Free agency is underway for Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
It's March again, which means NFL front offices are baiting their hooks and luring in free agents.
This game of "catch and release" is no different for the New England Patriots.
Head coach Bill Belichick and Co. are fishing for players who fit the system as well as the pocketbook. But a player's perceived value of themselves is often far different than the Patriots' perceived value of that player.
Needless to say, this is why they call the NFL a business.
Some free agents will strike pay dirt with new teams, while others will ultimately stay put. So who exactly will the Patriots retain, let go or acquire?
Here are nine predictions for New England as the heat of free agency gets underway.
Cornerback Sean Smith is no stranger to the Patriots. As a member of the Miami Dolphins, he has lined up against New England twice every regular season since 2009.
But now, the 25-year-old former Utah Ute is set for free agency. And by the time it's all said and done, he may not have to line up against the Patriots any longer.
At 6'3", 218 pounds, Smith is too big not to attract attention on the open market. He wants to be paid like a big-time free agent, too, according to Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald:
Smith is eager for the start of free agency so that he can "get paid," according to a source. That is his priority. He doesn't as much care where he plays as he does about being paid playing there.
The Patriots don't usually toss out the money for cornerbacks. In fact, WEEI.com's Christopher Price noted that not even former All-Pro Ty Law was able to secure a $10 million salary from New England. Granted, the Patriots wouldn't be one of the leading candidates for Smith's services if it weren't for some proximity to Smith's asking price.
Smith has amassed five interceptions and 40 pass deflections since being selected in the second round of the draft four years ago. While his ball skills are standard, Smith's biggest asset is his ability to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and come up to stifle the run game.
If New England can offer Smith a fair-market deal, the secondary would be getting a heady defender to either replace or team up with press-man corner Aqib Talib.
Offensive guard Donald Thomas has outgrown his backup role in New England.
When Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly went down with injuries in 2012, the 27-year-old UConn alum was there to fill the void. The Dolphins' 2008 sixth-round draft pick logged work in all 16 games and notched seven starts.
He deserves to start the other nine.
ProFootballFocus.com's Steve Palazzolo ranks Thomas as the No. 4 free-agent interior lineman. That number puts the 6'4", 305-pound blocker in interesting territory, since the Patriots already invested three years and $9.75 million in Connolly last offseason, per Spotrac.com.
ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates sees Thomas getting a shot elsewhere:
There are enough teams with a need at guard to think that Thomas will likely land the opportunity to start somewhere and be paid handsomely as a result of it.
Thomas would be a luxury signing for the Patriots. He has the tools to challenge Connolly for a starting gig. However, his odds of securing a long-term deal and a starting gig elsewhere far exceed his odds to do so in New England.
From a business standpoint, it just wouldn't make much sense for Thomas to re-sign with the Patriots.
After a five-year hiatus, veteran wide receiver Donte' Stallworth teamed back up with the Patriots in 2012. He was cut at the end of training camp, but re-signed before the Week 14 shellacking of the Houston Texans.
The 32-year-old speedster made an instant impact in his return versus Houston, as he connected with Tom Brady on a 63-yard touchdown pass to break things open.
And just like that, poof, he was gone.
Stallworth suffered a high-ankle sprain on the play and was placed on injured reserve soon after. The University of Tennessee product's reunion with New England may have seemed short lived, yet there's reason to believe he will be back next season.
According to Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald, the willingness is there:
The Patriots have expressed interest in re-signing Donte Stallworth, according to a source. But that transaction, if it happens, would be on the back burner for a bit while teams take care of the bigger players early in free agency.
Stallworth is not what he once was and has caught only 25 passes since 2010. That said, his familiarity with the system makes him a cost-effective player to have waiting in the wings, even though he's no sure bet to make the final roster come August.
If nothing else, Wes Welker's free-agency fate continues to be rollercoaster ride.
On Feb. 25, NFL.com's Ian Rapoport indicated that a long-term extension between Welker and the Patriots couldn't be ruled out before the start of free agency.
Then on March 5, Yahoo.com's Jason Cole reported that No. 83 has a "mild disdain" for the Patriots at the moment.
And, on March 10, the latest news hit the spin cycle: The Miami Herald's Armando Salguero spoke with a Dolphins source who reiterated some familiar words:
But, the source said, if Welker cannot return to New England with a good contract, he’d love nothing more than to stick it to the Patriots for not retaining him.
This contractual rift between the soon-to-be 32-year-old target and the Patriots organization may look bad. But by no means is their relationship beyond repair.
Let us not forget that in just six seasons with New England, the former Texas Tech receiver accumulated 672 receptions, 7,459 receiving yards and 37 touchdowns.
Welker is New England's all-time receptions leader and a five-time Pro Bowler. He's Tom Brady's go-to target on third down. He has also been compensated well for it—Welker made $9.515 million under the franchise tag this past season, cites Spotrac.com.
As uneasy as things may appear, Welker's success in New England's offense is unlikely to be matched anywhere else. Testing his value on the free-agent market won't change that.
In the words of CSNNE.com's Tom E. Curran, "ultimately, he'll be back here."
Between returning punts, kicks, playing defensive back and even catching passes, Julian Edelman has lined up wherever Coach Belichick has asked him to.
But Belichick still hasn't entrusted Edelman with the starting receiver job.
The 2009 seventh-round pick out of Kent State has caught 69 passes in four years with the Patriots. He could probably amass that production in one season elsewhere—that is, if he can stay off the injury report.
Entering the prime of his career, the 5'10", 200-pound slasher has been an adept slot receiver when healthy. And according to Evan Silva of Rotoworld.com, he should find a willing team on the market:
Slot receiver is a critical position in new Chiefs coach Andy Reid's offense; Jason Avant was his sure-handed slot man in Philly. Edelman, 27 in May, is looking for more playing time than the Patriots can offer. For a team with so many receiver questions other than Dwayne Bowe, Edelman could give them some stability as a No. 2 option.
Edelman has also been in contact with the Cleveland Browns, reports Mary Kay Cabot of The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Edelman is seen as a potential replacement for Joshua Cribbs, a Swiss Army knife in his own right.
As far as New England's side of things, Edelman's duties largely hinge on what happens with Wes Welker. Yet it's hard to believe the former quarterback wouldn't want an uptick in playing time wherever he signs.
Perhaps teams like Kansas City or Cleveland would give Edelman his best odds of seeing that come to fruition.
David Nelson is a lanky pass-catcher with a knack for the end zone. For that alone, he should be on the Pats radar.
At 6'5", 214 pounds, Nelson would give New England's passing game another dimension near the goal line, where Rob Gronkowski was missed last season.
A one-time Florida Gator, Nelson went undrafted back in 2010. At that time, the Patriots were one of the teams interested, as Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com reports:
Bill Belichick called him after the draft in 2010 as a recruiting push to sign him as a rookie free agent. Belichick has since been complimentary of Nelson (6-5, 214), whose presence in the red zone could be a boost.
Nelson ultimately signed with AFC East rival, the Buffalo Bills.
Playing in 32 contests over three seasons with Buffalo, Nelson caught a total of 94 balls for 1,042 yards and eight touchdowns. His 2012 campaign never really got started, however, since the 26-year-old tore a knee ligament in Week 1 and was placed on injured reserve.
Coming off of injury, Nelson acknowledged that he doesn't expect to be one of the marquee names in free agency (per Tim Graham of The Buffalo News)
There will be a demand for proven receivers on the first few days of free agency...It probably will be a lengthy process for me.
Nelson is far from damaged goods, though, and he will be on a roster before too long. Why not New England? Belichick loves the program down in Gainesville, and Nelson fits a need at wideout.
According to Greg A. Bedard of The Boston Globe, multiple sources say New England is trying to get a deal "done soon" with cornerback Aqib Talib.
The Patriots are not alone, however.
Mike Garafolo of USA TODAY reports that the Washington Redskins are making a push for the former 27-year-old Kansas Jayhawk. Washington general manager Bruce Allen and secondary coach Raheem Morris are familiar with Talib. They drafted him during their days with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Washington will provide some competition for Talib's services, which isn't good news for the Patriots. After all, New England gave up a fourth-round pick for the ex-Buc last fall.
The team has missed when it comes to drafting cornerbacks in years past—Darius Butler and Terrence Wheatley come to mind—so Talib has proven to be a good acquisition.
A good, but not great, acquisition.
ProFootballFocus.com's Sam Monson notes that Talib, "despite playing only 592 snaps found a way to allow 775 yards last year in total." According to Pro Football Focus (h/t MassLive.com's Nick Underhill), that was the second most coverage yards per snap of any NFL cornerback last season.
Without question, the Patriots need help at corner. But if Washington is willing to out pay New England, then letting Talib leave is exactly the type of move the Patriots must be prepared to make.
The Patriots won't find a better free-agent right tackle than the 6'8", 320-pound anchor already in their midst: Sebastian Vollmer.
The former second-round pick has started 44 games for New England since he was selected in the 2009 draft. He's also coming off his strongest campaign to date.
ProFootballFocus.com's Ben Stockwell regards the German native as the No. 1 tackle available this offseason due to his versatility at both tackle spots and his consistency against elite pass-rushers:
The truly elite “franchise” left tackles don’t hit the open market, that’s why you’re not seeing Ryan Clady on this list. However, Vollmer leads a class of free agent tackles who are in the class of ‘very good’ and, more is the point, excellent value for money in a position that will not directly win you football games.
Vollmer has fought off nagging back problems and even underwent arthroscopic knee surgery this February. Those health woes aren't exactly going to help him on the market, as he has missed 13 contests over the last four years.
Nonetheless, Vollmer is an athletic blocker who can close off tacklers in a variety of ways. If the Patriots want consistency on the right side of the line, it starts with the former 28-year-old Houston Cougar.
Desmond Bryant's name has been linked to the Patriots for the better part of the last two months. But the possibility of the Harvard alum journeying back to Massachusetts may be more than just hearsay.
According to a tweet from Yahoo.com's Jason Cole on March 11, the Patriots are one of at least six teams interested in the 6'6", 311-pound defensive lineman.
With just one look at Bryant, it's clear that he has the frame to get Belichick's attention; the 2009 undrafted free agent has the tools to be a matchup nightmare. WEEI.com's Christopher Price vetted the Raider:
This is a guy who filled in for Richard Seymour, who was able to play multiple spots along New England’s defensive front in his eight seasons with the Patriots. While you’re not going to be getting a 27-year-old Seymour, you might not be too far off with someone like Bryant.
Whenever Seymour's name comes up, you know you're in good company. Bryant can be utilized as a 3-4 defensive end and a 4-3 defensive tackle. A smart player who's disruptive from the 5-technique, Bryant posted 71 tackles and nine sacks over the last two seasons.
Although those numbers aren't extraordinary, that's just the type of production New England needs out of a rotational D-lineman. Bryant is a good fit for the Pats plans—and an affordable option at that.