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The timing may be right

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / December 30, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — There isn’t much for the Patriots to gain on the field this weekend when they take on the Dolphins. They’re locked in as the top playoff seed in the AFC.

Off the field, there’s still work that could be done.

NFL teams have until 4 p.m. Saturday to extend player contracts so that at least some of the new money can be applied to this uncapped 2010 season.

Once the deadline passes, all of the money in the contract will be subject to any rules established when a new collective bargaining agreement is put in place.

So if the Patriots want to reward some of their 17 potential free agents with new deals that are salary cap-friendly, now would be the time to do it.

The top possible target, guard Logan Mankins, didn’t let on whether something was in the works.

“I don’t know,’’ Mankins said yester day. “Ask Bill [Belichick]. He might know.’’

Several teams have taken advantage of the uncapped year to sign players to extensions, including the Packers (cornerback Tramon Williams), Chiefs (running back Jamaal Charles, linebacker Derrick Johnson), and Bears (defensive tackle Matt Toeaina).

The players had their contracts front-loaded, with millions poured into this season, often in the form of roster bonuses. That kept the base salaries starting in 2011 low when most believe the salary cap will return in similar shape to what it was prior to this season.

Mankins, 28, is certainly in line for a new deal. He was just selected for his third Pro Bowl, and his value to the team has been on full display since he signed his restricted free agent tender after the seventh game.

“He’s been outstanding on and off the field,’’ Belichick said. “He brings a great attitude, work ethic, just superior toughness to the field, to our football team, that unit.’’

When talk turned to how the Patriots could possibly let Mankins walk when he likely becomes an unrestricted free agent under the new CBA, Belichick clammed up.

“Well, right now, it’s just everybody getting ready for Miami,’’ Belichick said. “There are a lot of other things we could talk about, but none of them really apply at this particular time.’’

There have certainly been some contentious moments between Mankins and the Patriots in the past year.

Things probably didn’t get a whole lot better when the tender Mankins signed for this season was for $1.54 million — less than half the $3.2 million he was originally offered. The team followed through on its threat to replace his tender with one 110 percent of his ’09 salary if Mankins didn’t sign by the deadline, which was within their rights to do.

Asked what he thought about signing for the lower tender, Mankins laughed and said, “I think everyone knows what my reaction was on that one.’’

Still, a multimillion-dollar contract could soothe any hard feelings very quickly. Not that Mankins is worried about his contract status.

“Not right now,’’ he said. “There’s too much else going on. There’s too much at stake for this team to worry about that.’’

The market was set in May for a guard of Mankins’s caliber when the Saints signed Jahri Evans to a seven-year, $56.7 million deal — the richest ever for an interior lineman — which pays him $25.6 million in the first three years through ’12.

The deal signed by Jets center Nick Mangold in August is for seven years and $55 million ($22 million in first three years).

Even if the Patriots don’t sign Mankins to an extension before Saturday — or at any point in the offseason — they still are likely to have the franchise tag at their disposal. While the union would like to see the tags abolished, many NFL insiders feel they will be included in the new CBA in some form.

Things could get interesting in the offseason if Mankins is tagged. With a new CBA in place, teams looking to sign a free agent might be more willing to insert a poison pill — a stipulation that makes it almost impossible for the player’s former team to match — into an offer. The Jets are weak at left guard and would love to hurt the Patriots; general manager Mike Tannenbaum basically invented the concept when he helped New York get running back Curtis Martin from the Patriots in 1998.

Meanwhile, two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light, who is in his 10th season, figures to reach free agency for the first time in his career this offseason. The six-year extension he signed in ’04 will expire.

The Patriots seem to have Sebastian Vollmer ready to switch from right tackle to left tackle should Light not return.

Asked if he would be disappointed if he had to hit free agency, Light said, “I’ll be playing somewhere next year.’’

Receiver Deion Branch, himself traded by the Patriots to the Seahawks during a contract dispute in ’06, said losing the left side of the offensive line in the offseason would be a hurdle for the offense.

“Logan and Light? That might be hard,’’ Branch said. “It’s not something I think about.

“They’re valuable. We need those guys. We need all those guys.’’

Of the other potential free agents, only running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis would figure to be in line for a new deal. But he’ll likely be a restricted free agent, so any other team would have to give up draft picks to sign him.

With the playoffs looming, free agency is far from Green-Ellis’s mind.

“I don’t worry about things that are out of my control, so I don’t even think about it,’’ said Green-Ellis, who needs 72 yards Sunday to reach 1,000 for the season. “Only thing I worry about is getting prepared for the team on Sunday and coming out and working hard.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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