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The New England Patriots are coming off what some fans would call a disappointing season. Now, they have some tough decisions to make regarding whether or not to re-sign star receiver Wes Welker and cornerback  Aqib Talib, and they also must decide which players to pursue from outside the organization this offseason as well.

The team clearly has a few key weaknesses heading into the 2013 free agent period, but with so many of their core players under contract for the long haul, New England is in excellent position to fill those holes and field one of the best teams in the NFL next season.

Success in the NFL isn't just about paying the best players. Rather, it's about maximizing production at key positions and finding value in overlooked players because, in New England, it's all about winning Super Bowls.

As the Patriots prepare for a busy offseason and lay out a plan for continued success, we're here to break it all down for you along the way. Join us in kicking off the Patriots' offseason and get the first taste of your free-agency fix with our complete guide to the Patriots' 2013 free agency.

 

*note: all player salary information used was obtained from spotrac.com

Salary Cap Situation

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Rob Carr/Getty Images

At its core, the salary cap ensures that teams are only allowed to spend a certain amount of money on players' salaries. This prevents owners with more money from simply buying the best players in hopes of winning it all—a la the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball. 

The salary cap creates a level playing field financially, and it forces teams to build through the draft and diligently scour for underrated free agents rather than simply being able to throw the kitchen sink at the highest-profile players.

Player development and scouting departments dictate team success much more than simply having an owner with a big checkbook. The smartest teams with the best talent evaluators win more often than not, placing the emphasis back on football instead of name value.

In reality, this simple idea has a few more complicated stipulations, but under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, it boils down to three core principles:

  • Teams may not exceed a certain total wage for all their players. The exact limit changes each year.
  • Teams must spend at least 89 percent of the salary cap each year. Thus, there are no "small market" teams.
  • Teams who do not spend the maximum money may apply their shortage to next season's figure, effectively allowing them to raise their salary cap in any given season.

For example, since the 2012 salary cap was $120 million and, let's say, team "X" only spent $110 million, they were able to rollover that $10 million to their amount of cap space this offseason, allowing them to spend $130 million in 2013.

The league has set the 2013 salary cap at $123 million, making the salary floor roughly $109.5 million.

After restructuring Tom Brady's contract last month and benefiting from a $5.6 million rollover from 2012, the Patriots currently have about $25 million to spend on players in 2013 (h/t Boston.com), which is amongst the top 10 in the league in terms of available money this offseason.

With most of their core players already under contract for the long-term, New England is in excellent position to add even more talent to an already explosive roster.

In-House Free Agents

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Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The Patriots currently have 20 players on their roster slated to hit free agency on March 12. 

They break down into three categories: unrestricted free agents (UFA), restricted free agents (RFA), and exclusive rights free agents (ERFA).

Of the aforementioned 20 free agents, 18 of them are of the unrestricted variety, and they are as follows:

  • Will Allen—S
  • Kyle Arrington—CB
  • Josh Barrett—S
  • Deion Branch—WR
  • Patrick Chung—S
  • Julian Edelman—WR
  • Niko Koutouvides—LB
  • Derrick Martin—CB
  • Myron Pryor—DT
  • Jamey Richard—OG
  • Trevor Scott—DE
  • Donte Stallworth—WR
  • Aqib Talib—CB
  • Donald Thomas—OG
  • Sebastian Vollmer—OT
  • Wes Welker—WR
  • Tracy White—LB
  • Danny Woodhead—RB

All of these players are free to sign with any team they wish once the free agenct period begins, provided of course they haven’t re-signed with the Patriots by then.

Of this group, Welker, Talib and Vollmer have dominated the offseason conversation because of their considerable skills and even more considerable price tags. Expect New England to make an effort to retain all three of them, depending on what their contract demands are.

According to reports, the Patriots are a bit hesitant to re-sign Talib to a long-term contract (h/t CBS Sports) due to lingering character concerns, and the team will approach him like the bombshell at the bar with an attitude problem—sure she’s high maintenance, but she definitely knows how to show you a good time

In short, it sounds like they’d love to keep Talib around, but only on their terms.

Vollmer could be a potential fixture at right tackle for years to come.  However, another team could easily offer him a huge contract to play the more glamorous left tackle position. If he receives an offer anywhere near $10 million annually, the Patriots will let him walk. 

The most I would realistically expect the Patriots to offer Vollmer would be something approaching the $5.5 million annual salary that Eric Winston agreed to with the Kansas City Chiefs last season.

Welker seems like the most likely of those three to return, given a recent report that he and the Patriots are closing in on a multi-year deal (h/t CSN New England). No deal has been consummated as of yet and no monetary figures have been made public, but it sounds like the two sides are close to an agreement.

Of the remaining UFAs, Arrington, Edelman, Thomas, Scott, Koutouvides and Woodhead figure to receive at least some type of offer from the Patriots.

A few weeks ago, I thought Woodhead was on his way out, but with Jeff Demps electing to pursue track once again, New England's brass may be giving Woodhead a closer look.

For the same reason, it makes sense to bring Edelman back as an excellent kick returner and slot receiver to complement Welker.

Arrington brings tremendous value to the team as a fifth defensive back and willing special teams player. Given Alfonzo Dennard’s uncertain future due to his recent conviction and Talib’s possible departure, it would be a shock if the Patriots didn’t at least attempt to re-sign Arrington. After all, he did lead the NFL with seven interceptions in 2011.

Thomas, Scott and Koutouvides would all bolster team depth. The only one worth more than the league minimum is Thomas, who has starting experience and could potentially replace Dan Connolly down the road.

Fan favorite Deion Branch turns 34 in July and his usefulness has run its course, so he’s likely gone. The same goes for the underperforming Patrick Chung and likely everyone else listed above.

The Patriots do have one RFA in TE/H-Back Michael Hoomanawanui.  They have the right to match any offer he receives so he’ll be back unless another team drastically overpays him.

Fellow TE Jake Ballard is their lone ERFA, meaning that he can either re-sign with the Patriots at the league minimum or retire. Something tells me that he’ll take the money and stay.

Franchise Tag Situation

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Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

There isn’t much to report here, as the team chose not to use their franchise tag this offseason.

The most likely candidates for the tag were Welker, Talib and Vollmer. With Welker apparently on the verge of re-signing, we can reasonably deduce that means that the Patriots aren’t willing to pay Talib or Vollmer a top-dollar contract.

Vollmer would have commanded $9.8 million as an offensive tackle and Talib would have cost $10.8 million as a cornerback, and we know that the Patriots are a team that is very unlikely to match those totals.

Players Already Re-Signed or Acquired This Offseason

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In case you haven’t heard, Tom Brady signed a five-year contract extension recently. His new deal runs through the end of the 2017 season, and it should ensure that he plays his entire career in New England, thus avoiding the late-career fates of Brett Favre, Joe Montana and other all-time greats.

His average annual salary comes out to just over $14 million, and the contract guarantees him at least $57 million over the next five seasons.

The Patriots also signed former CFL standout Armond Armstead already this offseason on three-year deal worth $495,000 annually.

Armstead received mixed reviews coming out of USC in 2012, and he ultimately went undrafted before playing for the Toronto Argonauts. If nothing else, he will bring some much needed versatility to the Patriots defensive line and will bolster their depth at tackle and end.

Based on his raw physical talent, he may even develop into an important cog in New England’s defensive rotation for years to come.

Team Needs

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The Patriots’ most glaring need is at cornerback. With Dennard facing a likely suspension and possible jail time for assaulting a police officer (h/t JournalStar), Devin McCourty thriving at the safety position and with Talib and Arrington possibly headed out the door, the top corner on New England's depth chart right now is Ras-I Dowling, who simply can’t stay on the field, much less anchor the position.

McCourty could also move back to corner, but that would only create another hole at safety. The Patriots’ other starter, Tavon Wilson, showed flashes in 2012, but he’s still inexperienced and can’t be counted on to play the play the proverbial “center field” position just yet.

A team like New England with immediate championship expectations can’t afford to rely solely on a second-year safety. With Chung also likely gone, the team may be lacking just as much at the safety position as they are at corner.

Even with McCourty essentially being a “flex” defensive back, the Patriots would be best served to address both positions.

The Patriots also find themselves thin at wide receiver heading into this offseason. Assuming the reports of Welker nearing a deal are accurate, that makes him, Brandon Lloyd (who is likely to be cut) and Andre Holmes (he of two career receptions) as the only receivers on the roster who have ever caught an NFL pass.

Even if they re-sign Julian Edelman, which is a reasonable expectation considering his value as a return man, they still need somebody who can stretch the field and actually be a threat in four or five receiver sets.

The Patriots also sorely need a legitimate pass-rusher. Rob Ninkovich has played well and led the team with eight sacks last season, and Chandler Jones looked good last season as a rookie, but the team could still use another guy that can get to the quarterback.

Depending how events unfold with Vollmer and Donald Thomas, the team could also use more depth along their offensive line.

Potential Target: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB

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One of the best corners available in free agency, Rodgers-Cromartie is a free agent for the first time after playing out his rookie contract. 

The former Pro Bowler figures to make himself a pretty penny, too, possibly landing a multi-year deal worth upwards of $6 million annually. The 26-year-old is by no means elite, but he’s undoubtedly better than anyone currently on New England’s depth chart, with the possible exception of McCourty.

After starting his career in Arizona and making the Pro Bowl in his second season, he was eventually traded to the Eagles and suffered through two nightmarish seasons. The team inexplicably turned him into a glorified nickel back and he made only 11 starts, tallying three interceptions in two seasons.

It’s hard to hold Rodgers-Cromartie’s performance in Philadelphia against him. That team was completely dysfunctional, and long-time defensive guru Jim Johnson sadly passed away in 2009, handing the reins over to the inexperienced Juan Castillo.

After taking over, Castillo instituted a bizarre and completely ineffective zone coverage scheme, a scheme in which even former All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha fell flat on his face. A new system with a new team may be just what Rodgers-Cromartie needs to get his once promising career back on track.

Rodgers-Cromartie has been very durable throughout his career as well, missing only three games in five seasons. As a multi-year signing, he could be a fixture in New England’s secondary for years to come.

Potential Target: Chris Houston, CB

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Houston will never be confused for Darrelle Revis, but he’s a very good cornerback in his own right.

He has started 78 games during his six-year NFL career and was easily the Lions’ best cornerback over the past two seasons. His level of play is very consistent from week to week, and he represents one of the safest players at his position to target in free agency.

Despite totaling only 11 interceptions in his career, Houston has excellent ball skills, as evidenced by his outstanding track record of defending passes. He routinely ranks among the league leaders in that category, including 37 passes defended over the past three years.

The 28-year-old isn’t as flashy as some of the bigger names on the market, so his price tag may actually be reasonable enough for the Patriots to pull the trigger.

Potential Target: Brent Grimes, CB

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Bill Belichick is all about value, and Grimes could represent an excellent one. 

The former Pro Bowler is coming off an Achilles injury and only played in one game last season, so unlike other top corners on the market, Grimes could actually end up signing for less than his full worth.

If Grimes had been healthy in 2012, he would likely be the most expensive cornerback on the market right now. As it is, Sean Smithand likely Talibwill price themselves out of New England’s range, which could be a blessing in disguise if the 29-year-old Grimes falls into New England’s lap.

There is no doubt that Grimes is one of the better starting corners in the league, and he is the biggest potential bargain in free agency this offseason.

Potential Target: Quentin Jammer, CB

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The 33-year-old Jammer is in the twilight of his career and really isn’t worth signing as a starter at this point, but that doesn’t mean he’s useless. With so little depth on the roster, New England could make a play for Jammer as their dime corner.

His experience and veteran leadership would be welcomed in a young secondary that often looked lost in 2012.

Potential Target: Ed Reed, S

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Reed is one of the biggest prizes on the free agent market. While he isn’t the same player that he was in his prime, the 35-year-old future Hall of Fame safety can still make a major impact in the secondary, even if only for another year or two.

A player with his experience and leadership abilities would also make a profound impact in the locker room as well. He would not only fill a need at the safety position, but his mere presence would change the way that opposing teams attack the Patriots’ beleaguered secondary.

Also, the mutual respect between Reed and Belichick has been well-documented, so he would seem to be a great fit in New England.

Reed has said that he prefers to stay in Baltimore (h/t Baltimore Sun) and his name value may drive his price out of New England’s range. But, if they can land him on a two-year deal, it could be a match made in heaven.

Potential Target: Charles Woodson, S

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Much like Reed, Woodson is a future Hall-of-Famer who lost a step in 2012. Yet Woodson’s drop in production and speed was so pronounced that the Packers were forced to move him from cornerback to safety, a position that he is much better suited for at this point in his career.

Admittedly, banking on Woodson to play at a high-level is a gamble considering the fact that he turns 37 in October, but like Reed, he has a nose for the football and a treasure trove of NFL experience to share with a young secondary like New England's.

Woodson may have to swallow his pride and sign a one-year contract, but if he’s willing to do so,  the Patriots should try and squeeze one last productive season out of him.

Potential Target: Dashon Goldson, S

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Goldson is in his prime and is coming of his second consecutive Pro Bowl season and first All-Pro selection. He’s reportedly looking for a contract similar to the deal that San Diego’s Eric Weddle signed last season (h/t JSOnline), earning him roughly $8 million per season.

Goldson is an aggressive, playmaking safety with excellent durability and an enforcer’s attitude. He also has great ball skills and attacks receivers and tight ends like a tackle-seeking missile.

The 49ers had more than twice as many interception than passing touchdowns allowed, and Goldson was a huge reason why. He led the team with three interceptions last season and teamed up with fellow Pro-Bowler Donte Whitner to form the best safety duo in the NFL.

A hard-hitting safety like Goldson is exactly what New England needs to help restore its defensive identity. Even at $8 million per season, he would be a cornerstone of the defense and an immediate impact player.

Potential Target: Ramses Barden, WR

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The Patriots need a big receiver to help stretch the field and create size mismatches on the outside. Most of the team's current receivers tend to work underneath patterns and he doesn’t have the size to create mismatches against bigger stronger defensive backs.

That’s where Barden comes in.

The former New York Giant and current real-life giant stands at 6’6”, and while he isn’t a speed demon, he does run a faster 40-yard dash than any receiver or tight end currently on the Patriots’ roster.

He only has 29 career receptions and is clearly still a work in progress, but he labored behind Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith during his tenure in New York. There aren’t many receivers in the NFL who could crack that rotation.

I’ve been leading the charge here on B/R to bring attention to Barden, but even I can admit that he isn’t a starter. Even so, he can still have a tremendous impact as a role player downfield and in the red zone, giving Brady another massive target alongside Rob Gronkowski.

Signing Barden is a low-risk, high-reward move that I'd be thrilled to see the Patriots make.

Potential Target: Mohamed Massaquoi, WR

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Massaquoi would also give New England another excellent option on the outside. While he doesn’t quite block out the sun like Barden, he’s still 6’1” and has outstanding deep speed.

A former college teammate of A.J. Green and Matthew Stafford, Massaquoi led the SEC with eight touchdown receptions, finished third with 58 receptions and was fourth with 920 receiving yards as a senior in 2008.

In the NFL, Massaquoi hasn’t had nearly the same level of success. His best season was his rookie year in which he averaged 18.4 yards per reception and caught 34 passes with three touchdowns. Those are not exactly Pro Bowl numbers, but Massaquoi has been shackled by playing with some of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL during his four-year career in Cleveland.

Upgrading from the likes of Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy, Derek Anderson and Brandon Weeden could do wonders for the talented wideout. With Welker lining up in the slot and with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez occupying the rest of the defense, Massaquoi could find himself running free past the defense in a situation that pays huge dividends for the Patriots.

Potential Target: John Abraham, DE

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Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Abraham has quietly been one of the most dominant defensive linemen of his generation. He has recorded at least 10 sacks in a season seven times, finishing just short with 9.5 sacks in two other seasons.

Last season was one of those 10-sack seasons, so clearly he hasn’t lost the edge.

He’s also one of the most complete pass-rushers in the NFL, as he plays disciplined football and is rarely out of position. That is why he is so effective at getting to the quarterback. Furthermore, when he does get into the backfield, he has a tendency to make big plays, as evidenced by his six forced fumbles in 2012.

The NFL’s active leader in career sacks is far from finished and says that his goal is to pass Michael Strahan for fifth place on the all-time list. He currently sits 20 sacks behind Strahan, and there’s no reason to think that he can’t accomplish that goal.

Potential Target: Dwight Freeney, DE

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Freeney may be a one-dimensional pass rusher these days, but the seven-time Pro Bowler still has exceptional speed for his position and, at age 33, he may still have a couple productive years left in the tank.

With Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones and Kyle Love occupying blockers up front, and with Jones creating pressure in his own right, Freeney could find himself isolated in more one-on-one situations than ever before and thrive as a situational pass-rusher with the Patriots.

With so much talent already on their defensive front seven, the Patriots likely wouldn’t ask Freeney to do anything except generate pressure, making the team an ideal fit for the former All-Pro.

Osi Umenyiora would be a nice fit for the same reasons, although his durability concerns make Freeney the more likely choice.

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