The Patriots were uncharacteristically active in the first week of free agency, filling lineup holes and improving depth at key positions with the signings of four impact players – cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, and receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell.
The Patriots probably don’t have any major signings left, but they’re far from being done with the offseason. There’s still a hole to plug at center, depth to build at several positions, a messy contract negotiation with Vince Wilfork and, of course, the draft May 8-10.
An in-depth look at what’s next for the Patriots:
■ Resolution with Wilfork. There are only two outcomes — either a contract extension with a lower salary and cap number for 2014, or an outright release. He can stomp and scream all he wants, but no team would let Wilfork play next season with a $7.5 million salary and $11.6 million cap number. And the negotiations with Wilfork likely will need to be resolved sooner than later because of the team’s salary cap situation.
While we don’t know for certain how much salary cap space the Patriots have right now because of a few unknown contract figures, we do know this – it’s not much.
The Patriots entered the weekend with $16.889 million in salary cap space, according to NFL Players Association records. Revis has a cap number of $7 million to bring it down to $9.889 million, and LaFell, Edelman, and Browner also must be subtracted, leaving the Patriots with at most $3 million to $4 million.
Considering the Patriots only have 60 players on the roster (offseason maximum: 90), they almost certainly need to create cap space to sign more players and add their rookie class. The Patriots still have plenty of options to create cap space — contract extensions for Devin McCourty, Stephen Gostkowski, and Nate Solder (Logan Mankins hasn’t been approached, according to a source), or the release of a few veterans (such as Adrian Wilson or Dan Connolly). But getting to the bottom of the Wilfork matter seems to be a quick way to create cap space.
To recap: The Patriots want to significantly cut Wilfork’s salary ($7.5 million) and salary cap number ($11.6 million) as he enters the final year of his contract. Wilfork steadfastly has refused to take a straight pay cut, or a contract extension that would give him a couple more years but lower his salary for this season, and asked the Patriots for his outright release, according to the NFL Network.
The Patriots want Wilfork on the team, just not at his current price, given his age (32), position (defensive tackle), and injury history (coming off a torn Achilles’). Our gut feeling says that Wilfork is playing hardball, and that eventually cooler heads will prevail and both sides will figure out a way to keep him in New England.
■ Find a center. Ryan Wendell, a five-year veteran and starter of 32 games the last two seasons, is an unrestricted free agent and remains available despite having periodic talks with the Patriots and a few other teams, according to a league source. Unless the Patriots address the center position in the draft, Wendell, 28, and the Saints’ Brian de la Puente are likely the top centers remaining in free agency, with Will Montgomery (Redskins), Jonathan Goodwin (49ers), and Kyle Cook (Bengals) as backup options. Connolly also could move back to center, with Marcus Cannon taking over at right guard.
■ Add more depth at receiver. Even by bringing Edelman back and adding LaFell, the Patriots probably aren’t done adding bodies at receiver. They still brought in former Titan Kenny Britt for a visit on Monday, a source told the Globe, and have checked out names such as Jason Avant and Lance Moore in the past week.
Edelman is a roster lock, while Danny Amendola, who just had $2 million in base salary guaranteed last week, and Aaron Dobson, last year’s second-round pick, should be safe, while LaFell (6-2, 210) gives the Patriots a big presence in the slot.
Meanwhile, it looks like the Patriots want to hold a derby for the fifth receiver spot between fourth-round pick Josh Boyce, who was inactive for seven games and only caught nine passes last year, undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, who did not catch a pass in the team’s final six games of the season, a veteran such as Britt, and perhaps a few rookies.
■ Find defensive line help. Even if Wilfork returns, the Patriots need help. Both Wilfork and Kelly are on the wrong side of 30, and although youngsters Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, and Joe Vellano played well at times, the Patriots still may want to find a veteran defensive tackle or take one high in the draft. The Bears’ Henry Melton is the best one available, but the Patriots haven’t shown interest at this time.
The Patriots also need at least one defensive end to help take the pressure off Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, who played more than 96 percent of snaps last year and seemed to tire down the stretch. Veterans Jared Allen, Robert Ayers, Corey Wootton, and Anthony Spencer are among the pass rushers still available.
■ Browner a hybrid player? Teams typically keep five cornerbacks on the roster, and the fifth is usually a low-paid special teams player such as Marquice Cole or Justin Green a year ago.
Browner said Monday that the Patriots have only talked to him about playing cornerback, and if he sticks there and doesn’t move to strong safety, it gives the Patriots five established players at corner — Revis, Browner, Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington. None, however, fits the profile of a true fifth cornerback and they are either too expensive or too talented to play only on special teams.
Green, an undrafted rookie last year, is still on the roster, and Patriots are likely to sign several cornerbacks at the end of free agency and after the draft to fill out the training camp roster.
It’s possible the Patriots will go into next season with six cornerbacks, but they appear to have a logjam at the position if they do, in fact, keep Browner there.
It’s possible the Patriots might not end up keeping Dennard or Arrington, though neither move makes much sense — Dennard has a low cap number ($584,462) and Arrington costs $1.25 million more to cut than keep on the roster. So unless the Patriots plan to load up at cornerback next year, perhaps Browner will be more of a hybrid corner/safety.