Assessing the Value of New England Patriots' Upcoming Free Agents
The New England Patriots once again came one game away from the Super Bowl, but like 30 other teams that fell short of the big game, they'll have a lot of big decisions to make if they want to achieve all their goals next year.
It starts with a wealth of decisions on their own players.
The Patriots have 11 players set to hit the unrestricted free-agent market, and at least two of those players—wide receiver Julian Edelman and cornerback Aqib Talib—could be set to cash in with big contracts.
Which players are worth keeping? Which players could the Patriots possibly move on from? Let's go down the list one by one.
Snap data and advanced statistics provided by Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required).
Role: As a between-the-tackles hammer, Blount earned 24 percent of the Patriots' offensive snaps. He played 210 of his 324 snaps on running downs and carried the ball a combined 182 times in the regular season and playoffs.
Production: Blount was the second-most productive running back on the team with 772 yards—falling just one yard short of Stevan Ridley's team-high 773 rushing yards. Blount also tied for the team lead with seven rushing touchdowns and had a team-high 5.05 yards per attempt.
Need: With Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden on the roster, the Patriots have enough in-house alternatives that they could justify moving on from Blount. Not to mention, while he may be the most physically aggressive of the Patriots' running backs, he's also the least versatile player of the group.
Injuries: Blount played all 16 games in 2013, and the few injuries he's suffered through his career (knee, groin and neck) have been of the minor variety.
Value grade: B-
Role: This season, Edelman ran 294 routes from the slot out of a possible 594 routes (49.5 percent). In a perfect world, he would serve primarily as a possession receiver, as evidenced by his 10.1 yards per reception. He is also the team's top punt returner, fielding 17 of the team's 39 returned punts this year.
Production: Edelman was Brady's most trusted receiver and was the target of 175 of Brady's 681 total pass attempts in 2013 (25.7 percent). He became only the third receiver in Patriots history to haul in over 100 catches and only the 10th player to total more than 1,000 receiving yards in a season. His work as a punt returner can't go unnoticed, either, and although this was his first year since 2009 that he didn't return a punt for a touchdown, he still averaged a very respectable 10.7 yards per return.
Need: The Patriots still have question marks all over their receiving corps. Aaron Dobson should continue to develop, and Danny Amendola might be more effective if and when he's no longer dealing with a torn groin, but it was clear by season's end that Edelman was the only receiver Brady fully trusted. It would be hard to reconcile the Patriots allowing Edelman to walk.
Injuries: Edelman has dealt with injuries throughout his career but played all 16 games this season for the first time in his career.
Value grade: A-
Role: Collie was used primarily as a slot receiver and was only with the team when injury concerns kept other players off the field or out of the lineup.
Production: Due in part to being on and off the roster this year, Collie finished the 2013 season with six catches for 63 yards. His production was limited, but with the experience, he gained at least a surface-level understanding of the offense.
Need: The Patriots' depth at receiver took hits during the season due to injuries to Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce and Danny Amendola. At full health, the Patriots had no need for Collie.
Injuries: Collie had a long history of concussion issues in his time with the Colts but avoided the injury bug in 2013.
Value grade: C-
Role: Ideally, Hoomanawanui would be the team's No. 3 tight end, but due to Rob Gronkowski's injuries and Aaron Hernandez's off-field issues, "Hooman" became the starting tight end. He was by far the team's most frequently used tight end, with 825 snaps. His primary role was as a blocker; he run-blocked on 421 snaps and pass-blocked on 146 snaps.
Production: Even as a starter, he still only hauled in 12 catches for 136 yards while finally recording his first touchdown with the Patriots.
Need: Given Gronkowski's injury history, the Patriots' backup plan at tight end has to improve this offseason. They could still use Hoomanawanui, but he should be in a rotational role as a blocking tight end.
Injuries: He has had some injury problems in his career. He battled through a calf injury in 2011 and suffered a concussion; his 2011 season ended when he tore his ACL. He also had a knee injury in November that caused him to miss time.
Value grade: C+
Role: Much like Hoomanawanui, Mulligan was never supposed to be the team's No. 2 tight end, but that's just how it worked out with the Patriots' messy situation at the position. His 292 snaps were the third-most of any Patriots tight end, but he became No. 2 when Gronkowski went down. Mulligan, like Hoomanawanui, found his way onto the field mainly as a blocking tight end.
Production: Mulligan wasn't often put in situations to be productive, spending most of his time doing the dirty work as a blocker, but he finished with two catches for 16 yards and a touchdown this year.
Need: After the Patriots add a No. 2 tight end (either of the H-back "move tight end" variety or another dual-threat tight end like Gronkowski), there may be a battle for the third and final roster spot between Mulligan and Hoomanawanui.
Injuries: Mulligan has not been injured in his career.
Value grade: C
Role: Wendell has been the team's starting center for two years and has worked his way up after spending the first three years of his career as a backup interior lineman.
Production: It's hard to measure the production for an offensive lineman, but Wendell graded negatively in both running and passing situations and allowed 24 hurries, eight hits and six sacks of Tom Brady, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Need: If the Patriots don't bring him back, they'll need to find a starting center. There had been a great deal of consistency at the position, with Dan Koppen starting for eight seasons, but if the team passes on Wendell, it would be moving onto its third starting center in the past four years.
Injuries: Wendell has not missed a start in his two years as a full-time starter.
Value grade: B
Role: Svitek played 289 snaps, the seventh-most among offensive linemen. Considering Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon essentially split time at right tackle, Svitek became in essence the team's sixth offensive lineman. He was primarily a backup to Cannon, who was injured in Weeks 12-14, and outside of those three starts, Svitek played just seven snaps.
Production: Despite such limited playing time, Svitek allowed five quarterback hurries, a hit and two sacks. The Patriots quickly inserted Svitek back into the lineup when Cannon returned from injury.
Need: The Patriots don't have a lot of depth at offensive tackle and would need to find a reliable backup offensive lineman just to have good depth. Svitek has starting experience and has played multiple positions, which typically is the ticket to a roster spot with the Patriots.
Injuries: Svitek missed the 2012 season with an arm injury that gave the Falcons pause enough to let him walk away as a free agent the following offseason.
Value grade: C+
Role: Carter was brought in following the Patriots' Week 7 loss to the Jets, a game where Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich both went wire-to-wire in a 93-snap effort. From Week 8 onward, Carter played 24.7 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps. Of his 196 snaps, 159 of them came as a pass-rusher.
Production: He registered eight quarterback hurries, six hits and two sacks, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), registering some form of pressure on 10.1 percent of his pass-rush attempts.
Need: The Patriots have a few young defensive ends whom they are likely hoping will develop; if Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette are expected to take steps forward, a soon-to-be-35-year-old defensive end in Carter becomes expendable.
Injuries: Carter's first tenure with the Patriots ended when he injured his knee in 2011; he injured his quad in 2012 as a member of the Oakland Raiders.
Value grade: C-
Role: Spikes is the team's thumper in the middle, playing primarily on running downs. He played 59.5 percent of the team's defensive snaps in the regular season, and 53.7 percent of his snaps came in run defense. Spikes has always been limited in pass defense.
Production: Spikes was reliable in missing just four tackles this year, and according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), 49 of his 68 tackles were stops (deemed unsuccessful plays for the offense). He also stuffed a run on 12.2 percent of his run snaps, which was the sixth-highest percentage for an inside linebacker.
Need: After signing Jerod Mayo to a big contract extension in 2011 and drafting Dont'a Hightower in the first round in 2012 and Jamie Collins in the second round in 2013, the Patriots have invested resources in the position lately. Hightower could move to inside linebacker, with Jamie Collins on the strong side and Jerod Mayo on the weak side.
Injuries: Spikes (knee) was placed on season-ending injured reserve before the playoffs, but there was some doubt from ESPN's Chris Mortensen as to whether that designation was placed due to injury reasons or other reasons. Regardless, Spikes has missed time, for one reason or another, in each of his four years in the league.
Value grade: C-
Role: Fletcher is a rotational linebacker who typically mans the middle in the dime defense and sometimes rotates in as one of two linebackers in the nickel defense. He played 234 snaps this season, with 121 in coverage and another 33 as a pass-rusher, so 65.8 percent of his defensive snaps came on passing downs.
Production: In a limited role, he finished the season with 31 total tackles and two sacks.
Need: The need for Fletcher begins with whether the Pats keep Brandon Spikes and how much they pay him. Fletcher fits nicely into the defense as a rotational linebacker and could be kept if the price is right, but it's fair to wonder how much the Patriots want to invest at linebacker after all the recent investments.
Injuries: Fletcher tore his ACL in the 2012 preseason, but he has been healthy for most of his four-year career.
Value grade: B-
Role: Talib was the team's No. 1 cornerback, often drawing the assignment of covering an opponent's biggest threat in the passing game. He played 856 snaps, the fourth-most for any defensive player, despite missing three games due to injury.
Production: On 75 total passes thrown his direction, Talib allowed 41 receptions (54.7 percent) and three touchdowns while intercepting four passes and breaking up seven, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He was playing at a shutdown level before injuring his hip in Week 6 against the New Orleans Saints.
Need: If it wasn't clear how badly the Patriots need Talib before, the AFC Championship Game opened a lot of eyes. He had largely taken Demaryius Thomas out of the game, allowing just one catch in more than a quarter's worth of action. After he went down, the Patriots lacked a physical cornerback to match up with any of Denver's receivers. Alfonzo Dennard is a solid cornerback, but he's best in a No. 2 role. Rookie Logan Ryan made some strides, but he is still better served in a rotational role.
Injuries: The Patriots re-signed Talib for a one-year deal last year, partly due to concerns over his durability. He has missed time in each of his six seasons, mostly due to injury. As mentioned earlier, he missed three games to a hip injury this year and missed most of the AFC Championship Game due to a knee injury.
Value grade: A-
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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