8 Moves the New England Patriots Must Assess in Free Agency
With the team coming so close to Super Bowl titles the past two years, the Patriots are under colossal pressure to make a big splash in free agency to push them to the next level.
Sometimes the best course of action is a dramatic one. Sometimes it's holding fast to what you already have. Usually it's something in between.
New England finds itself at an interesting crossroads. With loads of room under the salary cap, they have the freedom to do pretty much whatever they choose, but if they spend their money recklessly they could very well sabotage their own title hopes.
Here are eight free-agent moves the team needs to avoid to escape that very fate.
Hoarding Their Trade Chips
Obviously, Revis is about as likely to wind up playing for the Patriots as I am.
Not only would the Jets defy logic by trading Revis to their arch-rival Patriots, but the All-Pro cornerback would be a glorified rental player unless he signed an extension with his new team.
The same is true of Vikings' receiver Percy Harvin, who would be a lethal weapon in New England's offense, but remains unsigned following the 2013 season.
With Tom Brady's new contract saving the team roughly $8 million against the salary cap, the Patriots suddenly have much more flexibility to extend players like Revis or Harvin. They just need to decide if it's worth forking over the draft picks to get them.
In Harvin's case I think it's a no-brainer. Minnesota has no leverage in trade talks since they risk losing him for nothing as a free agent next year. Current speculation suggests they may be forced to accept less than fair value and move him without receiving a first-round pick.
Even Bill Belichick, who stars every April in his own mini-series, Hoarders: Draft Picks, would have a hard time getting better value for the 59th-overall pick than one of the only players in the NFL who could conceivably outproduce Wes Welker in the same role.
Clinging to Ryan Mallett as a Backup
This ties directly in with the previous slide.
With Brady under contract for the next five seasons, the time is now to trade talented backup quarterback Ryan Mallett. Considering the haul San Francisco just got for castoff Alex Smith, and how much unproven quarterbacks Kevin Kolb, Charlie Whitehurst and Matt Cassel have netted their former teams in years past, Mallett figures to fetch a third-round pick at the very least.
I like Mallett—I always have. The Patriots stole him with the 74th pick in 2011, but with such a weak quarterback class in this year’s draft and a bleak crop of free agents, they would be smart to exploit the market and maximize his value via trade.
Once considered the top quarterback in a draft class featuring Cam Newton, Christian Ponder, Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton and others, Mallett tumbled in the draft thanks to character concerns and alleged drug use.
Neither of those issues has resurfaced as of yet during his NFL career and he represents an excellent insurance policy should any ill befall Brady. He also represents a lottery ticket the Patriots have been waiting to redeem at the most opportune moment.
After falling short of Super Bowl titles by a combined three wins over the past two seasons, with so much salary cap flexibility and only five picks in the upcoming draft, that moment has arrived.
Moving Mallett now could land the Patriots the picks needed to swing a trade that puts them over the top.
Signing Aqib Talib Long-Term
I’m all for signing Aqib Talib.
He remains one of the more talented cornerbacks in the NFL. He possesses elite ball skills and has proven capable of being the playmaker New England so sorely needs in the secondary.
Signing him for more than one year, maybe two? Not so much.
Talib represents a major risk as a long-term investment. The Patriots have already expressed concerns about his work ethic and seem to doubt he would give a full effort on the field after receiving a major payday.
And that’s just when he’s actually on the field.
Even in a contract year, Talib couldn’t muster the strength and determination to play a full season. He missed four games due to suspension for a failed drug test, his second suspension stemming from off-field issues.
When not suspended, Talib’s presence has still been far from a given. The troubled yet talented cornerback has never played a full 16-game season thanks in large part to chronic hamstring issues, including three games missed this season.
He’s obviously no guarantee to suit up in any given week and even when he does, the Patriots seem to doubt whether he can be relied on to give his full effort.
Basically, he’s Manny Ramirez in football pads.
Signing Talib for one or two years minimizes the team’s risk and maximizes their potential reward. It’s a great move if Talib is amenable to it. Anything beyond that would be investing far too much in a player who’s anything but a sure thing.
Overpaying for Ed Reed
Every Patriots fan, myself included, would love to see Reed don the red, white and navy next season. By all accounts, Bill Belichick himself would relish the opportunity to coach a player of Reed’s caliber.
The Patriots as a team would benefit greatly from Reed’s presence, both in the secondary and in the locker room. All signs point to a perfect marriage of player, coach and team needs.
That is assuming Reed signs for reasonable terms.
The future Hall of Fame safety will play next season at the ripe age of 35 and, while he can still play at a high level, he simply isn’t the same player he’s been or most of his career.
Would I rule out a late-career resurgence?
Absolutely not. Reed is still one of the best players at his position and figures to remain among the game’s elite next season as well.
It’s the following seasons that should give the Patriots pause.
Reed is worth a pretty penny simply based on his track record. He will likely be worth the same next season and maybe even the year after that at age 36. However, given his pedigree and career accomplishments, Reed may very well command top dollar on the free-agent market and one last multi-year contract.
If “multi-year” means two years, the Patriots should absolutely jump all-in on the single biggest defensive difference maker available via free agency.
If it means four or more years, the team is probably better served spending that money elsewhere.
Not only will a 38- or 39-year-old Reed almost certainly fail to return the value his contract would mandate, but paying a premium for a player likely to be running on fumes would severely compromise the Patriots’ financial flexibility in seasons to come.
Parting Ways with Brandon Lloyd
Lloyd has drawn the ire of Patriots fans thanks to his mostly underwhelming 2012. There seems to be a groundswell of support among the local media as well to jettison Lloyd.
Reports have surfaced indicating he isn’t in the team’s plans for next season, and everyone’s so busy bidding him good riddance that nobody seems to care who will take his place.
Assuming the Patriots do release Lloyd and re-sign Wes Welker, the next receiver in line would be 34-year-old Deion Branch.
Granted, Lloyd failed to meet expectations in his first season with the Patriots, but he came on strong towards the end of the season and totals 74 receptions for 911 yards are nothing to sneeze at.
He’s clearly no Randy Moss, but that doesn’t mean he’s useless. Lloyd has excellent hands and works the sidelines as well as any receiver in the NFL. OK, so he’s allergic to physical contact, but isn’t that where Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are supposed to earn their keep?
As a skill receiver on the perimeter, the only area where Lloyd didn’t fulfill his responsibilities was as a deep threat to open up the opposing defense.
As he gets older, it’s fair to wonder if Lloyd is still capable of stretching the field. While ability to do that remains in question, his potential replacement’s inability to do so remains a mathematical certainty.
Deion Branch should not be a starting wide receiver at this point in his career, under any circumstances.
If you told me the Patriots would sign Mike Wallace or Greg Jennings to replace him, I’d be on board with throwing Lloyd overboard. If you told me they would draft a receiver like West Virginia’s Tavon Austin, I’d be happy with that too.
But Belichick’s track record suggests he won’t spend a high pick on a receiver and even when he does it rarely works out. More realistically, Branch, Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman are the top candidates to replace Lloyd.
As long as that remains true, the Patriots need to keep Lloyd right where he is.
Letting Kyle Arrington Walk
Let me preface this by saying I’m not a fan of Arrington. I think he’s overmatched as a starter and an easy target in man coverage.
Unfortunately, with Alfonzo Dennard’s recent conviction and likely suspension, Arrington may very well be the only option the team has left.
The top cornerbacks on the free-agent market all figure to command massive contracts, including New England’s own Aqib Talib.
If the team can’t come to terms with Talib, Devin McCourty would likely slide back into the top cornerback spot, eventually opposite Dennard. Although not an ideal starting candidate, Arrington is still an excellent nickel corner and has enough experience in a starting role to fill in on a short-term basis.
Without Arrington, New England’s best contingency plans are Ras-I Dowling and Marquice Cole.
The Patriots could always draft somebody like Desmond Trufant in April, but until they do, Arrington represents their best chance to salvage what has the potential to be a historically bad secondary.
Investing Too Much in Sebastian Vollmer
For the record, I believe Vollmer is an elite offensive tackle and should be the team’s top in-house priority. He’s the team’s best offensive lineman behind Logan Mankins and he deserves to be paid.
That doesn’t mean the Patriots should be the team to pay him, at least not what he can probably command on the open market.
I don’t mean so much to slight Vollmer as to praise New England’s offensive line coach, Dante Scarnecchia. Year after year the Patriots offensive line ranks among the league’s best despite injuries and roster turnover.
Obviously a player of Vollmer’s caliber makes them a better unit. If his contract demands are reasonable, the team should do everything in their power to retain him. If, however, he’s looking to strike it rich in free agency, the Patriots need to cut their losses and let him walk.
Vollmer has shown remarkable toughness playing through nagging injuries and chronic back problems, but as he ages he will likely prove less capable of playing through the same problems.
As good as Vollmer is, New England has a capable reserve in Marcus Cannon. Cannon should thrive under Scarnecchia’s tutelage and has the ability to evolve into a high-quality tackle in his own right.
During his collegiate days at TCU, Cannon was the leader of an offensive line that paved the way for a school-record 70 touchdowns and put quarterback Andy Dalton on the NFL radar.
I’m not saying Cannon is as good as Vollmer—far from it. But if Vollmer is looking for elite left tackle money, Cannon could slide into his spot and perform quite well.
Signing Mike Wallace
With so much room under the salary cap and Brandon Lloyd seemingly with one foot out the door, New England will of course be searching for another receiver with big-play ability on the outside.
Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace represents the best deep threat in free agency this season. While he is indeed an excellent speed receiver, he doesn’t do much else and certainly isn’t worth whatever he’ll make through a new contract this offseason.
When he was making less than $3 million for the Steelers last season, Wallace was a great value. As a one-dimensional deep threat who figures to command in the neighborhood of $10 million annually in free agency, he represents one of the worst values at his position across the league.
Yes, he flashes elite speed and can outrun almost anybody on a football field, but his downfield production has waned as of late.
His yards per catch have dropped from 21 in 2010, to almost 17 in 2011, down to just over 13 last season. For anyone keeping score at home, he outgained current Patriot Brandon Lloyd by less than a yard per reception in 2012.
Wallace has been plagued by drops in recent years as well. In 2012 he dropped four passes in one game and for the season he actually posted a negative rating on Pro Football Focus’ rating scale.
He may be the best pure deep threat available, but he doesn’t bring anything else to the table. Given his recent downward trends he simply isn’t worth what the Patriots would need to pay him.