The Patriots have 18 free agents and five draft picks, making this offseason an opportunity to either reshape the underbelly of the team's roster or provide some continuity with the players in place.
But first, in dealing with free agency which begins 4 p.m. March 12, the Patriots will have to address some of the team's most pivotal players and what future they may have in New England.
Starters Sebastian Vollmer, Wes Welker, and Aqib Talib are all priorities. Patriots owner Robert Kraft has already made it known he wants the most prolific wide receiver in the franchise's history to return. Meanwhile, a report has surfaced that the Patriots are unsure whether they want to give Talib a multi-year contract. But they surely want him back to shore up the team's porous secondary, ranked an embarrassing 29th overall in pass defense.
That leaves Vollmer, who ProFootballFocus rated as the No. 22 tackle in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency for players that played in at least 50 percent of their team's snaps. In 617 offensive snaps, Vollmer allowed only 35 pressures. Along with second-year pro Nate Solder (rated No. 23 overall by the site), Vollmer represents a core piece of the team's stability. Signing him now, going into his fifth year, should be the the team's No. 1 priority.
Comparable tackles -- including San Francisco's Joe Staley, Detroit's Jeff Backus, Atlanta's Tyson Clabo, and Kansas City's Eric Winston -- coming off their rookie contracts averaged $4.5 million per year in their new deals. The Patriots reportedly have a little more than $18 million in cap space for 2013. Deals for Vollmer, Welker, and Talib, who could earn as much as $8 million per year in a cornerback starved free agent market, could put a strain on the team's signing power.
The Patriots can't keep everyone, but keeping Vollmer should be the priority.
Assuming Vollmer returns, the Patriots would have its starting offensive line intact. That's a worry the Patriots wouldn't have going into the draft and training camp, a drastic change from a year prior when the team was installing a new center, right guard and left tackle. Continuity up front allows for the team to focus on other core players. Signing him, and attributing his salary to the books, will certainly make the path for the team forward much clearer.
Welker, who Tom Brady has called the "heart" of the team repeatedly, will certainly cramp what the Patriots can do under the cap unless the two sides come to an agreement that allows Welker's deal to be backloaded. But whether the Patriots can make that happen or not is a mystery. The team can fall back on Julian Edelman, a talented and shifty wide receiver, who will certainly come cheaper unless he gets offers.
There won't be any hard feelings if Edelman wants to explore leaving if Welker is still the top dog, and there's a plan in place if Welker can't be re-signed. The Patriots are in a position of strength here.
The Patriots can go through the rest of free agency identifying new possible members of the team's secondary, whether that includes Talib and fellow free agent cornerback Kyle Arrington, and move into the draft with a game plan.
Other items for the Patriots to consider this offseason:
- Whether re-signing Danny Woodhead is good for the team, considering Shane Vereen has the same skill set.
- If either Michael Hoomanawanui or Jake Ballard could help the team more, while also considering the teetering health of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
- If core backups Patrick Chung and Donald Thomas are worth re-signing or replacing through the draft.
At this current juncture, the Patriots's focus is all about prioritizing what they want and need foremost. The pieces will fall into place, but key decisions need to be made first. Vollmer should be the first of the dominoes to fall.