The 2011 New England Patriots can be, and have been called, a lot of different things.
However, their roster-wide and season-long devotion to giving their principal owner Robert Kraft something to smile about following the loss of his wife, Myra, was something to admire.
That locker room chemistry and makeup is under what can only be classified as salary cap attack. Since 1994 and the introduction of the salary cap, franchises have been in direct, on-going and open competition for their own employees.
And so it goes for New England.
The Patriots currently have only 22—yes, that's 22—of their athletes locked up through (at least) the 2012 season. There are 21 from the 2011 53-man roster that are about to re-classified as a free agent in some capacity.
Here are the five they absolutely need back in 2012.
1. Wes Welker
Apologies for the blatant first pick, but Welker is a necessary cog in what the Patriots machine has been for much of the past half-decade. Losing him in his prime just simply isn't an option being entertained in New England, but finding a middle ground in a complex free-agent scenario isn't the easiest thing to do. Likely resolution: Franchise tagged on Monday, signed to four-year deal later in the offseason.
2. Dan Connolly
A surprise pick, I'm sure you're thinking, but I'm going to ask you to think back for a minute. Just who was on the starting offensive line for the majority of the past two seasons? Logan Mankins, Matt Light, Sebastian Vollmer, Connolly. The record-setting return man/guard/center started 24 games for the Patriots since 2010 and has made a total of 28 in his three seasons. Turning 30 in September, New England could still find some decent value in the highly-versatile Connolly. Likely resolution: Signed to a one- to three-year deal during offseason.
3. Kyle Love
OK, I lied, Love isn't really a free agent. He's an exclusive-rights free agent, which means he has only two options: Accept a deal from the Patriots or not play football in 2012. Life is tough for undrafted free agents, but not all hope for leverage is gone. Love recently switched agents and is now represented by KLASS Sports, an agency that represent fellow Patriots Gary Guyton and Kyle Arrington. Both players successfully negotiated two-year extensions with the team using KLASS Sports representation. That's good news for New England because it means it gets to keep the underrated Love underpaid for just a little longer. Likely resolution: The 25-year-old and 13-game starter will likely extend his relationship with the one team that gave him a shot out of college. Expect a two- to three-year deal.
4. Andre Carter
Why Carter and not Mark Anderson? Carter has the pedigree and tenacity Bill Belichick is looking to work with in his defensive schemes. Now, I'm not saying Anderson didn't have a good season in 2011—he impressed many down the stretch while starting every playoff game—but he's going to ask for a deal that doesn't accurately reflect his value. Carter can be three-down rusher and has experience standing up if need be. Anderson has a history of success in rotational roles and has fallen off after producing big before. Likely resolution: The Patriots like their smart-money moves, and I think the smart money is on finding a reasonable one- to two-year deal with Carter.
5. Matthew Slater
The Patriots' 2008 draft was kind of a dump—I mean, if you ignore the two captains they selected that year. Jerod Mayo was selected 10th overall and Slater was picked in the fifth round. They've gone to the same amount of Pro Bowls since coming aboard with Slater's selection coming most recently (2011). Slater is the difference-maker on special teams and fills the dual role of playmaker and leader that Larry Izzo made his name in. Izzo now coaches for the New York Giants, and Slater, son of a Hall of Famer, is only 26 and in need of a contract. Likely resolution: I don't know if it's wishful thinking, but if the Patriots value Slater—and I think they do—they are very likely to sign him long term. C.J. Spillman is a player who fills a similar role for the San Francisco 49ers. He just signed a three-year deal for $6 million, and that'd be a fantastic place for Slater and Patriots to start.
Interested in reading more by this featured columnist? Check out more of Aaron Dodge's work on Bleacher Report.
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