Keeping Aqib Talib figures to be a priority for the Pats this offseason.
Though the New England Patriots are singularly focused on their current playoff run, the offseason is imminently arriving. The Patriots coaches are primarily concerned with game-planning for potential opponents, but there is also an eye directed towards free agency and the draft process.
So while the story of the 2013 Patriots is not yet complete, the groundwork for the 2014 season is already being laid. Fortunately, New England is in solid standing in terms of its cap space, with enough flexibility to aggressively seek extensions for current players or to pinpoint targets from other teams.
But a team's cap space status is like a treadmill, and the Patriots must keep moving in order to stay ahead of future salary obligations and preserve that flexibility. With that in mind, here are five contracts the Patriots should consider re-evaluating ahead of the 2014 season.
Vince Wilfork will enter the final year of his contract next season, after which he could become an unrestricted free agent. Though the big defensive tackle will turn 33 next year and is coming off of an Achilles injury, there is obviously no way the Pats would cut the foundation of their defensive line and one of the most respected voices in the locker room.
But Wilfork's cap hit next year is $11.6 million, the second-highest on the team behind Tom Brady. That number is also the fourth-highest among all defensive tackles, and only the Detroit Lions have more overall money committed to the position than the Pats.
Wilfork is obviously worth his standing as one of the league's elite defensive tackles, but the Patriots would be prudent to extend his contract. Not only would that reduce next season's cap hit, but it would ensure that New England locks him up for the rest of his prime years, if not his entire career.
Any extension likely wouldn't happen until camps begin, as the Pats should at least ensure themselves that Wilfork is fully recovered from his injury. But New England has sorely missed Wilfork's presence in the middle of the defense, and there are few players in the league who could replace his three-down two-gapping efforts. Assuming there are no setbacks, Wilfork should spend the rest of his career in Foxboro.
In Wilfork's absence, Devin McCourty has arguably become the Patriots' most respected defensive leader. McCourty provides the safety net at the back end of the defense; while Aqib Talib's man coverage skills are indispensable, McCourty's smarts and ball skills are the other prevailing factor allowing the Pats to play much more aggressive man coverage schemes this season.
Next season is the final year on McCourty's contract, and he is probably the first priority in terms of players due for an extension. As the former first-rounder is still on his rookie deal, he comes at a bargain of just $920,000 in base salary. Adding in bonuses, his 2014 cap hit amounts to a meager $2.1 million, the 18th-highest on the roster.
McCourty failed to make the Pro Bowl this year, but that is simply a product of the public not catching on to his newfound status as an elite safety. McCourty has the highest overall grade among all safeties this year at plus-18.7, and opposing quarterbacks have targeted the safety just 27 times in his 585 coverage snaps, a 21.7 cover snaps per target rate that is sixth-best among safeties.
As a result, the Pats will likely have to pony up for someone who is already one of the league's best free safeties. Kansas City's Eric Berry is the top-paid safety in the league, and Berry's contract runs six years for $50 million, which amounts to a cap hit of $11.6 million next year. The Pats are more likely to start the negotiating around Eric Weddle's contract numbers, which come in at six years for $40 million.
But McCourty is one of the true embodiments of what the Patriots look for in a player, and it's hard to imagine him getting away, especially at his age.
When the Pats traded a fifth-rounder for Isaac Sopoaga and a sixth-round pick, they thought they were getting the big run-stuffer they desperately needed after Vince Wilfork's injury. The Patriots do have that now, but it has come in the form of street free agent Sealver Siliga, rather than the 32-year-old veteran.
After a solid New England debut against the Steelers, Sopoaga's presence has steadily disintegrated since. After playing a combined 68 snaps in his first two games, Sopoaga played just 52 over the next four games, and he was a healthy scratch for the final two contests of the regular season.
For someone who has played in a 3-4 scheme his whole career, which typically requires two-gap concepts from defensive tackles, Sopoaga looked extremely uncomfortable fulfilling the same role in Foxboro.
The Pats still have Wilfork and Tommy Kelly under contract for next season and may add reinforcements through the draft. It would be one thing if Sopoaga could come back as cheap camp competition, but his 2014 cap hit is $3.75 million, tied with Sebastian Vollmer for the ninth-highest mark on the team. Needless to say, that is far above his value.
The Pats can save $2.75 of that by shedding Sopoaga, as his cap hit is only $1 million. That is certainly a tenable amount of dead money to swallow, and the Patriots would be better served reallocating those funds towards other players.
112 catches, 1,243 yards, six touchdowns.
That was Wes Welker's average stat line over six seasons as a Patriot. Julian Edelman's 2013 line: 105 catches, 1,056 yards, six touchdowns.
Needless to say, Edelman has established himself as an indispensable part of the offense. Some fans may balk at the notion of splurging for the breakout slot receiver, especially given Danny Amendola's presence on the roster. However, with the two shifty receivers as the crux of their post-Gronk offense, the Patriots have been an absolute nightmare to defend in the short and intermediate passing game. Having both players allows Josh McDaniels to contrive myriad rubs, picks and other concepts designed to get them the ball in space with room to rack up the YAC.
Yes, the Patriots could theoretically be a more potent passing game if they were more multifaceted, but it's not worth damaging the team's greatest offensive strength in pursuit of that goal. Edelman might command something similar to what Amendola got from New England this past offseason, a five-year, $28.5 million pact.
New England can easily afford that, while not compromising other priorities on the rest of the roster. Amendola has only the 35th-highest cap hit among wide receivers, and the Patriots are 22nd in the league in terms of money committed to the position.
The intermediate timing routes and quick screens are staples of the New England passing game, and the Pats would be wise not to let their greatest asset at the position leave for the second straight year.
But as important as Edelman is to the offense, Aqib Talib has proven himself to be the MVP of the defense this season. A unit that could have collapsed after injuries to Wilfork and Jerod Mayo stayed afloat, largely because Talib proved he was a foundation piece that Bill Belichick could reshape the defense around.
Look, Talib hasn't been impermeable this year—in particular, he had a rough month after the bye, during which he gave up 19 receptions for 336 yards and two touchdowns in a four-game stretch. But he's been excellent overall, for the most part, as opposing quarterbacks have a cumulative 72.3 quarterback rating when targeting Talib this season, 19th-best in the league and easily tops among Pats corners. And he's rebounded nicely the last three weeks, conceding just six catches for 74 yards and no scores.
Talib has held up his end of the bargain on his one-year "prove it" deal, and now the onus is on New England to ensure they reward him properly. It will be interesting to see if last offseason's depressed cornerback market holds up. If it rebounds, Talib might seek the five-year, $50 million contract that Cortland Finnegan and Joe Haden have snagged in the past.
The Patriots would likely balk at that price tag, and if some team is willing to break the bank for Talib, New England will let him walk. But both sides are better off reaching a compromise—Talib is the Pats' best man-to-man corner since Ty Law, and New England has rejuvenated Talib after off-field issues in Tampa threatened to submarine his career.
The cornerback represents the defensive centerpiece for not only New England's playoff run, but also its offseason plan.