With the new year dawning, the Patriots will face some difficult personnel decisions in 2013. Here are the five that are first on their plate:
Wide receiver Wes Welker: The most intriguing puzzle piece for New England. The veteran, who is coming to the end of a one-year deal he got when he was franchised last offseason (worth a fully guaranteed $9.515 million), is in the midst of the most impressive five-year stretches for any receiver in NFL history. This season, he became the first receiver in NFL history with at least five seasons of 100 or more receptions. Against the Jaguars on Dec. 23, Welker passed Jerry Rice with his 18th career game with 10 or more catches. For the season, he ended up with 118 catches for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns. His 118 receptions marked the third-highest total of his career. (He caught 123 balls in 2009 and 122 in 2011.) Despite the early-season talk of him being phased out of the offense, Welker was actually targeted more in 2012 (174 times) than he was in 2011 (172 times). At an age when most receivers are showing signs of decline, the 31-year-old (he’ll turn 32 in May) is in the midst of the sort of run that will undoubtedly get him Hall of Fame consideration when his playing career is done.
Forecast: There’s an understanding that Welker is fully aware of the fact that, despite the eye-popping numbers he’s posted since he arrived in New England prior to the 2007 season, he’d be hard-pressed to replicate those stats if he was playing in, for example, Cleveland. So he knows just how good he has it here, and us probably willing to take slightly less than market value (and I mean just slightly) to get a deal done with New England. But at the same time, Welker knows he has a few advantages of his own. Despite the fact that the franchise number for wide receivers will increase and there’s a flat cap looming, it’s becoming increasingly evident the Patriots can’t afford not to resign Welker. (According to this report from NFL.com, the franchise tag number for wide receivers in 2013 will be $10.357 million, an increase of close to a million from the year before.) If the Patriots and Welker fail to reach an agreement on a long-term deal (three years sounds about right), expect New England to hit him and agent David Dunn with the franchise tag this spring so fast his head will spin.
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer: The big German, a second-round pick in the 2009 draft, was a question mark coming out of college. A converted tight end who didn’t start playing football until he was a teenager, he had back problems at the University of Houston, and didn’t get an invite to the combine. Plus, he was German. But with the help of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, he’s out himself on the short list of the league’s elite tackles. The 6-foot-8, 320-pounder has shaken off the injury issues that dogged him last season, and put together an excellent three-plus seasons playing both tackle spots (although now, he’s settled in nicely at right tackle). He has been slowed by injury occasionally over the course of the 2012 season -- his back forced him to miss the Thanksgiving Night massacre against the Jets -- but when healthy, he’s still one of the best in the game, and the best thing that’s come out of the 2009 draft for New England.
Forecast: He’s a shade on the older side for someone hitting his second contract -- he’s going to turn 29 before the start of the 2013 season -- but there’s no reason to think that the Patriots won’t make him a priority in the offseason. Repped by Ben Dogra, he’ll see a sizable bump in his rookie deal, which was a four-year, $3.105 million contract. If something does fall into place with Welker and there’s a glitch with Vollmer, he could always be franchised. (Per this report, the franchise tag for offensive linemen this spring will be $9.660 million.)
Safety Pat Chung: A tough call. Another second-round pick of the Patriots in 2009, he’s in the final year of a four-year rookie deal worth $4.075 million. At times, there have been occasions in his Patriots career where he’s looked like the best thing to happen to the safety position in New England since the retirement of Rodney Harrison. (It’s no coincidence that in 2011, the Patriots’ defense was playing it’s best down the stretch when Chung and Brandon Spikes were healthy and on the field together.) But there’s been a run of inconsistency over the last year-plus which has left him on the outside looking in.
Forecast: With the emergence of the Devin McCourty-Steve Gregory combination (as well as rookie Tavon Wilson), don’t expect the Patriots to offer Chung a whole lot of dough. Repped by Kenneth Landphere, Chung can still be a valuable part of the New England defense, but he shouldn’t expect the Patriots to invest heavily in him going forward. (Interestingly enough, his future in New England could be tied to Aqib Talib -- if Talib is either not healthy or not willing to re-sign past 2012, that could create a need for McCourty to move back to corner from safety. In turn, that could open up an opportunity for Chung.)
Wide receiver Julian Edelman: The seventh-round pick out of Kent State is, along with Chung and Vollmer, one of three major decisions the team has to make around its 2009 draft class. The converted college quarterback, who has 69 catches in 48 career regular-season games with the Patriots, started the 2012 season on a positive note: Because Welker admittedly wasn’t ready to start the year, he was called upon to fill the void, and was on pace to set career-highs in catches and yardage through nine games. However, he was slowed by hand and foot injuries, ultimately landing on injured reserve on Dec. 4 because of a broken foot. He finished the year with 21 catches for 235 yards and three touchdowns. While he did have 37 catches as a rookie, he has struggled to replicate those offensive numbers since then. However, where he has displayed tremendous value is on special teams -- the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder has been the lead punt returner for the last three seasons, and averaged at least 10 yards a return each season. In addition, he worked as the lead kick returner in 2011 and 2009, and averaged 21.9 yards per return in 2009 and 23.7 in 2011. And there’s also the fact that he worked as a part-time defensive back in 2011, finishing the year with 18 tackles (13 solo), which will only add to his overall value.
Forecast: Edelman has struggled to stay healthy over the course of his four-year career, but has shown great versatility over the course of his career, working on offense, defense and special teams. His knowledge of the New England system and his background with the franchise will make him an attractive re-sign for the Patriots. Repped by Carter Chow, don’t look for New England to try and break the bank to keep him around, but he’s smart enough to understand the reality of the situation. He should be back for another go-round with the Patriots.
Cornerback Aqib Talib: The veteran corner, who was dealt to New England on Nov. 1 at the trade deadline, came to the Patriots in the final year of his contract, and to this point, it’s been a great relationship between player and team. He hasn’t made anyone forget Ty Law, but the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Kansas product brought stability to the New England secondary and created a trickle-down effect that has allowed the Patriots to play to the strengths of other defensive backs, like the move of McCourty from corner to safety. He’s struggled with injury over the last two weeks, playing just eight defensive snaps combined against the Jaguars and Dolphins. But his time in New England has been positive to this point.
Forecast: There are still some variables when you’re talking about Talib’s situation, some of which we already discussed here. The first is his continued level of play: If he manages to play a sizable role for a team that plays deep into January -- and continues to steer clear of any hint of off-field scandal -- there’s no reason to think he won’t command a nice payday in the offseason, especially when you look at the possible market for cornerbacks this offseason. If the hip injury proves to be a long-term issue or if he has issues in the playoffs, that market could decrease. Regardless, based on what we’ve seen from him to this point in his career in New England, the Patriots would be wise to start talking with Talib’s agent Todd France about the possibility of a multi-year deal with New England.
In addition to this five, there are a handful of other likely free agents, including running back Danny Woodhead, linebacker Dane Fletcher, cornerback Kyle Arrington and defensive end Trevor Scott. It’s expected that Woodhead and Fletcher would be the priorities in this group, as Woodhead provides a different dynamic at running back (he became the first Patriots running back to pick up at least 40 carries and 40 catches in a season since Kevin Faulk turned the trick in 2008), while Fletcher, who is coming off a knee injury that landed him on IR, is a quality backup who can also provide depth when it comes to special teams.
As for Scott and Arrington, the defensive end signed a one-year deal prior to the start of the year and has been good in stretches when it comes to getting after the passer but has struggled at times when it comes to containment. And while Arrington has had occasional issues on the outside, he remains the best option for the team when it comes to working as slot corner. Expect the latter two to test the market, but they could both be back for the right price.