NEPD Editor: Mike Loyko
The most exciting time of the NFL off-season is here. Free agency is a mere two days away from starting and the Patriots are well positioned, ready to attack the free agent market with 25.3 million in available cap space. By showing financial restraint after the lockout, the Patriots are primed to add to what is already a very competitive football team.
There still remains interest in resigning many of their own free agents and a robust buyers market means the Patriots expect to be active on Tuesday and beyond. Who will they target in free agency? Will they resign any of their own free agents? What holes can be filled via free agency?
All of these topics are discussed in this comprehensive 2013 Patriots free agency preview.
Potentially the biggest move of the off-season is Tom Brady restructuring his contract, giving the team an extra 15 million in cap space over two season. Cap space is the most valuable asset to an NFL team and Brady gave the Patriots tremendous additional flexibility. The Patriots rarely make moves at the QB position during the off-season, but this year bears watching. With such a poor free agent QB crop and an underwhelming QB draft, Ryan Mallett’s value across the league is increasing. I expect teams to inquire and make a strong run at acquiring Mallett to be their starting QB.
I’ve been told that Bill Belichick really doesn’t want to trade Mallett at this point, but could be blown away by an offer. The most logical fit is Cleveland, where new GM Michael Lombardi is a self-professed Ryan Mallett believer. Cleveland does not have a second round pick, which complicates matters. The Patriots will not trade Mallett straight up for a third round pick, Cleveland will have to get creative. With Brady signed long term, Mallett will be moved at some point, but Belichick needs to recoup more than the original third round pick spend on Mallett. If Mallett is traded a back-up QB will be needed and Matt Cassel makes a lot of sense. If Cassel is unable to find a starting opportunity, the stars could align to bring Cassel back to his former role of back-up to Tom Brady.
The Patriots are well-stocked at Running Back, boasting a young 1,300 yard rusher, an explosive 3rd down back in Shane Vereen who made great strides last year and a productive UDFA in Brandon Bolden. All three players are going to be back next year giving them depth at a key offensive position, even if nothing more is done. Jeff Demps is expected to be in the mix, even though he plans to compete in some track events over the summer. Demps adds a speedy gadget back that can impact the game on returns.
Danny Woodhead’s status remains up in the air. It looks like Woodhead will test the market, but there is mutual interest to bring the crowd favorite back. Woodhead’s value is greater in the Patriots spread the field, up-tempo attack than in most other areas. I predict the Patriots will let the market determine Woodhead’s value before making an offer to bring him back. As of right now I believe Woodhead will be back in Foxboro next season.
In terms of outside Free Agents, the Patriots may try to add a fullback/H-Back type. Josh McDaniels’ offense historically utilizes a fullback and last year they brought in Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta with no results. James Casey would be a great fit with his versatility, but this position is likely on the back burner a little bit.
The wide receiver position figures to see plenty of activity over the next week and throughout the off-season. Not only do they have their own big name free agents to sign, they need to add at least one more playmaker at the position, preferably an outside the numbers guy. Let’s start with the Patriots own free agents. I’m on record for more than a year now saying the Wes Welker will be back long term. I’m sticking to my guns and will be shocked if he leaves the green pastures of Foxboro to play elsewhere. When push comes to shove and a deal must get done, it will get done. I wouldn’t be shocked if a extension is reached sometime on Tuesday before free agency starts.
Julian Edelman is the other key free agent and is already drawing interest from around the league. I don’t have a good feel for what will happen with Edelman. However, I believe the worst thing he could do is accept more money in the short term to go play for a bad team with no QB. Edelman would do well if he signed in New England on a one year deal, proved he could stay healthy and productive as a receiver. He could then hit the market next year again. If Edelman goes to a team like Cleveland or Miami it will stunt his career trajectory in my opinion. To replace Edelman the Patriots wisely will look to sign someone to replace his return capabilities and Josh Cribbs makes sense because of his familiarity with Brian Daboll.
The Brandon Lloyd situation is a tricky one. His roster bonus is due within five days of the start of the new league year (March 12-17), meaning the Patriots have a five day window to pay him or cut him. Essentially the Patriots have a five day buffer to sign another receiver before paying Lloyd. If they are unable to land one of their target perhaps they bring Lloyd back. Right it looks like Lloyd is elsewhere next season.
With so much turmoil at the position the Patriots lucked out, because there is a deep free agent crop and an even deeper draft crop at wide receiver. Here are a couple scenarios, one of which may play out.
1) Wes Welker is resigned and a top of the market WR like Mike Wallace is signed to play with him. The Patriots have the money to pull this off and there was word late last night the Patriots have interest in Wallace. In this scenario Brandon Lloyd is toast.
2) Wes Welker is resigned and the Patriots fail to add a vertical receiver. In this scenario I see them making a run at Danny Amendola to add to Welker. The idea has been floated to me and isn’t as far fetched as it may seem.
3) Wes Welker leaves via free agency and the Patriots are forced to sign two quality FA. Amendola would likely be a priority and Brandon Lloyd would stay in the short term. Wide Receiver is made a huge priority in the draft.
4) Wes Welker is resigned and the Patriots wait out the WR market to get a veteran bargain. Other player will be released before Tuesday and in the coming months.
5) Wes Welker leaves and the Patriots opt to trade for a receiver like Percy Harvin. This scenario takes two, but if Welker leaves the urgency to get a reliable playmaker will increase dramatically.
No matter what the scenario, the Patriots will not only be active in free agency, but in the draft as well. It’s likely they draft a receiver with one of their first three picks.
Having two young studs in the fold the Patriots appear set. However, I do expect the Patriots to add one more tight end to the mix, most likely a “movable” one for injury insurance. The team has Daniel Fells signed for next year, although his 1 million dollar cap hit could become expendable. Michael Hoomanawanui is a RFA and I expect him to be tendered. Jake Ballard will be back next year coming off a devastating knee injury in the Super Bowl and remains a wild card. There is definitely depth on the roster, but if the Patriots truly intend to run a TE centered offense, like they planned last year, they need replacements ready to step in. With the injury history of Gronk and Hernandez a team can’t have enough depth. Last year they got NOTHING from Kellen Winslow or Visanthe Shiancoe. On the free agent market a few names to watch are Dallas Clark, David Thomas and Ben Watson. The Patriots had interest in Clark last year and he produced nicely down the stretch for Tampa. Thomas and Watson are two familiar names who have experience in the system.
One side of the offensive line is as stable as can be. Nate Solder is firmly entrenched as the long term left tackle. Logan Mankins is signed though 2016 and Ryan Wendell proved he can hold down the center position. The right side of the line offers more question marks, with Sebastian Vollmer being the biggest question of all. As it always does, it will come down to money with Vollmer. Would the Patriots love to have them back, sure they would. But, Vollmer will be 29 during the season and has missed significant time with injuries. There is at least a replacement on the roster right now, which can’t be said at other positions. While Vollmer has played at a high level, the Patriots have shown they can find right tackles if needed. Go back and look at who was starting at RT during the Super Bowl victories, Greg Robinson-Randall and Tom Ashworth ring a bell?
If Vollmer leaves the Patriots would plug Marcus Cannon in there for right now, try to draft a swing tackle in the first three rounds and sign a veteran right tackle. Let’s not forget the Patriots chose to activate OT Markus Zusevics last year and had him take up a roster spot, so he could practice with the team. (Cost them Greg Salas’ roster spot). There are some young players on the roster that can fill-in for the short term. Only the Patriots know the extent of Vollmer’s back and it will likely effect their willingness to pay him at the top of the RT market. Eric Winston could make a nice replacement, but I think they choose to invest their money elsewhere (WR, CB, DE) and go young at the position with the ability to use a pick there.
The right guard spot was the weakest link on the OL last year. They thought long and hard about making Donald Thomas the long term RG, but opted to go with Dan Connolly. Thomas is a very good OG and will get a starting job somewhere. I expect the Patriots to sign at least one OG to provide veteran depth with the ability to play major minutes if needed.