The New England Patriots entered the offseason with roughly $15 million in cap space, according to figures obtained by USA TODAY Sports. That figure is now in the $23 million range after quarterback Tom Brady agreed to a cap-friendly contract extension this week.
Though the two-time MVP clearly stands to benefit from the restructured deal, he’s also given the franchise added ability to navigate the free agent market in its ongoing quest for the fourth title of the Brady-Bill Belichick era. The Patriots can clearly use the cash with Julian Edelman, Aqib Talib, Sebastian Vollmer, Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead among those headed into free agency. Here’s an evaluation of the team’s roster and where the money might best be spent:
Secondary: New England has ultimately been undone by the passing of Joe Flacco, Eli Manning — and even Mark Sanchez — in recent years, and the pass defense hasn’t ranked better than 29th in the regular season since 2009. Belichick has long had a mancrush on safety Ed Reed and has the wherewithal to wrest him from the Baltimore Ravens. But with Talib set to go free and Alfonzo Dennard facing jail time in Nebraska, cornerback may be the greater concern. And given the team’s struggles to find them in the draft (Devin McCourty has switched to safety while Ras-I Dowling, Darius Butler and Terrence Wheatley are among the high picks in recent years who have not panned out), luring established talent might be the way to go. Options outside Talib and unsigned Kyle Arrington include Sean Smith, Brent Grimes, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Mike Jenkins, Chris Houston and Derek Cox. Assessment: high priority
Wide receiver: Welker, who made $9.5 million in 2012 under the franchise tag but will be 32 this season, is best suited to New England’s offense. He knows it, they know it. There’s seemingly no reason they can’t reach a three-year deal that works for both sides because the Pats won’t be as good without him, but he won’t produce at the same level elsewhere. Edelman, who’s Welker-lite, seems a bit of a luxury unless Welker himself leaves. An affordable deep threat (Devery Henderson, Donnie Avery) could be a consideration. Assessment: high priority
Offensive line: It seems like assistant coach Dante Scarnecchia could succeed with any five bodies Belichick provides him. The 2011 AFC championship team lost Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters and left tackle Matt Light and didn’t miss a beat last season. But given Vollmer’s age (28) and ability to play right tackle or left, it doesn’t seem wise to let him leave, especially given the mandate to safeguard Brady. Assessment: medium priority
Running back: Woodhead is a solid, multi-purpose back. But with breakout star Stevan Ridley under contract along with Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden, there’s no reason to break the bank for Woodhead. Assessment: low priority
Defensive line: Though it’d be nice to see a better pass rush, and Chandler Jones should only get better in Year 2, this unit has decent depth and held up nicely against the run. Unless they get a sweetheart deal from a Dwight Freeney, Osi Umenyiora or Andre Carter, there are better places to commit resources. Assessment: low priority
Linebackers: Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower should be cornerstone players for years to come. If Brandon Spikes isn’t re-signed in 2014, he won’t be hard to replace. Assessment: don’t spend
Quarterback: With Brady now under contract through 2017, Ryan Mallet seems poised to join other erstwhile QBs of the future like Matt Cassel and Brian Hoyer. But until Belichick tries to spin off Mallet for a pick, no reason to go after veteran backup types like Matt Moore or Jason Campbell. Assessment: don’t spend
Special teams: No issues that can’t wait until next year … unless Josh Cribbs can be had cheaply and is able to fulfill a role in the passing game. Assessment: don’t spend
Tight end: Aaron Hernandez is signed through the 2018 season and Rob Gronkowski through 2019. Enough said. Assessment: don’t spend
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