodhead
Danny Woodhead is one free agent whose contributions warrant re-signing, but whose production New England could likely replace through in-house options; the Patriots have four young running backs on the roster – Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, and Jeff Demps – which could force Woodhead onto another team if he is not willing to accept a contract below market value. Woodhead probably hasn’t helped his case by slipping from 5.6 yards per attempt in 2010 to 4.6 in 2011 and 4.0 in 2012. Woodhead could likely get more money and opportunities with another team, so New England may ultimately be forced to part ways with one of their more reliable offensive weapons.
WR Deion Branch
Deion Branch is another fan favorite whose time with New England may be coming to an end. Branch will turn 34 in July and has seen his production sharply decline in recent seasons, finishing 2011 with 61 catches before slipping to 51 in 2011 and just sixteen in 2012 (plus another two in the playoffs.) At this point in his career, his only contributions are in the short-yardage range, having caught thirteen of his sixteen passes on throws less than ten yards downfield. He may have to settle for a spot on New England’s emergency list, similar to what happened this season between Branch and the Patriots.
WR Julian Edelman
Julian Edelman had established himself as a unique all-purpose weapon before his season ended prematurely after sustaining a broken foot on December 2nd in a win at Miami. While Edelman was only a minor contributor as a receiver, he also demonstrated his value as a punt returner and special teams performer; based on his play this season, it will be interesting to see how much New England is willing to pay for the 26 year-old, who turns 27 in May. Edelman is one of the Patriots’ most appealing free agent targets, especially if New England opts to part ways with Wes Welker; bringing Edelman back into the fold may help offset the loss of Welker’s consistent production.
WR Donte’ Stallworth
Donte’ Stallworth was cut by New England prior to the season; he re-signed in early December but caught just one pass, a 63-yard touchdown, before landing on injured reserve after suffering a season-ending ankle injury. The 32 year-old Stallworth still has the speed to separate down the field, but has not been a significant contributor on any team since his 46-catch 2007 season with New England. Stallworth could likely be re-signed for a one-year deal at the veteran minimum, but probably cannot be counted on for consistent production at this point.
WR Wes Welker
Regardless of the decision’s popularity, the Patriots should cut ties with Welker this offseason. While Welker’s production hasn’t slipped, he will turn 32 in May and could sharply decline at any point; New England has additionally invested too much money in offensive targets such as Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Lloyd to pay Welker market value. Since returning from a torn ACL in 2009’s regular-season finale, Welker has also struggled to catch the ball consistently, dropping just six passes in 2009 but averaging sixteen drops per season in the three years since, culminating in league-leading 19 drops in 2012.
Obviously, there is a price at which Welker’s contributions would make sense for both sides, but Welker is unlikely to settle for a deal below market value; the Patriots should not impair their ability to lock up long talent and establish roster depth by investing heavily in Welker.
TE Michael Hoomanawanui (RFA)
Hoomanawanui played under Josh McDaniels with the Rams last season and joined the Patriots in September after being poached from Washington’s practice squad. The 24 year-old ended up playing 363 snaps for New England in 2012, functioning effectively as an additional blocker from either the fullback or tight end positions. While Hoomanawanui is hardly a threatening receiver, his contributions in both pass protection and as a run blocker warrant a low-level tender in restricted free agency; the Patriots should offer him an opportunity to compete with Jake Ballard and Daniel Fells during training camp and through the preseason.
OT Sebastian Vollmer
The benefits of re-signing Vollmer are obvious: he has played well through four seasons as a starter, is equally effective as a run blocker and a pass protector, has the versatility to play on either side of the line, and at 28 years old (he turns 29 in July), he should be able to contribute for at least four or five more seasons. However, despite these factors, the Patriots should allow Vollmer, like Welker (see above) to sign elsewhere.
Vollmer has dealt with injuries including a serious 2011 back injury, and in order to reach a new deal with their right tackle, the Patriots will be forced to commit substantial guaranteed money to him. Vollmer is among the league’s top right tackles, but the Patriots have been successful at identifying talented offensive tackles in the draft (see Vollmer, Nate Solder, Matt Light.) Besides, New England’s future right tackle may already be on the team; former fifth-round pick Marcus Cannon has a unique combination of size and athleticism. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has consistently been able to get the most out of any linemen on the team; it’s worth seeing what he can do with Cannon.
If the Patriots do not believe that Cannon is the answer, this year’s crop of draftable tackles is deep enough to find a cheaper, younger starting option than Vollmer.
OG Donald Thomas
Without Brian Waters in town, New England’s offensive guard depth looked thin entering the season, but the Patriots found a pleasant surprise in the play of swing reserve Donald Thomas. The former Connecticut Huskies star filled in at both guard spots this season, playing a total of 616 snaps, blocking effectively in the run game while allowing just one sack in pass protection. New England should make re-signing Thomas an offseason priority, as he was arguably more productive than starter Dan Connolly this season. If the Patriots fail to secure Thomas before he hits the open market, he may receive a starter’s money elsewhere.
OL Jamey Richard
Jamey Richard was signed by New England in March, but ended up missing the entire season after being placed on injured reserve with a concussion. The 28 year-old previously functioned as a swing reserve in Indianapolis, playing primarily as an interior swing reserve but also kicking out to tackle or tight end in some packages. He hasn’t been very effective when pressed into action, so at best Richard is likely going to have to fight for a roster spot on a one-year, non-guaranteed contract, although his versatility is appealing.