The New England Patriots are in a delicate position right now because some of their best players are set to become free agents this offseason. Major decisions need to be made, and some of these decisions could radically shake the entire foundation of the team that we've come to know and love.
Who's staying? Who's going? How monumental are these "goodbyes" going to be? These are big questions, and the Patriots have a little over $18 million in cap space this offseason to answer them.
Here's a breakdown of the contract needed to re-sign every Patriots free agent this offseason.
Previous Contract: Four years, $3.1 million
2013 Franchise Tag Price: $9.6 million
The Skinny: When the 2012 season started, New England's offensive line was being held together by a thin layer of glue and a prayer. By the time the season was over, the offensive line had successfully redefined itself as the team's most powerful unit.
Sebastian Vollmer was a huge factor in this reversal of fortune. When the unit was under-performing, he overachieved to an insane extent. He transformed the line into an unbreakable fortress and, in the process, established himself as a player of supreme importance.
It seems like an easy "re-sign" situation here, except for one thing: health. Vollmer's back issues have haunted him for years.
How scary is this warning sign? That's the big question.
Bottom Line: The Patriots will look at Vollmer's medical history and they'll make a cold determination about whether or not he's worth serious dough, which should be around $6 million per year. If they're comfortable with the outlook of his future durability, then $24 million over four years should be enough to cement this relationship into the future.
Previous Contract: Two years, $1.7 million
Key 2012 Statistics: 76 carries, 301 rushing yards and four touchdowns; 40 receptions, 446 receiving yards and three touchdowns
The Skinny: The disparity between Danny Woodhead's miniature frame and his gigantic toughness is significant because it defines the essence of the man himself: his body hovers low to the ground, but his heart reaches up to the sky.
It would be a mistake to try and replace him, even though Shane Vereen plays with a similar style. Woodhead's heart and soul cannot be replaced, and he belongs in New England.
Bottom Line: It would be safe to assume that $4.6 million over three years would be enough keep him in Patriots blue.
Previous Contract: One year, $1.3 million
The Skinny: It's becoming increasingly difficult to fit Deion Branch into the Patriots' offensive vision. Although, to be frank, it's getting increasingly difficult to even decipher what that offensive "vision" is.
Given the consistent injuries to Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, this double tight end offense always seems to be in a perpetual state of redefining itself.
Ironically, this constant reappraisal bodes well for Branch. The more scattered the vision is, the more likely it is that the Patriots will need him to fill-in the blanks.
Bottom Line: Branch's hands are in great condition and his leadership qualities are priceless. The only question the Patriots need to ask is: "Can he shake defenders anymore?" If they believe he can, they should re-sign him to a one-year contract for a similar price that he received last season. After all, it's a pleasure to have him on the team.
Previous Contract: One year, $700,000
The Skinny: Derrick Martin has played for four highly-successful NFL franchises (Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and the Patriots), which speaks to his valuable experience. He's profitable on special teams and shows slivers of promise on defense. During New England's final game of the 2012 regular season, he sacked Miami's Ryan Tannehill for a loss of four yards.
Bottom Line: Martin provides some potential secondary/special teams depth in a pinch. Another one-year deal for under $1 million would keep him involved next season. He is not a big priority moving forward, but he is worth keeping on the periphery.
Previous Contract: One year, $650,000
The Skinny: Marquice Cole brings a reliable special teams presence, along with an intriguing defensive capability which hasn't been fully explored yet. The guy has solid speed and displays some excellent technique. There could be more beneath the surface here.
Bottom Line: I'd like to see Cole stick around. For less than $1 million, the Patriots could get him back for another season and maximize his defensive potential.
Previous Contract: Two years, $1,9 million
Key 2012 Statistics: 74 tackles, 11 passes defended, one forced fumble, no interceptions
The Skinny: Some believe Kyle Arrington is an effective defensive back. Others believe he gets burned so often that he might as well play football on the sun.
There's merit to both sides. No doubt, Arrington is a talented, instinctual, energetic kid who plays his heart out. Still, there are times when his coverage makes you want to pull your hair out.
Bottom Line: Given Arrington's struggles last season, it seems unlikely that another team would splash the pot to get him. For the Patriots, $3 million over two years seems like a fair offer for retaining the cornerback's services. Still, it might be wiser to simply pass on this one.
Previous Contract: One year, $898,120
The Skinny: Niko Koutouvides is a decent linebacker and a solid tackler on special teams, but his field time is dwindling as the team remodels itself. He is a "just in case of emergency" option.
Bottom Line: The Patriots should hold on to his phone number. For less than $1 million, they can have a good special-teamer waiting in the wings (which they always seem to need).
Previous Contract: Four years, $1.8 million
The Skinny: Julian Edelman really broke out of his shell last season, establishing himself as an essential piece of the team's offensive attack moving forward. He also continues to be the team's most spectacular ace on special teams.
Bottom Line: Edelman is a "must-sign guy," all the way. A $5.5 million contract over three years should be enough to keep him in New England. He's worth the money.
Will Allen, Previously with the Dolphins
Previous Contract: One year, $1 million
The Skinny: Acquired for a one-year stint, Will Allen hopped right to injured reserve during the preseason in 2012 and stayed there throughout the year.
Bottom Line: Allen is a veteran who can provide guidance for the younger defensive backs. A similar one-year deal of minimal nature would bring him back for another year, if the Patriots were so inclined to do so.
Previous Contract: Five years, $14 million
2013 Franchise Tag Price: $10.6 million
The Skinny: In Aqib Talib's first game with the Patriots (Week 11 against the Colts), he intercepted Andrew Luck's pass to Reggie Wayne in the second quarter and returned it for a 59-yard touchdown. He also added seven tackles on the afternoon, just to make sure everybody knew that he had finally arrived.
Talib heads into free agency with a reputation as "the guy who helped New England's secondary improve." That reputation brings some prestige, and such acclaim could generate some big financial interest from other teams. This could get intense.
Bottom Line: The Patriots have a good shot at bringing Talib back with $18 million over three years, or $24 million over four years, depending upon the time frame they're seeking (along with the exterior pressure from other teams).
Either way, we're talking about a ton of money for a guy who played only six regular season games for the Patriots, and then missed three quarters of the AFC Championship with a leg injury.
Also, the Patriots should keep in mind that the secondary needs a ton of work, even with Talib on the roster. His presence helps, but he's only a fragment of the solution. The team needs some cap space to fill the other holes as well.
In all likelihood, the savior of this secondary hasn't joined the team yet, and when the Patriots find that guy, they'll need to pay him. They should keep that in mind before they break the bank on Talib.
Jamey Richard, Previously with the Colts
Previous Contract: One year, $700,000
The Skinny: Jamey Richard is a big, meaty player with some starting experience (11 games) from his four years with the Colts, but he doesn't bring anything to the table that the Patriots don't already have. He suffered a concussion during New England's 2012 offseason and missed the entire year.
Bottom Line: Less than $1 million per season would bring him back, but it's tough to see the Patriots pursuing this very far.
Previous Contract: Four years, $5 million
The Skinny: A few years ago, Patrick Chung was an electric player. The guy looked like a live wire that would shock you if you got too close. Whether he was wreaking havoc on special teams or smacking bodies around as the ultimate defensive enforcer, he had the aura of a dangerous man.
But, over the last few years, injuries and spotty field time have robbed Chung of that dangerous persona. His coverage has suffered, and everything about him—from his body to his inner fire—seems broken.
Bottom Line: The market for Chung will be interesting, because there's a certain star quality attached to his name (gained from his earlier years with the Patriots). He could seek a beefier contract in the neighborhood of $20 million over five years. The Patriots could keep him for that money, but I'd advise them to walk away, even at a fraction of that. It's time to part ways.
Previous Contract: One year, $540,000
The Skinny: With New England's group of tight ends being marred by a slate of injuries throughout last season, Michael Hoomanawanui did a solid job of bridging the gaps and making the transitions a little easier for everybody to digest.
Along the way, he proved himself to be a rather entertaining player as well.
One of his best receptions came against the Jaguars, when he caught a tremendous 32-yard pass from Tom Brady. The two of them hooked up again against the 49ers, this time with a dramatic 41-yard catch, which illustrated his dynamic athleticism.
Bottom Line: Hoomanawanui is a restricted free agent, so the ball is in New England's court. Decisions regarding Jake Ballard will likely be a factor here, as well. The Patriots could also opt to chase some exterior free agent tight ends, considering how many good ones are available.
Previous Contract: One year, $750,000
The Skinny: Early last season, the offensive line felt very depleted, as injuries were a big issue for this unit. Hope seemed lost, and then, Donald Thomas turned all of that stuff into a non-issue. He was that good. Not only is he a tremendous space-eater, but he is also very athletic and very physical. His blocking was exceptional and he protected the king with spectacular gusto. The guy's a winner.
Bottom Line: Exterior interest in Thomas could be huge. Still though, $7 million over three years should be enough to bring him back to New England.
Previous Contract: One year, $540,000
The Skinny: Back in 2011, Giants' tight end Jake Ballard notched a total of 38 receptions, 604 yards and four touchdowns. During Super Bowl XLVI, he had two receptions for 10 yards and won a ring, but he also tore his ACL. He joined the Patriots during the 2012 offseason and sat out the entire year.
Bottom Line: Ballard is an exclusive rights free agent, which means the Patriots hold the cards here. Ballard's talent could easily qualify him as the team's top backup at tight end, should the Patriots choose to keep him.
Previous Contract: Two years, $1.8 million
The Skinny: Josh Barrett is a dynamite athlete with a tremendous frame. The problem is that he's constantly undercut by his own injuries, and he wound up on injured reserve last season.
Bottom Line: The Patriots could bring Barrett back for another season at less than $1 million, but his injury history will likely prevent any deal from being done.
Previous Contract: One year, $890,000
The Skinny: Since coming to the Patriots in 2010, Tracy White has carved out a nice little niche for himself. He's a versatile guy who earned his stripes on special teams and carries some value on defense. He isn't a high priority, but his presence is useful.
Bottom Line: For under $1 million, the Patriots can bring him back for another season.
Previous Contract: One year, $1.2 million
The Skinny: Trevor Scott is still pretty quick off the edge, especially for a veteran with an injury history. Scott had three sacks last season, but all of them were against Miami.
Bottom Line: Scott is a low-risk, medium-reward prospect. Should the Patriots require some veteran depth at defensive end, a rough $1 million figure would bring Scott back into the mix for another season.
Previous Contract: One year, $825,000
The Skinny: Donte' Stallworth had a remarkable cameo in Week 14 with an incredible 63-yard touchdown against the Texans. However, his dramatic appearance was short-lived, as he was quickly bounced to injured reserve following that game.
Bottom Line: Stallworth could be brought back on a similar contract as last season. However, I would urge the Patriots to avoid making this happen. Pursuing Stallworth would imply that the team is totally out of solutions when it comes to fixing the gap in their vertical game. It would be easier to just fix the problem permanently with another player.
Previous Contract: One year, $9.5 million
Key 2012 Statistics: 118 receptions, 1,354 receiving yards, six touchdowns
2013 Franchise Tag Price: $11.4 million
The Skinny: If the Patriots let Wes Welker walk, they'll be leaving a massive hole in the middle of their team. They better fill that hole with something special.
If the Patriots intend to fill that hole with a prized gem, then we're good. The problem is, prized gems are very difficult to snatch up. A free agent like Wallace would be a tough magic trick to pull off, and getting any receiver of his caliber is a longshot (but they should still try).
This is the danger of letting Welker walk. Sure, the Patriots would free-up some dough, but who would they replace Welker with? Danny Amendola could be one option, but that's a step down from Welker. In fact, the overwhelming majority of receivers on the free agent market are a step down from Welker.
It's a tricky situation, which could have a very frustrating resolution. Let's hope the Patriots pull a rabbit out of their hat.
Bottom Line: Unless there's a sparkling gem waiting on the other side of this wall, I'd prefer to just leave the wall intact and have Welker stay. $16 million over two years feels like a very fair offer that should get the job done and leave both sides happy.