<
>

Free-agency primer from Pats' perspective

Free agency is nearly here; it officially kicks off later today at 4 p.m. ET.

For the Patriots, the contracts of 19 players expire today, meaning they are free to sign with other teams.

It also means the Patriots can sign free agents from other teams themselves, and it’s likely that the team has been negotiating with agents during the legal tampering window that opened on Saturday.

Expect deals to come together quickly around the league, as this weekend has provided clubs with the opportunity to explore contract proposals with agents, although nothing could be officially agreed to, even in principle.

As for cap space, a league source indicates that the Patriots have $26 million available as things currently stand.

Here’s the full list of Patriots free agents to-be, which includes tight end Michael Hoomanwanui, who at this time has not received a restricted free agent tender. If that does not happen before the start of free agency, he is free to sign with another team without the opportunity for the Patriots to match that offer.

We’ve profiled many of these free agents in our “Beyond the Big 3” series, which included a projection on whether they would be re-signed (indicated below).

PATRIOTS FREE AGENTS (OUR PREDICTIONS IN PARENTHESIS)

• S/CB Will Allen

• CB Kyle Arrington (won’t be re-signed; will earn a 3-year, $15m deal elsewhere)

• S Josh Barrett

• WR Deion Branch (will be re-signed for 1 year, $1m)

• S Patrick Chung (won’t be re-signed; will get a 3-year, $12m deal elsewhere)

• CB Marquice Cole (will be re-signed for 1 year, $950K)

• WR Julian Edelman (will be re-signed for 3 years, $10m)

• TE Michael Hoomanawanui

• LB Niko Koutouvides

• CB Derrick Martin

• OL Jamey Richard

• DE Trevor Scott (won’t be re-signed; will get a 2-year, $2.25m deal elsewhere)

• WR Donte' Stallworth

• CB Aqib Talib (will be re-signed for 4 years, $26m)

• OL Donald Thomas (won’t be re-signed; will get 4-year, $14m deal elsewhere)

• OL Sebastian Vollmer (won’t be re-signed; will get 4-year, $20m deal from Rams)

• WR Wes Welker (will be re-signed for 3 years, $24m)

• LB Tracy White (will be re-signed for 1 year, $950K)

• RB Danny Woodhead (will be re-signed for 2 years, $6m)

ABOUT THE BIG THREE

The three players we’ll be monitoring most closely are Welker, Talib and Vollmer, who are each expected to land lucrative deals on the open market. The Patriots appear to have the cap space to re-sign all of them, and it would not come as a surprise to see the trio retained. The feeling here is that Welker is priority 1A and Talib 1B because of their skill set and the need at their positions, while Vollmer is just behind those two. If Vollmer were to depart, the Patriots have an in-house candidate to replace him in Marcus Cannon, and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has a stellar track record of developing young talent.

Keeping two out of their three top free agents (as predicted above) will put a dent in the Patriots' available spending, but the value Welker and Talib had in 2012 is difficult to ignore. Welker has shown his value over six seasons in New England, while Talib needed just six regular season games to show he’s a different cornerback than what they have had in recent seasons. Meanwhile, a team like the Rams could be hungry to upgrade their line and approach Vollmer early on in the process.

RANKING THE AREAS OF NEED

Regardless of whether it’s their own players or other free agents, what positions should the Patriots be targeting?

1. Cornerback: Not only is Talib a free agent, Alfonzo Dennard faces potential jail time due to an April 2012 incident. The Patriots need multiple bodies at this spot.

Players under contract for 2013: Alfonzo Dennard, Ras-I Dowling, Malcolm Williams

Free agents of note: Aqib Talib (Patriots), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Eagles), Sean Smith (Dolphins), Kyle Arrington (Patriots), Derek Cox (Jaguars), Travis Daniels (Chiefs), Quentin Jammer (Chargers), Mike Jenkins (Cowboys), Greg Toler (Cardinals), Keenan Lewis (Steelers)

2. Wide receiver: The Patriots have just one -- onem -- veteran receiver under contract for 2013: Brandon Lloyd (we’re excluding special teams ace Matthew Slater in this discussion).

Players under contract for 2013: Kamar Aiken, Jeremy Ebert, Andre Holmes, Brandon Lloyd, Matthew Slater

Free agents of note: Danny Amendola (Rams), Deion Branch (Patriots), Josh Cribbs (Browns), Brandon Gibson (Rams), Ted Ginn (49ers), Devery Henderson (Saints), Domenik Hixon (Giants), Greg Jennings (Packers), Mike Wallace (Steelers)

3. Right tackle: This is a need that hinges of Vollmer’s future. If he returns, the Patriots are in good shape.

Players under contract for 2013: Marcus Cannon, Markus Zusevics

Free agents of note: Sebastian Vollmer (Patriots), Eben Britton (Jaguars), Eric Winston (Chiefs), Andre Smith (Bengals), Phil Loadholt (Vikings)

4. Defensive end: The Patriots have a pair of solid starters in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, but could stand to add a veteran with a track record of pass rush production.

Players under contract for 2013: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Justin Francis, Jermaine Cunningham, Jake Bequette, Armond Armstead, Jason Vega, Tracy Robertson, Marcus Benard (LB possibility)

Free agents of note: John Abraham (Falcons), Cliff Avril (Lions), Michael Bennett (Buccaneers), Dwight Freeney (Colts), Osi Umenyiora (Giants)

5. Defensive tackle: Vince Wilfork is the anchor of the Patriots defense, but adding another interior body to provide some pass rush would go a long way.

Players under contract for 2013: Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick, Marcus Forston, Myron Pryor

Free agents of note: Alan Branch (Seahawks), Sammie Lee Hill (Lions), Sen’Derrick Marks (Titans), Richard Seymour (Raiders), Terrance Knighton (Jaguars)

6. Safety: Devin McCourty is half of the safety equation, but does the team feel comfortable with Steve Gregory or Tavon Wilson as the other starter?

Players under contract for 2013: Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner

Free agents of note: Ed Reed (Ravens), Dashon Goldson (49ers), Glover Quin (Texans), Kenny Phillips (Giants), LaRon Landry (Jets)