The New England Patriots have approximately $25 million in cap space this offseason, an estimated 8th most in the NFL, and will be able to give their team the slight makeover it needs to get them over the Super Bowl championship hump.
But with a bevy of their own free agents, that is where New England must begin, addressing the big three of Wes Welker, Sebastian Vollmer and Aqib Talib, before they can think about anyone who hasn't already been a Patriot.
There's no question the Patriots have some holes to fill and enough cash to make it interesting. Here's our best crack who stays, who goes and who comes.
Delmas has always been a favorite of ours going back to the 2009 draft when the Patriots landed Patrick Chung right after the Lions took Delmas. Some might say this would be nothing more than trading Chung, our own can't-stay-healthy safety for Detroit's, but Delmas has always had a higher ceiling and flashed better back end play than Chung ever did.
This would be a no-risk, prove-it deal the Patriots are known for, and one that could pay dividends if Delmas can finally kick the injury bug. While some might be clamoring for Ed Reed, I'm going the younger and cheaper route with better long-term potential to give the Patriots even more flexibility on the back end of their defense.
CONTRACT: three years, $2 million
Edelman's injuries should make him affordable, but also risky. He was just starting to come into his own before having his season ended in early December in Miami to a broken foot. In that game, and the previous week against the Jets, Edelman was finally living up to the potential he's teased within his four seasons with the Pats.
He can fill multiple roles, most prominently as a Z-receiver and punt returner, but we've also seen him on defense and as a college quarterback and who knows what else Josh McDaniels might work up for him. The Patriots have no one currently under contract who can do what Edelman does and it seems like the coaching staff likes his ceiling.
CONTRACT: three years, $2.5 million
The Patriots' lack of receivers will likely cause them to pursue multiple ones in free agency this year. Domenik Hixon is just the kind of mid-range one that would fit well.
Hixon has been stuck on the depth chart behind Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks on the New York Giants, but in New England he'd get a chance to potentially start, assuming Brandon Lloyd's doesn't return. At 6'2" Hixon has the size and physicality that the Patriots lack on the outside, and also has the versatility to return punts and kicks.
CONTRACT: three years, $2.5 million
Kyle Arrington can be a lighting rod for Patriots fan criticism, but cornerbacks like him who can play inside, outside and on special teams while never getting hurt are extremely rare. Arrington will look to test the free agent market, but it's likely a return to New England makes the most sense since it's clear he excels in a slot corner and special teams role.
His versatility if injuries strike is invaluable and really should be just starting to hit his prime. Arrington's best days are likely ahead of him and bringing him back is the safest move for a secondary.
CONTRACT: three years, $3 million
David Nelson looked primed for a breakout season in 2012 coming off 61 catches and five touchdowns in 2011 before tearing his ACL in Week 1. ESPN reports that the Bills won't tender Nelson so it looks like he'll hit the open market and the Pats should pounce on him.
At 6'5" Nelson would add a needed height element to the outside receiving corps, and at just 26 years old he's just hitting his prime.
Before his injury, Nelson was on a clear upward trajectory, and he might need another full year before he's back, but that simply makes this a better value on the market for a receiver-needy squad like New England.
CONTRACT: four years, $5 million
We're betting the Patriots letting Talib walk, but Brent Grimes could be an even better consolation prize. Grimes' 2012 season playing under the Falcons' franchise tag was ended in September with an Achilles injury.
Grimes made the Pro Bowl in 2010, coincidentally the only full 16-game season he's played, but when healthy he has the flexibility to play either side and would make a nice complementary fit with Alfonzo Dennard.
Any deal with Grimes would likely be heavily incentive-laden, but the Pats will have the flexibility to make a competitive offer to him despite his injury history. Assuming Dennard isn't sitting in a jail cell (which seems likely) and Ras-I Dowling isn't already injured, the Pats should be able to round out their cornerback depth before the draft and give themselves some flexibility.
CONTRACT: three years, $10 million
Randy Starks is the crown jewel of my exterior free agents because he represents a big piece that I believe the Patriots need on defense. In a perfect world, Henry Melton would be the ideal fit, but he's not getting out of Chicago. And last year they went after a similar player in Red Bryant.
So I'm going with Starks, who hasn't missed a game since arriving in Miami in 2008.
He can be moved around the defensive line but would fit best next to Vince Wilfork in the base defense, while also providing some interior pass rush in sub-packages. Starks would be an upgrade on Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, and at 29 he's a veteran but still in his prime.
Most of all, someone like Starks would provide Wilfork insurance and make the Patriots slightly less over-reliant on Big Vince.
CONTRACT: four years, $12 million
Update: Randy Starks has been Franchise Tagged by the Dolphins, so unfortunately this takes him off the board for the Patriots. Still, the need remains, and the Patriots will look to other defensive tackles, and perhaps spread out this sizable salary to a couple of mid-range free agents. Alan Branch, Mike Devito, and Desmond Bryant could all be potential fits and at a lesser price than Starks would've cost.
It wasn't looking good for a Welker return earlier this offseason, but with Tom Brady's new deal opening up that extra bit of cap space and a lack of major cap space around the league, it seems like the stars are aligned to get Welker back to New England.
Welker's durability and production are unquestionable, and while the Patriots might worry that he won't be the same player at the end of this contract that he is now, it's worth the risk given his history.
It's also likely that part of Brady taking less money included a handshake agreement that the team would bring back Welker as well.
As the window for Brady begins to close it's not the time to strip him of his favorite receiver once again.
CONTRACT: three years, $21 million
While Patriots fans' love for Welker is obvious, Sebastian Vollmer is the biggest internal priority. While right tackles aren't the hardest to find when healthy, Vollmer is a special one who can also play the left side at a high level.
So if they lose Vollmer, they'll have to not only replace him, but the back up left tackle as well.
With Brady entering the final five years of his career, there is nothing more important than keeping him protected and healthy, and locking up Vollmer will go a long way towards making that happen. His injury history should scare some suitors off but there's no question that if Vollmer hits the market, there will be interest.
Expect the Patriots to use the franchise tag on him if they need to until a long-term deal can be worked out. If the Patriots allow Vollmer to get away it will show how desperate for defensive backs and wide receivers they really are.
CONTRACT: four years, $25 million