Position: Inside/middle linebacker (off the line)
Players under contract for 2014: Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Chris White, Steve Beauharnais, Chris White, Ja'Gared Davis, Taylor Reed
Level of need: Moderate-to-low
Projected top targets: Dane Fletcher (Patriots), Ramon Humber (Saints), Dekoda Watson (Buccaneers).
Why Fletcher fits: He has spent the first four years of his career with the Patriots, making the transition from college defensive end to NFL linebacker/special teamer. He led the Patriots in special teams tackles last season with 15.
Why Humber fits: Similar to Fletcher, he was a solid special teams performer for the Saints in 2013, recovering two onside kicks and totaling six solo tackles in the kicking game.
Why Watson fits: One of the Buccaneers’ best special teams players, he’d project as a core member of the kicking game while providing depth on defense.
Other names of note: Jon Beason (Giants), Karlos Dansby (Cardinals), Stephen Nicholas (Falcons), Daryl Smith (Ravens), Brandon Spikes (Patriots), Jonathan Vilma (Saints), Wesley Woodyard (Broncos).
Franchise tag: None.
Market conditions: The most likely avenue to find a potential three-down linebacker is through the draft. There are a few starting-caliber options in free agency who wouldn’t project to help on special teams, which will limit their value to some.
Questions to answer at the position: Is Jamie Collins ready for a prominent three-down role? How is Jerod Mayo’s recovery from a season-ending torn pectoral muscle last October? Who replaces the hard-hitting edge brought by Brandon Spikes? Will Dont’a Hightower take another step forward in his development?
2. Talib and the Redskins: Comprehensive thoughts here from ESPN.com NFL Nation Redskins reporter John Keim on the Redskins’ interest in Talib.
3. Cornerback market as it relates to Talib: Big bucks have been dished out to free-agent cornerbacks Brent Grimes in Miami (4 years, $32 million, $16 million guaranteed) and Sam Shields in Green Bay (4 years, $39 million, $12.5 million signing bonus), which reflects a significant uptick in the market at the position compared to 2013. I think it’s fair to say those pacts strengthen Talib’s negotiating position, while at the same time putting more pressure on agents for top cornerbacks like Talib, Vontae Davis and Alterraun Verner to deliver a similar/better deal when their current teams might be offering less. One thing about the deals for Grimes and Shields -- they were handed out by their current team, not a team that wasn't as familiar with them.
4. Griffen and Bryant off the board: Two “projected targets” in our “free-agent fit” series -- defensive tackle Red Bryant (Jaguars) and defensive end Everson Griffen (Vikings) -- have reportedly reached agreements. Griffen reportedly received $20 million in bonuses/guarantees, which reflects his status as a rising player, and if I knew the market would be that high I wouldn’t have made the connection to the Patriots.
5. Mallett's status in the spotlight: The Texans have reportedly talked about the possibility of trading for Ryan Mallett, but those talks aren’t expected to turn into any action, according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. Mallett enters the final year of his contract in 2014. McClain details some of the quarterback options for the Texans, and we would add our own spin on it: If Oakland truly is interested in Matt Schaub, how about a straight-up trade of Schaub for Matt McGloin? Could be a win-win scenario, as Oakland gets a veteran quarterback who might best help win games in 2014 as Dennis Allen (head coach) and Reggie McKenzie (general manager) are on the hot seat, while O'Brien gets a quarterback he worked with at Penn State and knows well to serve as a bridge until the Texans, in Year 1 of the building process, figure out the best long-term answer (assuming it isn't McGloin himself).
1. Linebacker Brandon Spikes confirmed the obvious on Friday, stating it would be best for him and the Patriots to have a fresh start by making a split. That had me thinking back to Spikes’ rookie season, and the initial days of training camp, when Bill Belichick was expressing excitement about Spikes. Some of the soundbites:
“He sees some things that I’m not sure everybody sees.”
“I’m not really sure what his style is … It’s kind of not by the book but [it’s] effective.”
“I think he’s got some unique skills.”
“He’s an interesting player to coach.”
Many of us in the media, including myself, made a fairly big deal over Belichick’s remarks that day because they were a bit different from what we have traditionally heard from Belichick about rookies. Looking back, the remarks were spot-on and sum up Spikes in a nutshell: He was unconventional and certainly couldn’t be placed in a box. He was a fun player to watch, and ultimately for Belichick, I think a little too unconventional for his liking.
3. The way I envision things unfolding with cornerback Aqib Talib and receiver Julian Edelman is that they will use the “legal tampering period” from March 8-11 to see what is available to them on the open market, and then those offers will then be compared to what the Patriots have in mind. Dialogue has remained open-ended between the sides to this point. All things being equal financially, I think both players would like to stay, which the Patriots surely hope is the way it unfolds. But the market will dictate and because the Patriots don’t usually budge too far based on an offer from another team, anything is possible.
4. If you’re the offensively challenged Jets, would you make a run at Edelman? Similar to last year with the Broncos signing Wes Welker, there are multi-layered benefits to making such a move – you improve your own offense while hurting one of your primary competitors.
5. With quarterback Matt Cassel agreeing to terms on a two-year contract to return to the Minnesota Vikings, it opens up the possibility the Patriots might face Cassel for the first time since trading him in 2009. A Cassel-Tom Brady duel would have first taken place in 2011 when the Chiefs visited town, but Cassel was sidelined with a hand injury at the time and gave way to Tyler Palko in what turned out to be a dud of a "Monday Night Football" game. The Patriots visit the Vikings in 2014, and in a game that doesn’t have the same initial appeal as some others on the schedule, the Cassel-Brady angle adds some spice.
6. This week’s reminder that the NFL draft can be so tough to project comes in the form of Bills safety Jairus Byrd, who is widely viewed as one of the top free agents set to hit the market. Byrd has turned out to be the best safety from the 2009 draft (he was a corner at Oregon who entered the draft after his junior season), even though he was the fourth player selected at the position that year (a groin injury at the combine might have played a factor in his stock falling). The breakdown of the safeties selected in the first two rounds looked like this: Malcolm Jenkins (14th, corner-turned-safety), Louis Delmas (33rd) Patrick Chung (34th), Byrd (42nd), Mike Mitchell (47th) Darcel McBath (48th) and William Moore (55th). Byrd’s emergence particularly stings from a Patriots perspective because they had three cracks at him and ended up with Chung, defensive lineman Ron Brace (40th) and cornerback Darius Butler (41st).
7a. The Colts signed punter Pat McAfee to a five-year extension on Friday and he told reporters that he’s also expressed an interest in a dual role as the team’s kicker if Adam Vinatieri, who is set for free agency, doesn’t return to the team. McAfee has already handled the kickoff duties in place of Vinatieri in recent years and the Indianapolis Star reported that talks between the team and Vinatieri have been slow. Is a dual punter-kicker a viable option? It would save a valuable roster spot, but the concern would be overworking one leg with two important jobs.
8. The cornerback market in free agency is off to a strong strong start for players, with Miami's Brent Grimes (4 years, $32 million, $16 million guaranteed) and Green Bay's Sam Shields (reportedly 4 years, $39 million, $12.5 million signing bonus) landing deals. Makes my pre-free-agent projection for Talib of 3 years, $21 million with $12-14 million in bonuses/guarantees seem a bit low based on the way the market has taken shape. If another team is willing to pay Talib like the Dolphins did with Grimes and the Packers did with Shields, I have doubts the Patriots would match.
9. Two random draft thoughts that came to mind while continuing an offseason study on depth charts, power structure and season-ending news conferences: If the Texans pass on a quarterback at No. 1, and the Raiders select one at No. 5, I wonder if that might open the door for the Texans to acquire quarterback Matt McGloin (Penn State) and reunite him with Bill O’Brien. Raiders coach Dennis Allen pretty much made it clear that the organization doesn’t view McGloin or Terrelle Pryor as the long-term answer. Maybe O'Brien would value McGloin differently at this stage of the Texans' team-building process. … Jaguars general manager David Caldwell was the Falcons’ director of college scouting in 2008 when Atlanta hoped Matt Ryan would fall to the No. 3 pick despite having a quarterback-needy team ahead of them at No. 1 (Miami) and then the Rams at No. 2. The top of the 2014 draft has a similar feel for Caldwell, as the Jaguars sit at No. 3, while the quarterback-needy Texans are at No. 1, followed by the Rams. Could Teddy Bridgewater be to the Jaguars what Ryan has been for the Falcons?
10. When the Patriots lost then-starting center Dan Koppen to a season-ending ankle injury in the 2011 opener, the first in-house choice to fill the void was Dan Connolly, who started 14 games in the pivot that year (including playoffs). The next offseason, the Patriots valued his performance enough to give him a three-year, $9.7 million contract as a free agent. Then in 2012, when veteran Brian Waters didn’t report to training camp, Connolly was moved to the right guard position which has been his permanent home since. I’ve wondered if a switch back to center might be in the offing for Connolly, in part because center Ryan Wendell is an unrestricted free agent and the Patriots have Marcus Cannon and Josh Kline as possibilities at right guard. Some have opined that Connolly’s $3 million salary might be too rich for the Patriots’ liking, but if a move to center strengthens the Patriots in two areas, does it then represent better value?
Players under contract for 2014: Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett
Level of need: Moderate-to-low
Projected top targets: Colt McCoy (49ers), Brady Quinn (Rams), Rusty Smith (Titans)
Why McCoy fits: He previously played under current Patriots assistant Brian Daboll in Cleveland (2010), and thus has a background in a Patriots-type offense. He would add an experienced third option (21 career starts) behind the two signal-callers entrenched in the top spots on the depth chart.
Why Quinn fits: Similar to McCoy, he has experience in a Patriots-type system from having been on a Brian Daboll-coordinated unit in Cleveland (2009) and Kansas City (2012), and a Josh McDaniels-coached team in Denver (2010). If the Patriots are considering the addition of a third quarterback, it makes sense to look toward a player coaches are familiar with.
Why Smith fits: More of a developmental option, Smith (1 career start) spent the last four years with the Titans, who selected him in the sixth round of the 2010 draft. At 6-foot-5 and 226 pounds, he has a solid physical makeup and was looked at closely in the pre-draft process by the Patriots.
Other names of note: Derek Anderson (Panthers), Jimmy Clausen (Panthers), Kellen Clemens (Rams), Matt Flynn (Packers), Josh Freeman (Vikings), Rex Grossman (Redskins), Shaun Hill (Lions), Tarvaris Jackson (Seahawks), Josh McCown (Bears), Luke McCown (Saints), Dan Orlovsky (Buccaneers), Curtis Painter (Giants), Michael Vick (Eagles), Seneca Wallace (Packers), Charlie Whitehurst (Chargers)
Franchise tag: none
Market conditions: A top backup quarterback is commanding about $4 million per season, as reflected by the agreement between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Chad Henne. That is also around the range that Matt Cassel landed in his two-year deal with the Vikings. The Patriots would be looking at more of a cheaper, No. 3 alternative.
Questions to answer at the position: Will Brady show any signs of decline? Might there be any type of trade market for Mallett, who enters the final year of his contract? Will the Patriots draft a prospect, similar to what they did with Mallett in 2011?
Left hanging in the balance is one mammoth question: If an agreement can't be reached, would the Patriots really consider cutting Wilfork?
It's hard to believe the Patriots would do so given everything Wilfork has meant to the franchise on and off the field, but the simple fact they've approached him about the contract puts the possibility in play -- unless it's just one 325-pound-sized bluff.
Wilfork is due to earn $7.5 million in base salary in 2014, the final year of his deal. His salary-cap charge is a hefty $11.6 million. He turns 33 in November and is coming off a torn Achilles injury that ended his 2013 season after four games.
Effective at 12 p.m. Saturday, the NFL opens what has become commonly known as a "legal tampering window." While teams cannot execute a contract with a free agent (other than their own free agents) until Tuesday at 4 p.m., they can contact the agents of pending unrestricted free agents of other teams.
This allows teams to begin their pursuit of players that they believe could add value to their roster, while it allows the agents for players to assess the market that they are expected to have come the start of the new league year.
To be clear, teams cannot speak directly with players from other teams (so while the Patriots could speak with Julian Edelman, they would not be able to, for example, speak directly to Eric Decker). Linebacker Jon Beason has opted to represent himself this offseason, meaning he will be unable to participate in the legal tampering window.
This nearly four-day period was first implemented last offseason. It gives players a glimpse into their market before the market can technically take shape, while also giving teams a head start on their potential signings.
A year ago, Wes Welker used this window to see what else was out there for the Patriots. It was believed that he and his agent were looking for a deal longer than two years and with more guaranteed money than he wound up receiving. As it turned out, Welker's market was not nearly as robust as his representation supposed it would be, as his deal with Denver maxes out at $12 million over two years.
For players like Edelman and cornerback Aqib Talib, this is an opportunity to weigh any potential offers they have received from the Patriots against offers other teams are willing to make on the open market.
Chris P (Toledo): I'm happy with our offensive line, but feel a quality center is really the boost Tom Brady would need. Less pressure = more time for receivers to get open. I don't know if a starter could be had in the draft this year. Any thoughts on a FA center?
Chris, outside of Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack (transition tag), one free-agent of note is Evan Dietrich-Smith of the Green Bay Packers. One question to ask would be, "How much of an upgrade would Dietrich-Smith be over moving Dan Connolly back to center, and possibly inserting Marcus Cannon/Josh Kline at right guard. Sometimes the solutions are in-house. Connolly has played a solid center position in the past.
Daniel (Fresno, CA): I'd rather have Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at this point. He may not be as good as Aqib Talib (when healthy), but he's on the field when needed. Also sounds like he'd come cheaper. Your thoughts?
Daniel, all things being equal contract-wise, I'd lean heavier toward Talib. Just think he's a better player. But if the terms for Talib reach a level that doesn't work for the Patriots, I don't think Rodgers-Cromartie is a bad fallback option at a cheaper rate/shorter term if that's what the market dictates. One concern I'd have about going long-term/big-money with Rodgers-Cromartie is that as a team you don't have any background/much certainty with him on how he approaches his craft, how he'd fit in the locker room etc. It's a little riskier to me in that regard.
Daniel (Fresno, CA): Do you see Julian Edelman staying? I think he has to... can't take Wes Welker away one year and then Edelman the next. Brady needs his go-to guy to stick around for once.
Daniel, I do believe the Patriots will make a bid to retain Edelman. They want him back, but like most every negotiation, it comes down to "at what cost?" As I understand it, Edelman wanted the opportunity to see what offers were out there, which he can do in the three days leading up to the start of free agency. Then he can compare those offers to what the Patriots have in mind. That's where we are right now.
Dominic (Broomfield, CO): Mike, I love Vince Wilfork, I do. But your logic is odd. You say don't release him because he's everything the team embodies. Then you say 2009 lacked leadership because Wilfork (who was supposed to be a leader) wasn't and it showed his frustration openly by having the sign in his locker ...
Dominic, I understand the confusion as I didn't go deep enough into the discussion as it relates to 2009. This was a hot-button topic in our chats and mailbags in '09/'10 as I shared my opinion that part of the reason the '09 locker room wasn't in a great place was because the person who was supposed to be leading (Wilfork) wasn't put in the best position to do so because he was at odds with management over his contract. Some might counter and say, "A real leader would put that to the side and lead anyway." Fair enough, but that's easier for some people to do than others and Wilfork, in my opinion, isn't wired that way. Thus, when factoring in that human element, I thought the team miscalculated in that area that year. As we spin it forward, if you take Wilfork out of the locker room this year or he's not happy about a reworked contract, I have wondered if the Patriots might be creating the same type of '09 situation. But as I think it through, they have more established leaders in the room in 2014 (Mayo, McCourty) than they probably did in 2009, so maybe it wouldn't be as much of an issue. I hope that clears it up.
As the Patriots’ lone restricted free agent this offseason, Aiken could have been tendered at three different levels -- $1.43 million for a right of first refusal, $2.18 million at the second-round level, and $3.11 million at the first-round level.
There was also the option that the Patriots wouldn’t tender Aiken at all, making him an unrestricted free agent; Aiken earned a base salary of $550,000 last season and it was hard to envision a scenario where the Patriots would, at the least, triple those earnings in 2014.
So the new one-year deal strikes a compromise of sorts for the team and Aiken, who adds value to special teams units with his coverage skills (5 special teams tackles in 2013).
By now, the story of Julian Edelman's 2013 rise to prominence is well-known.
From longtime reserve to 105-catch star, he far exceeded expectations during his fifth NFL season.
And while Edelman's breakout year can in some ways be used to argue against ponying up big dough to retain the free-agent wide receiver -- after all, he was paid just over $1 million last season -- the Patriots must look long and hard at bringing him back.
A quarterback in college, Edelman has excellent quickness, short-area burst, toughness and many of the other requisite traits to man the slot in the NFL. But he isn't limited to the slot, as we saw throughout last season.
He has the precise route running and downfield speed to play the "Z" -- or flanker -- position, a critical one in the Patriots' pass attack.
He brings an abundance of special-teams value as one of the better punt returners in the league, consistently setting up the Patriots' offense with good field position while also wisely judging and handling punts.
He's indefatigable in his approach (he's routinely the first player to enter the practice facility during the season) and just 27 years old.
In other words, there's a lot to like.
Key free agents: CB Aqib Talib, WR Julian Edelman, RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Brandon Spikes, C Ryan Wendell
Where they stand: The Patriots would like Talib back, and Brent Grimes' four-year, $32 million contract with $16 million guaranteed in Miami provides a ballpark for the marketplace. Is that too rich for the Patriots? The club would also like Edelman back, but after investing in a receiver with a similar skill set last offseason (Danny Amendola), it will be interesting to see how far the Patriots are willing to extend to do so. Talib is the key piece, and similar to Wes Welker last year, it makes sense to think the team will quickly move to Plan B if a deal isn't struck by the start of free agency.
What to expect: The Patriots aren't flush with cap space, and Bill Belichick often says that free agency is one slice of the team-building process, along with the draft and trades. A focus on retaining their own, with a few complementary pieces from other teams added in free agency, would be our best guess as to how the Patriots approach things in 2014. Key spots in addition to retaining Talib and Edelman are adding a more dynamic presence at tight end, more pass-rush help and depth at defensive tackle.
New England Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes, who is set to become a free agent at the start of the new league year on Tuesday, said Friday morning during an appearance on NFL Network's "NFL AM" that "both sides could benefit from a fresh start."
"I would never say never," Spikes said of a return to New England before adding, "you know, everybody [says] you never want to burn a bridge, but I just feel like both sides could benefit from a fresh start.
"That being said, in free agency, I just feel like I'm out here, I'm available, I'm 100 percent. Any team that is willing to take a chance on me, they're going to get a playmaker, a guy that's very aggressive on the field, looking to be a difference-maker."
Spikes, who had 86 tackles in 2013, was placed on injured reserve in advance of the AFC divisional round in part because he missed a team meeting, ESPN NFL Insider Chris Mortensen reported. He also dealt with a knee issue the latter part of the year.
"I think that was a coach's decision," Spikes said of being placed on injured reserve. "And I'm just an employee, you know, what Adam Sandler said, 'Just go with it.' I had no choice, but I think, you know, they put me on IR because of my injury. I was definitely devastated to not be able to compete. You know, you fight all season to get to the playoffs and it really hurt me not to be out there with my teammates."
Spikes conceded that he wishes he had handled some things differently.
"I think, you know, overall, you know, if I could do some things differently I would, but it is what it is in the past and I think it's just time to move on," he said.
With free agency around the corner, Spikes said he is fully healed from his injury.
Polian's free-agent tracker. Former Colts president Bill Polian, now working as a football analyst at ESPN, provides his "free-agent tracker" for all available players. When looking at his grades for Patriots free agents, he doesn't hand out any A's.
Belichick and scouting talk. Nick Klopsis, as part of Neil Best's Newsday blog, writes on how the movie "Draft Day" tapped one of Bill Belichick's unique scouting methods.
Three Patriots among 'top players to get overpaid' list. NFL.com's "Around the League" bloggers put together a list of the top 10 players who are likely to be overpaid in free agency, and there are three Patriots who make the cut. Not a very flattering view of the three players widely seen as the Patriots' top free agents.
Talib lands in 'risky' category. In another NFL.com piece about risky free agents, this one from columnist Adam Schein, cornerback Aqib Talib lands among the list of riskiest free agents.
Position: Defensive tackle
Players under contract for 2013: Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Armond Armstead, Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, Joe Vellano, Isaac Sopoaga, Marcus Forston, Cory Grissom
Level of need: Moderate
Projected top targets: Red Bryant (Seahawks), Letroy Guion (Vikings), Al Woods (Steelers)
Why Guion fits: More of an under-the-radar free-agent who struggled at times in 2013 with performance and injuries, the seven-year veteran from Florida State has spent his entire career with the Vikings, most recently playing nose tackle. The last two years, when he broke through as a starter, he came under the watch of defensive line coach Brendan Daly, who is now with the Patriots. Guion wouldn't count against the compensatory pick formula, wouldn't be a pure nose tackle in the Patriots' scheme and could add depth while competing against a younger player for a roster spot.
Other names of note: Adam Carriker (Rams), Terrence Cody (Ravens), Brandon Deaderick (Jaguars), Fred Evans (Vikings), Aubrayo Franklin (Colts), Jason Hatcher (Cowboys), Ziggy Hood (Steelers), Lamarr Houston (Raiders), Arthur Jones (Ravens), Linval Joseph (Giants), Kyle Love (Jaguars), Henry Melton (Bears), Earl Mitchell (Texans), Paul Soliai (Dolphins), Randy Starks (Dolphins), Cam Thomas (Chargers), Kevin Williams (Vikings).
Franchise tag: None
Market conditions: This is a strong class that is likely to have some players signing early and for significant money, with Red Bryant, Jason Hatcher, Arthur Jones, Linval Joseph, Lamarr Houston and Earl Mitchell some of the top tackles available. Between free agency and the draft, there are some appealing options.
Questions to answer at the position: Is Wilfork's $7.5 million salary a concern for the team if an agreement can't be reached to lower his salary cap charge? How is Tommy Kelly's injured knee recovering and is he still a big part of the plans? Will Armond Armstead be healthy and primed to contribute? Is Isaac Sopoaga cut because of a $3.5 million salary or does he come back at a reduced rate?
Edelman, coming off a career season in 2013, is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the start of the new league year, which begins March 11.
The 27-year old led the team with 105 receptions last season, his fifth in the NFL. After playing on a one-year deal worth just over $1 million in 2013, Edelman figures to earn a raise in his new deal.
He's one of the team's two highest-profile free agents along with cornerback Aqib Talib, and the talks with Edelman bear monitoring as we lead up to free agency.