The Patriots have a lot at stake over the final seven games of the regular season — an opportunity to wrap up a playoff spot, win another division championship, and earn a first-round bye.
For a handful of players set to hit free agency, the stakes are twofold. Play well, and a lot of money and roster security could be coming their way. Play poorly, and it may be time to start worrying about life after football.
The pressures of playing in a contract year can be consuming, but the rigors of weekly NFL life provide a good distraction.
“I just try not to worry about it,” said cornerback Aqib Talib, the Patriots’ top impending free agent who is playing on a one-year contract. “I just put all my energy into the team that we are playing that week, and that will keep my mind off of it.”
The Patriots have most of their core veterans locked up through 2016 or later — Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Logan Mankins, Danny Amendola, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer, and Rob Ninkovich, who just signed a contract extension in September. They also have several young players who won’t be free agents until 2015 or later, including Chandler Jones, Alfonzo Dennard, and Dont’a Hightower.
But nine notable Patriots are playing for contracts and their NFL futures this year, not counting street free agents such as Andre Carter.
The most important and fascinating player of the group is Talib, who at 27 is in his athletic prime and is playing like one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks this year when healthy.
Talib was one of several free agents last offseason who chose one-year deals in a soft market (Dustin Keller, Michael Bennett among them), betting that they would play well in 2013 and earn higher contract offers next year.
The gamble seems to have paid off for Talib, who has held in check some of the NFL’s top receivers this year, including Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Jimmy Graham. Considering Talib’s elite measurables (he’s 6 feet 1 inch and 205 pounds) and the importance of cornerbacks in a passing league, the Patriots in theory shouldn’t hesitate to re-sign him to a top-dollar deal — $50 million over five years, with $25 million guaranteed, is approximately what Brandon Carr (Dallas), Cortland Finnegan (St. Louis), and Johnathan Joseph (Houston) each got in 2012. The Patriots have a good secondary without him, but a Super Bowl-caliber secondary with him.
But Talib’s injury and off-field history make it tricky for the Patriots, who are sensitive to character issues following the Aaron Hernandez case. Talib has a history of hip problems that sidelined him for three games this season, and has had multiple off-field incidents since entering the NFL in 2008, including one arrest for battery and one gun incident, which led the Bucs to trade him to the Patriots last year.
Talib has by all accounts been a good citizen and teammate this year, and he was one of the team’s 10 offseason MVPs for attendance and performance. But the team would not be wrong to have concerns about Talib staying out of trouble if it gives him a long-term deal, and likely would build plenty of protection into the contract based on his behavior.
The Patriots occasionally re-sign players at below-market rates before they hit free agency (Gronkowski, Hernandez, Ninkovich), and probably would love to do so with Talib.
But Talib took a one-year deal for a reason — to play well, test the market next spring, and get teams bidding for his services. The Patriots could try to take a principled stand and not offer Talib top dollar, but losing him in free agency certainly wouldn’t help the team or sit well with the fan base.
“Me and my agent, we collectively made the decision months ago, and right now we’re just focused on the next game,” Talib said. “Right now I just want to get back healthy and get back on the field.”
The other significant impending free agents are linebacker Brandon Spikes, receiver/punt returner Julian Edelman, and center Ryan Wendell. Of the three, Edelman provides the most value. He is having another solid season returning punts (ranked No. 8 in the NFL with an 11.5-yard average) and has proven to be a reliable receiver, leading the team with a career-high 49 catches for 473 yards. A good benchmark contract for Edelman may be slot receiver Brandon Gibson, who got $3.75 million guaranteed over three years from Miami.
Spikes has played well against the run this year and is doing OK filling in for Mayo. But Spikes is slow and a liability in pass coverage, which hurts his value in the increasingly-pass happy NFL. With Mayo, Hightower, and Jamie Collins locked in, Spikes may have to settle for $1 million-$2 million guaranteed if he wants to return to the Patriots, if they want him at all. Wendell certainly could be brought back on a short-term deal for about $2 million-$3 million guaranteed. But the Patriots’ interior line is starting to show signs of age, and they might look to draft a young guard/center before long.
This season also could be a good time to get ahead of the curve and start talking contract extensions with several of the Patriots set to become free agents after the 2014 season.
Among the 2014 free agents are several franchise cornerstones: Left tackle Nate Solder, safety Devin McCourty, and nose tackle Vince Wilfork, plus key players such as Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Matthew Slater, and Stephen Gostkowski.
The team certainly would benefit by signing Solder and McCourty, two model Patriots and budding stars, to contract extensions long before they hit free agency. Solder, only 25, has quickly developed into one of the best left tackles in the game, and elite left tackles command at least $11 million per year and $15 million-$20 million guaranteed in free agency. McCourty may be slightly hurt financially by switching from cornerback to safety, but he is playing at a Pro Bowl level and if he reached free agency, he could command a contract similar to those received by Eric Weddle, Dashon Goldson, and Reshad Jones, who got between $15 million-$19 million guaranteed.
Wilfork, who suffered a season-ending Achilles’ tear in Week 4, may be asked to restructure his contract before next season, the last of a five-year deal.
He’ll be 33 next season with a salary cap number of $11.6 million, and it would not be shocking if the Patriots tack on a few more years to his contract in exchange for lowering his cap number in 2014.Ben Volin can be reached at Ben.Volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.