This year, more than any other in the tenure of Bill Belichick as the head coach of the New England Patriots, the Free Agent market could impact which direction the team goes in the draft – and which way they go in the standings.
Potential free agent signings could assign different priorities to the draft, though the feeling here is that Bill Belichick will deal his 1st round pick for a 2nd and a 3rd or 4th to a team desperate to move back up into the 1st round.
That being said, the areas of need for the Patriots are deep, both in the draft and free agency, and it’s just a matter of whether Belichick wants to draft and develop or get someone on the field that he knows can contribute immediately…and this brings the Franchise Tag into context.
Assuming that Bill Belichick views things as the “experts” do, the three names that keep coming up in the tag conversation are WR Wes Welker, CB Aqib Talib and RT Sebastian Vollmer, but there are reasons to believe that deciding who to tag may not be as a difficult decision as it appears on the surface.
Potential Need: Right Tackle
Sebastian Vollmer is headed for free agency, bad back and all. There is much speculation as to whether the Patriots would be able to afford to resign the University of Houston product who has emerged as one of the steadiest Right Tackles in the game, but the truth of the matter is that, due to the glut of offensive tackles reaching free agency this year, the cost of keeping him may swing in New England’s favor.
A lot depends on which direction New England’s offense evolves.
If it goes in the direction that it should, Vollmer may not even be the person that they envision on the right side. With Marcus Cannon waiting in the wings, elite run blocking tackles and guards on the market and many options available in the draft, Vollmer may not have the leverage to deal effectively with the front office….
…and they may just let him test the free agent waters. As much as they love what the 29 year old brings to the run game, perhaps the old axiom that “If you love something, set it free” may be in the cards here. With the glut of players on the table, it is entirely possible that Vollmer doesn’t find the huge money outside of Foxboro, and may go ahead and accept whatever the Patriots are offering, especially in light of his back issues.
With the team being heavy with Tight Ends and Running backs and exceptionally light with wide receivers – not to mention that Tom Brady is not getting any younger – one can only expect that the Patriots want to evolve into a dominant running team, a thought that they most likely had last year, which took major hits when first Aaron Hernandez and then Rob Gronkowski missed significant time with injury.
A potential free agent name in this scenario besides Vollmer is Cincinnati’s Andre Smith who is huge and an ideal run blocker – but not a premier pass protector.
Potential Need: Wide Receiver
Wes Welker is gone. With Aaron Hernandez and Julien Edelman capable slot men and the Patriots set to evolve into a run-first offense under Josh McDaniels, the slot will become more of a possession type position where Hernandez’ speed and blocking are going to be a great fit.
Look for the Patriots to target a legitimate speed guy on the outside to compliment both Brandon Lloyd on the opposite outside, and to stretch the field in a way few teams can, both vertically and horizontally…and it may be fortuitous for the Patriots to now look in the direction of a Mike Wallace, who had a down year after holding out in Pittsburgh and being mired in some sort of funk where he dropped passes and struggled with consistency on his routes.
Despite all of the negative press about Dwayne Bowe in Kansas City, the new regime there may go ahead and throw the tag on him, particularly if they bring in a strong armed quarterback that can get him the ball downfield.
If neither of those players work into the Patriots plans, there’s always the draft, but that’s been iffy-er for the Patriots than free agency ever was in the past.
In the end, Lloyd will be in Foxboro and Welker will not unless he relents and accepts what New England is offering.
Potential Need: Cornerback
Aqib Talib will be back with New England…either with the tag or under a one year deal that has make of break written all over it.
Why? Because the Patriots are not the only team that has knowledge of Talib’s off-field issues, and because his next offense will likely result in a long suspension. Talib knows this as well, and what better place to strengthen his image than in a place that preaches good citizenship and is always in contention for a title?
And Bill Belichick really likes the guy. They seem to have some sort of preternatural relationship that defies conventional wisdom, bus since when was Belichick a conventional type of guy? Also something to consider is that the sheer number of corners on the market are going to drive down Talib’s asking price.
Just one name to throw out there though, a name that could turn this entire thinking into turmoil: Philadelphia cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Not even close to fulfilling his enormous contract, he will be on the market looking for a place to prove his worth once again.
Just a thought.
Other names that could emerge would be Atlanta’s Brent Grimes and Miami’s Sean Smith.
Potential need: Safety
The way that the NFL is evolving into a passing league more and more every season, the need for a violent, physical strong safety has been replaced by the need for a big converted corner that can handle faster tight ends as well as filling holes in the running game.
Honestly, Steve Gregory is not that guy. Patrick Chung is not that guy either. Tavon Wilson could be, but spent time in Belichick’s dog house last season and actually projects best in a nickle safety role. The Franchise tag doesn’t come into play with the safeties, but the future of the position could be directly tied into what happens with the corners.
Sending Devin McCourty back to corner if the options dry up there would be taking a huge step back in the secondary, so the Rutgers product is entrenched in the position for which, honestly, he has pro bowl potential. Adding another free safety type to work along side of him would reduce the number of big plays over the top and would be like being in a Big Nickle sub package as the base…
…and being able to bring in a player like Wilson to actually go into a nickle would mean less coverage responsibility for the linebackers.
Names like Jarius Byrd and Ed Reed have popped up in speculative articles, but one name to be aware of as a potential free agent is the Lions’ Louis Delmas. He was hurt much of last season, and his absence made for a disturbing lack of athleticism in Detroits’ secondary.
Not a potential need, but let’s talk anyway: Running Back
The Patriots have had good success with re-treaded, big running backs. Antwain Smith and Corey Dillon come to mind…and what the Patriots have are smallish backs with fumbling concerns.
This is not to discount the job that each of them have done out of the backfield this past season, but if the offense is to evolve into a powerful, run first juggernaut, a big experienced back certainly wouldn’t hurt…
…so let’s throw the name Steven Jackson out there. at 6′ 2″ tall and 240 pounds, he has the size to be an every down back in the Patriots offense, and also has excellent hands and caught an average of 4 passes per game out of the backfield for his career. During the 2012 season, the Rams allowed him to void the final year of his contract, making him a free agent.
Madness…all of it….