Commentary

How will Pats spend all that cash?

Brady's favor makes team's free-agency decisions that much more intriguing

Updated: February 26, 2013, 2:57 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

The first big domino of the Patriots' offseason fell on Monday afternoon when quarterback Tom Brady agreed to a three-year contract extension with the team. This week's mailbag looks at the extension from all angles and where the Patriots go from here.

We'll also touch on some free-agent and draft possibilities, among other things.

But just as it often does on the field, this one starts with Brady and how the extension puts him in position to play with the franchise until he's 40. It's a significant development that speaks volumes about what's important to Brady.

Here we go ...

Q. There has been talk that this year, because the cap is not expected to rise, that several teams will have to cut some good players. Is this, at least in part, the reason for the Brady deal? That is, the Pats can now be major players, not only in keeping some of their own players, but also in the free agent market at large? -- Tman (Belmont)

A. Tman, yes, there is an element of that in play with the Brady extension. I still thought the Patriots were in solid position with $18 million in cap space, but this gives the team even more flexibility this year (about $26 million in cap space by my estimate) and next year as well (when the cap isn't expected to rise again). It's all part of an overall strategy that was hatched after the 2011 lockout to prepare for the "flat-cap" era of football -- three straight years in which the salary cap did not increase much at all. I specifically remember owner Robert Kraft talking about the future and the salary cap not rising, and some contesting that viewpoint. The teams that didn't prepare accordingly are going to be hurt this year.

Q. Mike, do you think Brady is sending a message to his free-agent teammates by signing a three-year, $27 million extension? It would be hard for Wes Welker, Aqib Talib and any free agents to ask more than Brady will receive. I think this is a clear message: You want to play for the Pats, you want to win. Don't ask too much or you won't be part of it. -- David (Coleraine, Canada)

A. David, I don't think that was the intention of Brady's extension, but it is a trickle-down effect of the result. Players looking for every last dollar probably won't be in New England. Cornerback Devin McCourty's tweeted after learning of Brady's extension -- "Hearing the news about Tom is a reminder of why he is the definition of a team player" -- makes me think of how quarterbacks sometimes unintentionally get set apart from many players, and this type of move makes it easier to look at Brady as one of the guys.

[+] EnlargeBrady and Welker
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaTom Brady's new deal seems to have paved the way for the Patriots to be in position to re-sign receiver Wes Welker.

Q. Hey Mike, just wanted to comment on Tom Brady's extension and get your thoughts as well. Man, what a professional and what a teammate. This is the kind of guy every fan, player, coach, and GM wants on their team. This allows the team to get other quality players (hopefully Welker) and also shows that he realizes he won't put up 2007 numbers in 2017. Your thoughts? -- Spencer (Forest Hill)

A. Spencer, I think it's unprecedented. There is an aspect of praising an athlete who decided to take just $27 million that seems warped, but this is really a team-first move by Brady and speaks to what he's all about. Some players preach that it's not about the money when it really is about the money. Brady's decision to sacrifice future leverage and potential earnings says it all. The sting of recent championship game losses is still fresh and Brady just wants to win. I have respect for that mindset.

Q. Mike, you state the Patriots saved money on the salary cap, but did Brady actually take a pay cut in 2013 and 2014? The salary cap number includes a portion of any bonus paid when Brady signed the initial deal. -- Ray (Orlando, Fla.)

A. Ray, Brady didn't take a pay cut. What he did was sacrifice his leverage and potential future earnings with the idea of giving the team flexibility to add better players around him. Probably not the type of move the players union would endorse on a regular basis.

Q. Hard to believe Brady extended for only three years at $27 million. I doubt we are getting the full story. What is your gut telling you? If true, the NFLPA would be furious. More likely there is a side agreement to renegotiate or retire. -- BR (Omaha, Neb.)

A. BR, I don't think there is any catch here. This is the deal that Brady has agreed to and I mentioned this point in a column on ESPNBoston.com. Here is the excerpt:

"Brady, who during the lockout of 2011 served as an assistant player representative, might not make many friends among the high-ranking executives of the union with this pact. If the idea is to cash in while you can and maximize earnings, he failed. Brady could always argue that while he isn't getting the money, it will be directed to other players. Will NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith see it the same way?"

At the end of the day, Brady has to made decisions that are in his best interests and what makes him happy. You hope those marry up with the union, but that doesn't always happen. He'll still get paid well, and could have used his leverage to squeeze more out of the Patriots, but he didn't choose to go that route.

Q. Hi Mike, regarding Brady's extension: What does this do to the market for starting quarterbacks? I believe you wrote earlier that one factor from TB's point of view is that he would not want to be seen as depressing the market rate for his fellow NFL QBs. Doesn't this team-friendly extension do just that? -- Tim (Waltham, Mass.)

A. Tim, the way I look at it is that when one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL agrees to a new-money extension of $9 million per season, it does have a potential impact on the rest of the market. One example is how franchise-tag figures are set. I would think a team like the Ravens will bring this to the negotiating table in their talks with Joe Flacco and say, "This is what a top quarterback is getting paid, and while we're willing to pay you more, let's keep it in the ballpark." That can potentially hurt the negotiating position of someone in Flacco's position.

Q. Mike, I know you don't like to play the guessing game, but now that we have so much cap space can you throw a few big names out there) that the Patriots might target? -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)

A. Ramin, I think the Patriots will start with their own free agents and it's a pretty big trio -- receiver Wes Welker, cornerback Aqib Talib and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. In terms of free agents from other teams, I could see targets at various economic levels. Cornerbacks like Sean Smith (Dolphins) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Eagles) seem like they might be of interest, while a receiver such as David Nelson (Bills) could be a nice low-risk, high-reward type of move. Defensive end Matt Shaughnessy (Raiders) was always a little underrated from this view, too.

[+] EnlargeTalib
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Patriots must decide by Monday, March 4 whether to use their franchise tag on cornerback Aqib Talib or any other of their free-agents-to-be.

Q. Hi Mike, what is the deadline for using the franchise and transition tags? Just wondering how the Alfonzo Dennard conviction and pending sentencing might affect the Patriots' thinking. Maybe they are forced to tag Talib now rather than taking the chance of losing all three of their top corners from last year. Any sense of how the team is approaching the uncertainty of the cornerback position? -- Keith (Foxborough, Mass.)

A. Keith, the deadline to use the tag is Monday, March 4. My feeling has been that the Patriots won't use the franchise tag on anyone -- just too much money -- but perhaps would consider a transition tag that gives them the chance to match another offer. As for how the team is approaching the uncertainty at the position, I think the first step is determining where they want McCourty. I believe the answer will ultimately be safety, so I expect the Patriots to target some corners. The free-agent market is pretty good and they should be able to land some good players. As for the draft, the value of the group currently looks like it will come in the second round.

Q. Do you think Talib will try to get the Patriots to pay him more now because there is a bigger need for him because of Dennard's potential prison time? -- Matthew (Lowell, Mass.)

A. Talib's agents wouldn't be doing their job if they didn't try to use the uncertainty of Dennard's future to get the best deal. I think the Patriots now have more flexibility to perhaps extend a bit more than they might have, but I don't think they will stray too far from what they feel is fair market value.

Q. Hi Mike, in the July 24 edition of the mailbag, I asked you if you thought Dennard could be an X factor for the Patriots, to which you likened him to Ellis Hobbs. Now that we've seen a full season of him (with him even starting) this past year, what is your current assessment of him? While I think he played very well at times, he still has work to do, but I think his future looks very bright. -- Gora (New York City)

A. Gora, specific to Dennard's football future, I think it's brighter than Hobbs'. When I made that connection, it was based on size and competitive ball skills. I felt like Dennard covered better in 2012 than we saw Hobbs cover when he was a starter.

Q. Hi Mike, I think we appreciated the effort and performance put forth by Talib this past season. We also appreciate how risky it could be signing him to a long term and/or big money contract. However, there might be an alternative. I understand that there's a fair chance that Nnamdi Asomugha will be released by the Eagles. I know his years in Philly weren't quite what we expected after Oakland but that could be attributed to injury and change of scheme. Assuming he's released, wouldn't he be a better fit for the Pats? And wouldn't he be less of a risk over the next 3-4 years? -- Greg (Boca Raton, Fla.)

[+] EnlargeNnamdi Asomugha
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesIf cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is cut by the Eagles, the Patriots could be in position to snatch him up if they choose to do so.

A. Greg, I like the thought, although we'd have to look a little closer as to why Asomugha struggled like he did in Philadelphia. Part of what could make it a fit is the idea of playing more of a physical style at corner. What I remember most about watching Asomugha is that he had long reach and once he got his hands on a receiver, it was tough to break free. Similar to the way we saw the Seahawks play defense with Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman at cornerback.

Q. Mike, should we be concerned that although this is considered a very deep draft the Patriots are relatively low on draft picks? Normally, Belichick operates with an arsenal of picks, so it's a little disconcerting that in such a deep year our cupboard is pretty bare. Almost seems like poor planning. -- Devilinagoodman (Finland)

A. I wouldn't use the word concerned, but I do think it's fair to say that the Patriots would like more picks, mainly because that creates flexibility on draft day. From 2009-2011, they drafted 33 players, which is a high total. Last year, they dipped to seven and then this year could be even fewer. I think it ebbs and flows a bit. The Chad Johnson and Albert Haynesworth deals obviously didn't work out as desired. I'm not sure it was as much planning as it was just bad execution.

Q. Mike, I don't feel like this is a first-round draft for the Patriots this year. I see BB trading out of the first round for an additional second- and third-round pick this year because of all the "depth" we keep hearing about. What do you think the chances of the Pats draft twice in the second and twice in the third round this year? Without a standout player the Pats must get, I see them taking a chance on a having multiple picks to fill the WR/DB holes. We all know BB loves to trade for quantity and value. -- Alexander (Chicago)

A. I could see that scenario, Alexander, if a trade partner could be found. Usually Belichick finds one.

Q. Hey Mike, I read about DeAndre Hopkins meeting with the Pats during the combine. How many prospects does the team interview during the combine typically and can we take something from the fact that they met Hopkins?  Schwemp

A. I wouldn't read much into that type of meeting. Teams meet/interview with hundreds of prospects over the course of the scouting process. It's good context to know when considering how much stock to place in that type of information.

Q. Hey Mike, I'm a grad of Penn State and of course die-hard Pats fan. I don't understand why I haven't heard much of DT Jordan Hill. He was a monster for Bill O'Brien this past year and has all the intangibles of the Patriot Way. Knowing the Pats need someone alongside Vince Wilfork, what are the chances they take a chance on him if he's available in the third or fourth round? -- A.J. (Los Angeles)

A. A.J., I think most Penn State players would be in play based on that strong connection. I was in on center Matt Stankiewitch's media interview at the combine and he was another Penn State player who I thought to myself sounded like he could fit as a later-round type of option. On Hill, I didn't get a chance to catch up with him at the combine, but at 6-foot-1, 303 pounds, he doesn't have that big physical build that we usually associate with interior Patriots defensive linemen. That doesn't mean he'd necessarily be ruled out, as maybe he could be used in a similar way that the Patriots planned to do with Jonathan Fanene. In the coming weeks, I'll plan on taking a closer look at Penn State's prospects based on the O'Brien connection.

Q. Mike, just wondering your thoughts on whether the Patriots might go after Texans safety Glover Quin. Seems like a real versatile guy, good in coverage and against the run, and in that tier below Jairus Byrd and Dashon Goldson that the Patriots have historically targeted in free agency. -- Noah (Philadelphia)

A. Noah, it's possible that the Texans could place a tag on Quin, but even if they don't, I'm not anticipating the Patriots making a run at a high-cost safety. If we were to lock McCourty into one spot, then you have Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson for the next two. I think cornerback would be a position where we might see more of a focus.

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Q. Hi Mike, reading up on Scott Pioli, the thought came to mind that with your old uncle Floyd Reese leaving the team this year, and Nick Caserio firmly entrenched as the player personnel guru, is there any chance we could see Pioli return to the team in Reese's old position as a contracts guy who can also be someone to bounce ideas off? Also, if I may change tracks but stay within some Chiefs discussion, what do you think of a move to let Welker and Brandon Lloyd go and using that money to chase after Dwayne Bowe (assuming he isn't franchised)? We are talking about a copycat league and with the success of Baltimore and specifically Anquan Boldin this past season, Bowe seems to me like a younger version of Boldin. What are your thoughts? -- Dan (Melbourne Beach, Fla.)

A. Dan, I remember when the Chiefs played the Patriots last season, team president Jonathan Kraft said that Pioli would always be part of the Patriots family. So I don't think it can be ruled out, but my sense is that if things turn out the way Pioli would like, he'll have another chance to run his own club. As for Bowe, the first question I'd have is why Pioli didn't ink him to an extension. You hear stories about some off-field questions and it would concern me to invest a high level of money without knowing more about that aspect.

Q. Hey Mike, any chance the Pats look at Tyrann Mathieu in the second or third round of the draft to help with the secondary? He looks like he could be a first-round talent in a bargain round for us. -- Jamie (Hamilton, New Zealand)

A. Jamie, I'm not sure if you've seen it, but colleague Mike Rodak wrote on Mathieu from the combine. The player affectionately known as the Honey Badger seemed to say all the right things. It's an intriguing possibility, but my hunch is that it would have to be middle to later rounds, not as early as the second round.

Q. Hi Mike, Bills WR David Nelson was non-tendered over the weekend, effectively making him a free agent. I know the Pats were interested in him before he signed with the Bills; do you think they'll be interested this time around? The Pats desperately need a big, physical WR and Nelson fits the bill. He's coming off an ACL injury, so a 1-year, $1 million "prove it" type of contract seems reasonable. If the Pats were to decide to move on from Welker, signing a bunch of cheap, quality receivers like Nelson and Edelman would be the way to go. -- Al (Chicago)

A. Al, even if the Patriots keep Welker, I like the idea of bringing Nelson aboard. I think his presence could be big in the red zone. He just adds a physical makeup that the Patriots don't have and wouldn't be a big-ticket item. Check out this blog entry that was put together about the possibility.

Q. It's clear that Josh McDaniels and Belichick have both been intrigued by Tim Tebow. However, whatever value he might bring (at no cost) to the roster in their minds, isn't that completely outweighed by the overwhelming media circus that will by definition be attached to him? Don't the Pats make it a priority to avoid such distractions? They would be making the very same foolish miscalculation the Jets just painfully played out. -- Matt (San Francisco)

A. Matt, one thing about the Patriots is that they seem to do a good job of making it all about football, and even when a player is added who could create a circus-like atmosphere (e.g. Randy Moss), it usually doesn't happen. Tebow would be a big challenge in that regard, but if there was one team that could pull it off, I think the Patriots would be near the top of the list.

Q. I am sure this is not a unique opinion, but I really think it hurts the Patriots to be playing in a weak division. By Week 10 of the regular season they have locked up the division crown (unofficially, if not mathematically). I think there is something to be said for having to really work for it in the regular season so that you know what kind of game you have to bring to the postseason. Sure it might mean a couple more losses along the way, but the lessons learned will outweigh that. I think back to 2001. They had to work very hard to beat the Jets on the road and then the Bills on the road and did not clinch the division until the last week of the regular season. I think those tough wins gave them the mental toughness they needed to beat the Rams on that last drive in the Super Bowl. Compare that to their last two Super Bowls. Coast through the regular season, then struggle in the playoffs and lose Super Bowls they could/should have won. -- John (Concord, N.C.)

A. John, I see the viewpoint. One counterpoint from this past season was that even though the Patriots locked up the division, they had those two big games -- Dec. 10 against the Texans and Dec. 16 against the 49ers. I thought they were tested. But if we want those tests to be inside the division, I can't argue with the point. The Patriots have dominated it over the past decade.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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