Can the Patriots afford Aqib Talib?
Offense, defense, special teams...all phases of the game will present questions for Bill Belichick and the New England front office. The Patriots have an interesting cap situation going into 2014. How they spend that money will either keep their championship window open or hasten its closure.
Here is a look at each Patriots free agent and whether they should keep them, tag them or let them walk.
The New England Patriots have a lot of talent in the defensive backfield. Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Kyle Arrington have all had good seasons.
That said, each of them has benefited from having Aqib Talib in the fold. Despite his sketchy injury history—his hips have proven to be a problem the last two years—the Patriots should offer Talib a multiyear contract.
When Talib is on the field, Dennard and Ryan have matchups on easier receivers where they can be more aggressive and create turnovers. Arrington can stay in the slot, where he is able to blitz more often.
Unless it will break the bank, the Patriots need to keep No. 31 in the fold.
Bill Belichick is not sentimental. Edelman has given everything he has for the New England Patriots and deserves a big payday. He'll probably get a long-term, lucrative contract, but it might not be in New England.
Edelman should receive some attention on the free-agent market. The Houston Texans—with former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien in charge—will likely take a run at him.
With Danny Amendola, Josh Boyce and T.J. Moe available next year, the Patriots might be able to replace a 100-catch receiver—Welker and Edelman—for the second year in a row.
However, if Edelman is willing to take a home-team discount, the Patriots should welcome him back with open arms.
Verdict: Walk, reluctantly
Spikes' knee injury complicates things. It is very possible that he won't be signed until he is able to pass a physical, which could be well after the start of free agency and the NFL draft.
If that is the case, the market surrounding Spikes might soften. NFL teams crave certainty, and waiting until after the draft to assess needs is not the way teams are built.
With three talented linebackers—Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins—already slated to be on the 2014 roster, the Patriots can afford to be patient.
If the Patriots can sign Spikes to a low-value contract with an early out, they won't blink. If the price is too high, they'll let the mercurial Spikes walk.
Verdict: Walk, unless there is value
LeGarrette Blount has been the hammer that New England Patriots fans thought they were getting in Stevan Ridley. Ridley's ball-security issues opened up a door for Blount, and the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer barged through it at full-steam.
Blount has contributed on kickoff returns in addition to acting as the resident battering ram in New England. He has kept his pad level down since arriving and has shown deft moves for a man of his size. It is truly a wonder to watch him run the ball.
Unless Stevan Ridley's hands magically turn golden, it is doubtful that Bill Belichick would let a powerful runner like Blount make it to free agency.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wendell was the worst pass-blocking center in the league. That isn't good when your franchise rides on the health of your quarterback.
Expect the Patriots to explore all their options with regards to the interior offensive line, as right guard Dan Connolly hasn't been much better in pass protection.
If the Patriots can land a talented guard or center in free agency—think Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack—or the NFL draft—UCLA guard Xavier Su'a-Filo comes to mind—they might be prompted to let Wendell sign elsewhere.
The New England Patriots got into a tough situation with their prized tight ends in 2013. Aaron Hernandez was incarcerated, Rob Gronkowski was hurt and the likes of Zach Sudfeld and Jake Ballard just didn't work out.
Tom Brady made it work with the likes of Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan and D.J. Williams, but don't expect that to last.
Gronkowski will return in 2014—he won't be a free agent until 2020, and the Patriots are expected to target multiple tight ends in the draft. If anyone from the current 2013 roster returns, it will be Hoomanawanui.
Verdict: Keep Michael Hoomanawanui only
Fletcher won't get a lot of press come free agency, but he is a valuable contributor. His work in the nickel and dime defense has been very good, and his contributions on special teams often go unnoticed.
Unless a team gives him an unexpectedly good contract, Fletcher will probably end up with the team that signed him as an undrafted free agent. Adding him as depth behind Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins is a luxury that the Patriots would love to have.
Carter doesn't want to play anywhere but New England. Doug Kyed from NESN.com summed it up best:
The 13-year veteran is back with the Patriots after spending a year in Oakland and a month and a half waiting for a call from New England. The defensive end said it was “Patriots or retirement.” He wasn’t interested in signing with another team.
With rookie Michael Buchanan developing, Carter might have played his last season in New England. Unless injuries strike again next year and the Patriots need a reliable player, he will likely retire a Patriot.
Danny Aiken has a job in the NFL. The New England Patriots have a long snapper who rarely makes a mistake. Both sides are happy here.
There isn't much movement among long snappers in the free-agent market, but the Patriots could look to find a slightly cheaper option if money gets tight.