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New England Patriots Free Agency: Tracking 2012 Signings, Targets and Rumors

Mike StangerCorrespondent IFebruary 29, 2012

New England Patriots Free Agency: Tracking 2012 Signings, Targets and Rumors

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    Losing a Super Bowl in gut-wrenching fashion is becoming an unwelcome trend for the New England Patriots and their fans. However, the silver lining in such a disappointing defeat is that the Pats are in an enviable position going into next season.

    Indeed, compared to many teams around the NFL, some of whom are perennial also-rans (e.g. Arizona Cardinals), the Pats are in amazingly great shape all around.

    This offseason tracker will break down just how good their lot is.

    We will first analyze the team's salary cap situation and glaring roster holes. The news improves as we look at the team's free agents and their projected annual dollar value.  We'll then ask the burning question for each free agent: will he stay or will he go?

    Once we determine each free agent's status, we'll look outward at the upcoming free-agent class, determine who fits a need and see what contracts can be offered with the excess cap money available.

    Lastly, we'll look at the draft class and see what remaining holes, if any, need to be addressed through the draft.

Tracking Free-Agent Signings, Re-Signings and Roster Moves

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    March 13, 2012: The Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport reports that the Patriots have extended an exclusive rights tender worth $540,000 to defensive lineman Kyle Love worth.

    Hopefully, Love and the Pats can come to an agreement on a long-term deal. Love is the kind of guy that fits the Patriots' mold. He came in as an undrafted free agent and worked his way into the staring lineup.

    Rapoport is also reporting that the Pats have re-signed Niko Kotouvides to a one-year, $850,000 contract.

    The career special teamer gets another year of life.

     

    March 13, 2012: The NFL Network's Michael Lombardi is reporting that the Pats plan on re-signing Matthew Slater.

    Unfortunately for Patriots fans, this may be the Pats' biggest free agent acquisition for the receiving corps.

    I would like to see Slater play more on the offensive side of the ball. If he can develop any type of game, he could that player to stretch the field. And he's an inexpensive alternative.

     

    March 13, 2012: SIRIUS Radio Host Adam Caplan first reported and the Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport confirmed that Pats restricted free agent quarterback Brian Hoyer received a second-round tender which is worth $1.927 million. If another team gives Hoyer an offer, the Pats have an opportunity to match it or receive a second-round pick.

    Rapoport seems surprised by this, but I'm not. With a first-round tender, the Pats would pay more for him to sit on the bench. No one would give up a first-round pick for him. Now, someone might try to sign him and then the Pats get a pick in the second round.

     

    March 13, 2012: The Associated Press reports via ESPN that Randy Moss has agreed to a one-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers. All Moss-to-Patriots talk is now moot.

     

    March 12, 2012: NESN's Jeff Howe reports that Gary Guyton and the Pats are parting ways. As such, Guyton will become an unrestricted free agent.

     

    March 5, 2012: Wes Welker tweets his desire to remain a Patriot for the long term.

     

    March 5, 2012: The Patriots confirmed via their website that Wes Welker received their franchise tag.

     

    March 5, 2012: Adam Schefter of ESPN is reporting that the Patriots will use their franchise tag on Wes Welker.

     

    February 29, 2012: It has been reported by Liz Mullen of the Sports Business Journal that the Patriots have approached Chad Ochocinco about restructuring his contract.

     

    February 22, 2012: The New England Patriots released OL Rich Ohrnberger and DL Mike Wright for failing their physicals.

    Ohrnberger was originally drafted by the Pats in the fourth round of the '09 draft. He spent most of last season on the injured reserve.

    Wright joined the Pats in '05 as an undrafted free agent. He played one game last year and spent most of the season on the injured reserve.

     

    February 7, 2012: The New England Patriots signed LB Markell Carter, WR Britt Davis, OL Matt Kopa, DE Aaron Lavarias, LB Mike Riveria, WR Tiquan Underwood and DB Ross Ventrone to future contracts. All of them are warm bodies for the active roster or practice squad.

    Markell Carter was drafted by the Pats in the sixth round of the '11 draft. He spent last year on the practice squad.

    Britt Davis was originally drafted by the Denver Broncos from Northern Illinois. He was signed to the Pats' practice squad last season.

    Matt Kopa was signed to the practice squad after being cut by the Dolphins. He played his college ball at Stanford.

    Aaron Lavarias is an undrafted free agent out of Kansas who spent last year on the practice squad.

    Mike Riveria played college football at Kansas. He was also cut by the Dolphins and signed to the Pats' practice squad. (Why are the Pats picking up the Dolphins discards?)

    Tiquan Underwood was originally drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He had three catches last year for the Pats, but is best known for his haircut and being released right before the Super Bowl.

    Ross Ventrone played college ball at Villanova. Last season, he saw action in eight games and had eight tackles. But most of his action was on the transaction wire where he was released and re-signed by the Pats a combined 22 times last year.

Salary Cap Status

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    Pats' 2012 Cap Room

    March 11, 2012: Jason La Canfora reports on NFL.com that the salary cap for 2012 has been set at $120.6 million. This is an increase of only $225,000 from last year

    Update: According to Spotrac, the popular sports contract-tracking website, the Patriots currently have $98,083,139 worth of contracts, including buyouts, that will count against the 2012 NFL salary cap. Wes Welker's franchise tag amount of $9.4 million is included in this updated value.

    With the cap being set at $120.6 million for next year, this leaves the Pats with slightly more than $22 million under the cap.

     

    Problematic Cap Hits

    Of all of the players under contract for 2012, only Chad Ochocinco's contract is difficult to swallow. The contract itself isn't actually that bad from a pure numbers perspective ($3 million), especially for a veteran like him. The problem comes from value. In essence, Ochocinco got away with grand larceny last year. 

    Update: (3/1/2012) Chad Ochocinco's tweet makes it appear that he is open to the Pats' desire to restructure his contract.


    Value Contracts

    The rest of the roster can be put in this category. This is not hyperbole. Like I said, the Pats' front office has done a great job with managing the contracts.

    Even Tom Brady's contract belongs in this category. If it seems odd listing Brady as a value contract at $15 million against the cap in 2012, compare it to the fact that Mark Sanchez is due $14.25 million from the Jets and Carson Palmer will be owed $12.5 million from the Raiders. Brady looks like a steal at that rate.

    Vince Wilfork's contract also looks good at $8 million toward the cap. Of course, Rob Gronkowski ($960,000) and Aaron Hernandez ($752,120) have contracts that are almost illegal because they're so cheap. Combined, they make less than Ochocinco.

     

    The Wes Welker Question

    March 5, 2012: The Patriots confirmed via their website that Wes Welker received their franchise tag. Welker will receive approximately $9.4 million next season if a long-term contract with the team is not reached.

    Look for the Pats to come to a long-term agreement with Welker which will cause a bigger hit to the cap now due to the signing bonus, but becomes very team-friendly later in the contract with a chunk of the money as base salary.

Last Year's Hole

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    Although the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl, it is no secret that the defense was the cause of much consternation last season. Thanks to a late-season implosion by the Green Bay Packers defense, the Pats defense ranked 31st, not 32nd, in yards allowed per game. The defense was ranked a respectable 15th in points allowed per game, which is a better metric, anyway. 

    That being said, the defense still needs to fill some holes before next year. The offense is not without fault, either. Despite a lofty 32 points per game, the unit showed some cracks last year.

     

    Offense

    Interior Offensive Line

    Veteran center Dan Koppen fractured his ankle early in the season, forcing the Pats to make some adjustments. In the end, Dan Connolly stepped in admirably at center. However, both Koppen and Connolly are unrestricted free agents this year.

    What happens next depends a lot on Koppen's health and his potential suitors, as well as whether or not the Patriots draft Peter Konz from Wisconsin as predicted in one mock draft by Bleacher Report's Matt Miller.

    Of course, guards Logan Mankins and Brian Waters were Pro Bowlers, but Waters is long in the tooth at age 35. Furthermore, he may retire this year.

    In an ideal world, the Pats re-sign both Koppen and Donnolly, and then draft Konz. Donnolly moves back to guard and Konz apprentices under Koppen, and then the Pats win three straight Super Bowls.

    Alas, this is not a perfect world.

     

    Wide Receiver

    Speaking of a perfect world, in a perfect world the Pats would figure out how to draft a deep-threat wide receiver—but they haven't.

    It is quite amazing that the Pats have been able to put up the offensive numbers without having a deep threat at wide receiver. In fact, their deep threat was tight end Rob Gronkowski with a 14.7 yards-per-catch average. (Yes, I'm refusing to count Ochocinco's 18.4 YPC average.)

    Deion Branch provided a veteran presence, but is clearly on the back nine of his career. Matthew Slater saw more time on defense than on offense, which is an indictment on both the defense and Slater.

    March 13, 2012: The NFL Network's Michael Lombardi is reporting that the Pats plan on re-signing Matthew Slater.

    March 5, 2012: The Patriots confirmed via their website that Wes Welker received their franchise tag.

    Whether Welker is re-signed to a long term contract or just keeps the franchise tag for a year, the unit will still have the same issue—no deep threat. If Mike Wallace happens to come to New England (a scenario that is unlikely), this offense will become wicked scary.

     

    Running back

    If BenJarvus Green-Ellis leaves via free agency, this unit will basically be left with Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley and 50-year veteran Kevin Faulk. Although I like all three of them individually, the reduced law firm of Woodhead, Ridley and Faulk will only be capable of handling small claims court.

    At 35 and a free agent, Faulk is near the end with the Pats. He's in that "Troy Brown" zone, where the Pats will sign him to a one-year, veteran-minimum contract. Or, he may just retire.

    Look for the Pats to address this area, but not in a crazy "Let's get Arian Foster!" way.

     

    Defense

    This defense had its critics last year, including me. I can't speak for the rest of them, but the unit started to grow on me. Perhaps it was Stockholm Syndrome or something in the drinking water, but I warmed up to the unit near the end of the season. They overcame injuries and didn't collapse in the playoffs.

    That being said, the defense still needs to address some issues.

     

    Defensive Line

    I'm reluctant to even mention this unit because it's not that bad. The defensive line was actually a pleasant surprise in many areas. Veteran Andre Carter was what Albert Haynesworth was supposed to be. Carter finished the season with 10 sacks.

    Mark Anderson came out of nowhere to add 10 sacks, too, despite playing less than half of the defensive snaps. He may have played himself to a big payday, more than likely outside of New England. Kyle Love made Herculean steps from being an undrafted player to a starter. Even Brandon Deaderick played above expectations.

    As usual, Vince Wilfork was his old, clog-the-middle self, garnering another Pro Bowl invite. Veteran Gerard Warren filled in when needed and may be back for one more year.

    The dark side to the unit was, of course, Albert Haynesworth and, to a lesser degree, Shaun Ellis. Haynesworth proved that he had no heart and was cut during the season. Ellis played Casper the Friendly Ghost last year, disappearing for all but one game against the Dolphins, when he registered one sack. He'll likely not be back next year.

    However, because Carter, Anderson and Warren are unrestricted free agents and, in the case of Carter, coming off a major injury, this unit could become dangerously thin next season.

    March 13, 2012: The Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport reports that the Patriots have extended an exclusive rights tender worth $540,000 to defensive lineman Kyle Love worth.

     

    Linebacker (Pass-Rusher)

    This unit displayed some life at times but, as a whole, suffered from inconsistency. Jerod Mayo was solid, if not spectacular, and Rob Ninkovich came alive near the end of the season, especially against Denver in the playoffs. Gary Guyton and Dane Fletcher showed flashes.

    Everyone is hyped up on getting a dominant pass-rusher, but the Pats haven't really had that type of guy, even in their heyday. Sure, Willie McGinest filled that role as did Mike Vrabel, but they weren't pure pass-rushing guys. And when the Pats went for the guys in the form of Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas, they got mixed result.

    Therefore, if the team can add some more value to this unit without going crazy for some overpriced free agent or unreliable "tweener" in the draft, they should be solid next year.

    March 13, 2012: The Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport is reporting that the Pats have re-signed Niko Kotouvides to a one-year, $850,000 contract.

    March 12, 2012: NESN's Jeff Howe reports that Gary Guyton and the Pats are parting ways. As such, Guyton will become an unrestricted free agent.

     

    Cornerback

    Yes, this unit was ugly last year, but much of it was due to injury and inconsistency. Devin McCourty regressed last year and was put at safety at times. Kyle Arrington did fairly well, leading the team with seven interceptions. If the two of them develop some consistency, the corner position may be set. Add in a healthy Ras-I Dowling, and the Pats have a group of three young corners.

    However, the fact that the team had Sterling Moore playing a considerable amount of time last year is not encouraging. The Pats don't need to go crazy in free agency here. Their defensive scheme doesn't require some overpriced shutdown corner like Darrelle Revis. Perhaps one solid veteran and a good draft pick for some depth and the unit potentially becomes a strength.

     

    Safety

    The mere fact that the Pats went to a Super Bowl with an injury-plagued unit that consisted of Sergio Brown, James Ihedigbo, Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman running around in the defensive backfield, is a bloody miracle. This isn't a slight on those players. They played well above their talent level for the position. It's a complement to Bill Belichick and the coaching staff for putting together a serviceable unit from that rag-tag bunch.

    The Pats need to find someone to play next to Patrick Chung, either through free agency or the draft. They can't keep putting a quarterback-turned-wide-receiver-turned-defensive back out there and expect continual success.

    Or can they?

Listing the Patriots' 2012 Free Agents

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    ProFootballFocus lists the following players as unrestricted free agents, which means that if the Patriots don't sign them before free agency opens (March 13th), they hit the open market and any team can offer them a contract:

    WR Wes Welker

    March 5, 2012: The Patriots confirmed via their website that Wes Welker received their franchise tag.

    CB Antwaun Molden

    G Dan Connolly

    DE Andre Carter

    C Dan Koppen

    WR Matthew Slater

    March 13, 2012: The NFL Network's Michael Lombardi is reporting that the Pats plan on re-signing Matthew Slater.

    DE Shaun Ellis

    G Donald Thomas

    RB Kevin Faulk

    WR Deion Branch

    LB Tracey White

    RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis

    DT Gerard Warren

    DE Mark Anderson

    S James Ihedigbo

    OLB Tracy White

    MLB Niko Koutouvides

    March 13, 2012: The Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport is reporting that the Pats have re-signed Niko Kotouvides to a one-year, $850,000 contract.

     

    The following players are restricted free agents, meaning New England can offer them one-year tenders that other teams must compensate the Patriots with draft picks if signed:

    QB Brian Hoyer

    March 13, 2012: SIRIUS Radio Host Adam Caplan first reported and the Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport confirmed that Pats restricted free agent quarterback Brian Hoyer received a second-round tender which is worth $1.927 million. If another team gives Hoyer an offer, the Pats have an opportunity to match it or receive a second-round pick.

    OLB Gary Guyton

    March 12, 2012: NESN's Jeff Howe reports that Gary Guyton and the Pats are parting ways. As such, Guyton will become an unrestricted free agent.

    S Bret Lockett

    DT Kyle Love (exclusive rights free agent)

    March 13, 2012: The Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport reports that the Patriots have extended an exclusive rights tender worth $540,000 to defensive lineman Kyle Love worth.

    Note: A $2.742 million tender equates to right of first refusal and first-round compensation, a $1.927 million tender qualifies for right of first refusal and second-round consideration and the lowest base tender of $1.26 million qualifies for right of first refusal and matching the RFA's original draft pick (i.e. if the player was selected in the third round, the interested team must give up a third-round pick in exchange).

    Any team matching or holding on to the qualifying offer, must pay the same amount as the player's tender in base salary for that season.

Determining Contract Value and Worth for Every Pats Free Agent

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    The Patriots will have some decisions to make with their free agents. Some will be costly, while others will be dirt cheap.

    Update: However, with around $22 million to spend, the Pats still aren't in the same salary-crunch situation as the Pittsburgh Steelers were in. The Pats don't have to make a million phone calls to agents asking them to restructure their clients' contracts.

    What follows are estimated values that the team would need to cough up to keep the players in Patriots blue (values calculated at annual amounts):

     

    Wes Welker: $12 million (estimated)

    March 5, 2012: The Patriots confirmed via their website that Wes Welker received their franchise tag. Welker will receive approximately $9.4 million next season if a long-term contract is not reached. A long-term contract will be worth about $12 million per year.

    Antwaun Molden: $700,000 (estimated)

    Molden was a serviceable defensive back last year, grabbing two interceptions and starting in two games. His contract took up $742,500 in cap space last year.

    Dan Connolly: $1 million (estimated)

    Connolly filled in at center when Dan Koppen went down with an injury and did a good job. Bringing him back would add depth and versatility to the line.

    Andre Carter: $2 million (estimated)

    It's an absolute shame that Carter suffered a torn quadriceps tendon late in the season. He had a Pro Bowl year. Although Carter had a great year, I put him at $2 million for next year because of his age and injury. He made $2,250,000 last year

    Dan Koppen: $3.5 million (estimated)

    Despite going down early with a fractured ankle, Koppen may still pull a decent free-agent contract. If it's not with the Pats, then maybe with a team desperate for a center.

    Matthew Slater: $400,000 (estimated)

    If being a two-way player were en vogue, Slater might have luck making the big bucks. As it is, Slater played defense better than offense, and that's not a compliment. He only caught one pass, but it was for 46 yards! That means Slater made $550,000 per attempt, which is unbelievably more costly per catch than Ochocinco.

    March 13, 2012: The NFL Network's Michael Lombardi is reporting that the Pats plan on re-signing Matthew Slater.

    Shaun Ellis: $2 million (estimated); 50 cents (actual worth)

    The Patriots should sue Ellis for breach of contract. The guy had one sack and seven tackles last year. Seven! And what did those seven tackles cost the Pats? Exactly $5 million against the cap. 

    Donald Thomas: $500,000 (estimated)

    Thomas was brought in to provide depth, and that's what he did. He started one game and saw action in 10 total last year. 

    Kevin Faulk $1 million (estimated)

    Faulk has entered the Troy Brown zone, which means that the team will keep offering one-year contracts at veteran's minimum until either they or Faulk decide that they're no longer interested. At age 35, that decision will be coming soon. Hopefully, Faulk's the one making it. He's had a great career in New England and will definitely be in the Patriots Hall of Fame. 

    Deion Branch: $2 million (estimated)

    Since coming back to New England in 2010, Branch has provided the veteran leadership the receiving corps was lacking with Randy Moss around. He chipped in 51 catches last year. At age 32, he has drifted into that possession receiver status, which means he won't be getting a huge contract anywhere.

    This past contract was a remnant of his Seahawks contract and he won't even sniff anything close to that, which gave him a base salary of $5,470,000 in 2010.

    Tracy White: $800,000 (estimated)

    White is a special teamer who made 18 tackles last year. He is basically a warm body, but a hard-working one.

    BenJarvus Green-Ellis: $2 million (estimated)

    It's hard to believe that the "Law Firm" is an unrestricted free agent. I won't lie, I like the guy. He is consistent and rarely fumbles. Last year he ran for 667 yards and 11 touchdowns. Without him, the backfield will consist of Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley and Faulk, a much less inspiring law firm. 

    Gerard Warren: $1 million (estimated)

    Warren may be near the end of the line at 33 years old, but should come back for one more year.

    Mark Anderson: $3 million (estimated)

    In bizarre fashion, Anderson may have struck gold with his play last year. He registered 10 sacks last year despite starting in one game and only being on the field for less than 50 percent of the defensive snaps. Some team may find this worth overpaying him for, but it won't be the Pats.

    James Ihedigbo: $500,000 (estimated)

    Ihedigbo played well last year, starting in 12 games and registering 50 tackles. He's best as a reserve and special teams player.

    Niko Koutouvides: $850,000

    March 13, 2012: The Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport is reporting that the Pats have re-signed Niko Kotouvides to a one-year, $850,000 contract.

    Brian Hoyer: $1.927 million (tender)

    March 13, 2012: SIRIUS Radio Host Adam Caplan first reported and the Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport confirmed that Pats restricted free agent quarterback Brian Hoyer received a second-round tender which is worth $1.927 million. If another team gives Hoyer an offer, the Pats have an opportunity to match it or receive a second-round pick.

    Gary Guyton:   

    March 12, 2012: NESN's Jeff Howe reports that Gary Guyton and the Pats are parting ways. As such, Guyton will become an unrestricted free agent.

    Bret Lockett: $927,000 (base tender, estimated)

    Lockett spent last season on the injured reserved after tearing both his abdominal and groin muscles. He made the news for more for his offseason antics than his on-the-field performance, by claiming to have had a "sexting" relationship with Kim Kardashian. I don't make this stuff up; I just report it.

    Kyle Love: $540,000 (exclusive rights tender)

    March 13, 2012: The Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport reports that the Patriots have extended an exclusive rights tender worth $540,000 to defensive lineman Kyle Love worth.

Projecting Which Patriots Free Agents Will Re-Sign, Which Will Be Shown the Door

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    The Patriots won't be able to sign all of their free agents, nor should they. Some in the list are worthy of bringing back, such as Wes Welker; others are certainly not, like Shaun Ellis.

    Furthermore, Belichick and Nick Caserio are shrewd, yet effective, personnel guys. Looking at the list, there are a few no-brainers, but many who could go either way. The Pats will probably go with the "devil you know" philosophy because they can retain many of these guys for cheap money.

    Without further ado, here's a potentially futile attempt at getting inside the mind of Belichick:

     

    Wes Welker: Re-signed

    March 5, 2012: The Patriots confirmed via their website that Wes Welker received their franchise tag. Welker will receive approximately $9.4 million next season if a long-term contract is not reached.

    Update: Now that Welker has received the franchise tag, does this mean a long-term deal is imminent? Receiving the tag does not guarantee a long-term contract is on the horizon for Welker, just ask Asante Samuel.  

    Unlike Samuel, the Pats will come to terms with Welker. However, if Welker thinks that he's getting a $20-million-per-year Larry Fitzgerald contract, he's hallucinating. The contract will look nice and fat, but will be backloaded in base salary. This way, Welker looks like in he won in the press but, in reality, the Pats won't be stuck paying $15 million for a 33-year-old possession receiver in a few years.

    Estimated Contract: Four years, $48 million

     

    Andre Carter: Re-signed

    Realistically, Carter won't get 10 sacks again next season. If he is healthy, however, he will be a steady player. Signing him to a one-year contract has little risk.

    Estimated Contract: One year, $2 million


    Dan Connolly: Re-signed

    Connolly provides an insurance policy at center in case Dan Koppen doesn't return, and depth at guard in case Koppen does. The Pats can sign him to cheap, short money. 

    Estimated Contract: Three years, $5 million


    Deion Branch: Re-signed

    Last year, Branch caught 51 passes. Unless the wide receiver corps adds some serious upgrades, there is no reason Branch won't be back. They will need him to at least provide depth. And at 32, he can be re-signed at a value rate.

    Estimated contract: Two years, $4 million


    BenJarvus Green-Ellis: Re-signed

    Not that long ago, the Pats had a running back named Lawrence Maroney, who was a first-round pick who danced around in the backfield and fumbled a lot. Then came Green-Ellis, who was an undrafted free agent who hit the hole and rarely fumbled.

    Last year, Green-Ellis rushed for 667 yards and 11 touchdowns. He may not be flashy, but he is solid. Unless some team loses its mind and offers Green-Ellis mad money, he should be back next year. 

    Estimated contract: Three years, $5 million


    Gerard Warren: Re-signed

    Warren's future depends a lot on what happens with Carter and Anderson. Since there is a good chance that one of them will be gone next season, look for Warren to sign a one-year deal.

    Estimated contract: One year, $1.5 million


    Dan Koppen: Re-signed

    Koppen's return to New England is far from guaranteed, and there are some teams in need of a veteran center. Furthermore, Dan Connolly filled in adequately for Koppen last year and the Pats may draft Peter Konz.

    That being said, Koppen should still have a few more years in him, which would allow the Pats to groom Konz. Plus, Donnolly will return to guard, bolstering the thin interior line.

    The Pats will probably offer him a backloaded contract that, if respectable, would allow Koppen the opportunity to finish out his career in New England. 

    Estimated contract: Three years, $10 million


    Kevin Faulk: Re-signed

    At 35, Faulk is obviously at the end of the line. Plus, he just recovered from an ACL injury. The Pats will offer him the "thanks for being a loyal guy" contract, and Faulk should sign it if he decides on playing next year.

    Estimated contract: One year, $1 million


    James Ihedigbo: Re-signed

    Ihedigbo did a nice job at safety last year, starting in 12 games and registering 50 tackles and an interception. He's also a solid special teams guy

    Right now, the Pats don't have very many options at safety. Therefore, unless they plan on using Slater back there again, Ihedigbo should be back next season

    Estimated contract: Two years, $2 million


    Matthew Slater: Re-signed

    Speaking of Slater, he'll probably be back next year. Despite his anemic offensive numbers, his versatility on special teams (and safety) make him a value re-sign.

    March 13, 2012: The NFL Network's Michael Lombardi is reporting that the Pats plan on re-signing Matthew Slater.


    Antwaun Molden: Re-signed

    Molden was nice pick up after being rejected by the Houston Texans. He started in two games last year. He finished the season with 40 tackles and two interceptions.

    The Patriots don't have a lot at depth at cornerback, so retaining Molden isn't a bad idea. Plus, he's not hard on the cap.

    Estimated contract: One year, $750,000


    Brian Hoyer: $1.927 million (tender)

    March 13, 2012: SIRIUS Radio Host Adam Caplan first reported and the Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport confirmed that Pats restricted free agent quarterback Brian Hoyer received a second-round tender which is worth $1.927 million. If another team gives Hoyer an offer, the Pats have an opportunity to match it or receive a second-round pick.


    Donald Thomas: Re-signed

    Thomas started one game last season and played primarily on specials teams. Since the interior of the offensive line isn't very deep, bringing back Thomas is an economically sound idea.

    Estimated contract: Two years, $1 million

     

    Kyle Love: $540,000 (tender)

    March 13, 2012: The Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport reports that the Patriots have extended an exclusive rights tender worth $540,000 to defensive lineman Kyle Love worth.

     

    Niko Koutouvides: One year, $850,000

    March 13, 2012: The Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport is reporting that the Pats have re-signed Niko Kotouvides to a one-year, $850,000 contract.

     

    Gary Guyton: Not re-signed

    March 12, 2012: NESN's Jeff Howe reports that Gary Guyton and the Pats are parting ways. As such, Guyton will become an unrestricted free agent.


    Mark Anderson: Not re-signed

    In a rational world, Anderson would come back to the Patriots. Unfortunately, the NFL is filled with irrational owners and general managers. Some team is going to see "10 sacks" in neon lights and sign Anderson to a ridiculous contract worth around $4 million per year. The Pats, wisely, will not counter.

     

    Shaun Ellis: Not re-signed

    Unless Ellis wants to play for free next year, he shouldn't be brought back. His meager production (one sack, seven tackles) isn't worthy of another contract.

     

    Tracy White: Not re-signed

    White is a solid special teamer and started one game last year. But, he is 30 years old and is becoming cost prohibitive. His role can be filled by a much cheaper, younger player.

     

    Bret Lockett: Not re-signed

    Lockett's off-the-field melodrama isn't the kind of press the Pats need. He'll have plenty of time to work on his music career.

Available Cap Space After Re-Signings

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    March 11, 2012: Jason La Canfora reports on NFL.com that the salary cap for 2012 has been set at $120.6 million. This is an increase of only $225,000 from last year

    Update: With the $120.6 million 2012 cap value, the Patriots will be left with approximately $22 million in cap space to maneuver. After re-signing their own with "creative" accounting and re-structuring Ochocinco's contract, they will be around $10 million under the cap.

    The remaining value is predicated on the fact that most of the Pats' re-signings will be backloaded with a majority of the value of the contract pushed toward the end of the life of that contract. This is typical of how the Pats do things and is a part of the "Patriot Way." The Pats aren't the Redskins.

    And because they're not the Redskins, don't look for the Patriots to go insane signing a high-priced free agent that will force them to re-structure a ton of contracts to create more space under the cap. They did the free-agent route a few years ago, and the result was the '09 season.

    The team's main objective should be to use whatever extra money they have to lock in guys like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez by giving them cheaper extensions now, rather than giving up the farm or losing them in the future.

Biggest Needs After Re-Signings

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    The good news is that the Pats will probably be able to re-sign most of their players. Continuity is important to success.

    The bad news is that they will still be left with many of the glaring holes. After all, it will still be pretty much the same team.

     

    Offense

    Interior offensive line

    If the Pats re-sign Koppen and Connolly, then they'll be in decent shape for the interim on the interior line even if Waters retires. However, depth and age will still remain an issue. Injuries happen, especially to aging players. Plus, the future comes quickly, leaving the team stuck with a geriatric line.

    If they can add strong interior linemen to their quality group of tackles, the O-line will be set for years to come.

     

    Wide receiver

    It some ways, it seems silly for all of us in Patriot Nation to keep harping on a deep threat. Many teams have that deep threat, yet do not possess an offense nearly as proficient as the Pats.

    That being said, the addition of a burner could make this offense the greatest one ever, even better than the '07 edition. The '07 Pats had a burner in Moss and, of course, Welker, but they didn't have anything like the Gronkowski/Hernandez two-headed hydra.

    March 13, 2012: The NFL Network's Michael Lombardi is reporting that the Pats plan on re-signing Matthew Slater.

     

    Running back

    If BenJarvus Green-Ellis is brought back, this doesn't become as big of an issue. Sure, they could use another back, but their offensive scheme under Josh McDaniels won't require anything special, just versatility in the stable. Remember, this is a pass-happy league now.

    Now, if Green-Ellis doesn't come back, then things get a little hairy in the backfield. Woodhead, Ridley and, if he returns, Faulk won't be able to get the job done. That's when they turn to either a value free-agent sign or use a middle-round draft pick on a running back.

     

    Defense

    Defense Line

    Assuming Mark Anderson doesn't come back, as I predict, this unit will be hurting a bit. They could possibly address the area in both the draft and free agency. The more likely scenario is that they find some serviceable free agent to hold the line while a draft pick or two develops.

    March 13, 2012: The Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport reports that the Patriots have extended an exclusive rights tender worth $540,000 to defensive lineman Kyle Love worth.

     

    Linebacker

    With the re-signings, the team will still be left without a pure pass-rusher. Jerod Mayo is not that guy and that's not necessarily a bad thing. He is what he is.

    But, if the team loses Anderson and Carter, they'll need to bring the pressure from somewhere, and that's when a pass-rusher is needed.

    Don't anticipate them spending the money in free agency to fill this hole; it will come from a draft pick they can develop.

    March 13, 2012: The Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport is reporting that the Pats have re-signed Niko Kotouvides to a one-year, $850,000 contract.

     

    Cornerback

    Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling are all young and talented. This group could easily become a strength quickly, as long as it develops some consistency. It would be good for the team to bring in a veteran who can accept a backup role and provide leadership to this one group.

     

    Safety

    One guy. That's all this unit needs. Finding a partner to play alongside Patrick Chung is key. They have some depth with guys like James Ihedigbo, and the Pats made it to Super Bowl with Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater back there, so anything is possible.

    Can the Pats find that guy?

Identifying Potential Free Agents the Patriots Could Sign

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    March 11, 2012: Jason La Canfora reports on NFL.com that the salary cap for 2012 has been set at $120.6 million. This is an increase of only $225,000 from last year

    Update: Now that the cap value has been set, the Pats will have around $10 million left over after signing their own to go after free agents. As such, any free agent signings won't be very sexy.

    In other words, Belichick and Caserio will have to pursue VALUE. Repeat after me: V-A-L-U-E. So, don't be disappointed if you don't see a press conference at Patriot Place announcing the signing of Mario Williams.

    Here are some possible free agents the Pats may go after:

    Update: Bleacher Report's Gary Davenport details which players have received the franchise tag so far.

     

    Offense

    Interior offensive line

    If Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly are re-signed, the Pats are set in the short term at center. Drafting Peter Konz positions them for the future. Therefore, the area to address is guard.

    As I said earlier, Brian Waters is likely to retire—if not, he only has another year in him. Logan Mankins is locked up but getting older, and Connolly, if re-signed, is serviceable, but not spectacular.

    This means that the Patriots will be looking for value here. There's that word. If you're thinking about New Orleans' Carl Nicks, wipe him out of your mind. He's too costly and will probably re-sign with the Saints. The Baltimore Ravens' Ben Grubbs is also not likely.

    Update: (3/5/2012) New Orleans Saints' Carl Nicks did not receive the franchise tag.

    Montrae Holland of the Dallas Cowboys could be a value signing here. He started 10 games for the Cowboys last year and has started 60 games over his career. At 31 years old and $500,000 per year, he is a poor man's Waters.

    Another interesting signing would be Jamey Richard of the Indianapolis Colts. No, it's not exciting, but it is value.

    Richard was named to Pro Football Weekly's All-Rookie team in '08 and then disappeared. At 26, he's young enough to be coached up to the next level and could provide depth.

     

    Wide Receiver

    March 13, 2012: ESPN is reporting the Marques Colston and the New Orleans Saints have agreed on a five-year contract worth around $40 million.

    March 13, 2012: The Associated Press reports via ESPN that Randy Moss has agreed to a one-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers. All Moss-to-Patriots talk is now moot.

    Update: (3/8/2012) In an interview with Tom E. Curran of Comcast SportsNet New England, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd expressed that he is "very interested" in joining the Patriots and reuniting with Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Would Lloyd be a good fit?

    Wouldn't it be funny if the Pats signed Mario Manningham away from the New York Giants? It probably won't happen, but it would be ironic.

    If the Pats don't get Mike Wallace, which is highly possible, they'll fill the need in the draft, although that doesn't provide any confidence. To say that they haven't done well with wide receivers in the draft is an understatement. Hopefully, they'll have better luck this year.

     

     

    Running back

    If BenJarvus Green-Ellis comes back, all is OK here. But if not, the Pats may need to find a bargain to fill the need to go along with a draft pick.

    An intriguing scenario would be if the Cincinnati Bengals don't re-sign Cedric Benson. Picking up Benson would satiate Belichick's fetish for picking up other teams' ne'er-do-wells. He's a decent, yet troubled, back. He could turn into a lesser version of Corey Dillon or a carbon-copy of Albert Haynesworth. His cheap price tag makes the risk worth it.

    Another interesting guy is Wallace's fellow Steelers teammate, Mewelde Moore. Moore had an injury-plagued season last year, so that could lower his price tag even more. He fits the Kevin Faulk mode and is younger (29).

    Update: (3/5/2012) ESPN reports via the Associated Press that Arian Foster agrees to a five-year contract with the Houston Texans.

    Update: (3/4/2012) Two running backs on the wish list of a few Pats fans have been taken off the market. The Washington Post reported on Friday via the Associated Press that Chicago Bears' Matt Forte and Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice have been given the franchise tag by their respective teams.

     

    Defense

    Defensive Line

    Raheem Brock of the Seahawks could be another Andre Carter-type signing if Carter doesn't come back. Pats fans should remember him from his days in Indianapolis. He's a fairly productive guy with a lower price tag due to his misdeeds.

     

    Linebacker

    Unless the Pats are willing to ante up for a big-name player like Mario Williams, there really isn't any need for them to go after a linebacker in free agency. Most of the big pass-rushers are locked up with their teams or have too high of a price tag.

    Update: (3/5/2012) Houston Texans' Mario Williams did not receive the franchise tag.

    However, the St. Louis Rams' Chris Chamberlain piques my interest. He has a Mike Vrabel quality to him and is only 26. He made 80 tackles last year and could be a diamond in the rough at a bargain-basement price of $500,000 per year.

     

    Cornerback

    With a young group of corners, the Pats should look for a veteran to provide leadership. The Seattle Seahawks' Marcus Trufant would work here.

    Trufant has been inflicted with the injury bug the last few years, and finished last season on the injured reserve with a bruised sacrum.

    Because of his injuries and age, his price tag should be lower than the $3 million he made last year. True, he could turn into another Shawn Springs, but he's being brought in for depth and veteran leadership, not as the savior.

    The Raiders' Lito Sheppard would also be a good veteran presence. Sheppard is a former Pro Bowler who, at 30, still has some years left in him, but not enough to have a high price tag. He started seven games for the Raiders last year and registered 40 tackles and a sack. Yes, he is a shell of his former self, but, like Trufant, he won't be asked to be the salvation, just a leader.

    Update: (3/4/2012) For citizens of Patriot Nation who harbor thoughts of Cortland Finnegan playing for the Patriots, you might get your wish. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported on Twitter this past Friday that the Tennessee Titans will not use the franchise tag on him. Would Finnegan be a good fit in New England?

     

    Safety

    Nobody out there particularly thrills me.

    Thinking outside of the box, the Pats could bring in Jim Leonhard of the Jets. Leonhard has had two major season-ending injuries the two last years, which brings his playing ability into question. However, this is the type of move that could turn out to be a find.

    The Pats could sign Leonhard to a two-year, cheap contract and move him to free safety, where he wouldn't be asked to do much. Again, this is an experimental move, not a cure-all one.

    Chris Hope, the current Texan and former Steeler, could be signed for veteran leadership. Even though his skills have declined, he is only 31 and should provide a year or two of help.

Projecting Contract Values for Patriots' Free-Agent Targets

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    Most of the potential free agents are attainable (Wallace is likely out of reach). While the other teams scramble over high-priced free agents, the Patriots bring in players who play above their pay grade. Here's what it will cost to bring them in.

     

    OG Montrae Holland: Two years, $1 million

    Montrae Holland has been a career backup, but has started in 60 games throughout his career. He is a definite value signing that helps ease in the transition of any rookies who join next year.

     

    RB Mewelde Moore: Two years, $1.5 million

    With Kevin Faulk pretty much at the end of the line, Moore easily fills the void. He'll be had for a pittance and should play above his contract. He has 2,247 yards rushing and 1,875 yards receiving during his eight-year career.

     

    DE Raheem Brock: One year, $1 million

    Last year, Brock had 28 tackles and three sacks. He could be either the next Andre Carter or the next Derrick Burgess. Either way, he'll be cheap, considering he was arrested twice last year. This will qualify him for Belichick's wayward players' scholarship.

     

    LB Chris Chamberlain: Three years, $3 million

    Basically, I'm waxing nostalgic here for Mike Vrabel. Perhaps Belichick can strike gold twice with signing Chamberlain. He played well last year for the Rams, tallying 80 tackles. Remember, Vrabel was rotting on the bench in Pittsburgh before he went to the Pats. Chamberlain is ahead of the curve.

     

    CB Lito Sheppard: One year, $1 million

    In Sheppard, the Pats will be getting a former Pro Bowler on the cheap. Sure, his skills have eroded, but in the Pats' scheme, he won't be asked to play bump-and-run coverage.

    The Pats were a team that had Sterling Moore playing in the Super Bowl. Sheppard has to be an upgrade from that. Plus, he brings veteran presence.

     

    S Jim Leonhard: Two years, $2 million

    If Leonhard can come back from his injury, this could be a great sign for the Pats. The contract will have a minimal signing bonus, if any, making it very team friendly. Leonhard will be playing to prove to himself and the league that he can come back after two season-ending injuries.

Analyzing the Patriots Draft, Positions of Need

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    The Pats' draft strategy will be the same as it always is—get the maximum value from every pick. In other words, if they can parlay a first-round pick into two second-round picks that can fill more needs, they will. That's how Belichick and Caserio do business, and business has been pretty good for them.

    How does that translate into the 2012 draft?

    More than likely, the Pats will trade one of their first-round picks for a second- or third-round pick. They don’t have any picks past the fourth round, so they will try to package some later-round picks in there as well.

    On the offensive side of the ball, the Pats will focus on re-loading the interior offensive line for life after Brady. Their tackles are set for some time, so getting a foundation set for Mallett (or whoever is Brady's successor) is key. The Pats will likely draft a wide receiver in hopes that they'll finally get it right.

    Defensively, the Pats are ridiculously young. Their drafting strategy should be to bring in guys to compete. A competitive mode with a young unit creates a positive environment. Most of the players on that side of the ball haven't established anything as far as a reputation goes. It'll be good for them to feel the heat.

Draft Names to Keep an Eye on

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    Offensive Center/Guard

    The Patriots could solve their depth and future interior line problems by drafting Peter Konz of Wisconsin. As mentioned by Bleacher Reports' Matt Miller in his latest mock draft, Konz has the versatility to play guard. (Miller has him going to the Steelers in his recent mock draft, but I disagree.)

    With his versatility comes strength and football smarts. He is one of those guys who could make an impact right away at guard, if needed. Eventually, he'll move over to center and be the anchor there for some time.

     

    Wide Receiver

    Two receivers who would be good second- or third-round picks are Wisconsin's Nick Toon and Arizona's Juron Criner.

    Toon is the son of former New York Jets receiver, Al Toon. (Pats fans won't hold that against him.) He's got good height (6'2") and is strong and physical. This allows him to create separation from defensive backs (think Darrelle Revis.)

    Criner was first-team All Pac-10 last year. He's another big guy (6'3", 225 lbs) and is familiar with a spread offense. He runs well after the catch and can make guys miss.

     

    Running Back

    University of Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead would be a good third-round pick at running back if the Pats decided to get one. In high school, he broke Archie Griffin's high school rushing record. He's a good all-around back.

     

    Defensive Line

    A guy who fits the Patriots' mold is Whitney Mercilus from Illinois. He forced nine fumbles last year, which is the second most in NCAA history. His propensity for causing turnovers makes him a good fit for the Pats' opportunistic defense.

    Cam Johnson from Virginia is a former linebacker turned defensive end. He has great explosiveness and might be better served returning to linebacker. He falls into that "tweener" mode that could either pan out or put him in the Mike Mamula category.

     

    Linebacker

    For pure heart, Shea McClellin from Boise State is it. He is aggressive at the point of attack and is a ball hunter. The knock on him is that he's not athletic enough. Makes him a perfect middle-round Belichick guy.

     

    Cornerback

    Because of the Pats’ youth at the corner position, there is no need for desperation. However, if Konz isn't around, the Pats could take a shot at Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard. He is a solid late first-rounder. He has great ball-hawking skills and is extremely physical.

    For a value pick in the second or third round, there’s Montana’s Trumaine Johnson. Johnson is well-disciplined and plays well in zone coverage, something the Pats do a lot of.

     

    Safety

    Since there aren't a ton of high-quality safeties in this year's draft, the smart bet is to pick one with a middle-round selection and let the chips fall where they may.

    Two middle-round value picks are Eddie Whitley from Virginia Tech and Michigan State's Trenton Robinson. Both players are versatile, having played some corner. They're good in zone coverage and are physical players.

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