Commentary

Dollars and sense for the Pats

Who should Bill Belichick target in free agency and at what cost?

Updated: February 16, 2013, 1:11 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

When the possibility of any free-agent signing is broached, there are two important areas to assess:

1. How the player fits
2. What the player will cost

The first part is easy. The second part isn't.

This week's Patriots mailbag attempts to add some context to the second part of the picture, mainly by asking the question, "At what cost?" It's a question that should be asked with any free-agent possibility. So for those who enjoy this aspect of the offseason, and how economics are equally as important as X's and O's, this mailbag will be right in your sweet spot.

[+] EnlargeWelker
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesRe-signing Wes Welker is a no-brainer for the Patriots, but the big question is, what's a fair contract?

Q. Mike, I don't know what the Patriots should do with Wes Welker. He is an incredible receiver, no matter the balls he dropped in crucial moments. But Tom Brady has a lot [of] weapons in the middle of the field with: a healthy Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Julian Edelman (if he re-signs) and promising backs (Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, etc.). We've really missed a good No. 1 receiver since Randy Moss left. It hurt a lot, especially during the playoffs. So, if I have to spend big money, it could be smart to invest in a guy like Mike Wallace or Percy Harvin, instead of Welker. If we don't re-sign Welker, I'm sure he will hurt the Patriots a lot next time they will face him, and everybody will ask why they didn't signed him again. He is so good. If you were the GM, what would you do? -- David L. (Coleraine, Canada)

A. David, this is pretty black and white to me. The Patriots are a better team with Welker, and I don't think he's so easily replaced, so simply based on performance it's a no-brainer. Thus, the question comes down to the three key words: "at what cost?" I wouldn't assign the franchise tag to Welker at $11.4 million on a one-year deal; it's too prohibitive and would restrict the team's ability to make many more moves (in part because of the team's own doing from restructuring Tom Brady's contract last year). I'd offer Welker something similar to last year -- two years, $16 million -- and let him know that's what the team projects as a fair offer for him. If Welker can get more on the open market, and it's his right to test it, the team would have to live with the possibility of losing him. In the end, that's what I think it's all about for the team with every player -- accurately projecting the economic market. I wouldn't invest big money in Wallace or Harvin. Too risky, and in Harvin's case, you're also giving up draft capital that is important "cheap labor" in a year in which the salary cap isn't increasing. I think a much safer and economically smarter investment to find that No. 1 target would be through the draft.

Q. Mike, another year slips by and it was successful in my eyes but ultimately disappointing. The need to revamp the receiver position is obvious, but won't that have to be via free agency rather than the draft? TB seems to need two to three seasons to build trust in his rookie receivers and the window, while not shut, is not fully open anymore. -- Neil P. (North Branch, Mich.)

A. Neil, there is no denying that it's been difficult for rookie receivers to break through in the Patriots' system under Brady. We've really only seen that immediate impact once, in 2002 with Deion Branch. So I think it can be done, but given the lack of instant return on investment from rookie receivers over the past decade, I'd double-layer the approach between the draft and free agency as a matter of insurance.

Q. Hi Mike, to me, it all starts with franchising Aqib Talib, attempting to sign Wes Welker and Sebastian Vollmer, and crossing our fingers that Bill Belichick doesn't get 'value' happy with our free agents and in the draft again. We cannot afford to look for another cornerback for another six-seven years if we don't sign Talib. We had one in Asante Samuel and we have spent way too much time/money/draft capital attempting to replace him. So in summary, I'd say that I'm cautiously optimistic that Belichick has realized his mistakes and understands that he can't waste the final few years with Brady playing at a HOF level. I'll point to last year's draft, where Belichick traded up twice for talent, as evidence that he understands and is finally trying to put a good defense on the field. Your thoughts? -- Marcus (San Diego)

A. Marcus, a franchise tag on Talib would be around $10.5 million, and I don't think the team wants to go there because it would handcuff its ability to make other moves. While I do believe they'd like Talib back (similar to Welker, they are a better team with him), I think there are still some unanswered questions from the team perspective when it comes to investing big dollars in him. One thing the Patriots do a good job of is not insulting a player with an offer while letting the open market dictate the ballpark of what terms might be. If I had to guess, that's where I see Talib's situation headed. The Patriots will let him know they want him back, but they won't be pushing the envelope to sign him to a market-setting type of deal. So Talib could be free to test the market, and when that happens, the Patriots put themselves at risk of losing the player. But if Talib finds the market is not as lucrative as he hoped, the door will still be open in New England.

Q. No one is talking much about the CSNNE Aqib Talib story, which I find so interesting. Rarely are stories leaked about players for the Patriots. A tight lid is usually on all Patriots affairs, so it is my belief that this was leaked for a reason. I think it was leaked to prepare fans and media alike to not be surprised when the Pats do not pursue Talib in free agency. I find the article unnerving that Talib's work ethic was in question. We all saw his talent on the field, but in seven to eight games he was hurt twice (hip and hamstring), which, because of the article, makes me wonder whether his injuries were related to his work ethic. Did he get hurt because of his conditioning or did he not do everything in his power to get back on the field? If either is a "yes," I do not want him back on the team because I would want to invest the money elsewhere. -- Eric (Braintree, Mass.)

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
AP Photo/Stew MilneOne option would be for the Pats to assign the franchise tag to Talib Aqib -- but it would limit their ability to make other big moves.

A. Eric, I don't think the story was leaked by the Patriots. More so, I think it was simply a good reporter doing his job. It very well could be true, but I haven't heard that myself from a pure football perspective. I think the Patriots liked what they had in Talib and, in fact, built a big part of their game plan around him in the AFC playoffs. So I step back and ask the question: "If they were that concerned with his work ethic, would they have done that?" Strategically from a team-building perspective, I think they were pleased with the midseason trade and what it did for them. That said, looking to the future, it doesn't mean they'd be comfortable investing in him with a lucrative long-term deal, which is a completely different issue. I've made the comparison to this being similar to Randy Moss' free-agent situation from 2008 -- the Patriots were a better team with Moss, but when it came to investing a top-of-the-line contract in him, there was some hesitation because of non-football issues (Moss almost left for the Eagles). Thus, we have to come back to those three key words, "at what cost." If I'm the Patriots, I'd point to the Stanford Routt contract with the Chiefs from 2012 (three years, $19.6 million, with team protection in terms of limited up-front money) as a good comparison. I wouldn't extend much further than that. If another team is willing to do it, you have to be prepared to walk away.

Q. Mike, I know the NFL Free Agency period officially begins on March 12, but when can the Pats start negotiating and re-signing their own free agents? Do you think it is possible they keep Welker, Sebastian Vollmer, and Talib while still having enough dough left to grab some other difference makers in free agency and/or the upcoming draft? I think all our A-category free agents are important pieces, not irreplaceable, but not worth the hassle of replacing, if you know what I mean? -- Prat (Gaithersburg, Md.)

A. Prat, those deals can be worked on right now. No need for the sides to wait if they have aligned goals, and this includes Welker (I had previously thought a franchise-tagged player couldn't re-sign until the start of the 2013 league year, but that is not the case).

Q. Mike, I love all the draft talk, but this year with all the Patriots' own free agents, that seems to be more important at this time as to how the 2013 Patriots will be built. The Patriots need to get that settled before they truly know what their needs are in the draft. How many of the Patriots' big three (Talib, Vollmer and Welker) and which ones will the Patriots be able to afford? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

A. David, I think it will be a stretch to keep all three. I do think two of the three is possible, but it might take some time to get there (e.g., players might want to test the market to get an accurate gauge of their value). So much of free agency from the team perspective is projecting the market, and there is a feeling in some NFL circles that it could be a depressed market this year because the salary cap isn't increasing. This would mean fewer teams have the space to make big moves, and the patient teams could ultimately be rewarded. From the player perspective, it's understandable that they don't want to sell themselves financially short. If there is any doubt about the fairness of a Patriots offer, all a player has to do is shop himself on the open market to gain more assurance one way or the other.

Q. Mike, within the last couple of weeks, there was a blog entry on ESPNBoston.com about Patriot contracts based on the number of years remaining on their respective contracts. I was very surprised to find almost the entire roster under contract for two years or less, with only a very small handful of players signed to three years or beyond. Is this common for most teams? Or does it have to do with things that are more Patriots-specific; i.e. the relative youth of the team, BB and the coaching staff favoring a mix-and-match approach, management/ownership's persistent refusal to bite on big contracts, etc.? It's a little disconcerting to me as someone who doesn't know much about these things to see just how few players the Pats actually have locked up for the foreseeable future. -- Nick (Houston, Texas)

A. Nick, it is pretty much standard operating procedure and highlights the annual turnover on every roster. A big part of it is economics in the salary-cap era. Rookie contracts are generally the most affordable, and well-managed teams are going to want to have as many of those as possible because they fit well under the salary cap. This is especially true this year as the salary cap isn't growing from 2012 to 2013, which further increases the value of those draft picks (if a team makes good ones, of course). Because the maximum length of a rookie contract is five years for first-rounders and four years for second- to seventh-rounders, you'll mostly see a picture that has so few players committed to contracts beyond that time period. I wouldn't worry about this. In fact, I'd be more concerned if there were too many long-term commitments where it could create a salary-cap logjam in the future.

SportsNation

If the Patriots could keep just two of these free agents -- Wes Welker, Aqib Talib, and Sebastian Vollmer -- who would you like to see them re-sign?

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    42%
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    23%
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    35%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,709)

Q. Hi Mike, looking ahead to the draft, it all seems to come down to what happens with free agency. If Aqib Talib is signed, this will set up the draft nicely. With Talib and Alfonzo Dennard at cornerback and Devin McCourty back at safety, we can go to other places we did not go in free agency. If Armond Armstead can help, we may need to go at the strong safety position for the draft. Then again, you cannot go wrong going after a DL. Would Richard Seymour come back for two years? -- D.G. (Sarasota, Fla.)

A. D.G., I don't think the team enters the draft with the mindset of "we have to go safety." That just leads to more problems down the road. A good example was 2011, when the Patriots selected offensive tackle Nate Solder in the first round. The team had the position solidified that year with Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer, but projected Solder -- their top player on the board along with defensive lineman Cameron Jordan regardless of position -- for a few years down the road. It turned out to be a good choice. So I'd be careful adopting that type of mindset of locking into a position based on the present picture. I just don't think that's the way good business is done. On Seymour, I don't think that's a likelihood after what unfolded in 2009 with his trade to the Raiders. The sides were headed in different directions in the time leading up to the trade, and unless there was a mending of things, it would be a surprise to me if that happened.

Q. There has been a lot of talk about the possibility of a Devin McCourty-Ed Reed pairing at safety and whether or not that would work because they both fit into the free safety mold as opposed to the traditional strong safety-free safety pairing. I think that the strong-safety position is outdated and that economics more than anything will determine if we pick up Reed (if he hits free agency). Mike, what do you think is a fair deal that would make both Reed and the Pats happy? -- Derek M. (Greenville, N.C.)

A. Good points all around, Derek. On Reed, one would think a team wouldn't extend more than one to two years. So if I was Reed's agent, I'd look to the franchise tag number and say to a team, "How about a one-year deal as if Reed was the franchise player?" That would be around $6.5 million for the 2013 season. From a team perspective, I'd try to be closer to one year and $5 million.

Q. Hi Mike, whatever happened to the Patriots seeking a refund of what they paid Jonathan Fanene? Is that still ongoing and if so, when is the resolution expected? Prem (Nashua, N.H.)

A. Prem, that is still ongoing. In terms of when a resolution might be expected, my understanding is that when you're dealing with arbitrators and this type of process, it's on their schedule. It's not like an NFL schedule where you can lock in Sept. 5 and say, "that's when the NFL kickoff game will be."

Q. Mike, Have you heard what the role will be for Brian Daboll next year? Will BB add to the size of the coaching staff or is some other coach leaving? -- David

A. David, the Patriots have not yet announced their final coaching staff for 2013. In the past, they have done so around this time of the calendar. My sense is that we won't see any major changes, just some tweaks. Like you, I'm interested to see where Daboll fits in.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mallett
AP Photo/Jim MahoneyWould trading Ryan Mallett, who has just two years left on his contract, make sense at this point for the Patriots?

Q. Mike, why would the Pats possibly trade Ryan Mallett? Tom Brady has two years left at most! -- rezadude (San Diego, Calif.)

A. The idea would be that if a team would give the Patriots a valuable draft chip, it would be worth it because Mallett has just two years left on his contract and would leave anyway after the 2014 season to pursue a starting job. Making the trade would also align with the thought that Brady has more than two years remaining to play at a high level, and that the backup job could be filled through other avenues (e.g. Matt Cassel, if released by the Chiefs).

Q. I really don't understand the logic for penalizing Mallett based on lack of NFL film. A draft pick has zero NFL film, preseason or otherwise. Even the minimal amount of film that Mallett has should be better than zero that a draft pick has. Aside from that, if Mallett dropped in the draft due to character questions and has shown through two years that it is a non-issue, you'd think that would increase his value. Furthermore, the opportunity to apprentice behind possibly the best quarterback and best coach in the game should be a big plus. I could understand why trading Mallett, an unknown commodity, for a proven player wouldn't work, but that's not the case with a draft pick. -- PatsFanBrian (Hanscom, AFB)

A. Brian, if Mallett had lit up the preseason the past two years, I could see momentum building for this line of thinking. But it hasn't really unfolded that way. At this time, I put myself in the shoes of a general manager of another team and ask, "Why would I give up a draft pick for Mallett at a time when he has two years left on his contract when I can draft a comparable player and have him for four?" There just isn't enough compelling evidence for me, at this time, to consider making that deal.

Q. Hi Mike, I would like to hear your thoughts on the value of a draft pick with its potential versus the value of a proven NFL quality player. You stated in a previous chat that the Patriots would jump on an early-second-round pick for Mallett. You also said you thought Brandon Spikes would only bring a "mid-round pick if that" even though he was drafted in the second round and has been a difference maker as a thumper in the middle of a defense that needs his toughness. I do understand he will be on his last year of his rookie contact this next season, but the guy is tough as nails. Thoughts? -- Lonster (SoCal)

A. Lonster, every situation is going to be different, but let's focus in on Spikes. I think one of the key points is what you highlighted -- this is the last year of Spikes' rookie contract. So any team acquiring him would be giving up a draft pick and then factoring in a growing salary into the salary cap (a player's second contract is often richer than his first if he's a good player). For most teams, especially with the salary cap not rising this year, drafting and developing a linebacker within the first four rounds would be a preferred route than a trade because of the economic considerations, the idea of having the player grow in the system, and the fact he would be under contract for the next four to five years. You also potentially have more cost-effective options in free agency. So when I factored in what the Patriots might net in potential trade for Spikes, it was done with this thinking in mind: "At what point would a team be willing to take on more salary while knowing the limitations of the player?" My projection is middle rounds, which also factors in how I envision most teams might view Spikes -- as a two-down player who could get exposed in pass coverage.

Q. Mike, I didn't start getting really into the draft until 2010. Do you remember if scouts were expecting Mike Wallace to be as fast and explosive as he is (while other reasons made him a third-round pick) or was he just considered a receiver with speed that was not any more special than the next guy? I'm trying to figure out if there is a chance that there is another Mike-Wallace-type receiver in this class, whose name isn't Marquise Goodwin. -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)

A. Ramin, the main thing with Wallace coming out of Mississippi was that he hadn't run the full route tree and was considered more of a one-trick pony because of it. He obviously worked hard in his time with the Steelers to become more of a well-rounded receiver. That is a credit to him, although he is coming off a down year compared with his past performance. It also speaks to the tough projection that often has to be made at the position.

Q. Mike, Danny Amendola is a free agent and demonstrates a skill set similar to that of Wes Welker. He probably is also a good bit less expensive. Do you think that the Pats could view him as a viable substitute? -- RCH (New York)

A. Yes RCH, Amendola is a good player. While potentially less expensive than Welker, he will still likely come at a significant cost. In the end, I see the Rams keeping him; but if it doesn't work out, I could see the Patriots exploring it.

Q. Hi Mike, what are the chances that Tavon Wilson will have a breakout year in 2013? I would like to think that we could be all set at safety with Steve Gregory, Devin McCourty and Wilson, and the focus should be more on the cornerback position. -- Michael (Cologne, Germany)

A. Michael, I think they'll give Wilson a chance to emerge into a larger role than he ultimately had in 2012, which was as the team's dime back. Wilson also got some good experience as a fill-in starter, and as Bill Belichick often says, a player often makes his biggest jump between Year 1 and Year 2. I didn't see anything from Wilson in 2012 that made me think "breakout" in 2013, but he should be in the mix for more playing time. One final point: It's always dangerous to lock in one position over the other. A story from Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti from the past week highlights this point; check it out from the Baltimore Sun. That is why smart teams don't go into the draft locked on a position.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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