New England Patriots: Free agent fit

Free-agent fit: Offensive line

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
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Tenth and final installment in a multipart series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 11.

Position: Offensive line

Players under contract for 2014: T Nate Solder, G Logan Mankins, C/G Dan Connolly, T/G Marcus Cannon, T Sebastian Vollmer, G Josh Kline, G/C Chris Barker, T/G Markus Zusevics, C Braxston Cave, T Jordan Devey, T R.J. Mattes.

Level of need: Moderate-to-low

Projected top targets: G Shawn Lauvao (Browns), G Shelley Smith (Rams), C Ryan Wendell (Patriots)

Why Lauvao fits: Entering the NFL as a third-round pick in 2010, he has starting experience (44 games), is 26 years old, and would add sturdy presence to any line at right guard.

Why Smith fits: A bit of an under-the-radar free agent who has reportedly drawn interest from multiple teams, he has good size (6-4, 312), is 26 years old, and possibly has some position flexibility. He entered the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick of the Texans in 2010.

Why Wendell fits: After starting at center the last two seasons for the Patriots, he knows the system and could vie to keep the job if a more lucrative market doesn’t develop for him elsewhere. Hard to imagine the Patriots extending themselves too far to retain him, but he still has value to the team.

Other names of note: T Branden Albert (Chiefs), G Zane Beadles (Broncos), OT Anthony Collins (Bengals), C Evan Dietrich-Smith (Packers), OT Austin Howard (Jets), G Charlie Johnson (Vikings), G Shawn Lauvao (Browns), OT Eugene Monroe (Ravens), OT Michael Oher (Ravens), OT Roger Saffold (Rams), T/G Will Svitek (Patriots), OT Jared Veldheer (Raiders), OT Eric Winston (Cardinals),

Franchise tag: None.

Transition tag: C Alex Mack (Browns)

Market conditions: Strong at the tackle position, where early free-agent movement is expected. It is also especially strong in the draft at tackle, with fewer top prospects among interior linemen but some solid depth starting in the second round range.

Questions to answer at the position: How will the Patriots address the center spot? How is starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer’s recovery progressing from a broken ankle? Is Marcus Cannon a better fit at right guard or right tackle?

Free-agent fit: Cornerback

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
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Nolan Carroll, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Aqib TalibGetty Images, AP PhotoNolan Carroll and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are considered fallback options for the Patriots in the event they don't re-sign Aqib Talib.
Seventh installment in a multipart series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 11.

Position: Cornerback

Players under contract for 2014: Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, Justin Green

Level of need: Moderate-to-high

Projected top targets: Nolan Carroll (Dolphins), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Broncos), Aqib Talib (Patriots)

Why Carroll fits: Good size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds), the right age (27) and has experience (26 career starts in 4 years). The Patriots know him well from facing him twice a season. He isn’t a No. 1 corner, but could vie for a starting role in the event Talib isn’t back, and will likely command much less financially.

Why Rodgers-Cromartie fits: Has solid man cover skills and the ability to match up in a similar way as Talib, although he isn’t as strong/willing against the run.

Why Talib fits: The Patriots have worked with him since November of 2012, he knows the system, game-plans have been partially built around his ability to match up with various types of receivers, and he added a lot to the team both in the meeting room and on the field. His return is a top priority; it’s just a matter of if the market increases to a point that the Patriots, with some concern over Talib’s injury history, aren’t comfortable going.

Other names of note: Tarell Brown (49ers), Brandon Browner (Seahawks), Antoine Cason (Cardinals), Chris Cook (Vikings), Antonio Cromartie (Jets), Vontae Davis (Colts), Corey Graham (Ravens), Jabari Greer (Saints), Captain Munnerlyn (Panthers), Asante Samuel (Falcons), Walter Thurmond (Seahawks), Charles Tillman (Bears), Alterraun Verner (Titans)

Franchise tag: none

Market conditions: This is a strong class in free agency, especially at the top. In the draft, analysts believe teams will find quality into the middle rounds.

Questions to answer at the position: If Aqib Talib isn’t back, how do the Patriots fill the void at the top of the depth chart? How much will Alfonzo Dennard’s offseason be affected by his time in jail? Can Logan Ryan build off his rookie season into a permanent starting role?

Free-agent fit: Linebacker

March, 9, 2014
Mar 9
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Eighth installment in a multipart series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 11.

Position: Inside/middle linebacker (off the line)

Players under contract for 2014: Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Chris White, Steve Beauharnais, Chris White, Ja'Gared Davis, Taylor Reed

Level of need: Moderate-to-low

Projected top targets: Dane Fletcher (Patriots), Ramon Humber (Saints), Dekoda Watson (Buccaneers).

Why Fletcher fits: He has spent the first four years of his career with the Patriots, making the transition from college defensive end to NFL linebacker/special teamer. He led the Patriots in special teams tackles last season with 15.

Why Humber fits: Similar to Fletcher, he was a solid special teams performer for the Saints in 2013, recovering two onside kicks and totaling six solo tackles in the kicking game.

Why Watson fits: One of the Buccaneers’ best special teams players, he’d project as a core member of the kicking game while providing depth on defense.

Other names of note: Jon Beason (Giants), Karlos Dansby (Cardinals), Stephen Nicholas (Falcons), Daryl Smith (Ravens), Brandon Spikes (Patriots), Jonathan Vilma (Saints), Wesley Woodyard (Broncos).

Franchise tag: None.

Market conditions: The most likely avenue to find a potential three-down linebacker is through the draft. There are a few starting-caliber options in free agency who wouldn’t project to help on special teams, which will limit their value to some.

Questions to answer at the position: Is Jamie Collins ready for a prominent three-down role? How is Jerod Mayo’s recovery from a season-ending torn pectoral muscle last October? Who replaces the hard-hitting edge brought by Brandon Spikes? Will Dont’a Hightower take another step forward in his development?

Free-agent fit: Quarterback

March, 8, 2014
Mar 8
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Sixth installment in a multipart series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 11.

Position: Quarterback

Players under contract for 2014: Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett

Level of need: Moderate-to-low

Projected top targets: Colt McCoy (49ers), Brady Quinn (Rams), Rusty Smith (Titans)

Why McCoy fits: He previously played under current Patriots assistant Brian Daboll in Cleveland (2010), and thus has a background in a Patriots-type offense. He would add an experienced third option (21 career starts) behind the two signal-callers entrenched in the top spots on the depth chart.

Why Quinn fits: Similar to McCoy, he has experience in a Patriots-type system from having been on a Brian Daboll-coordinated unit in Cleveland (2009) and Kansas City (2012), and a Josh McDaniels-coached team in Denver (2010). If the Patriots are considering the addition of a third quarterback, it makes sense to look toward a player coaches are familiar with.

Why Smith fits: More of a developmental option, Smith (1 career start) spent the last four years with the Titans, who selected him in the sixth round of the 2010 draft. At 6-foot-5 and 226 pounds, he has a solid physical makeup and was looked at closely in the pre-draft process by the Patriots.

Other names of note: Derek Anderson (Panthers), Jimmy Clausen (Panthers), Kellen Clemens (Rams), Matt Flynn (Packers), Josh Freeman (Vikings), Rex Grossman (Redskins), Shaun Hill (Lions), Tarvaris Jackson (Seahawks), Josh McCown (Bears), Luke McCown (Saints), Dan Orlovsky (Buccaneers), Curtis Painter (Giants), Michael Vick (Eagles), Seneca Wallace (Packers), Charlie Whitehurst (Chargers)

Franchise tag: none

Market conditions: A top backup quarterback is commanding about $4 million per season, as reflected by the agreement between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Chad Henne. That is also around the range that Matt Cassel landed in his two-year deal with the Vikings. The Patriots would be looking at more of a cheaper, No. 3 alternative.

Questions to answer at the position: Will Brady show any signs of decline? Might there be any type of trade market for Mallett, who enters the final year of his contract? Will the Patriots draft a prospect, similar to what they did with Mallett in 2011?

Free-agent fit: Defensive tackle

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
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Red Bryant, Letroy Guion, Al WoodsGetty ImagesWe spotlight free agents Red Bryant, Letroy Guion and Al Woods as potential options for the Patriots.
Fifth installment in a multipart series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 11.

Position: Defensive tackle

Players under contract for 2013: Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Armond Armstead, Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, Joe Vellano, Isaac Sopoaga, Marcus Forston, Cory Grissom

Level of need: Moderate

Projected top targets: Red Bryant (Seahawks), Letroy Guion (Vikings), Al Woods (Steelers)

Bryant
Why Bryant fits: The Patriots pursued him aggressively two years ago before he re-signed with the Seahawks. He's a big and powerful presence up front, with former Patriots defensive lineman Ty Warren one of his big influences. He wouldn't count against the compensatory pick formula because he was released by Seattle.

Why Guion fits: More of an under-the-radar free-agent who struggled at times in 2013 with performance and injuries, the seven-year veteran from Florida State has spent his entire career with the Vikings, most recently playing nose tackle. The last two years, when he broke through as a starter, he came under the watch of defensive line coach Brendan Daly, who is now with the Patriots. Guion wouldn't count against the compensatory pick formula, wouldn't be a pure nose tackle in the Patriots' scheme and could add depth while competing against a younger player for a roster spot.

Woods
Why Woods fits: Although he hasn't broken through since entering the NFL as a fourth-round draft choice in 2010, Woods has shown flashes that make him an intriguing lower-budget option for a team that might not be looking to spend big at the position. He has good size (6-4, 307) and some scheme versatility that could appeal to a team like the Patriots which runs multiple fronts.

Other names of note: Adam Carriker (Rams), Terrence Cody (Ravens), Brandon Deaderick (Jaguars), Fred Evans (Vikings), Aubrayo Franklin (Colts), Jason Hatcher (Cowboys), Ziggy Hood (Steelers), Lamarr Houston (Raiders), Arthur Jones (Ravens), Linval Joseph (Giants), Kyle Love (Jaguars), Henry Melton (Bears), Earl Mitchell (Texans), Paul Soliai (Dolphins), Randy Starks (Dolphins), Cam Thomas (Chargers), Kevin Williams (Vikings).

Franchise tag: None

Market conditions: This is a strong class that is likely to have some players signing early and for significant money, with Red Bryant, Jason Hatcher, Arthur Jones, Linval Joseph, Lamarr Houston and Earl Mitchell some of the top tackles available. Between free agency and the draft, there are some appealing options.

Questions to answer at the position: Is Wilfork's $7.5 million salary a concern for the team if an agreement can't be reached to lower his salary cap charge? How is Tommy Kelly's injured knee recovering and is he still a big part of the plans? Will Armond Armstead be healthy and primed to contribute? Is Isaac Sopoaga cut because of a $3.5 million salary or does he come back at a reduced rate?

Free-agent fit: Wide receiver

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6
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Jason Avant, Julian Edelman, and Emmanuel SandersGetty ImagesJason Avant, Julian Edelman and Emmanuel Sanders are all possible fits for the Patriots.
Fourth installment in a multipart series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 11.

Position: Wide receiver

Players under contract for 2014: Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, Matthew Slater, Mark Harrison, Greg Orton, T.J. Moe, Reggie Dunn

Level of need: Moderate

Projected top targets: Jason Avant (Eagles), Julian Edelman (Patriots), Emmanuel Sanders (Steelers)

Why Avant fits: Released by the Eagles on Tuesday, he is a respected veteran who was considered a lockerroom leader, and also a strong special teams player. Based on the youth the Patriots have at the position, adding a veteran such as Avant could be a nice complement on the back end of the depth chart.

Why Edelman fits: He is coming off a 105-catch season, knows the Patriots’ system, and is a top-notch punt returner. The issue is whether or not the Patriots would feel comfortable having him and Amendola on similar contracts, given their somewhat similar skill sets.

Why Sanders fits: The Patriots signed him to a restricted free agent offer sheet last year which was matched by the Steelers. He’s an inside-outside threat with good run-after-the-catch ability.

Other names of note: Kenny Britt (Titans), Nate Burleson (Lions), Austin Collie (Patriots), Jerricho Cotchery (Steelers), Eric Decker (Bears), Devin Hester (Bears), Jacoby Jones (Ravens), James Jones (Packers), Dexter McCluster (Chiefs), Hakeem Nicks (Giants), Andre Roberts (Cardinals), Ted Ginn (Panthers), Brandon LaFell (Panthers), Mario Manningham (49ers), Sidney Rice (Seahawks), Golden Tate (Seahawks), Tiquan Underwood (Buccaneers)

Franchise tag: none

Market conditions: With such a strong draft class, some are projecting that the free-agent market might be a bit soft. Still, there is no shortage of options.

Questions to answer at the position: Will Danny Amendola have a fully healthy 2014 season? Are the Patriots seriously considering trading Amendola? Can Aaron Dobson make the jump from Year 1 to Year 2 and become a top outside threat? Will Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce make a similar jump? Could T.J. Moe, a coveted undrafted free agent who spent 2013 on injured reserve, work his way into the mix?

Free-agent fit: Safety

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
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Chris Clemons, T.J. Ward, and Donte WhitnerGetty ImagesWe've identified Chris Clemons, T.J. Ward and Donte Whitner as potential free-agent targets for the Patriots.
Third installment in a multipart series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 11.

Position: Safety

Players under contract for 2013: Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner, Kanorris Davis

Level of need: Moderate-to-high

SportsNation

Which of the projected free-agent targets at safety would you most like to see the Patriots sign?

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Discuss (Total votes: 1,690)

Projected top targets: Chris Clemons (Dolphins), T.J. Ward (Browns), Donte Whitner (49ers)

Why Clemons fits: He is part of the second tier at the position, which could put him more in line with the Patriots’ budget, and he has good size (6-1, 214) and runs well. The Patriots know him well from having faced him twice a year since 2009.

Why Ward fits: The hard-hitting Ward is entering his prime years and would bring an edge to the secondary. The Patriots should have good intelligence on him as assistant to the coaching staff Mike Lombardi was Cleveland’s general manager last season. One big hurdle to overcome: A likely high price tag.

Why Whitner fits: His presence would be similar to what the Patriots tried last year with Adrian Wilson -- a bigger, hard-hitting safety who is more of a liability in coverage.

Other names of note: Antoine Bethea (Colts), Jairus Byrd (Bills), Ryan Clark (Steelers), Louis Delmas (Lions), Steve Gregory (Patriots), James Ihedigbo (Ravens), Malcolm Jenkins (Saints), Brandon Meriweather (Redskins), Quintin Mikell (Panthers), Mike Mitchell (Panthers), Ed Reed (Jets)

Franchise tag: none

Market conditions: Free agency is stronger than the draft at the top end because of the presence of Cleveland’s Ward and Buffalo’s Byrd. Few would have been surprised if one of them was assigned a franchise or transition tag, but that didn’t happen. In the draft, Louisville’s Calvin Pryor and Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are viewed as first-round picks, as the overall class is considered to be solid but not spectacular.

Questions to answer at the position: Will 2013 third-round pick Duron Harmon emerge as the starter next to Devin McCourty? Does McCourty, entering the final year of his contract, get an extension? Will Adrian Wilson be on the team? Will Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner emerge as anything more then special teams standouts?

Free-agent fit: Defensive end/OLB

March, 4, 2014
Mar 4
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Allen, Ayers & GriffenUSA TODAY SportsFree agents Jared Allen, Robert Ayers and Everson Griffen are all upgrade options for the Patriots' pass rush.
Second installment in a multipart series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 11.

Position: Defensive end/outside linebacker

Players under contract for 2013: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Michael Buchanan, Jake Bequette

Level of need: High

Projected top targets: Jared Allen (Vikings), Robert Ayers (Broncos), Everson Griffen (Vikings)

Why Allen fits: Veteran pass-rusher could provide a boost to the Patriots' sub packages, which were run 67 percent of the time in 2013 and continue to be a big part of defensive football in today's NFL.

Why Ayers fits: At 6-foot-3 and 274 pounds, he was a first-round draft choice of the Broncos in 2009 when Josh McDaniels was in his first year as head coach. He hasn't produced at the level some draft analysts have anticipated, but is coming off a career-high 5.5-sack season and might be a good value signing.

SportsNation

Which of the projected free-agent targets at DE/OLB would you most like to see the Patriots sign?

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Discuss (Total votes: 4,417)

Why Griffen fits: For a multiple defense that values versatility, the 6-foot-3, 273-pound Griffen could be an intriguing piece whether playing in a two- or three-point stance. First-year Patriots assistant coach Brendan Daly should have good intel on him from their time together the past two years in Minnesota (same with Jared Allen).

Other names of note: Andre Carter (Patriots), Tyson Jackson (Chiefs), Michael Johnson (Bengals), Matt Shaughnessy (Cardinals), Antonio Smith (Texans), Will Smith (Saints), Anthony Spencer (Cowboys), Justin Tuck (Giants), Corey Wootton (Bears), Jason Worilds (Steelers), Willie Young (Lions)

Franchise tag: Greg Hardy (Panthers), Brian Orakpo (Redskins)

Market conditions: Everyone is looking for pass-rushers, and draft analysts point to the pure 4-3 defensive end spot as one of the lighter positions in this year's draft. That could lead to some early action in free agency for teams with a need. The free-agent crop looks pretty deep, with a combination of later-career players who still have something to offer and younger, versatile players with upside.

Questions to answer at the position: Is it dangerous to rely on Chandler Jones (played 98.1 percent of defensive snaps) and Ninkovich (98.6 percent) to carry such a heavy load in 2014? Will the third year be the charm for 2012 third-round draft choice Bequette? Can 2013 seventh-round draft pick Michael Buchanan emerge as a regular defensive contributor? Would the Patriots consider using Dont'a Hightower or Jamie Collins coming off the edge in sub packages?

Free-agent fit: Offensive line

March, 12, 2013
3/12/13
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Ninth and final installment in a multi-part series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 12.

Position: Offensive line

Players under contract for 2013: LT Nate Solder, LG Logan Mankins, C Ryan Wendell, RG Dan Connolly, RT Marcus Cannon, C/G Nick McDonald, OT Markus Zusevics

Level of need: Moderate

[+] EnlargeVollmer
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsAmong the Patriots' Big Three free agents, Sebastian Vollmer seems like the least likely to return.
Projected top targets: RT Eben Britton (Jaguars), G Donald Thomas (Patriots), RT Sebastian Vollmer (Patriots)

Why Britton fits: If Vollmer departs, and the Patriots bump Marcus Cannon up the fictional pre-draft depth chart at right tackle, a player like the 6-foot-6, 308-pound Britton could be a reclamation project worth exploring at a minimum-level type deal as a Plan B option (with more additions possible in the draft). Britton, a high second-round pick in 2009, lost his starting job last season and would represent a low-risk, high-reward situation. Put him in the Dante Scarnecchia School for Offensive Linemen and see what happens.

Why Thomas fits: He proved to be a solid fill-in at both guard positions, playing 48 percent of the offensive snaps in 2012 for the Patriots and holding his own. He could get starter-type consideration elsewhere, but if he doesn’t, the Patriots could address depth concerns by bringing him back with a bump in pay.

Why Vollmer fits: As noted by teammate Logan Mankins, when Vollmer is healthy he’s one of the best in the NFL at his right tackle position. The Patriots and Vollmer’s representatives aren’t aligned on a contract at this time, so the market will be a big factor in dictating his future.

Other names of note: Sam Baker (Falcons), Kevin Boothe (Giants), Jermon Bushrold (Saints), Gosder Cherilus (Lions), Ryan Harris (Texans), Russ Hochstein (Chiefs), Winston Justice (Colts), Dan Koppen (Broncos), Andy Levitre (Bills), Phil Loadholt (Vikings), Sean Locklear (Giants), Jake Long (Dolphins), Brandon Moore (Jets), Rich Ohrnberger (Cardinals), Matt Slauson (Jets), Andre Smith (Bengals), Donald Thomas (Patriots), Jeremy Trueblood (Buccaneers), Louis Vasquez (Chargers).

Market conditions: A lot of good players available, which is rare to see. Teams looking to upgrade up front have a lot of options from which to choose. The draft is also considered deep.

Questions to answer at position: Will another team pay big money to Sebastian Vollmer? … Is Marcus Cannon ready to step up at right tackle if Vollmer departs? … What is the best avenue to build more depth – draft or free agency?

YOUR TURN: Which of these would you like to see in a Patriots uniform? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog entry.

Free-agent fit: Wide receiver

March, 11, 2013
3/11/13
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Eighth in a multi-part series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 12.

Position: Wide receiver

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

Level of need: High

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
AP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerWhether Wes Welker will be back is probably the top Patriots storyline of free agency.
Projected top targets: Julian Edelman (Patriots), Mohamed Massaquoi (Browns), David Nelson (Bills), Wes Welker (Patriots)

Why Edelman fits: He’s one of the NFL’s top punt returners and, if he stays healthy, adds an element of speed and dynamic play at receiver. He is recovering from a foot injury that landed him on injured reserve last December.

Why Massaquoi fits: At 6-2 and 204 pounds, he could fit as a potential low-risk, high-reward signing. Drafted in the second round by the Browns in 2009, he’s battled injuries similar to Edelman since entering the league. One also has to consider that his production is tied, in part, to the shaky quarterback play in Cleveland. He has a background with Patriots assistant Brian Daboll.

Why Nelson fits: Bill Belichick called him after the draft in 2010 as a recruiting push to sign him as a rookie free agent. Belichick has since been complimentary of Nelson (6-5, 214), whose presence in the red zone could be a boost.

Why Welker fits: Playing the last six seasons in New England, he’s been the NFL’s most productive receiver. No further explanation needed.

Other names of note: Danny Amendola (Rams), Donnie Avery (Colts), Ramses Barden (Giants), Deion Branch (Patriots), Plaxico Burress (Steelers), Austin Collie (Colts), Josh Cribbs (Browns), Braylon Edwards (Jets), Brandon Gibson (Rams), Ted Ginn (49ers), Devery Henderson (Saints), Domenik Hixon (Giants), Greg Jennings (Packers), Stefan Logan (Lions), Randy Moss (49ers), Louis Murphy (Panthers), Roscoe Parrish (Buccaneers), Jerome Simpson (Vikings), Brandon Stokley (Broncos), Brandon Tate (Bengals), Mike Wallace (Steelers)

Market conditions: There aren’t any pure outside No. 1 options in the crop, including Mike Wallace, who could be in line for a big-money contract. But teams looking to add a receiver can still find value, whether it’s for someone in the slot or the outside. Anquan Boldin’s status in Baltimore bears watching, as he could join this group.

Questions to answer at position: Will the Patriots pick up Brandon Lloyd’s $3 million option bonus in mid-March? … Does Wes Welker receive much interest elsewhere? … Can Bill Belichick turn back the clock to 2002 (Deion Branch, David Givens) for some draft success at the position?

YOUR TURN: Which of these would you like to see in a Patriots uniform? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog entry.

Free-agent fit: Tight end

March, 10, 2013
3/10/13
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Seventh in a multipart series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 12.

Position: Tight end

Players under contract for 2013: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard, Brad Herman

Level of need: Low

Projected top targets: Dallas Clark (Buccaneers), Michael Hoomanawanui (Patriots), Jake O’Connell (Chiefs)

[+] EnlargeMichael Hoomanawanui
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesMichael Hoomanawanui made a positive impression on Patriots coaches last season.
Why Clark fits: The Patriots visited with him last year in free agency before Clark elected to sign with the Buccaneers. Clark totaled 47 receptions for 435 yards and four touchdowns last season, showing he still has something to offer as he enters his 11th season. In the event the Patriots sign a tight end, it would be with the No. 3 or 4 spot in mind in the event of injuries Gronkowski and Hernandez, and Clark would be a nice insurance policy.

Why Hoomanawanui fits: He played for the Patriots last season and made a solid impression on the coaching staff with his smarts, dependability, work ethic and versatility in a reserve role. He’s a restricted free agent.

Why O’Connell fits: The 2009 seventh-round draft choice played under current Patriots assistant coach Brian Daboll with the Chiefs last season, so his learning curve wouldn’t be as steep as some others. The signing of a player such as O’Connell (6-3, 250) would be with depth in mind, as a roster spot wouldn’t be a sure thing.

Other names of note: Gary Barnidge (Panthers), Billy Bajema (Ravens), Travis Beckum (Giants), Martellus Bennett (Giants), Jared Cook (Titans), Anthony Fasano (Dolphins), Tony Gonzalez (Falcons), Ben Hartsock (Panthers), Dustin Keller (Jets), Brandon Myers (Raiders), John Phillips (Cowboys), Alex Smith (Browns), Delanie Walker (49ers), Benjamin Watson (Browns)

Market conditions: This is one of the strong areas of free agency. Teams seeking a tight end have a variety of options who have proven production in the NFL. It appears to be a group that is heavier on tight ends who are more receiver-like than pure blockers.

Questions to answer at position: Will Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez make it through the season healthy? … Can Jake Ballard return to his pre-injury form and give the Patriots a solid No. 3 option on the depth chart? … Will the Patriots view Daniel Fells’ $1.25 million base salary as too expensive?.

YOUR TURN: Which of these would you like to see in a Patriots uniform? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog entry.

Free-agent fit: Running back

March, 9, 2013
3/09/13
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Sixth in a multi-part series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 12.

Position: Running back

[+] EnlargeGreg Jones, LaMarr Woodley
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesGreg Jones would be a powerful addition at fullback if the Patriots decide to go that route.
Players under contract for 2013: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, Jeff Demps

Level of need: Low

Projected top targets: Greg Jones (Jaguars), Corey McIntyre (Bills), Danny Woodhead (Patriots)

Why Jones fits: If the Patriots are serious about adding a lead-blocking fullback to the mix, the 31-year-old Jones could warrant a look. He’s played his entire career with the Jaguars, and naturally has slowed down a bit at this stage of his career, but would also bring a veteran presence.

Why McIntyre fits: Similar to Jones, McIntyre would be a fullback-type presence and he also has extensive special teams experience. At 34, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

Why Woodhead fits: He’s a solid, reliable passing back who has carved out a nice niche in the Patriots’ offense in recent years.

Other names of note: Cedric Benson (Packers), Reggie Bush (Dolphins), Mike Cox (Falcons), Ryan Grant (Packers), Shonn Greene (Jets), Jerome Harrison (Lions), Steven Jackson (Rams), Quinn Johnson (Titans), Brian Leonard (Bengals), Rashard Mendenhall (Steelers), LaRod Stephens-Howling (Cardinals), Felix Jones (Cowboys)

Market conditions: There are some big names and former high draft choices in the group. This is a position that hasn’t been commanding big-bucks contracts on the open market in part because of the shorter shelf life of those who play it, and also how teams have had success finding productive runners in a pinch.

Questions to answer at position: For Stevan Ridley, are there any residual effects of the blow to the helmet that knocked him out of the AFC Championship Game? … Is Jeff Demps more than a return specialist? … Will Brandon Bolden regain the form from early in 2012, or will last season’s suspension ultimately be the turning point to a downward spiral of his career? … How important is a fullback?

YOUR TURN: Which of these would you like to see in a Patriots uniform? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog entry.

Free-agent fit: Quarterback

March, 9, 2013
3/09/13
10:30
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Fifth in a multi-part series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 12.

Position:Quarterback

Players under contract for 2013: Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett, Mike Kafka

Level of need: Low

Projected top target: Brady Quinn (Chiefs)

Why Quinn fits: He has a background with Patriots coaches Josh McDaniels (Denver, 2010) and Brian Daboll (Kansas City, 2012). If the Patriots are looking to add an experienced free-agent backup to the mix -- which doesn’t seem like a major need -- this connection makes him a leading candidate.

[+] EnlargeBrady Quinn
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireIf the Patriots opt to add a veteran backup QB, Brady Quinn would be a natural target.
Other names of note: Derek Anderson (Panthers), Jason Campbell (Bears), David Carr (Giants), Kellen Clemens (Rams), Chase Daniel (Saints), Bruce Gradkowski (Bengals), Rex Grossman (Redskins), Josh Johnson (Browns), Matt Leinart (Raiders), Luke McCown (Falcons), Drew Stanton (Colts), Tyler Thigpen (Bills)

Market conditions: The Dolphins’ re-signing of Matt Moore highlighted the value of having a strong No. 2 signal-caller, and how the demand seems greater than the supply. Not a lot of sure-fire options available.

Questions to answer at position: Does Ryan Mallett generate any trade interest? … Can Kafka stick as No. 3 on the depth chart?

YOUR TURN: Which of these would you like to see in a Patriots uniform? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog entry.

Free-agent fit: Linebacker

March, 8, 2013
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Fourth in a series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 12.

Position: Linebacker

Players under contract for 2013: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower, Dane Fletcher, Mike Rivera, Jeff Tarpinian, Marcus Benard

Level of need: Low-to-moderate

[+] EnlargeJonathan Casillas
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesJonathan Casillas could be a contributor for the Patriots as both a linebacker and on special teams.
Projected top targets: Jonathan Casillas (Saints), Brandon Siler (Chiefs), Tracy White (Patriots)

Why Casillas fits: The 25-year-old Casillas (6-1, 227) is considered a solid special teams player who might factor into the mix in sub packages. Given the Patriots’ strong returning group, any linebacker addition would have to project to a core special teams role.

Why Siler fits: Having played under former Patriots coordinator Romeo Crennel last season, Siler (6-2, 239) could add depth behind Brandon Spikes in the middle. The 27-year-old Siler played in college at Florida.

Why White fits: One of the Patriots’ core special teams players since 2010, White also showed up at times on defense in a niche role. At 31, he’s closer to the end of his career.

Other names of note: Connor Barwin (Texans), Chase Blackburn (Giants), Justin Durant (Lions), Dannell Ellerbe (Ravens), Tavares Gooden (49ers), Quentin Groves (Cardinals), Jason Hunter (Broncos), Niko Koutouvides (Patriots), Manny Lawson (Bengals), LB Rey Maualuga (Bengals), Erik Walden (Packers), Phillip Wheeler (Raiders), Tracy White (Patriots)

Market conditions: There doesn’t appear to be a lot of three-down options on the market, which makes sense because those players are rare. The Patriots are well stocked so any addition would likely be with special teams in mind, first and foremost. Overall, this looks like an underwhelming position on the market.

Questions to answer at position: Is Spikes better suited as a true two-down linebacker who comes off the field in passing situations? … Knowing that players often make their biggest jump from their rookie season to their second season, what does this mean for 2012 first-round pick Dont’a Hightower? … Does top reserve Dane Fletcher regain his previous form after missing the 2012 season with a torn ACL? … Would the Patriots consider a return to strongside linebacker for defensive end Rob Ninkovich?

YOUR TURN: Which of these would you like to see in a Patriots uniform? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog entry.

Free-agent fit: Defensive line

March, 7, 2013
3/07/13
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Third in a multi-part series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 12.

Position: Defensive line

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

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

[+] EnlargeSammie Lee Hill
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceStuck behind tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in Detroit, Sammie Lee Hill could be a find for the Patriots.
Level of need: Moderate

Projected top targets: Alan Branch (Seahawks), Sammie Lee Hill (Lions), Matt Shaughnessy (Raiders)

Why Branch fits: At 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, Branch can be difficult to move up front. He carved out a niche in Seattle after a slow start to his career with the Cardinals. Pursuing the 28-year-old Branch could be viewed as similar to the Patriots’ interest in Seahawks end/tackle Red Bryant last year.

Why Hill fits: The 6-foot-4, 329-pound Hill could be an undervalued asset in the marketplace, buried behind higher-profile starting tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in Detroit. He was a 2009 fourth-round draft choice out of Stillman and has some upside.

Why Shaughnessy fits: A native of Norwich, Connecticut, the 6-foot-5, 285-pound Shaughnessy is a tough player who appears to have some scheme versatility. He started all 16 games for the first time in his career last season and at 26 is in the prime of his career.

Other names of note: John Abraham (Falcons), Cliff Avril (Lions), Michael Bennett (Buccaneers), Desmond Bryant (Raiders), Andre Carter (Raiders), Shaun Cody (Texans), Mike DeVito (Jets), Glenn Dorsey (Chiefs), Sedrick Ellis (Saints), Dwight Freeney (Colts), Casey Hampton (Steelers), Ricky Jean-Francois (49ers), Jason Jones (Seahawks), Terrence Knighton (Jaguars), Paul Kruger (Ravens), Israel Idonije (Bears), Sen’Derrick Marks (Titans), Vaughn Martin (Chargers), Trevor Scott (Patriots), Richard Seymour (Raiders).

Market conditions: From bigger defensive tackles to rush ends, there are some intriguing options. A player will have different value to a club based on the specific scheme played, which makes projecting this market a challenge.

Questions to answer at position: Is more insurance needed after Vince Wilfork? … Is it too early to be thinking about Wilfork’s contract expiring after the 2014 season? … Where does Armond Armstead fit into the mix? … How does 2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette develop?

YOUR TURN: Which of these would you like to see in a Patriots uniform? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog entry.

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