Which Contract Year Patriots Will Return to New England in 2013?
The New England Patriots will have some decisions to make between now and the end of the season.
Nineteen players will see their contracts expire after this season, and many of them are currently playing significant roles as the Patriots prepare for another playoff run and Super Bowl chase.
Some will be back. And some are in their last go-around in Foxboro.
Many of the players will be back without an issue. But there are several that will be looking to hit it big while either re-upping or testing the market, and that's a game the Patriots usually don't like to play.
Whatever the decisions end up being, some won't be decided until the very last moment. Here are 10 of the more interesting upcoming contract situations in New England, with a take on whether they stay put or take their games elsewhere.
Kyle Arrington's role in the Patriots defense has steadily been diminished this season.
A starter last year who recorded seven interceptions, Arrington has been a liability in coverage all year. He's taken bad penalties (such as his pass-interference penalty against the Colts) and though he continues to start, he's quickly been replaced by promising rookie Alfonzo Dennard several times.
Arrington was undrafted and began on the Patriots' practice squad, but he impressed his coaches enough to rise onto the active roster in 2010. But this year, Arrington seems to have run head-on into his own ceiling.
If he's looking for starting cornerback money, the Patriots will let him walk, like they did with Randall Gay in 2008. But if he keeps his demands low, the team could look to bring him back, though he'll have to have an impressive camp.
The Patriots love Julian Edelman. They've been hell-bent on getting him involved in the offense since he joined the team in 2009, and this year, they're succeeding.
After 11 catches over the last two seasons, Edelman has 20 catches for 222 yards and three touchdowns this year, and has been used on a variety of routes in the Patriots passing game.
He's also developed into one of the NFL's best punt returners (that's not hyperbole, he's second in the NFL in yards per return), and he's a player Bill Belichick and his staff trust to handle several roles. He's going to stick around, especially now that he's contributing in more ways than he ever has.
It's hard to believe (and painful to acknowledge) that a second-round pick was spent on Ron Brace. A draft choice that should produce a solid, reliable pro has turned into a player who has had conditioning problems, has yet to record a sack and has always had difficulty in making it on the field.
This season is turning into another lost year for the Boston College product. He's notched four tackles in nine games, and though he adds value in stopping the run, there's no way he's passing Kyle Love or Vince Wilfork on the depth chart.
It's time to write off the Brace selection as a bust. Belichick will look for a more reliable interior lineman in the offseason.
When Dane Fletcher went down with a torn ACL in the season opener, an element of the Patriots' defensive plan went with him. Fletcher was a solid player last year, notching 32 tackles in 10 games while working around a thumb injury, and he seemed poised for increased responsibilities in the defense this year.
That obviously won't be the case this year, but Fletcher is a player the Patriots think highly of. Plus, with his injury this year, New England should be able to keep him for a lesser price, and Fletcher's restricted free agent status makes it even harder to see him walking.
Danny Woodhead's had a defined role in this offense since he arrived on the scene in September 2010, and he's continued to thrive even as the running-back depth has improved.
He remains a key back on passing downs, with good hands and route-running skills. The emergence of Shane Vereen, who has a similar skill set, makes Woodhead's talents less unique, but he's still a player the coaching staff in New England is fond of utilizing.
Bringing Woodhead back won't take much of a commitment, and he's found a niche with the team.
Scott hasn't had much of a chance to prove himself, but that should change in the next few weeks as Jermaine Cunningham sits out his suspension for PEDs and Chandler Jones recovers from a foot injury.
With those players out, Scott will be expected to carry some of the pass-rushing load. His lack of versatility has limited his playing time to this point, but the Patriots will need pure rushers, and that fits his forte.
Still, the Patriots were expecting more when they gave Scott $1.5 million for this year. If they haven't been wowed so far, chances are they won't be interested in re-upping.
When he's been healthy, Sebastian Vollmer has been one of the best tackles in the game.
He was an All-Pro in 2010, and after a lost 2011, he's found that star form again this year. He's made life easier for Tom Brady and helped turn an offensive line that was in disarray after this preseason into one of the sturdiest units in the league.
That being said, the Patriots have quite the dilemma on hand with the big German. Vollmer's unquestionably a top-caliber tackle, but he shouldn't have any trouble finding teams willing to give him left-tackle money on the market. With Nate Solder already on board, that kind of commitment could be too much for New England.
Furthermore, Vollmer's injury propensity makes a massive contract even riskier. The back issues that plagued him last year have hindered him at times this year as well, and those injuries tend to linger.
In the end, the Patriots will likely either get Vollmer at their own price, or they'll try to land the 6'8" lineman via the franchise tag. It's the same route they tried with Logan Mankins a few years ago. The negotiations will be important to watch.
It isn't a stretch to say that, going by resumes and past accomplishments, the Patriots have in Aqib Talib their best cornerback since Asante Samuel was last seen in Foxboro in 2007.
Bill Belichick finally realized how starved his team was for solid cornerback play, and he made the rare aggressive trade deadline move to acquire the controversial Buccaneer.
In Talib, the Patriots have a cornerback who can cover No. 1 receivers, a luxury they've tried to win without the past few years. He stabilizes the defensive back corps, allows Devin McCourty to stay at safety and allows the slumping Kyle Arrington to remain the nickel corner.
But the warning signs with Talib are well-known at this point. They're established enough that, despite the assets he brings, the perception in the media is that Talib is a rental, brought in to try to win Super Bowl XLVII and XLVII only.
Re-signing Talib, which New England could look into if the rest of this season goes smoothly, would represent a significant philosophy change for the Patriots, who would basically be giving up on their five-year plan to groom another No. 1 cornerback in favor of securing a more proven and expensive player.
The Patriots have a history of sticking with their reclamation projects, like they did with Randy Moss and Corey Dillon, but Talib isn't setting league or team records. Keeping Talib would require top-line cornerback dollars. The Patriots may offer to fold instead of take on that commitment.
Verdict: Goes (though the franchise tag is an option)
Up until recently, Patrick Chung was going to be the next great New England safety. He was right in line to follow Rodney Harrison and Lawyer Milloy in the Patriots hierarchy. He played hard, hit hard and always provided a spark when he was on the field.
Instead, Chung's path is looking more like Brandon Meriweather's. The flaws in Chung's game are either making themselves known or failing to improve. His coverage is lacking, and he's unable to play a full season without getting hurt.
After making 96 tackles in 2010, his sophomore season, Chung slipped to 62 last year, and he's only made 28 this year as shoulder and hamstring woes have held him back.
Chung's inability to take the next step is drawing attention from the pundits. Rodney Harrison wasn't impressed by the Oregon product, and the Boston Globe's Greg Bedard wasn't a fan of giving Chung an extension and raise next season.
The rookie deal expires this year, and Chung will be looking for a starting safety's payday. If the past is any indication, Belichick would rather start over.
They may not want to, but at some point, the Patriots will have to deal with Wes Welker.
This season has been just another example of how the New England offense reaches a new gear when Welker is on the field. Rob Gronkowski scores the touchdowns and Aaron Hernandez can turn the normal slant route into a 30-yard gain, but Welker makes the team the hardest in football to get off the field on third down.
Julian Edelman has steadily improved, but he can't do what Welker does. Welker continues to baffle slower players that try to cover him short and over the middle, and he's still Tom Brady's go-to receiver at every sign of trouble.
The Patriots tried to conduct business as usual with Welker on the bench at the start of this year, but that didn't work. Hernandez was hurt early, but the offense recovered without him, and it coincided with Welker returning to the same constant target he was before.
The strength of this Patriots offense is quick passes and accurate routes, and Welker fits in perfectly. There was a major difference in the offense's production with and without No. 83 this year; hopefully Belichick has that in mind during negotiations.
Welker may keep asking for more than the Patriots give him. But if the Patriots were ever going to be sold for good on Welker's importance to the offense, this would be the year. He's Brady's favorite target, and that carries a lot of weight—even enough to keep the slot receiver around for another deal.