Commentary

Busy season for Belichick?

The start of free agency has 'baggers hoping the Pats will score big

Updated: March 11, 2014, 3:05 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

We've arrived at one of the most exciting days on the NFL calendar -- the start of free agency.

I expect the Patriots to be busy and here's what I would envision they view as a successful turn of events:

Retention of top three free agents. Cornerback Aqib Talib, receiver Julian Edelman and running back LeGarrette Blount are high priorities for the team, but the Patriots won't overpay. Dialogue has remained open-ended with all three. In a fluid situation, I wouldn't be surprised if all three are back.

Complementing the core. If the Patriots are able to retain Talib, Edelman and Blount, I think they'll look at interior offensive line and receiver as areas to cherry-pick in free agency. I think they'd feel good about Rams guard Shelley Smith and Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders as solid additions, while leaving themselves some flexibility to strike if some unexpected opportunities present themselves (Saints running back Darren Sproles?).

The final point to make is that the Patriots often have a surprise up their hoodie sleeve, some move that few saw coming -- whether it's a roster cut, trade or something else. So hang on for the ride.

Here we go:

Q. Mike, what do you think about all this Darrelle Revis talk? Personally, I think there's no way that the Patriots would even consider a trade for him. I'm not denying his ability to play, but I just don't think anyone is worth mortgaging the team's future. And even if he's released by the Bucs, he doesn't seem like the guy that would like to take a pay cut from his $16M salary. I think the team would have to sacrifice looking for players to fill equally important team needs. -- Carlos (Puerto Rico)

[+] EnlargeDarrelle Revis
AP Photo/Stephen BrashearIs Darrelle Revis worth what it would cost the Patriots to get him?

A. Carlos, any team should explore the possibility if he's cut, as Revis is a premier player at the position. As it relates to any Patriots interest, I think they'd prefer to lock Talib up on a multiyear extension, but there are surely contingency plans if that doesn't happen. I think it makes sense, from a Patriots standpoint, to float potential interest in Revis as a tactic to try to move things along with Talib. If I was reading tea leaves, that's my main thought on any linkage between the Patriots and Revis.

Q. Hi Mike, I'm excited for the start of free agency. I certainly don't expect the Patriots to make a big splash, but I'm expecting some clarity with regard to Julian Edelman, Aqib Talib, LeGarrette Blount and maybe even the O-Line with perhaps even a minor surprise or two elsewhere. Will I be disappointed next weekend wondering what is going on in the front office? -- Jim (Centennial, Colo.)

A. Jim, I don't think you'll be disappointed. This is one of those years when retaining a few of the top free agents will be considered a big victory because of how good they are, and I think they have a good chance of closing at least one of those deals. Things look to be trending in the right direction in that area, but we know that can always change in an instant, so it's a fragile state. If they get those top three back, and can supplement in a few other areas (e.g. interior O-line, off-the-line linebacker, etc.), I think it's a solid foundation from which to work.

Q. Hi Mike, considering the Patriots' return on their free-agent investments over the past few years, and limited cap space, I really don't see them as big players in free agency this year. I think Aqib Talib and Julian Edelman move on to greener pastures, and the focus continues to be on re-signing rotational players like LeGarrette Blount and Dane Fletcher, and extending key players like Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty, maybe even Nate Solder. That said, assuming Talib is gone, I just want to float the idea of the Pats going after a free-agent safety and moving McCourty back to CB. It would strengthen McCourty's bargaining position, but if he returns to his rookie form at the position, the Pats secondary is looking very strong with a Chris Clemons other "coverage" type of safety. Even T.J. Ward and possibly Jairus Byrd would appear to come cheaper than Talib. Plug one of these guys in at safety, and you have the makings of a top-tier secondary and an improved pass rush. -- Adam (Denver)

A. Adam, I've thought about that possibility, as well, even doing it while leaving McCourty at safety and maybe making the cornerback spot more of a focus in the draft and see if that gets it done. I'm just not sure it leaves the team strong enough at cornerback. I think McCourty's best fit is ultimately safety, not cornerback, and that's why I've shied away from that line of thinking in terms of signing a big-ticket safety (assuming those numbers are north of $6 million per year). The other thing to consider is that McCourty is in the last year of his contract, and if you pay a safety big bucks in 2014 and 2015, that's a disproportionate amount of your cap at that position because they'll probably extend McCourty's pact at some point over the next year.

Q. Mike, after hearing that the Redskins are interested in signing Aqib Talib, I have resigned myself to the notion that he will not be returning to the Pats next year. Knowing how Dan Snyder has a knack for spending money, chances are likely that we will be outbid for his services. So, take your best shot, who are our starting CBs in 2014 (assuming Talib exits in free agency)? -- Chuck (Maryland)

A. Chuck, if Talib isn't back, the leading candidates would be Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan as the starters, with Kyle Arrington in the slot. I could see the Patriots looking toward Denver's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie or Miami's Nolan Carroll in free agency, or a high draft pick at the position, to improve that outlook in this scenario.

Q. Mike, given the CB contracts we're seeing, did BB make a mistake by not putting the franchise tag on Aqib Talib? -- Peter (Texas)

A. Peter, I don't think so, as we didn't see any team use the tag on a cornerback this year, and there were some good ones out there. That $11.8 million price on a one-year tender is prohibitive and would handcuff other moves.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Cromartie
AP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerWhat about Antonio Cromartie as a replacement for Aqib Talib?

Q. With Antonio Cromartie being released by the Jets on Sunday afternoon, what are the chances the Patriots make a move to sign him? Would he be a good "Plan B" if the Patriots can't resign Aqib Talib? -- Ben (Lowell)

A. Ben, Cromartie had a down 2013 and has similar injury concerns as Talib, but he is similar in the sense that you can match him up in man coverage and take some chances with some confidence that he will win some of those one-on-one situations. On a short-term deal, I could see that possibility, but only in a fallback type of situation.

Q. Mike, how many more years of meaningless AFC East titles and playoff runs do you think Patriots fans will tolerate while watching Tom Brady's window slam shut? You like to point out how having a competitive team every year is a dream come true for most NFL fans, but fail to recognize that for the majority of Pats fans it simply isn't good enough. To see a team like Denver recognize the limited window of opportunity and do everything they can to maximize their chances of a SB win is maddening. The Pats continue to trudge along on some long-term rebuilding project while Brady gets older and less effective. Is the only thing that will get the organization's attention empty seats? -- Dan (Boston)

A. Dan, the Patriots don't get it right all the time; like every other team, they make some mistakes in building their team. But for anyone who really thinks they aren't trying to fully maximize their chances to win a Super Bowl, I really don't know what to say other than present the facts -- they have spent as much cash on player contracts as almost every team in the league in the last four years, according to independent data compiled on cash spending for all 32 teams. So it's not that they aren't spending it; it's how they're spending it. I'm not sure how else to explain it. As for Denver ... did you watch the Super Bowl?

Q. Mike, I think one of the need areas for the Patriots that is being undersold is depth at LB. It seems like you are suggesting any additions be more of a special-teams type player. What I see is a lack of quality depth beyond Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins. Should one of those guys get injured, who is capable of stepping in and the team not taking a major step backwards? -- Eric (Orlando, Fla.)

A. Good one, Eric. Dane Fletcher was the top backup last year and he's a free agent. I could see them having interest in bringing him back. Then the question becomes if any of the youth in the pipeline is ready to emerge, such as 2013 seventh-round pick Steve Beauharnais. The other thing to consider is that the defensive ends are linebacker-like in a multiple defense, so players such as Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones also factor in to the analysis. If the Patriots go the free-agent route, Denver's Wesley Woodyard, who is fast and could factor into the Patriots' sub defense, is someone to keep on the radar.

Q. Mike, do you think the Patriots should go after Darren Sproles? He is the type of player that the Patriots covet. He is a match-up nightmare. Could you imagine a two-back set in which Shane Vereen, Sproles, and Rob Gronkowski were all on the field? That would send shivers down the spine of any defense, don't you think? -- Brandon (Cincinnati)

[+] EnlargeTom Brady, Darren Sproles
Elsa/Getty ImagesAnd it appears Tom Brady is already a fan of Darren Sproles, so why not pursue him?

A. Brandon, if the price tag was $2 million per season or less, it seems like a no-brainer to me. I wrote about this possibility Monday.

Q. Why do the Patriots, with Tom Brady's window of opportunity narrowing for more championships, fail to provide him with a quality, breakaway receiver? I know injuries and the Aaron Hernandez incident fouled up plans, but there was no reason to let Wes Welker leave, and then on top of that take away Danny Woodhead, guys he was comfortable working with. I hope they are wise enough to keep Julian Edelman and find a way to complement him with another quality receiver. If he had the weapons that Peyton Manning was provided with, he and his teammates may already be wearing another ring. -- Alan V. (Twin Falls, Idaho)

A. Alan, there's a lot that goes in to building a team, and as we saw with Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the Super Bowl, all those weapons couldn't close the deal. In the end, you want to build the most complete team. Could the Patriots have done more in terms of surrounding Brady with better offensive weapons at times? I think that's fair to ask, but I don't think it's negligent or anything like that. I always have believed their intentions were sound; it was more about the execution (e.g. pick Greg Jennings in the second round of the 2006 draft, not Chad Jackson).

Q. Hi Mike, the news that Julian Edelman and Tom Brady are working out in California is spooky if not quite unnerving given that Welker and Brady were doing the same thing at FA time last year. Is this the foretelling of departure? Your thoughts. -- Jake M. (Vancouver, BC)

A. I wouldn't read too much into it, Jake, other than the workout reflecting two players who have a pretty special bond and connection. I just thought it was interesting because that could be the last time they do it as teammates. In the end, my hunch is that Edelman is back in New England. I think the Patriots want him here, and I think Edelman wants to be here if the deal is fair.

Q. What do you think the Pats do with their first pick, take Jace Amaro, Ra'Shede Hageman, or trade out? If either of these two guys are there, I think they need to take one them, I would prefer Hageman. What do you say? -- Sean C. (Holliston, Mass.)

A. Sean, my hunch is that they won't take Amaro because he'll be viewed by them more so as a big receiver than the type of combination tight end they would generally value that high in the draft. If the off-field questions are answered and there is a good comfort level from the team with him, Hageman would be  the pick.

Q. Hi Mike, what is the benefit to the Pats of releasing four players and waiving three others like we saw on Monday? Is it just to free up cap space, or is there any additional benefit to it? -- Gary (Falls Church, Va.)

A. Gary, there were no cap benefits to those moves. I viewed them as more limiting risk. Some of those players were coming off injury, and perhaps the Patriots didn't want to get caught in a position where they were paying salaries for players who couldn't help them on the field.

Q. Mike, I'm disappointed about T.J. Moe's release. I trust in the organization, but still, I was hoping he'd be the next Troy, Wes, or Julian. High bar, I know. Was his injury still a concern? It seems like they were similarly optimistic, at least last year. -- Matt G. (Portland, Maine)

A. Matt, my sense is that it was more of a medical situation. A player coming back from a torn Achilles has a long road ahead, and it might have been a case where the Patriots just felt like the risk to have the player under contract (if he gets hurt again, you're on the hook for the salary) was greater than the potential reward at this point.

Q. Mike, how involved is the team in injury recovery and prevention? I know they help injured players rehab during the season, but what about prevention? Certainly there is some luck involved in injuries, but I don't think it is the controlling factor -- Tony Gonzalez only missed two games in 17 years. Do the coaches work on techniques not to get hurt (other than telling quarterbacks to slide)? For example, the play on which Gronk injured his ACL could have been avoided if he had simply picked his leg up and accepted he was going to be tackled. Fighting for every yard may often be counter-productive if it means the team loses your services. Talib and Amendola seem to be prime candidates for this type of coaching (Talib more in his physical preparation). Seems a perfectionist like Belichick would actually have someone breaking down film to see how injuries happen, and how they might be prevented. If it prevented one injury per season to a key player, it would be a tremendous advantage. Is this part of the Patriots program? -- Bob Q. (Coventry, R.I.)

A. Bob, I have injury prevention and health as one of the top items to ask Bill Belichick about the next time he speaks with the media. After a season in which the Patriots were hit hard by injuries, I'm curious if they've come up with any helpful data/information that might help them in that area going forward. Specific to your point, Amendola is a good one to highlight. On the play he sustained a concussion, there is a fine line between playing smart and exposing oneself to increased injury risk for limited gain. I do believe that is coached, but you don't want to overcoach it and have the players be overthinking it.

Q. Mike, I really think the best thing for Vince Wilfork is to see the writing on the wall. He's not going to get more money from another team if he's cut. He's not going to go to another market and have the endorsement deals he has here. His best option is to restructure, 'take one for the team' and be the hero. The Pats are not going to let him be an $11 million cap hit. Especially when they can rework it so he still gets the majority of his money. And BTW, when the fans come out and complain that he or anyone else on the roster got treated poorly because of cuts or not re-signing a certain player, tell them to take a look around the league. Every team cuts big-name players, as we saw Monday. And we also saw some big-time players take home-town discounts to stay with their teams. The Pats get a bad rap. But everyone seems to be doing the same thing. Thanks! -- Derek (Wayland, Mass.)

SportsNation

What should the Patriots do with Vince Wilfork, who's entering the last year of his contract?

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Discuss (Total votes: 12,895)

A. Derek, these situations are often complicated, and I think it works best when everyone's on board. It can't be forced on a player in this case. If you're the team, there needs to be buy-in that this is really the best thing for both parties, because you need that player to still be leading and not feeling like he was shortchanged. So I think it's one of those things where Wilfork will get some time to digest it all and see if it feels right for him. I don't think we can schedule emotions or how we feel about certain things, and that's why we just have to let it play out and see what results from it.

Q. Hello Mike, I do not agree with your rationale as it applies to Vince Wilfork and his contract. He is a huge man (at least 350 pounds) coming off a severe injury on the wrong side of 30. Plus his skills were diminishing even before the injury. Why so sentimental? For me this is an easy one. Just let him go. They are going to need the cap room Wilfork is taking up. He is a proud man and I don't think he is going to restructure and he is going to force the Pats' hand. One final point: I do not see any backlash from most Pats fans. Most comments the past week agree with restructuring or letting him go. What do you see that the majority of us do not (besides being a good presence in the locker room)? Can't Ninkovich, Slater, Mayo, Brady, etc. fill that role? -- Paul O. (Kenosha, Wisc.)

A. Paul, I've thought it through, and I think they would be OK in the locker room in the event Wilfork was no longer on the club. It's on the field that would be the biggest concern. I just don't see how it makes them better, assuming Wilfork's return to full health. That last part has always been the key -- if there are any legitimate concerns with the health, then it alters the picture.

Q. Hi, Mike, I've asked this question of you before, but it seems even more relevant now given the tenuous nature of Vince Wilfork's future with the team. The reaction among most of the fan base seems to be "we love Vince and he's a great player/guy but it's a business, so the Patriots should cut him and not absorb the cap hit, and just 'plug someone else' into his spot. That's the 'Patriot Way.' " I have a strong feeling that a couple of years from now, we'll be having the same conversation about Tom Brady. In your opinion, is Brady the ONLY player who doesn't get shipped out of town via "The Patriot Way?" -- Stephen S. (Carlisle, Mass.)

A. Stephen, I don't think Brady himself is above that possibility, but his recent contract extension gives him the best chance to avoid it. The way it was structured, with manageable cap hits/cash payouts on the back end of the deal, gives him the best chance to stay with the club for the duration if he's still playing at a high level.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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