Setting Odds for Patriots Signing Their Top 10 Free-Agent Targets
The New England Patriots once again face an offseason where some of their top weapons from the previous year are set to hit free agency, along with a collection of other key contributors.
With limited cap space, the Pats will have to get creative with their current contracts to be able to retain all of their free agents and sign some impact players from outside the organization.
Given the talent that the Pats might lose, free agency will be vitally important and could significantly change the dynamic of the team. Add in the uncertainty regarding the potential health of Vince Wilfork, Rob Gronkowski and Tommy Kelly, and the Pats have a lot of questions to answer in the coming months.
Here are our odds on which free agents will be back or brought into Foxborough in 2014.
Stats via ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.
Dane Fletcher: 75 Percent
When Jerod Mayo went down in Week 6 against the New Orleans Saints, many, including myself, believed it would finally be time for Dane Fletcher to get a shot playing a significant role in the base defense. That never really came to materialize.
He would play 57 of 90 snaps in Week 12 against the Denver Broncos but never played more than 50 percent in any other game and would play just 23 snaps on defense in the Patriots' two playoff games.
It seems clear that the Patriots' coaching staff does not view Fletcher as a building block on defense, but he certainly has value on special teams, one of the most underrated parts of the game. He was second on the Patriots in special teams tackles with 11.
Fletcher now has four years experience in the Patriots' system, is a capable depth player if needed and can continue to be a core player on special teams.
There's a lot of value in that, and the Patriots know it.
Expect him to return.
Emmanuel Sanders: 10 Percent
Sanders now hits full free agency, leaving many to wonder if the Pats will take a shot at him again.
The Patriots went ahead and drafted two rookie wide receivers in 2013 and found another potential gem in Kenbrell Thompkins via rookie free agency. The three rookie wideouts all flashed at various points in the season and should take a significant step forward in 2014.
Sanders is coming off the best year of his career with 67 catches for 740 yards and six touchdowns and also brings kickoff return ability, something the Patriots always seem to need. He has great speed that would bring a different element to the Pats receiving corps, but at what price?
The Pats need to give their second-year wideouts, including T.J. Moe, who is coming off an Achilles tear, and Mark Harrison, who was on PUP all of 2013, a chance to grow and improve in their system. They didn't have this kind of young depth in 2013, and that's why they'll be unlikely to try for Sanders again.
Ryan Wendell: 33 Percent
Ryan Wendell has been the Patriots' starting center for the last two seasons and enters a crossroads as he hits free agency.
In 2013, Wendell's performance dipped in both metrics. He finished with a minus-6.8 run-blocking grade and a minus-14.5 pass-blocking grade. His worst run-blocking performance of the season came in the AFC Championship, where he put up a minus-4.2 and was thoroughly dominated by Terrance Knighton.
Wendell was clearly trending downward this season, but with no ready replacement and limited depth behind him, can the Pats afford to simply let him walk and make the starting center job an open competition? There are certainly a number of quality centers hitting the free-agency market this offseason.
There's also a possibility that Dan Connolly, who started 2011 at center, could restructure his deal and move back to that position. But that would leave a hole at right guard.
Perhaps the safest bet is to bring Wendell back on a low-end, team-friendly contract as a fallback option in case the exterior free-agent market proves to be too expensive. The Patriots will not go into the draft without a potential starting center, even if it is Wendell.
That alone might be reason enough to bring Wendell back, but the starting job certainly will not be handed to him.
Lamarr Houston: 33 Percent
The one devastating injury the Patriots avoided in 2013 was to their starting defensive ends, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. The depth behind Ninkovich and Jones was paper-thin, with veteran Andre Carter and rookie Michael Buchanan being the only other options at the position. Neither made enough of an impact.
There's no question, the Patriots need another defensive end to rotate with Ninkovich and Jones and also contribute as a pass-rusher in sub-packages.
If Buchanan doesn't develop, they might even need two.
Houston fits the bill, as the Pats have a long history of taking castoffs from the Raiders. Houston had six sacks in 2013 and consistent pressure on the quarterback with 16 QB hits and 41 hurries. This is just the kind of player the Patriots would love to add.
Unlike other defensive end free agents like Michael Johnson and Greg Hardy, Houston is unlikely to break the bank and is just hitting his prime. He'd be a great fit with the Pats and enable Ninkovich and Jones to stay fresher over the course of games and the season.
Brandon Spikes: 10 Percent
Brandon Spikes has been one of the most interesting characters to come through Foxborough during the Belichick regime. There were his multiple fines for wearing red cleats, a decision to stay away from the team during the offseason in 2013 and a mysterious knee injury that finally landed him on injured reserve just before the playoffs, with speculation swirling about the reasoning.
Spikes brings an intimidating presence to the middle of the defense and can shut down the opposition's run game almost single-handedly. Despite his limited range in coverage, the attitude and vicious hits Spikes brings are almost enough to offset his weaknesses.
However, it's a passing league, and with his continued off-the-field issues, it seems like the Patriots might be ready to move on from Spikes. With the emergence of rookie linebacker Jamie Collins and the ability of Dont'a Hightower to slide to middle linebacker, the Pats are well-stocked to replace Spikes in their base defense.
They might miss his run-stopping presence, but eliminating distractions is always a primary goal for Bill Belichick. That will likely mean the end of Spikes' days in New England.
LeGarrette Blount: 65 Percent
LeGarrette Blount was acquired during the draft last year in what seemed like a minor deal. Many, like myself, saw Blount as a long shot to make the roster.
What did he do? He just got better each week until he was the Patriots' lead back heading into the playoffs. In Week 17 against the Buffalo Bills and the divisional round against the Colts, Blount put up 537 total yards of offense and six touchdowns, breaking team records in both games.
Blount had a disappointing six yards on five carries against the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, an indication that his performance in the previous two games were likely outliers, but Blount's consistent improvement throughout the year showed how much he flourished under New England's system.
Teams will certainly be interested in Blount in free agency—big backs who can move like him are rare, and his time under Bill Belichick certainly helped rehabilitate his image.
The Patriots have Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden under contract for next season, so the cupboard behind Blount is not bare, but he brings a dimension that none of the other running backs has.
Blount knows what he has in New England, and with Ridley, Bolden and Vereen entering the last years of their rookie contracts, there should be a deal that works for both sides to protect against a full turnover next offseason.
If his best friend Aqib Talib stays it will only be that much more enticing for Blount to remain in New England as well.
Julian Edelman: 40 Percent
To say Julian Edelman was the only reliable weapon in the Pats' 2013 arsenal might be an understatement. Edelman stayed healthy for the first time in a his career and became Tom Brady's favorite target in a breakout season.
He finished with 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns and hits the free-agency market after proving it on the one-year "prove it" deal the Pats gave him last offseason.
This leaves the Pats with a decision to make on their leading receiver for a second year in a row. If they had it to do over, would they give Edelman the kind of contract they gave Danny Amendola last offseason? Perhaps.
But they chose Amendola, and there is only so much money they'll want to allot to slot receivers. Let's not forget that Edelman had nowhere near the kind of production he had in 2013 in prior years. With full health and four years of practice with Tom Brady, he finally emerged. It's not unlikely that with time and health Amendola could have the same kind of production.
Edelman should get some interest on the free-agency market, especially from former offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien in Houston. But will other teams be scared off by Edelman's single year of production that came with an all-time great quarterback? They'll have to weigh those as major factors, and that could be enough to keep Edelman's price in the reasonable range for the Patriots.
Teams never want to lose weapons, especially homegrown ones coming off their breakout year, but the Pats have enough pieces in place, both in personnel and with their system, to replace Edelman should he walk.
But it seems more likely than not that someone else will be willing to pay just a little more than the Patriots will.
Scott Chandler: 70 Percent
The Patriots have just Rob Gronkowski under contract for the 2014 season at the tight end position, and he is coming off an ACL injury. Yes, figuring out their tight ends will be one of the highest priorities for the Pats this spring.
Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan could be back to provide depth, but neither are impact players, especially in the passing game.
The Pats could look to Scott Chandler of the Buffalo Bills, a player they are well-familiar with in recent seasons. Chandler has missed just three games in the last three seasons, and in six games against the Patriots he has 21 catches for 259 yards and four touchdowns.
Chandler is just the kind of big body (6'7", 270 lbs) who can be an every down "Y" tight end in the Pats' offensive system, while also providing another big target for Tom Brady in the end zone.
He and Gronkowski would team up to be an intimidating pair of tight ends. Chandler should be a priority for the Pats in free agency; he's just what they need.
Arthur Jones: 80 Percent
With Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly's futures uncertain, the Patriots need to add some veteran depth to their defensive line. Regardless that his brother Chandler is already on the Pats, Arthur Jones is a versatile fit who could be used in a number of different ways by Bill Belichick.
Jones has the ability to play both defensive tackle and defensive end depending on the situation and could be part of a solid rotation that would love to have Wilfork and Kelly back to their old ways but can't count on it. He had 8.5 sacks in his last two seasons and an impressive 15.7 rating in 2013 from ProFootbalFocus.com.
The Pats developed some young depth along the defensive line with all their injuries in 2013, but Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga and Joe Vellano alone can't be relied upon. A experienced and talented front seven player like Jones would be the perfect addition to the group and valuable insurance should Wilfork and Kelly be limited in their returns.
At 27 years old, Jones is just entering his prime and has Super Bowl-winning experience. He'd be a great reinforcement and is worth a long-term deal.
Aqib Talib: 75 Percent
The difference that Aqib Talib made for the Patriots defense was evident from his first game with the team in 2012 against the Indianapolis Colts when he returned an interception for a touchdown. Talib enabled the Patriots to finally shift away from a majority of passive zone defenses and move to more man-to-man schemes, while also lining up against the opposition's top target.
In today's NFL, the quarterbacks are too good to constantly play zone against them, and Talib allowed the Patriots defense to go to the next level against the pass.
Talib's impact wasn't even best measured by his own play—although he certainly had plenty of stellar outings in 2013, locking down elite weapons like Julio Jones, Jimmy Graham and A.J. Green—but by the trickle-down effect he had across the rest of the secondary.
Devin McCourty could move to safety full-time, Kyle Arrington could move to the slot full-time and Alfonzo Dennard came along as a quality outside corner. The Pats had tried many times to find a cornerback like Talib but had no luck since the days of Ty Law.
Talib's injury issues are certainly concerning, but considering what else is out there and how the Patriots defense was systematically picked apart by Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship without Talib, there are not many other suitable options on the table.
Talib reinvented himself in New England, winning an offseason participation award and becoming one of the team and local media's favorite characters. He's had two disappointing ends to what had started out as promising seasons, so he still has much to prove. If the Patriots can retain him, they'll ensure their defense will be best-equipped to face Manning and the other elite quarterbacks in the coming seasons.
There's always a chance another team will blow Talib away with a top-dollar offer, but the Pats would be wise to match any reasonable outside offer.
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