New England Patriots Final Free-Agency Outlook and Predictions

James ChristensenContributor IMarch 5, 2014

New England Patriots Final Free-Agency Outlook and Predictions

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    As the New England Patriots put the final touches on their plans for free agency, fans and media alike are driving themselves insane trying to figure out what Bill Belichick is going to be up to.

    I'll give you a clue. He is not going to collect talent. He is going to build a team.

    Here are just a few of the nuances Belichick will have to consider as he builds his plan for the free-agency feeding frenzy.

Salary-Cap Space

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Salary-cap room can change quickly, but the New England Patriots currently have $12.7 million available, according to OverTheCap.com.

    The Patriots could add cap space by extending Vince Wilfork and/or Logan Mankins and pushing some money due this year into the future. They could also create some room by cutting overpriced veterans like Adrian Wilson ($1.2 million), Isaac Sopoaga ($2.5 million) and Dan Connolly ($3 million).

    Expect New England to aggressively pursue avenues of freeing up cap space in the days leading up to the start of free agency.

Current Free Agents

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Likely to be Re-signed: Dane Fletcher, Danny Aiken

    They aren't big names, but Fletcher and Aiken—despite one horrible snap—have been solid performers for the New England Patriots. Neither will command a hefty payday, but their chemistry and familiarity with the system give them a good chance of sticking with the club.

     

    Could Go Either Way: Aqib Talib, Julian Edelman, Michael Hoomanawanui, LeGarrette Blount, Ryan Wendell

    Talib deserves to be in the "likely" section, but the recent talk about being paid like a top-of-the-market cornerback might paint the Patriots into a corner. If Talib isn't re-signed, that might leave the door open to a return from Edelman.

    Hoomanawanui and Blount filled their roles nicely and the Patriots would like to have them back, but both may find greener pastures elsewhere. If the Patriots don't feel comfortable with interior linemen in free agency or the 2014 NFL draft, they should hang on to the solid but underwhelming Wendell.

     

    On Their Way Out: Brandon Spikes, Andre Carter, Matthew Mulligan

    Carter didn't show that he had much left in 2013, and Mulligan was always just a stopgap player. Spikes, however, was an important part of the Patriots defense. It is doubtful he will return, but not because of his play. His antics away from the field and knee injury will make the Patriots think twice about bringing him back.

Team Needs

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    High Priority: Safety, Interior Offensive Line, "Y" Tight End, "Move" Tight End

    With Steve Gregory gone and Adrian Wilson a potential cap casualty, the safety position has taken on added significance. The rest of the needs are some of Bill Belichick's bailiwicks in the draft and free agency. Look for the Patriots to add some depth to the interior line and pick up some Gronkowski insurance at tight end.

     

    Medium Priority: Defensive Tackle, Coverage Linebacker, Cornerback

    Defensive tackle could be the No. 1 priority if the Patriots cut ties with Vince Wilfork or Tommy Kelly. If they are back in 2014, though, they combine with Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga as a decent foursome.

    With Brandon Spikes gone, look for New England to add a smaller linebacker who is more adept in coverage. They could also use some depth at cornerback—you can never have too many quality defensive backs.

     

    Low Priority: Quarterback, Offensive Tackle, Wide Receiver

    Tom Brady, Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer aren't going anywhere, and Marcus Cannon is a great reserve to have at the tackle position. That said, tackle and quarterback are positions you should always look to improve.

    While some see wide receiver as a huge need, I see a young trio of receivers that will only get better with some quality tight end play around them. Aaron Dobson could emerge as a legitimate "X" receiver if he can regain his health. Look for the Patriots to bring in a complementary receiver on a low-risk deal.

Potential Targets

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    Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

    Likely Targets: Red Bryant (DL, Seattle Seahawks), Emmanuel Sanders (WR, Pittsburgh Steelers), Scott Chandler (TE, Buffalo Bills), Hakeem Nicks (WR, New York Giants)

    Bryant could fill a handful of needs on the defensive line, while Sanders and Nicks are affordable options who could help with depth in the receiving core. Chandler has played well against New England and would be an upgrade in the receiving department over Michael Hoomanawanui.

     

    Wishful Thinking: T.J. Ward (SS, Cleveland Browns), Michael Johnson (DL, Cincinnati Bengals)

    Ward would be the perfect complement to Devin McCourty in the backfield. He is a devastating hitter—ask Rob Gronkowski's knee—and has the instincts and tenacity to be the Rodney Harrison of the 2014 squad.

    Michael Johnson is an animal. Doug Kyed from NESN.com summed up his value nicely:

    The Patriots had interest in Johnson last offseason before the Bengals franchised the massive defensive end. At 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, Johnson is the prototypical size for a Patriots edge defender.

    Johnson’s sacks decreased from 2012 (11.5) to 2013 (3.5), but he was still a solid run defender who could put pressure on the quarterback, even if he wasn’t finishing the job. Johnson won’t come cheap, but he would be worth the price to improve the pass defense.

    Patriots fans haven't heard the last about Johnson.

Free-Agency Predictions

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    I expect the New England Patriots to make a serious run at Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman Michael Johnson. If they can land him, they might be prepared to let both Talib and Edelman walk in free agency.

    The Patriots defense has struggled without Talib, but pressuring the quarterback makes even marginal cornerbacks look like stars. At this point in the NFL, it is easier and cheaper to replace a cornerback than it is to find guys who can rush the quarterback.

    If Bill Belichick eschews the Johnson route, I'll be surprised if they aren't able to strike a deal with Aqib Talib. With the salary cap expected to grow even further than the current $133 million figure in the future, they'll find a creative way to make it work.

    Two players I don't see coming back—unless certain conditions are met—to New England are Julian Edelman and Brandon Spikes. Unless Danny Amendola is released—something I can't see happening—I just don't see the need to spend another $25-30 million on a slot receiver. Edelman is a good receiver and a phenomenal special-teams player, but he'll get a much better contract somewhere else.

    I don't expect Spikes to get many looks in free agency until he can pass a physical. If that takes a while and the free-agency money dries up, he could end up taking a one-year contract in New England, although that would be predicated on the Patriots actually wanting to deal with him—without former linebackers coach Pepper Johnson as his filter—for another year.