New England Patriots: Patriots draft & free agency

Draft & free agency: Offensive tackle

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
12:30
PM ET
With free agency beginning March 11 and the draft coming May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.

For example, if a team knows it's a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be aggressive at that position in free agency.

With this in mind, we have looked at each position over the last week-plus through a similar lens. The series concludes with our final position.

Next on the list: Offensive tackle

Draft: One of the strongest positions in the entire draft, the top three prospects (Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan) are viewed by some analysts as superior to each of last year's top three prospects who went No. 1, 2 and 4 (Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson). Analysts believe teams can get a quality offensive tackle into the middle rounds. This speaks to the overall strength of the draft, both in terms of top-end quality and depth.

Free agency: There are some notable offensive tackles set to hit the market, including Brandon Albert (Chiefs), Austin Howard (Rams), Eugene Monroe (Ravens), Michael Oher (Ravens), Rodger Saffold (Rams) and Jared Veldheer (Raiders). Between the draft and free agency, this looks like a good year for teams seeking improvement along the offensive line, such as Atlanta and Miami.

Patriots perspective: The recovery of starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (broken leg) is the one wrinkle in what is otherwise a strong outlook for the team with Nate Solder (left tackle), Vollmer and Marcus Cannon (right tackle) atop the depth chart. Solder is signed through 2015, Vollmer through 2016 and Cannon through 2014. If the Patriots add a player at this position, the projection is either a developmental prospect from the strong draft class, or a lower-level free agent similar to last year (e.g. Will Svitek, who is a free agent).

Draft & free agency: Cornerback

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
3:00
PM ET
With free agency to begin March 11 and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.

For example, if a team knows it's a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency. With this in mind, our plan is to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Next on the list: Cornerback

Draft: This is viewed as a strong class with value into the third and fourth rounds, according to analysts Mel Kiper Jr. (ESPN) and Mike Mayock (NFL Network). Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, a cousin of Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert are viewed as the first-round locks. One storyline to monitor at the combine is how well the top cornerbacks run; if it's 4.4s, it will further solidify their standing. Mayock is also high on Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller as a first-round possibility while the depth is plentiful and includes slot corners led by Texas Christian's Jason Verrett and a few bigger corners in the Seahawks-type mold such as Utah's Keith McGill (6-3, 214) and Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-2, 215). This is a good year for teams looking to add cornerbacks in the draft.

SportsNation

Would a three-year, $21 million offer for cornerback Aqib Talib be a fair one?

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    71%
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    20%
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    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,084)

Free agency: Similar to the draft, this position has no shortage of high-end players set to hit the market, led by New England's Aqib Talib. Other top corners for their teams heading to free agency include Tennessee's Alterraun Verner, Miami's Brent Grimes, Indianapolis' Vontae Davis and Denver's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The high volume of top-end free agents could be a factor in how the market develops for top cornerbacks, as it was a bit soft in 2013. Talib earned $5 million on a one-year deal last season and the franchise tag at the position is projected to be around $11 million. One would think the market for a top cornerback on a long-term deal falls somewhere between that range. Our projection on a fair Talib long-term deal for both sides would be three years, $21 million, with $12 million in bonuses and guarantees ($6 million signing bonus, $6 million 2014 option bonus/potentially paid on a per-game basis). If I'm Talib, I'd resist the structure of a per-game roster bonus payout structure, and if I'm the Patriots, I'd hope to protect the team by keeping it as part of the deal based on Talib's injury history. I could envision that being a potential sticking point that is ultimately worked out/not worked out based on if another team is willing to up the ante on the open market in that area.

Patriots perspective: The Patriots want Talib back, and Talib has spoken highly of his time in New England. So the mutual interest is there to strike a deal and if that happens, the Patriots would return their top five cornerbacks and appear to be in good shape. Thus, the position wouldn't be as much of a priority in free agency and the draft. But if Talib isn't back, the picture changes considerably and we'd project the deep draft as the most likely avenue in which the Patriots attempt to fill that vacancy.

Draft & free agency: Safety

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
5:00
AM ET
With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.

For example, if a team knows it's a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency. With this in mind, our plan is to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Next on the list: Safety

Draft: ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. previously said: "Safety depth is very average. If you want a safety, you may have to think first or second round. I don't see great safeties lasting into the middle rounds this year." Louisville's Calvin Pryor and Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are viewed as the top two prospects and both are around 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, which is solid size.

Free agency: The Browns' T.J. Ward and the Bills' Jairus Byrd are two of the top players at any position scheduled for unrestricted free agency and both could be assigned the franchise tag. Miami's Chris Clemons could be an under-the-radar asset that draws interest, while New Orleans' Malcolm Jenkins is a solid player. San Francisco's Donte Whitner is one of the harder-hitting safeties set to hit the market, along with Tennessee's Bernard Pollard, Baltimore's James Ihedigbo and Washington's Brandon Meriweather. The Panthers' duo of Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell is also scheduled for free agency, making this a pretty deep position when compared to the draft.

Patriots perspective: All five safeties return in 2014, with the group led by Devin McCourty, who enters the final year of his contract. After having used early-round picks at the position in 2012 (Tavon Wilson, second round) and 2013 (Duron Harmon, third round), and with Wilson sliding into the background and Harmon still developing, the Patriots seem more likely to focus on the deeper veteran free-agent pool if they are looking to bolster the position. Last year's signing of Adrian Wilson didn't pan out. Maybe they try again in that area.

Draft & free agency: Linebacker

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
5:00
AM ET
With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.

For example, if a team knows it's a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency. With this in mind, our plan is to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Next on the list: Linebacker

Draft: This is one of the few positions in the draft that remains more senior-dominated, as there aren't as many highly-rated underclassmen as other spots. Buffalo's Khalil Mack and UCLA's Anthony Barr are the top-rated outside linebackers who project as first-round picks, and both will be interesting to follow in the coming years when compared to ultra-athletic 2013 Patriots top pick Jamie Collins (No. 52). Looks like a pretty strong position in the draft, according to analysts.

Free agency: Hard-hitting Patriots middle linebacker Brandon Spikes is among a group that will be valued differently based on what scheme a team plays. Spikes is at his best playing downhill. Washington's Brian Orakpo is the consensus top linebacker set to hit the market, while San Diego's Donald Butler is another solid player at the position whom the Chargers are hoping to re-sign before free agency begins. At first glance, this doesn't look like a position that is particularly deep in free agency.

Patriots perspective: With a projected starting trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, the Patriots look to be in good shape from a top-tier standpoint. Dane Fletcher, who carved out a niche on special teams, would presumably be welcomed back but might be more inclined to seek opportunities elsewhere with more upside for playing time on defense. Any Patriots additions at this position figure to come later in the draft or in the low-to-moderate levels of free agency with special teams in mind.

Draft & free agency: Quarterback

February, 16, 2014
Feb 16
2:00
PM ET
With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.

For example, if a team knows it's a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency. With this in mind, our plan is to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Next on the list: Quarterback

Draft: Unlike 2012 when Andrew Luck was as close to a sure thing as a franchise quarterback at the top of the draft, none of this year's top three prospects -- Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles -- are viewed to be in that category. Still, all seem likely to be first-round picks. All three are underclassmen, which adds some risk to the evaluation as there isn't as large of a body of work to evaluate. Teams that lean toward seniors will also have plenty of options, such as Fresno State's Derek Carr and Alabama's AJ McCarron.

Free agency: The market for a top backup who has some successful starting experience is in the $3-4 million per year range and Chad Henne (Jaguars) is at the top of this year's list. Both sides seem to have mutual interest in his return so it's possible he doesn't make it to the open market. Matt Cassel falls into the same category (he voided his contract with Minnesota and is a free agent) and Chicago's Josh McCown proved in 2013 that he is worthy of similar consideration. Detroit's Shaun Hill, Green Bay's Matt Flynn, San Francisco's Colt McCoy, Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson, St. Louis' Brady Quinn and Tennessee's Rusty Smith are other options at the position from more of a pure backup perspective. Michael Vick is the wild-card of the entire crop.

Patriots perspective: With just two quarterbacks presently on the roster, and with No. 2 option Ryan Mallett entering the final year of his contract, the Patriots will add at least one more signal-caller this offseason. A younger developmental type, either through the draft or free agency, would seem most likely. If it's the draft, it would be a surprise if it happens before the third round. Plenty of options in both areas.

Draft & free agency: Wide receiver

February, 15, 2014
Feb 15
5:00
AM ET
With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.

For example, if a team knows it's a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency. With this in mind, our plan is to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Next on the list: Wide receiver

Draft: This is a deep class, boosted significantly by the influx of underclassmen. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projects that anywhere from six to nine receivers could be selected in the first round, with teams getting value at the position into the third and fourth round.

Free agency: Similar to the draft, there is no shortage of options for teams looking to upgrade. Denver's Eric Decker is one of the top receivers set to hit the market, although his performance in the Super Bowl might lead some clubs to proceed with caution. Anquan Boldin (49ers), Hakeem Nicks (Giants), Riley Cooper (Eagles) and Jeremy Maclin (Eagles) are other notables who figure to command attention from receiver-needy teams. Patriots receiver Julian Edelman should rate highly for clubs looking for a more shifty type, while Emmanuel Sanders (Steelers), Jerricho Cotchery (Steelers), Golden Tate (Seahawks) and Jacoby Jones (Ravens) are among a group of players who likely will have some value in the marketplace.

Patriots perspective: After drafting two receivers in 2013 (second-rounder Aaron Dobson and fourth-rounder Josh Boyce) and having a third emerge via the undrafted pipeline (Kenbrell Thompkins), the Patriots project to be more inclined to eye experience at receiver. While they could always draft another pass-catcher, the feeling here is that if it happens it would probably be later in the draft. Thus, we'd project free agency as the more likely avenue the team pursues, depending on what happens with Edelman.

Draft & free agency: Defensive end

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
5:00
AM ET
With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.

For example, if a team knows it's a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency. With this in mind, our plan is to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Next on the list: Defensive end/outside linebacker (end of line player)

Draft: Not considered to have the same top-end quality/depth as some other positions, this group is headlined by South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, who projects as a top-three pick. Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt and Missouri's Kony Ealy are viewed as other first-round possibilities, while Auburn's Dee Ford could be included in the mix although he projects more to linebacker in some schemes. Alabama's Jeoffrey Pagan's versatility and background in Nick Saban's system make him a prospect to keep on the radar in the middle rounds. The influx of underclassmen boost this group.

Free agency: Former Saints veteran Will Smith jumps near the top of the list as a potential lower-to-moderate-cost pass-rusher of interest after he was released Wednesday. He also wouldn't count against the compensatory pick formula. Carolina's Greg Hardy is viewed as one of the top pass-rushers on the market, and with Cincinnati's Michael Johnson also scheduled for free agency, that's two top players that make this position one of the best in free agency. Robert Ayers, Minnesota's Jared Allen, the New York Giants' Justin Tuck and Pittsburgh's Jason Worilds are others in this group who catch the eye for different reasons.

Patriots perspective: With starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones returning, the Patriots figure to be looking for help in a complementary role. Michael Buchanan (2013 seventh-round pick) is among those who could develop from within, and with that in mind, it could tilt the scales in favor of the Patriots tapping this position in free agency, where there is no shortage of options.

Draft & free agency: Defensive tackle

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
5:00
AM ET
With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.

For example, if a team knows it’s a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency. With this in mind, our plan is to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Next on the list: Defensive tackle

Draft: Not viewed as particularly deep. Florida State's Timmy Jernigan, Notre Dame's Louis Nix III and Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman are among the top-rated crop of tackles, with Nix more in the mold of the big-bodied run-stuffer. Would think the Patriots would lean toward some of the bigger prospects at the position and someone like Penn State's Daquan Jones, given his background with former Patriots assistant Bill O'Brien the last two seasons, is one incoming rookie we're interested in learning more about as a potential fit. His height-weight measurables (6-foot-3 1/2, 323 pounds) look good on the surface and he projects as an early-round pick. In a draft stocked with underclassmen, Jones is a senior, which also gives more scouts more to evaluate.

Free agency: Oakland's Lamarr Houston and Baltimore's Arthur Jones are two of the best scheduled for free agency (based on where they would likely play in New England's scheme), while Green Bay space-eater B.J. Raji is a top option for teams looking for a big man in the middle. Former Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, on Tuesday's ESPN Insiders program, spoke highly of Houston's Earl Mitchell as a potential under-the-radar option who could command a nice contract. One might say Giants defensive tackle Linval Joseph also falls in a similar category. Echoing something Bill Belichick has said in the past, part of the reason there are so few quality defensive tackles available is that teams usually lock them up early because they are so valuable and hard to find.

Patriots perspective: If the Patriots keep both Vince Wilfork (32) and Tommy Kelly (33), it's hard to imagine they would sign another late-career veteran in free agency. With Armond Armstead, Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga and Joe Vellano also part of the mix, there are no shortage of options, but this is still a position we view as one where a high-upside rookie would make a lot of sense with future considerations in mind. Thus, the draft looks like the more likely option for the Patriots to pursue.

Draft & free agency: Tight end

February, 12, 2014
Feb 12
2:30
PM ET
With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.

For example, if a team knows it’s a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency. With this in mind, our plan is to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Next on the list: Tight end.

Ebron
Draft: North Carolina's Eric Ebron and Texas Tech's Jace Amaro are the top prospects, with Ebron projecting as a mid first-rounder and Amaro possibly sliding into the back half of the first round. Notre Dame's Troy Niklas, Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz fall into the next tier of prospects who could draw consideration in the second/third-round range. This looks like a solid-but-not-particuarly-deep crop of tight ends and teams will naturally value them differently depending on what they are looking for (e.g. big blocker or combination run/pass player vs. more of a "move-in-the-passing game" prospect).

Amaro
Free agency: Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew and Buffalo's Scott Chandler catch the eye as two players who don't project to break the bank but have starting experience and could help a team in different ways. Pettigrew, in our view, is more of a combination tight end who offers value in both the blocking and pass-catching areas, while Chandler is more of a pass catcher whose 6-foot-7 frame could help a team in the red zone. Baltimore's Dennis Pitta and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham (likely target for franchise tag) are notable names who are in position to get paid well.

Patriots perspective: This projects as one of the team's top needs. Even if free agents Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan return, the Patriots figure to be looking closely at tight ends who offer a bit more of a dynamic presence in the passing game and Rob Gronkowski insurance. D.J. Williams is already under contract for 2014, so he'll have a head start on whatever tight end(s) is brought into the fold. This looks like a good year to be seeking help at the position -- both in free agency and the draft.

Draft & free agency: Interior O-line

February, 12, 2014
Feb 12
10:30
AM ET
With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.

For example, if a team knows it’s a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency. With this in mind, our plan is to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

We’ll lead off with center/guard.

Warmack
Draft: When Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell was asked what might be easier to accomplish between adding a spark to the running game or finding an impact pass-rusher, he chose the running game because of the ability to find good value/production along the offensive line in the middle rounds. Unlike last year with center Travis Frederick (31st overall pick), and guards Jonathan Cooper (No. 7), Chance Warmack (No. 10), and Kyle Long (No. 20), this year is shaping up as one in which the first pure interior offensive lineman might not be selected until the second round. Southern Cal's Marcus Martin and North Carolina's Russell Bodine are two of the top interior offensive linemen in the draft.

Mack
Free agency: The contract that former New England Patriots guard Donald Thomas landed from the Colts last offseason (four years, $14 million) provides some framework of a marketplace for a free agent pursued early in the process. Browns center Alex Mack and Broncos guard Zane Beadles look like the crown jewels, and they won’t come that cheap if they ultimately make it to the open market. Chiefs guard Jon Asamoah enters his fifth season, and fits the still-young-and-entering-his-prime profile that could lead to a nice payday. The view from here is that there are some quality high-level options in free agency and then a notable drop-off.

Patriots perspective: Starting center Ryan Wendell is a free agent, and starting right guard Dan Connolly is due a $3 million base salary and will count $4 million against the cap, which could be viewed as too rich for the Patriots’ liking. As colleague Field Yates noted, the Patriots have a high total of $16 million of their cap currently tied up along the interior of the offensive line, which probably tilts the odds in favor of the team looking at low- to moderate-cost options unless that financial picture changes. There are also developmental prospects like guard Chris Barker and practice squad center Braxston Cave who could figure into the plans.

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