Still stung by loss, Patriots face decisions
FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ season had ended less than an hour earlier. Matt Light’s overgrown beard, the one he joked could store a writing implement and a hot dog, was still damp from his shower. Light was still smarting about the loss to the Jets.
It mattered not.
Just as quickly as the ball boys went about picking up equipment strewn about the locker room, reporters were turning the page on Light’s career and asking him if that was his final game in a Patriots uniform.
The 32-year-old left tackle, named to his third Pro Bowl this month, will be a free agent in a few weeks for the first time. A second-round draft pick in 2001, Light signed a six-year contract extension in 2004.
Light said Sunday he “hopes like hell’’ that he’ll be back in New England. He has been a mainstay on and off the field, and serves as the team’s representative to the Players’ Association.
But Sebastian Vollmer, who started every game at right tackle this season and stepped in for Light as a rookie last season, is believed by many to be the left-tackle-in-waiting, and he carries a much cheaper price tag than the $4.5 million in base salary Light earned this season — a bargain for a Pro Bowl left tackle.
Light’s situation isn’t unique. Teams face decisions every year on which players to keep. The Patriots have 14 players on the 53-man roster or injured reserve who are either unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents, or exclusive-rights free agents.
There is a time for decisions to be made, but a few minutes or hours after a difficult loss isn’t it.
“It’s a common situation every year with every team,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “I don’t know if the day after the end of the season is the time to make a lot of decisions on those things. In due course, I’m sure those decisions will all get worked out. It will be a combination of factors: some by the players, maybe some by the club, maybe a combination of both. We’ll just have to see how it goes.’’
Being under contract is no guarantee a player will be back next season — assuming the owners and players can get a new collective bargaining agreement signed sooner rather than, say, October.
But here’s a list of who’s signed, who isn’t, and who might not get to stay:
Quarterbacks: Brian Hoyer, signed through 2011; Tom Brady, 2014.
Brady isn’t going anywhere. The team may bring in a QB via the draft to challenge Hoyer or in an effort to find a better backup if they don’t believe Hoyer is the answer.
Running backs: Thomas Clayton, 2011; Danny Woodhead, 2012; Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, free agents; BenJarvus Green-Ellis, restricted free agent.
Clearly this unit will have some new faces. Woodhead quietly signed an extension during the season, but he’s the only one almost certain to return. It would be a surprise for Green-Ellis not to be offered a contract tender, but Taylor has sounded for all the world to be a man headed for retirement. Faulk likely will call it a career if the Patriots don’t re-sign him, and Morris’s snaps were limited this season.
Wide receivers: Deion Branch, Matthew Slater, Wes Welker, 2011; Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate, 2012; Taylor Price, 2013.
All of these players are presumed safe. Branch restructured his deal when he returned to New England in October, converting some of his salary to money he can earn through incentives, and a healthy Welker is slated to make $2.15 million in ’11. Edelman, Price, and Tate are all young and developing and playing on cap-friendly rookie deals. Slater led the Patriots with 21 special-teams tackles.
Tight ends: Alge Crumpler, 2011; Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, 2013.
All three are expected to return. Crumpler has been an invaluable mentor to Hernandez and Gronkowski, who just completed their rookie seasons, though Crumpler’s base salary will rise significantly next season.
Offensive line: Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Mark LeVoir, Stephen Neal, Ryan Wendell, 2011; Nick Kaczur, Rich Ohrnberger, Sebastian Vollmer, 2012; Light, Logan Mankins, unrestricted free agents; Quinn Ojinnaka, restricted free agent.
There is no denying Mankins is an integral part of the offensive line and one of the best guards in the NFL; getting a contract done with him should be a priority. Light has been a solid performer, but his price tag could be steep. Neal, who considered retirement early in 2010 before agreeing to a two-year deal, finds himself deliberating his future once again after a season-ending shoulder injury.
Defensive line: Landon Cohen, Kyle Love, Darryl Richard, 2011; Ron Brace, Myron Pryor, Mike Wright, 2012; Brandon Deaderick, Ty Warren, Kade Weston, 2013; Vince Wilfork, 2014; Gerard Warren, unrestricted free agent.
There may be some shuffling here as well. Ty Warren, with a season lost to a hip injury and a $3.1 million base salary in ’11, could be traded, while at the right price veteran Gerard Warren could return. Wilfork, after signing an extension that made him the highest-paid nose tackle in the game, will be back, as will Wright if healthy. Otherwise, there’s a lot of youth here, all on their rookie deals.
Linebackers: Gary Guyton, Eric Moore, Marques Murrell, Rob Ninkovich, 2011; Tully Banta-Cain, Dane Fletcher, Jerod Mayo, 2012; Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes, 2013; Tracy White, unrestricted free agent.
With Mayo having two years left on his rookie deal, Banta-Cain is the highest-paid player in this young group. Moore and Murrell were signed to the standard two-year deals given to most street free agents, though Moore’s performance could earn him a longer stay. White, a core special teamer, could remain in that role.
Defensive backs: Tony Carter, Bret Lockett, Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, Jonathan Wilhite, 2011; Darius Butler, Patrick Chung, 2012; Leigh Bodden, Sergio Brown, 2013; Devin McCourty, 2014; Brandon McGowan, unrestricted free agent; Jarrad Page, Josh Barrett, restricted free agents; Kyle Arrington, exclusive rights free agent.
This is a young group that promises to get better with the return of Bodden, who signed a four-year deal to remain in New England before the season. Arrington and Page are the biggest question marks — as an exclusive-rights player, Arrington will only not return if New England doesn’t want him, but his play this year may have earned him an extension. Page played this year under an RFA contract, but he had a hard time getting on the field with Meriweather, Sanders, and Chung in front of him.
Specialists: Long snapper Matt Katula, 2011; punter Zoltan Mesko, 2013; K Stephen Gostkowski, 2014; K Shayne Graham, restricted free agent.
Graham is the odd-man out here, but he seemed to know that when he signed after Gostkowski’s season-ending injury. Gostkowski signed a new deal before the season and his performance has been consistent on kicks and kickoffs throughout his career.