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Words With Frenz mailbag: Patriots tip-toe into free agency

Posted by Erik Frenz  March 7, 2014 08:00 AM

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Free agency lives at the core of every NFL fan's dreams.

Patriots fans in particular should not be letting their imaginations run wild. The Patriots are close up against the salary cap this year, and haven't made some of the cap clearing moves that were expected.

They also have some important in-house free agents to sign. They reportedly began talking to Aqib Talib and his representation in Indianapolis at the scouting combine. On Thursday night, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the Patriots had reached out to Julian Edelman to begin talking about a contract.

There's still time for those transactions to cross the waiver wire, but March 8 marks the opening of the window for other teams to begin talking to other free agents — the "legal tampering" period.

So far, neither player has signed a deal, and the Patriots could enter free agency facing the possibility of losing both key players. That being said, is it possible that the Patriots could still be buyers in the free agent market? Let's take a look at some of the players on the minds of Patriots fans headed into the new league year.

Houston is considered one of the top defensive ends on the market, so his price tag could be out of the Patriots' range.

He was a two-down player for the first two years of his NFL career. He played 64.8 percent of the Raiders' defensive snaps in that time, according to stats and analytics website Pro Football Focus. Since then, he's played 89 percent of the snaps, and a whopping 94.9 percent in 2013. He earned more playing time as the Raiders lost several key defensive linemen, including Desmond Bryant, Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly.

He was primarily a left defensive end in the Raiders' 4-3 scheme from 2010-2012, but he moved to the right side in 2013. He's listed at 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, but Christopher Hansen of Bleacher Report says Houston is closer to 280 right now. He played defensive end and even "LEO" linebacker in the Raiders' multiple defense, but could probably play defensive tackle as well.

At 26 years old and with his level of scheme versatility, Houston will be a hot commodity as a free agent. There are too many teams with too much money and too desperate for help up front. Houston will get a bigger offer than the Patriots could give him, even if they are interested.

Aqib Talib may be seeking top dollar, and there could be a team willing to overpay for his services. There aren't many big, fast cornerbacks readily available to sign, so there would be a market for his services.

For the number of "dings" on his resumé, though, it's fair to wonder whether that market will be up to the standard he hopes.

He has missed four games to injury since joining the Patriots, and parts of five others. He has also missed 19 games in his career for injuries and suspensions. Speaking of suspensions, he had quite a checkered off-field record before he was traded to the Patriots. Those issues — as they usually do in New England — magically disappeared.

Talib only has to wait a few more days to find out whether there's a team that's willing to make him one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the league. At this point, there's little benefit to signing with the Patriots now, before he gets that chance.

Good question, Gordon. Dane Fletcher seems like an obvious re-sign. He has had a few injuries, but he's been dependable when on the field and he's a core special teams contributor. He has four years of experience in the defense, as well.

Brandon Spikes is probably on his way out. The Patriots placed him on injured reserve (knee) before the playoffs, but ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported that his late arrival to Friday's bye week practice "was the last straw for [Bill] Belichick." He has played 66.3 percent of the snaps in the games he's participated in over the past two years.

If they were to move on from either Fletcher, Spikes or both, Steve Beauharnais would be in line for an increased snap count. He was in and out of the active lineup this season, but with a full year in the system, the Patriots could be looking for more in Year 2.

They already started making moves. The release of Steve Gregory cleared up roughly $2.85 million in cap space. Aside from re-signing Edelman and Talib, there aren't many moves they can make.

Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly have been floated on this blog and elsewhere as names to consider among potential cap casualties. Each is entering the last year of his deal, so there are only three options on the table:

  1. an extension to push the money forward,
  2. a pay cut, and
  3. a release.

For now, I expect the status quo. The Patriots could wait on extensions for Wilfork and Kelly until the Patriots get a better idea of whether those two will be playing for another couple years. Otherwise, pushing the money forward does no good. I still expect the Patriots to release Isaac Sopoaga at some point and immediately gain $2.5 million in cap space.

They could still extend Wilfork if things look good, or ask him to take a pay cut if things don't look good, but not in time for it to aid the Patriots' ability to spend this offseason.

As long as Belichick is the head coach, the Patriots will always want to be as scheme versatile as possible.

We've heard it a hundred times — the Patriots are a game plan style defense. They will adjust what they do based on the opponent they will face. Some weeks, we'll see straight man coverage, like we saw against the Broncos in the regular season; other weeks, they'll run zone blitzes like they did against the Dolphins.

Talib is their best cornerback when it comes to man coverage, and losing him would be a big blow to the defense as a whole. Alfonzo Dennard is still a talented young corner, and Logan Ryan has some upside, but the Broncos game served as a reminder of what losing Talib would mean to the secondary.

The offense should look a lot more efficient with Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce all in their second year in the NFL and working with Tom Brady. Whether that's a result of creativity or simply better chemistry within the offense

Dobson looks to be in line for a second-year jump, but as I noted in my breakdown of Dobson's season, there's still work to be done. He has to get better separation on deep routes, and Brady has to do better hitting him when he's open. Those things should improve with more time together.

The first one that comes to mind is Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy. As a 3-4 outside linebacker, he could give Rex Ryan the dominant pass-rushing edge presence he hasn't had since taking over.

They need to get younger at the position, if nothing else. Calvin Pace is 33 years old, and is nearing the end of his career. He had 10 sacks in 2013, but most of them were in cleanup duty for defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison. Antwan Barnes is 29 years old and has missed 20 games with injuries in the past four years, including 11 games last year.

Alabama safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix is another option. The Jets seem impatient with the development of Antonio Allen at the safety spot, after bringing in Ed Reed to compete for the starting spot. Clinton-Dix and Dee Milliner already have some experience working together, so the familiarity could be beneficial for each.

Incidentally, safety and outside linebacker are two spots the Jets have not yet used a first-round pick in the Ryan era.

As mentioned, the Patriots have a new hole to fill at strong safety with the departure of Gregory. Something tells me they want to develop that position from within. They have spent a second- and third-round pick at the safety position in the past two years. Safeties Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon may not be top-notch strong safeties in the NFL yet, but they'll never get there if they're not given a chance.

The Patriots could add some veteran depth at strong safety in free agency, particularly if they want to create a competition at the position. There's also the possibility that they hold pat, and let Wilson and Harmon duke it out for the starting job in training camp.

Cortland Finnegan announced on Wednesday that he's been released by the Rams, and this has been a long time coming. He was sidelined with a thigh injury early in the season before being placed on injured reserve (fractured orbital bone) after Week 10.

He was primarily a slot cornerback for the Rams, though, playing 142 of his 210 coverage snaps from the slot. Slot cornerbacks can be valuable, and the Patriots will certainly exhaust all options if they lose Talib, but Finnegan doesn't seem like a viable alternative.

Buy a ton of Cape Cod chips, ginger ale and pale ale to get through the free agency frenzy. Get some oxygen while you can.

Oh, wait, that's my weekend.

Perhaps you check out a Boston Massacre Reenactment, or the Harpoon St. Patrick's Festival on Saturday. It's Boston. Just walk around the city and I'm sure you'll stumble into something.

Oh, wait, you live in Arizona. I got nothing. Maybe catch a movie? I hear "Gravity" is good. Check it out and let me know.




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Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »

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