Jamie Collins could be soaring toward a big deal in free agency. (Noah K. Murray/USA Today Sports)
FOXBORO — No one knows more than Bill Belichick that, in today’s NFL, you have to prepare for the games while always keeping an eye on the future.
Asked Friday about the large number of defensive starters who have pending contract issues on the horizon after the season, the Patriots coach provided some perspective and insight on how the team regards signing its own free agents.
“In general, there’s some team planning, you do what you can do,” Belichick said Friday. “Sometimes if you can work out a contract, which we’ve done that during the season with various players — if you can work that out, you work that out. If you can’t, there’s been a number of players we’ve signed — our players that we’ve signed once free agency has started. Devin (McCourty), to pick a name.”
McCourty’s case might provide some insight as to the Patriots approach this time. After free agency began in March 2015, the team inked him to a five-year, $47.5 million deal through 2019. But that didn’t mean the team wouldn’t re-visit it down the road. Days before this season began, they converted $3.74 million of his salary this season into his signing bonus. That move cleared $2.8 million of cap space. A win-win for the player and the team.
“I don’t think you can be afraid of free agency. It’s not if a guy gets to free agency, you can’t resign him. You’re in a competitive market, but you’re in a competitive market anyway. These guys know that they have other options, depending on who the player is and what their situation is. They have other options. We know there’s only so much money to go around.”
What the Patriots were able to do with Devin McCourty last season is something they would certainly like to pursue with others on their defense.
Linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long, cornerback Logan Ryan, safety Duron Harmon and defensive tackle Alan Branch are unrestricted free agents. Collins, Hightower and Sheard are all considered front line starters and figure to demand big money over multiple years.
Third-year corner Malcolm Butler is a restricted free agent. The Patriots could match any offer Butler receives and be more patient with that.
“If you can work it out, then you have the security, if you can’t then you have your options,” Belichick added. “They have their options, we have our options. That’s professional sports.”
On the offensive side, starters Martellus Bennett, LeGarrette Blount, Marcus Cannon, Sebastian Vollmer and James Develin are all set to hit free agency next March.
Why might Belichick have such patience and feel confident? Simple, the Patriots are projected to have approximately $60 million in cap room after the season, meaning they could sign most of their free agents and let the season play out, which is usually what the Patriots prefer to do when there’s internal discussions over keeping players or letting them walk.