AFC East: New England Patriots
Effective at midnight tonight, 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.
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.
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.
A few highlights from Wednesday's call, with a Patriots-based twist:
Impact of the rising salary cap: With the salary cap rising by $10 million, and projected to grow even more in the next few years, Polian opined that it could mean better deals for players in the so-called “middle class.” He used defensive end Cliff Avril as an example from 2013, as Avril settled on a short-term deal at “relatively mediocre money.” For the Patriots, my thought was that it could most help receiver Julian Edelman and possibly linebacker Brandon Spikes if that’s the way it unfolds.
Valuing free agents at a price: Polian was complimentary of the Ravens for their work in free agency, specifically how they value their own players at a certain price and don’t budge when the market moves to a level they aren’t comfortable going. One could say New England takes a similar approach. “Free agency, in and of itself, is an over-payment situation,” said Polian, who typically wasn’t a big player in the market when he was with the Colts.
Keeping free agency in perspective: One point kept coming up in the call, with Polian stressing “system fit” and how one player might look good with one team but can have a tough time transitioning to a new scheme/team. Polian also touched on how the best free-agent decisions can be a club retaining its own players. “Free agency is not free. It costs two things you never get back -- time and money,” he said. “When you have a good team and you have a good personnel department that drafts well, it behooves you to be restrained in free agency.” When this topic came up, it sparked the thought that the Patriots haven’t received as much bang for their buck in free agency in recent years.
If the team doesn't do so in free agency, it could look to the draft, and the question was asked to Steve Muench of ESPN's Scouts Inc.: Beyond projected first-round pick Calvin Pryor of Louisville, who are the top bigger safeties this year?
Muench, who contributes to ESPN Insider's NFL draft blog , shared his thoughts:
Washington State’s Deone Bucannon
At 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds Bucannon posted an impressive 4.49 40 at the combine and he was explosive as he was fast. That shows up on tape where he’s a violent striker who doesn’t need much momentum to deliver big hits that stop backs in their tracks . He needs to show better discipline in coverage at times but he’s a proven playmaker with the long arms and big hands to make a similar impact in the NFL. He projects as a Day 2 pick.
Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon
The 6-foot and 212-pound Dixon is a heavy hitter with the frame and length to develop into an effective in the box safety in the NFL. It’s somewhat of a surprise that he didn’t bench 225 more than 14 times in Indianapolis because he shows good strength taking on blockers on tape. The downside is he is just adequate in coverage. He has average range, he’s a little tight in his hips and he’s not a playmaker. He projects as a mid-round pick.
LSU’s Craig Loston
The thickest of the three at 6-foot and 5/8 of an inch and 217 pounds Loston is s a downhill run-stopper who takes sound angles and uncoils on ball carriers at the point of contact. He also has the potential to get stronger, as he looked like he could develop his upper-body strength at the Senior Bowl weigh-in and benched 225 a below average 14 times at the combine. He’s more of a ballhawk than Dixon in coverage but like Dixon he has average range and limited man cover skills. Plus there’s enough in his injury history to be concerned about his durability. He projects as a mid-round pick.
@MikeReiss do you see the Patriots going for Jason Avant?— Matt's brother (@jyanrackson) March 4, 2014
In theory, a sure-handed, physical veteran receiver would fit well with what the Patriots currently have at the position (a lot of youth). Avant is also considered a good locker-room presence.
@MikeReiss Any chance the Patriots might look at Jason Avant? Veteran leader and high character guy. Also could be a bargain...— Dan Sturdevant (@dansturdevant) March 4, 2014
Still, I had a few questions about the 6-foot, 212-pound Avant, so after reading ESPN.com Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan's analysis, I reached out to Sheridan for more.
Can Avant still play? How much of a presence is he on special teams?
"Yes, I think Avant can still help a team. He's not a speedster, but he never was. He'll be 31, but he's one of those guys that takes great care of himself. He had arguably the best hands on the Eagles for the past few seasons," Sheridan wrote.
"He's a sneaky route runner and very good possession guy. He's willing to do the dirty work, blocking on run plays and bubble screens. And yes, he does play special teams. One of the most terrific plays in recent Eagles history -- DeSean Jackson's game-winning punt return against the Giants at the Meadowlands in 2010 -- was made possible because Avant decleated Zak DeOssie with a block.
"Great guy, good locker room leader. I'd expect him to play another couple years, at least."
Another benefit to a possible signing of Avant is that Avant wouldn't count against the compensatory draft pick formula.
The Patriots received valuable contributions from tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan in 2013, particularly as blockers. They have value to the team and it wouldn't be a surprise if they return this year, but where the Patriots were hurt most without injured Rob Gronkowski was not having as dynamic/productive of a pass-catching presence at the position.
It makes sense to think the Patriots will look to bolster this area in free agency (Buffalo's Scott Chandler and Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew are possible targets) and then if the right player falls to them in the draft, they could add there as well (e.g. Notre Dame's Troy Niklas).
It might not be top priority for the Patriots, but it seems like a most obvious one based on the current snapshot.
“If there is one scary thing going into the season -- Dante Scarnecchia, the offensive line coach, is hands down one of the best in the business and they're losing him to retirement," Evans said.
"With [Tom] Brady, the key to success, you have to find ways to protect him [and] keep him upright. [Do that and] you won’t be in the playoff hunt, you’ll be in the Super Bowl hunt."
In making his point, Evans noted that the Patriots have tackles that they like in Nate Solder (left) and Sebastian Vollmer (right), as well as a top left guard in Logan Mankins. Evans noted that center Ryan Wendell is a free agent and touched on the status of right guard Dan Connolly (due to earn $3 million in base salary).
Meanwhile, former Patriot Willie McGinest looked to the other side of the ball.
"I think they need some help on the defensive line, on the front," he said. "If you watched the AFC Championship, they were not able to get pressure on Peyton Manning."
The "offseason forecast" is broken down into five categories:
1. What's changing
2. Biggest free agents
3. What they need
4. On the way out?
5. Offseason crystal ball
"This Patriots offseason lacks the drama of a departing coordinator or a big contract dispute," writes NFL.com Around the League editor Gregg Rosenthal. "It's more about re-loading to take advantage of a roster that has earned playoff byes in four consecutive seasons without a title to show for it."
1. In 2012, Talib ranked last in the NFL among cornerbacks in yards per attempt against (11.6).
2. Durability issues, as he has not played a full 16-game season in his six years in the NFL.
3. "Hit or miss" ball skills, as evidenced by him going without an interception in his final nine games of 2013.
Of the three categories, the second one is the primary factor that would concern me if I was on the other side of the negotiating table.
While Talib has given up some big plays (e.g. versus Steve Smith and Josh Gordon last season), part of that is because of the confidence the Patriots have in him, which in turn leaves him with less help/support. The Patriots build game plans, in part, around Talib's ability to match up with an opponent's top pass-catching threat with limited help. And I think Talib's ball skills are generally very good; if there is a pass that can be intercepted, he is not only adept at making the play, but also creating something that might otherwise not be there.
It's really the health, and to a lesser degree, the question of whether Talib's approach might at all be affected by having a bit more financial security.
Health questions aren't unique when it comes to top cornerbacks.
Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes, who signed a four-year contract worth up to $32 million on Monday, is one notable example of this. It's easy to forget now, but he was limited to one game in 2012 because of a season-ending Achilles injury, and played in 12 of 16 games the year before that. He's coming off a 16-game season in 2013, which paved the way for his extension.
Ridley among those looking for a "step-up" year. Lorenzo Reyes of USAToday.com picks his five running backs who need to step up in 2014, and New England's Stevan Ridley lands fourth on the list.
Previewing Brady's 60 Minutes Sports. In a video posted on NFL.com, quarterback Tom Brady discusses one of his primary influences at Michigan for a piece which will air March 5 on Showtime.
Seferian-Jenkins draws comparison to Patriot. In another video posted on NFL.com, Bucky Brooks links University of Washington tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins to New England's Rob Gronkowski.
Eyes on Jairus Byrd in Buffalo. One franchise-tag situation that bears watching is with safety Jairus Byrd and the Bills, as the Associated Press is among those reporting that talks between the sides are at a standstill. The Patriots face the Bills twice a season as AFC East rivals and any deal Byrd potentially gets on the open market could have a trickle-down effect on Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who enters the final year of his contract in 2014.
Along these lines, a question was posed to Patriots president Jonathan Kraft toward the end of his panel discussion on "Building a Dynasty" about the value of trading a first-round draft choice for a head coach. This possibility recently came to light with the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Jim Harbaugh, and this is how Kraft answered:
“In the context of football, an exceptional coach, at the end of the day, is probably more valuable to a team long-term than any individual player. If you are going to make that trade, you probably have more data on the coach than you ever could on that No. 1 draft pick. It worked out well for us. I would say, yes, certainly in football.”
The Patriots. of course, traded their 2000 first-round pick to the Jets as part of the compensation package to land Bill Belichick.
Earlier on the panel, Kraft touched on why the Patriots were so intent on hiring Belichick at the time, with his understanding of the salary cap (implemented in 1994) the key.
"The salary cap, in a league that shared virtually all of its revenue, now had leveled the playing field competitively. So you were going to compete not by how rich you were, but by how good you were at evaluating talent for your system, signing it up under the rules of the salary cap, and then coaching it. Literally, unlike any other sport, money was coming out of the equation because of our revenue sharing and because of the cap. It was going to rely on the analytics and the intellect. Coming from other businesses, we stepped into that and we were surprised that traditional football people didn't get that concept. It shows you that 20 years ago in the NFL, there literally was nothing analytical brought to the table," Kraft said.
"What we did over the first six years we owned the team, we went to one Super Bowl -- it was the year Belichick was with us with [Bill] Parcells -- we were searching hard for somebody who had the intellectual capacity to understand the analytics but who also had grown up in coaching and had the instincts of a great coach. We were lucky that Bill was somebody we got exposure to [in 1996] because I really believe our competitive advantage as an organization, and what we hoped to find when we bought the team at the time we did, was somebody in Bill; because maybe people, on the outside, view him as a little bit not warm and fuzzy and wouldn't want them working for them, he actually has not only an amazing ability to coach players, but an intellectual capacity and understanding of the salary cap and the analytics that go into it that he can do the whole thing and tie it together. I really believe that's what has been our competitive advantage."
At one point, Kraft was asked a question from the audience on whether the increasing influence of analytics might have somehow led to a situation in which quarterback Tom Brady wouldn't slip to the sixth round of a draft like he did in 2000.
Kraft then went back in time to tell a story that probably never gets old to Patriots followers.
"I have to go back and give Bill [Belichick] and Scott Pioli, who were running our personnel department at the time, a little bit of credit here. We had Drew Bledsoe on our team at the time, and we had just given him a large contract. It was Bill's first draft, and we had a lot of needs. Brady was rated pretty highly on the board, and, in the fifth round, Bill walked over to the board -- I clearly remember this -- and he picked up Brady's card, looked at Scott, and said 'What's Brady still doing here? This is too much value to be sitting here, and this kid is a winner. We have too many other needs. We can't take him, can we?' I'm basically paraphrasing. ...
"I remember my dad and I were standing there in the war room and we stared at each other and said, 'Why are we thinking of taking a quarterback? We have all these other needs.' In the sixth round, when it was about eight picks away, 10 picks away, Bill started to get very focused on drafting Brady because I think he felt the value was just way too great.
"So, what I would say about today, I would say Bill had an inkling and I think it came down to the intangibles. I think each team has its own way of evaluating players, and, for a lot of people, I bet you because Tom ran a 5.2 or 5.3 [in the 40] and didn't appear that athletic, he'd be off the board. I think his coachability and his passion for the game and his record as a starter -- when he starts, he wins -- that might even carry more weight other places, but I wouldn't see people thinking about him as a raw talent as a first-, second- or third-round draft pick. Because in the first, second and third rounds, you need to take your best guess of statistical sure things because those players in the salary-cap world, if they can come in and play like good, starting veterans under the rookie wage scale, you have a competitive advantage. People are always weighing the cost benefits of that.
"So, the same Brady we've seen, I would argue would still be ... he deserves to be the first pick, but I don't know it would happen today."
Finances play a big role: Gregory was a lightning rod among fans based on his play and some missed tackles, but I don't think this move can be boiled down solely to his performance. It's more about the play relative to salary, as Gregory was scheduled to earn $2.25 million in base salary in 2013 and the Patriots will save $2.85 million on their cap by releasing him. Gregory played 72.7 percent of the defensive snaps last season and was touted by teammates as being one of the smartest players they've been around. Gregory will almost certainly play somewhere in 2014, it just won't be at those numbers.
Gregory's take: I caught up with Gregory briefly on Friday afternoon and his remarks were complimentary of the Patriots. "I had a great time in New England and respect the organization a lot," he said. "It was time well-spent and I learned a lot. Obviously, you never want to get released from a team. There will be other opportunities and it's on good terms. ...The fans were great. The whole atmosphere out there was unbelievable. It was a great time of my life that I'll always remember.”
Harmon is next man up: Duron Harmon, the Patriots' 2013 third-round pick out of Rutgers, is the next man on the depth chart. The 6-foot-0, 205-pound Harmon played 36.9 percent of the defensive snaps last season, starting three games when Gregory was sidelined with a broken thumb. The Patriots could still add to the position in free agency or the draft, with free agency the deeper and more expensive option. At this point, Harmon would seem to have the inside track on a top role. Third-year player Tavon Wilson, who slid down the depth chart in 2013, is also at the position. Veteran safety Adrian Wilson, who spent last year on injured reserve and seemed to be in jeopardy of not making the club at the end of preseason, is also currently on the roster.
When compiling four of the lists -- from Greg Bedard of TheMMQB.com, Pete Prisco and Pat Kirwan of CBSSports.com, Evan Silva of Rotoworld, and NFL.com's Chris Wesseling and Gregg Rosenthal -- let's piece it together to see if there is any consensus.
CB Aqib Talib
Quick-hit thought: Consistent across the board, which reflects Talib's status as a top-20 talent.
WR Julian Edelman
Quick-hit thought: A bit more of a disparity with Edelman, perhaps because of some skepticism on if he'd put up similar numbers in a different system.
RB LeGarrette Blount
Quick-hit thought: Pretty wide split on the big back, possibly because the Patriots revived his career and there is some doubt it would happen again elsewhere
LB Brandon Spikes
Quick-hit thought: A bit of a contrast, but Spikes draws across-the-board respect for his style of play.
C Ryan Wendell
Quick-hit thought: Gritty center finds himself on the fringes of top lists, but should have suitors.
What it shows specific to the Patriots is that they are closer to the bottom of the NFL in terms of space (projected $9.5 million). In Seifert's chart, the Patriots currently rank 24th in terms of cap space.
So for those expecting big-money signings in free agency, that doesn't seem likely based on the team's cap situation.
As has been noted in the past, one thing to keep in mind is that salary-cap space is fluid; a team can make a series of roster moves and create more space. So what the snapshot might look like today could be dramatically different tomorrow.
Still, any Patriots moves wouldn't be enough to jump into the top tier of NFL cap space. It would just create some more breathing room.