The 2012 season is far from over for the Patriots, with a promising playoff run looming once again.
But in short order, it will be time to look ahead to next season, when the Patriots will have some interesting decisions to make. Actually, make that two interesting decisions: receiver Wes Welker and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
The Patriots are believed to be about $21 million under the salary cap for next season, when the carryover from this season (about $5.6 million) is applied. They have done a nice job of blending veterans with draft picks (19 from the last three draft classes alone) to give their cap balance.
This is important, because while many teams spent as if the salary cap would rise under the new collective bargaining agreement, the Patriots knew it would stay flat until at least 2015. Combine better draft performances and being more proactive in extending talented young players (Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jerod Mayo) and you have a team that has great flexibility moving forward.
As of today, the Patriots have 44 players under contract for next season, 46 if you count guard Brian Waters and fullback Tony Fiammetta, who had their contracts tolled after landing on reserve lists for not reporting and leaving the squad, respectively.
The Patriots will do the same dance with Waters in the new year. He can’t leave unless the Patriots let him go, and his rights could be a trade chip. Fiammetta plans on returning after dealing with a family issue.
That leaves the following groupings of free agents:
Restricted in some manner and likely back: Tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Jake Ballard, linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, plus practice squad players on futures contracts.
Top priority: Welker, Vollmer, cornerback Aqib Talib.
Hope to extend at fair deals: running back Danny Woodhead, receiver Julian Edelman, linebacker Dane Fletcher.
Allow them to test the market, with possible later match: safety Patrick Chung, cornerback Kyle Arrington, defensive end Trevor Scott, cornerback Marquice Cole, defensive tackle Ron Brace, guard Donald Thomas.
Others: receiver Deion Branch, guard Jamey Richard, linebacker Niko Koutouvides, cornerback Will Allen, safety Josh Barrett.
The Patriots are in good shape at every position except receiver and cornerback. They have just two receivers under contract, Brandon Lloyd and Matthew Slater, and two cornerbacks in Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling (three if you count Devin McCourty).
Expect the Patriots to try to extend Talib right after the season with a contract that has protection built in should he get in trouble off the field. Don’t foresee that being a problem unless Talib and agent Todd France think they could command a big contract elsewhere. That could happen with a good postseason run.
But the biggest decisions, without question, are what to do with Welker and Vollmer.
What will complicate these negotiations is the fact that Welker (David Dunn) and Vollmer (Ben Dogra) are represented by two of the best agents in the business. They will be looking for top dollar and will not be pushed around by the Patriots, as some other agents are.
The Patriots can retain both. One can get the franchise tag ($11.4 million for Welker because he was franchised last season, $9.66 million for Vollmer), but they’d have to overpay the other to keep him from testing the waters. It’s very unlikely that either will stay for a hometown discount.
The Patriots likely can’t justify spending more than half their remaining cap money on Welker, especially since if they gave him the $22 million last offseason, he’d be here for another three years and would have saved them about $14 million in cap money in ’12 and ’13 alone.
That means Welker is more likely to be the extension target. The most prudent path may be for the Patriots to allow him to set his value on the market, then hope for an opportunity to match. If the Patriots are willing to match an offer, you’d have to think Welker would stay with his buddy Tom Brady.
If Vollmer leaves, the Patriots have at least a few options in Marcus Cannon, Markus Zusevics, and Kyle Hix. It’s not optimal, but you can’t re-sign everyone in the salary-cap era.
Vollmer, however, is thought to be a priority because of his skill level and ability to play left tackle if Nate Solder were lost to injury.
That’s the same reason Vollmer could be expensive should he hit the market. Offensive tackle play across the league has trended downward, and since Dogra could sell his client as a possible starter on the left side, Vollmer is unlikely to return should he hit the market.
So the franchise tag makes more sense for Vollmer, with an eye on a contract extension at some point before the deadline.
His back issues are sure to complicate negotiations. Perhaps the Patriots just look for one more season out of him, then hope Cannon and/or a draft pick is ready for 2014.
This season isn’t over yet for the Patriots, but planning for the future never stops.
Bills and Jets in need of a fix
Black Monday — the day after the regular season ends, when coaching staffs and front offices are on the firing line — is rapidly approaching, and it looks as if there will be turmoil again in the AFC East.
Everyone knows the Jets are a mess, and that some form of change is coming. The same looks likely in Buffalo.
Naturally, the Jets and Bills face each other Sunday to see which team finishes last in the division.
A season that looked so promising after the signings of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson went bust again for Buffalo. This is the franchise’s eighth straight losing season, and a loss would make coach Chan Gailey 15-33 in his three years at the helm.
The feeling in Buffalo is that Gailey will be let go, and the future of general manager Buddy Nix is very much up in the air. Nix put together a competent team, but it never came together for various reasons, not the least of which was the performance of former Harvard quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has 39 interceptions the past two seasons.
Nix has talked about getting a franchise quarterback in the draft — and overpaying if need be. Does owner Ralph Wilson want Nix making that decision, or does he want to start fresh again?
The Bills have an alternative internally in assistant general manager/director of player personnel Doug Whaley. He has been a steadily rising star on the personnel side since his formative years in Pittsburgh, where he eventually was elevated to director of pro personnel.
As for the Jets, the New York Daily News reported that Rex Ryan wants owner Woody Johnson to eat some cash to get the offense on the right foot. Ryan vehemently denied the report Friday.
Still, there have been various reports that general manager Mike Tannenbaum will be relieved of his duties, perhaps re-assigned within an organization where he has been a loyal servant since 1997.
The Needham native has received a lot of heat (even in this space), but he was far from poor at his job.
Since he took over as general manager in 2006, the Jets have gone 57-54 with three postseason berths and played in the AFC Championship game twice. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
Look for some turnovers here
Here’s a look at places where coaching staffs and front offices (though they’re usually kept in place through the draft) will be nervous heading to work Monday (in order of likely change):
San Diego: After making the curious decision to allow coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith to return this season, owner Dean Spanos finally has decided to start fresh with a team that is the picture of underachievement.
Cleveland: With a new owner in Jimmy Haslam, general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur are likely to be out. It could be another Patriots West setting up, with Mike Lombardi and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels a possible duo. But that’s far from a sure thing. Browns CEO Joe Banner will look to duplicate the success he had building the Eagles.
Philadelphia: The NFL’s longest-tenured coach, Andy Reid, is undoubtedly on his way out, leaving Bill Belichick (13 years) the longest-running act in the league. General manager Howie Roseman isn’t going anywhere, so it will be interesting to see how that affects the coaching search.
Kansas City: Change has to be coming for a franchise that many fans have turned their backs on, but how much? Could GM Scott Pioli stay on even if coach Romeo Crennel is let go? We would not be surprised. Pioli may rub some people the wrong way, but he actually put together a solid roster in rebuilding the Chiefs. One big problem: He got the quarterback wrong.
Carolina: There’s already one opening since GM Marty Hurney was fired in October. If an internal candidate isn’t hired (former director of football operations Brandon Beane has been the interim hire), coach Ron Rivera’s chances of being retained lessen.
Arizona: This has been a debacle at quarterback and on the offensive line, so GM Rod Graves and coach Ken Whisenhunt could be out. With a very good defense, this will be an attractive job if the Bidwills (ever) open their wallets.
Jacksonville: GM Gene Smith seems to have reached the end of his run, so that means coach Mike Mularkey, after just one season, will be out as soon as the new boss arrives.
Patriots could go after Reed
One of the most interesting potential offseason marriages will be the Patriots and Ravens safety Ed Reed.
Everyone knows how much affinity Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have for the nine-time Pro Bowl selection. Reed, who will be 35 next Sept. 11, will be a free agent after the season, and the Ravens may have to franchise quarterback Joe Flacco.
Reed could retire (he’s been dealing with nerve impingement in his neck/shoulder for years), return to the Ravens on the cheap, or test free agency. You’d have to think the Patriots could get him to come in for one last shot at a Super Bowl.
Reed didn’t give any hints to reporters last week.
“I’m not thinking about that right now,” he said. “My focus is to finish this season off right now and prepare for the playoffs and go from there.”
Reed will play all 16 games for the second straight season.
“It’s definitely not what it used to be when I was 24 versus 34 now, but that’s where the mental part comes into it,” Reed said. “You know, you slow down physically, but mentally you get a lot stronger and you understand the game more, which allows me to play the game a certain way and understand how to play the game and put myself in different situations to make plays.”
1. A year after analyst Gino Capelletti retired, Patriots play-by-play gentleman Gil Santos will call his final regular-season game, in his 36th season, Sunday. An extraordinary and honorable run for both of them. We’ll never listen the same way again.
2. How will the Patriots handle the season finale against the Dolphins? With the slumping Texans in for a tussle against the Colts, expect New England to go for it — within reason.
3. My personal ranking of Patriots players who really could use some rest to get healthy: Aqib Talib (hip), Aaron Hernandez (ankle), Brandon Spikes (knee/ankle), Logan Mankins (left leg), Sebastian Vollmer (back), Dont’a Hightower (hamstring), Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring), Wes Welker (ankle).
4. Detroit’s Calvin Johnson is the anti-diva receiver. He does things the right way and deserves to celebrate his record for receiving yards in a season. But it was a little much for Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford to be yukking it up in a press conference after the Lions’ seventh straight loss. The public relations department should have managed that better.
5. Former Patriots end Mark Anderson (knee) played five games for the Bills this season and had 12 tackles, one sack, and one pass defensed, and was paid $8 million for what could be a one-and-done season.
View from the Outside
Sharon native Aaron Schatz, founder of FootballOutsiders.com, had some interesting numbers on the pace of the Patriots offense: “We’ve kept track of team pace for every team going back to 1997. The Patriots have been the fastest offense, and it isn’t even close. The Pats have run a play every 23.8 seconds of game time this year. The Colts are second for 2012 at 25.6, and the league average is 27.4. The fastest offenses based on all plays since 1997: 2012 Pats (23.8), 2009 Seahawks (24.7), 1999 Bears (24.7), 2011 Pats (24.8), 2005 Dolphins (25.0). We also keep a stat called ‘situation-neutral pace.’ That’s defined as: first-half score within 10 points, except last five minutes; third-quarter score within 8 points; and excludes fourth quarter, overtime, and all drives of fewer than three plays. The Pats also blow the field away in this one. They’re at one play every 24.4 seconds. Second place for this year is Baltimore at 27.5. Top five since 1997: 2012 Pats (24.4), 2011 Pats (26.4), 2009 Seahawks (26.8), 2006 Bears (27.7), 1999 Bears (27.7). The Pats have been in the top five for situation-neutral pace every year since 2007 except for 2009, when they were 11th. Also interesting: The Pats have been leading for an average of 38:23 in each game, which leads the league. Seattle is second at 34:15.”
Tentative 2013 franchise tag numbers, as reported by Ian Rapoport of NFL Network: quarterback ($14.642 million), defensive end ($10.984 million), cornerback ($10.668 million), receiver ($10.357 million), offensive line ($9.660 million), linebacker ($9.455 million), defensive tackle ($8.306 million), running back ($8.079 million), safety ($6.798 million), tight end ($5.962 million), kicker/punter ($2.926 million) . . . Jaguars defensive line coach Joe Cullen had the opportunity to be defensive coordinator for Boston College coach Steve Addazio but decided against it, even though the Jaguars coaches could be out of a job. “I love Jacksonville, love the Jaguars, really enjoy the people I work with,” said Cullen. “No matter what happens, I’m going to coach somewhere, whether it’s Pop Warner or somewhere else.”
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.