They do have a key decision to make, though, regarding the other two quarterbacks on their roster.
Undrafted free agent Brian Hoyer has spent three years as Tom Brady's backup. In his first two seasons, he was Brady's only backup on the 53-man roster.
While he has seen only limited action in the regular season (in 2011, he attempted just one pass—the completion to All-Pro TE Rob Gronkowski that gave him the TE receiving yards record), he has generally looked quite comfortable under center.
Now, though, Hoyer is a restricted free agent, which means the Patriots have a big decision to make. They have four options, two of which seem highly unlikely.
- They can thank him for his service, and let him search for a new contract.
- They can tender him at the lowest level, $1.26 million, which comes with right of first refusal and original-round compensation.
- They can tender him at the middle level, $1.93 million, which comes with a second-round draft pick if he is signed to an offer sheet by another team.
- They can tender him at the highest level, $2.74 million, which comes with a first-round draft pick.
The current CBA removed the first- and third-round tender level.
It can't be argued that the Patriots got great value with Hoyer: even if they just let him walk, they got three years of backup for Tom Brady at league-minimum price. The lowest tender would have the same effect: if he were signed away, the Patriots would get nothing in return (as he was an undrafted free agent).
So, if the Patriots want to get any return on investment for Hoyer, they need to give him either the first- or second-round tender within the next couple of days.
That said, according to Patriots beat writers Greg Bedard and Ian Rapoport, the Patriots "love" Brian Hoyer. Both have floated the possibility that the Patriots may feel that his staying in Foxboro as Brady's backup for a fourth year is worth more to them than any pick they might receive for him.
If that's the case, then expect to see the Patriots put a first-round tender on Hoyer. In such a case, it would all but guarantee that Hoyer signs the tender: it would guarantee him more than double his total salary from his rookie deal, and it's unlikely any team would be willing to cough up a first-round pick for Hoyer.
On the other hand, once Hoyer signs the tender, he can be traded anywhere, for any compensation the Patriots deem appropriate. If they wanted to, the Patriots could trade Hoyer to another team for, say, a 2013 second-rounder or a wide receiver.
So how will this all shake out?
Prediction: The Patriots will give Hoyer the second-round tender. If a team is willing to give up a second-round pick for Hoyer, they will let him go. If not, he signs the tender, and spends one last season as Brady's backup, although the Patriots may seek a trade to a team that loses a QB to injury or feels they need competition for their starter. (It's not hard to envision a nightmare scenario in which the New Orleans Saints, reeling from the loss of Drew Brees and draft picks in the wake of Bountygate, are forced to search for a QB in free agency.)
Probability Hoyer finishes the 2012 season as a Patriot: About 50 percent.