Signed: Devin McCourty, Steven Gregory, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Duron Harmon, Logan Ryan, Tavon Wilson, Kanorris Davis, Nate Ebner, Justin Green, Adrian Wilson
Free Agent: Aqib Talib
Cornerback Aqib Talib is New England’s top priority in free agency, and the Patriots shouldn’t waste time in re-signing him. Yet Patriots owner Robert Kraft knocked Talib in a radio interview with WBZ AM, per NFL.com.
In what sounds like an attempt to drive down Talib’s price in the open market, Kraft said, “He wasn't on the field a lot of the time since he's been with us.”
That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Talib missed three regular-season games in 2013 and the final two games of the 2012 regular season due to injuries. What hurts him was leaving two consecutive AFC Championship Games early due to injuries.
Despite the injuries, all anyone has to do is look at the difference Talib made for the defense when he was on the field. He shut out New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green was limited to five receptions for 61 yards. Talib deflected the final pass to secure the win over the Atlanta Falcons.
He was the Patriots’ defensive MVP and arguably the AFC’s best corner through six games. Confirmation of his importance to New England is how the AFC Championship Games changed after he was injured.
Go ahead and say he missed some games, but it's unfair to say he wasn’t on the field "a lot of the time." The bottom line is that the defense was not the same without him. So Kraft should watch what he says. Negotiating through the media with Talib could drive him away.
New England hopes to re-sign him on its terms. Good luck. Thanks to the Seattle Seahawks showing the value of cornerbacks who excel in press coverage, Talib’s price has gone way up. He could be offered up to $10 million per year as a free agent.
Even if he gives the Patriots a hometown discount, he could demand around $7 million, which would be a 40 percent increase from the $5 million one-year deal he signed in 2013.
If he is too rich for the Patriots, New England has the depth to replace him in the starting lineup, but the quality will slip. Rookie Logan Ryan led the team with five interceptions. With good size (5’11”, 195 pounds), he should be the favorite to start at left corner if Talib doesn’t return.
Alfonzo Dennard is solid, but injuries hurt his play later in the season. Denying him a promotion to left cornerback shouldn’t be viewed as a slight. He is a great fit right where he is. The same goes for Kyle Arrington—when healthy, he’s performs well. He will continue to man the slot.
At safety, Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory have developed into a good pair. They aren't big hitters, but they are intelligent players who can quickly decipher and diagnose offenses. Coming up fast is Duron Harmon, another Rutgers rookie who turned in a strong season. He leapfrogged Tavon Wilson, who took a step back in his sophomore season and put his tenure with the Patriots at risk.
Tavon isn’t the only Wilson with an uncertain future with New England. Adrian Wilson was signed to be a hybrid safety/linebacker for the defense but spent the year on injured reserve. He is expected to be ready for OTAs.
If Wilson is a liability in pass coverage like he became with the Arizona Cardinals (and if linebacker Jamie Collins, a former Missouri safety, can expand his versatility to include occasional defensive back), he won’t be the big nickel in the Patriots secondary.
There will be interesting options in free agency if New England wants to improve the safety position. The NFL waits to see if the Denver Broncos will cut Champ Bailey, who is scheduled to earn $10.5 million in 2014. If the Broncos do so, Bailey could fit in with the Patriots at safety now that he’s open-minded about switching positions, per Sports Illustrated.
Another possibility is former Detroit Lion Louis Delmas. He comes with a premium price, but at 26 years old, he could be a player who is worth signing long term. His injury history is a concern, though.
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