NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
At this point, there’s an argument to be made that New England should attempt to re-sign all three of their major free agents: wide receiver Wes Welker, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and cornerback Aqib Talib. The aforementioned players were all major contributors in New England’s successful 2012 season, and it’s possible that releasing any of the players could create holes on the roster which New England may find themselves unable to fill immediately, especially as they attempt to upgrade their roster in other areas with a limited number of draft picks. However, it may be even wiser for the Patriots to let some or all of those free agents depart this offseason.
Financial considerations form the backbone of New England’s inability to reach an agreement with Welker. The franchise tag is an option technically but not logistically, with an $11.4 million figure that would cripple New England’s salary cap flexibility and represent a costly addition to a stable of offensive weapons which already includes highly-paid targets such as Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Lloyd.
In addition to financial concerns, Welker is already in his thirties (he turns 32 in May) and could be nearing the downside of his career. The Patriots have historically operated under the assumption that it’s better to part ways with core players a year early rather than a year late (Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Willie McGinest, and Mike Vrabel come to mind), so it may not be wise to grant Welker a long-term contract when wide receivers traditionally see a drop in their production around age 32 or 33.
The last argument against Welker is the overall depth of the wide receiver options available this offseason. Signing a free agent such as St. Louis Rams receiver Danny Amendola could represent a stronger investment, as Amendola is only 27 years old and has been similarly reliable out of the slot in St. Louis; additionally, he is capable of running many of the same routes as Welker does. It would also not come as a surprise if Amendola eventually signs for less money than Welker. The wide receiver class in this year’s draft is deep as well, with ten to fifteen receivers projected to be picked within the first three rounds.
New England is rumored to be preparing to offer Sebastian Vollmer a deal with an average annual value of six or seven million dollars per season, but such a signing could also prove ill-advised in retrospect. Vollmer is among the league’s top right tackles, but will likely demand a long-term extension which may limit the Patriots’ ability to extend other significant players in the coming years such as Nate Solder, Brandon Spikes, and Devin McCourty. Additionally, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has always done a fantastic job with the offensive line, and in comparison to wide receiver and defensive back, New England’s draft evaluations have been more accurate along the line.
Aqib Talib’s past character concerns, his inability to stay on the field for New England last season, and rumors regarding his questionable work ethic (the last of which are admittedly impossible to confirm) should also see him in another uniform next season. Simply put, the risk factor may be too high for a player with so many questions, and at 27 years old with impressive physical tools, Talib is a prime candidate to get overpaid in free agency. Although the Patriots are currently thin at cornerback (even more so following Alfonzo Dennard’s conviction for felony assault), Talib’s play was somewhat erratic in 2012, and he could potentially be replaced for cheaper in the draft or through free agency.
Another important factor to consider which has not been explored in great depth thus far this offseason is the possibility of acquiring valuable compensatory picks in next year’s draft class by allowing these players to sign elsewhere. This provides an additional incentive for the Patriots, especially considering their lack of draft choices in 2013. Players such as Eric Wright and Ben Grubbs signed elsewhere last offseason, giving Detroit and Baltimore each fourth-round compensatory picks in this year’s class. Those players earned contracts which averaged between $5 and $5.5 million per season, numbers which players such as Welker, Vollmer, and Talib would be expected to exceed.
With just five picks in 2013, New England is expected to have a relatively shallow rookie class, so adding three additional picks in next year’s draft would help replace this year’s missing sleections. A fourth-round choice for Talib would effectively replace the fourth-round pick New England sacrificed in order to acquire him from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season.