This article was written by Joe Soriano of Musket Fire.
The New England Patriots have a trio of big-name players who could hit the free agent waters in Wes Welker, Aqib Talib, and Sebastian Vollmer, and the Pats were actually wise to not franchise any of the three. The only one of those three players for whom the franchise tag would have been feasible is Vollmer, but even then franchising the star right tackle would have been a bit of a reach. As for Talib, the talented but inconsistent corner simply isn’t worth elite CB money at $10.6 million for just one season.
Wes Welker has been capturing the headlines recently, and that’s because of the progress both sides have made since Tom Brady’s restructured deal freed up $15 million in cap over the next two seasons (which also freed up some flexibility to re-sign Welker). Now the Pats never planned on franchising Welker for a second straight year, because that would have meant giving the star wideout over $11 million for just one season, and the fact that they are close to a multi-year deal shows that the tag would have been illogical and extremely unlikely.
Of those three free agents, the priorities are Welker and Vollmer, and there is a lot of irony involved in the Patriots free agent process thus far. Most people thought Welker would be the one to “throw away” a legacy with the Patriots and “chase the paper” a la Asante Samuel. But it is Welker who, despite still being upset over a decreased role early last season, has easily the best shot at getting a deal done before hitting free agency. It is Welker who isn’t as enamored with testing the free agent waters as Sebastian Vollmer and especially Aqib Talib are. Maybe it’s because Tom Brady’s deal sent Welker a message about helping the team Maybe it’s because Welker has realized that the market for him won’t be as robust as he hopes. Or maybe it’s because Welker is a guy who embraces the “Patriot Way” more than some give him credit for.
Either way, it sounds like Welker is coming back. As for Talib, consider me more pessimistic. It’s not that I don’t want the Patriots to re-sign Talib, it’s just that I think Talib is going to get overpaid by somebody. To me, he’s in nearly the same boat as Sean Smith of the Miami Dolphins. He is a young CB with obvious talent and shutdown potential, but he is also maddeningly inconsistent and probably overvalues himself. There are also concerns about his checkered past in Tampa and the fact that sources told CSNNE Talib had work ethic problems. So it seems like the Pats don’t exactly want to give Talib a huge payday, even if he is an important part to the team.
But Talib provided more of a domino effect, and I honestly think any at least decent No. 2 CB could have improved the Pats D. His addition allowed Devin McCourty to move to free safety and Kyle Arrington into the slot, which were both more natural positions for them. I’m not saying Talib is a poor player or anything, because that is obviously not the case. However, it is easy to overvalue him and there is a reason why Buccaneers fans were so frustrated with him as a player- not just as a person. Interestingly enough, Talib rejected an interview with ESPN Boston for their weekly feature profiling a Pats player. Why? Because he didn’t want to make it about himself rather than the team.
Speaking of Arrington, he will most likely come back to the team. Arrington can’t cover at all on the outside, but he is a solid nickel corner who is great in run defense. Why is that important? Because Bill Belichick values run defense out of his CBs more than any other coach in the NFL, and I think that is especially true in the nickel.
Julian Edelman and Danny Woodhead are solid offensive players who will likely be re-signed, but one solid, underrated player on offense will probably walk. And no, that’s not Vollmer (I think the Pats and Vollmer can get something done)- it is Donald Thomas. The Patriots backup guard received significant playing time due to injuries, and he actually outplayed starting RG Dan Connolly. Thomas has all the traits of a good starting guard in this league, and I think a team like the New York Jets or Dallas Cowboys will likely view him as such and pay him accordingly.
Most Patriots fans are quite sure that Patrick Chung will be gone from the team this offseason, and the reason for the likelihood of the high character safety leaving New England is due to health. Although he is often criticized for his ability, I think Chung’s deficiencies in coverage can get somewhat overstated. While his forte is certainly his excellent run defense at the safety position, Chung isn’t terrible in coverage. He isn’t exactly good in coverage, but I prefer him to Steve Gregory. No, the reason why Chung will be on another team in 2013 is because of injuries. The Patriots cannot count on him to play enough games each season, and he missed significant chunks of the 2012 season with various ailments, and that lack of reliability health-wise is one of the sad parts of the game today.
The Patriots thankfully have enough cap space to keep most of their key free agents, but I have a feeling one of the player’s in the “Big Three” will walk. That player will likely be Aqib Talib, who will be the least talented and most expensive of the three, in my opinion. His loss would create a hole at corner, so hopefully the Pats can make an upgrade by signing Chris Houston or Brent Grimes. I hope those two are available, and it’s too much of a gamble to bank on them being out there. The Patriots will try as hard as possible to get a deal done with Talib without overpaying, but that might not be an achievable goal.
With the news that Welker intends to check the free agent market to gauge interest and offers from other teams, I am going to have to tone down my expectations a great deal. I am still optimistic that both sides can get a deal done, because the Patriots are still the “favorites” in the race to sign Welker. Most of the Patriots beat writers remain optimistic as well, and that might be because Welker’s market will be drier than he hopes. The Patriots still present the best opportunity for Welker, and I don’t think he’s going to get a significantly bigger chunk of coin on the open market. That means the extra money most likely won’t make it worth leaving, because it simply won’t be enough to justify leaving his great position with Tom Brady and the Pats. And oh yeah, there’s that little word called “legacy” that should be a big deal to him.