The Patriots head into free agency Tuesday with a pretty good chunk of change.
The question: Is the money burning a hole in their pocket or will they hold tight?
Thanks to a little bump provided by the Cowboys’ and Redskins’ overspending in the 2010 uncapped season (Dallas will have to shave $10 million from its salary cap over the 2012 and ’13 seasons, the Redskins $36 million), the other 28 franchises had $1.6 million added to their caps for 2012. The Patriots have approximately $17.8 million to spend.
That number includes the $9.515 million for Wes Welker’s franchise tender, and can change if the team restructures some deals or releases players. Some space must be left for New England’s draft choices next month.
As NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi wrote recently, this is the lying season in the NFL, and in the days and hours leading up to the start of free agency - it officially starts at 4 p.m. Tuesday - all sorts of rumors fly about, with agents trying to drive up the market for their players, and teams trying to mislead others in the hopes of keeping prices lower on targeted players.
The Patriots have 17 players on their Super Bowl roster or on injured reserve who are slated to become free agents. The group is headlined by key contributors BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Deion Branch, Dan Connolly, Andre Carter, Mark Anderson, James Ihedigbo, and Matthew Slater.
They also have Brian Hoyer, a restricted free agent, and Kyle Love, an exclusive-rights free agent. It is expected that both will receive tenders from the team.
Hoyer is likely to be tendered at a second-round compensation level, which should keep him as Tom Brady’s backup for another season.
However, a team that misses out on Peyton Manning and doesn’t want to get into a bidding war for Packers backup Matt Flynn could find Hoyer an attractive and cheaper alternative. And it wouldn’t have to bid on his services a year from now when he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent.
As for players the Patriots could be targeting, they could start on the defensive line, at end and tackle. During training camp last season, Bill Belichick switched to a base 4-3 instead of a 3-4, though both fronts were employed throughout the season, particularly after injuries to Mike Wright and Myron Pryor and the general ineffectiveness of Albert Haynesworth limited the team’s ability to rotate players.
Though versatility is highly valued in Foxborough, Belichick and Co. likely are looking for players who can play more than one position or can switch between both fronts.
One such player is Tennessee’s Jason Jones. The 6-foot-5-inch, 276-pound Jones has played as an undersized tackle for the Titans and played end in college. Jones, 25, has 15 1/2 sacks in four seasons with the Titans. He had three sacks, five pass breakups, and a forced fumble in 14 games last season.
Other names to consider for the defensive line are veteran John Abraham, who has 22 1/2 sacks over the last two seasons; 6-6, 315-pound Adam Carriker (6-6, 315 pounds), late of the Redskins, who has played the 3-4 and 4-3 and is just 27; and Jeremy Mincey, who has been with the Jaguars for four-plus seasons.
The 6-3 Mincey was drafted by the Patriots to play outside linebacker (he never played for New England) but has been at end for Jacksonville, where he started 16 games last year with 57 tackles, 8 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles.
The jewel of the defensive free agent group is Houston’s Mario Williams, who has played in the 3-4 and 4-3. Landing the 27-year-old Williams, who suffered a torn pectoral in Week 5 and missed the rest of the 2011 season, could cost more than the Patriots are willing to spend. The Patriots also might be reluctant to bring in a player who makes significantly more than defensive leaders Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo.
Another position of need for New England is receiver, where signs point to Brandon Lloyd reuniting with Josh McDaniels, whom he played for in Denver and St. Louis. Lloyd had his greatest success with McDaniels, knows the offense because of his time with McDaniels, and there probably won’t be much of a market for him.
For weeks the Patriots have been linked to Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace, a speedster who averaged 16.6 yards per catch last season. The Steelers gave a restricted free agent tender to Wallace Monday, likely at the first-round level. Because of the high cost of acquiring Wallace, a first-round pick plus a multiyear contract, it is unlikely New England will pursue him.
The Patriots also need help at safety, and re-signing Ihedigbo might be one of their few options. The top safeties scheduled to hit the open market - Michael Griffin of the Titans, Dashon Goldson of the 49ers, and Tyvon Branch of the Raiders - were franchised by their respective teams. Washington released O.J. Atogwe on Monday after just one season. Atogwe was a solid safety with the Rams for the first six years of his career.