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Who are the Patriots’ free agents, and will they be back?

Martellus Bennett and LeGarrette Blount are both unrestricted free agents this offseason.
Martellus Bennett and LeGarrette Blount are both unrestricted free agents this offseason.Winslow Townson/AP

The Patriots have plenty of salary cap space — an estimated $65 million — to sign key in-house free agents and some newcomers this offseason. Free agents can sign when the new NFL league year begins on March 9 at 4 p.m.

Here we examine the Patriots’ impending free agents. Click on the highlighted terms for a definition of each type of free agent:

Unrestricted free agents

TE Martellus Bennett: Bennett’s play helped make up for Rob Gronkowski’s absence and he’s stated his desire to stay in New England. He’s not going to come cheap, but he won’t break the bank, either. A meet-in-the-middle, two-year deal could be something that benefits both sides here.

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RB LeGarrette Blount: Blount has had his best days in a Patriot uniform and likely would be welcomed back. At 30, he’s probably looking at another one-year deal similar to what he played under this season when he rushed for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns. Blount achieved every incentive in his contract, earning a total of $1.75 million for 2016. Blount loves it in New England, and, as long as he’s willing to sign a similar contract, the Patriots should bring him back. It sure worked out well for all sides this season.

RB Brandon Bolden: Bolden is a valuable special teamer and depth player who will likely return.

DL Alan Branch: Branch is coming off one of the best seasons of his career and likes it here. He’s had some missteps (he was suspended by the team for a week during camp), but is beloved by his teammates. He was arguably their most consistent player throughout the year and a dominant run stuffer, particularly in the Super Bowl. Branch, 32, just finished a two-year, $5.4 million contract, and something in that range makes sense again. A new deal makes sense for both sides.

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FB James Develin: It would be a stunner if Develin, the rugged fullback, didn’t return.

WR Michael Floyd: Floyd has stated he’d like to stay and a one-year, “prove it” deal makes sense for both sides.

S Duron Harmon: Harmon could get top safety money, elsewhere or in Foxborough, where he is a perfect fit in this three-safety rotation.

LB Dont’a Hightower: Hightower would appear to be the top offseason priority. He’s a physical and smart defender who can play anywhere and have an impact. He’s the captain of the defense, the green-dot communicator who calls plays and helps get everyone lined up. Not to mention, he’s a heck of a versatile linebacker, one of the Patriots’ best run stuffers and pass rushers who makes timely plays (see: the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl). The Patriots don’t have an obvious replacement for Hightower and the defense would take a major step back if he leaves. If the Patriots can’t get a deal done before free agency begins March 9, they should franchise-tag Hightower (projected around $14.5 million) and continue working on a multiyear deal before the July 15 deadline.

DE Chris Long: Long was a situational pass rusher and a locker room leader. It was clear he enjoys playing here and it could be he returns on a similar short-term deal.

LB Barkevious Mingo: Mingo’s biggest contributions came on special teams and he could return for shorter money.

CB Logan Ryan: Ryan may have priced himself out of the Patriots’ plans with his excellent play this season (the Lions, with former Patriots executive Bob Quinn at GM, make sense for Ryan).

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TE Greg Scruggs: Scruggs was hurt shortly after signing and went to the IR. He may be offered a low-risk, short-term deal.

DE Jabaal Sheard: Sheard had a slow start but performed better after sitting out the Week 11 game in San Francisco.

Restricted free agents

CB Malcolm Butler: The Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback won’t be going anywhere. Butler is a restricted free agent, and the Patriots will place a first-round tender on him. This will guarantee him a salary of about $4 million in 2017, though if he signs with another team (highly unlikely), the Patriots would get that team’s first-round pick in return (the Patriots get the right to match any offer, as well). The Patriots should then look to sign Butler to a multiyear deal. Since he will make about $4 million in 2017 and the franchise-tag number in 2018 should be between $14 million-$15 million, any contract for Butler should start at about $19 million over two years.

OL Cameron Fleming: Fleming is a solid third tackle and a good run-blocking tight end.

Exclusive rights free agents

DB Justin Coleman: Coleman could return to provide depth.

DB Brandon King: King is an excellent special teamer.

TE Matt Lengel: Lengel is a hard-working blocking tight end. He’ll compete with some rookies and veteran signees for a spot.


Follow Jim McBride on Twitter @globejimmcbride. Follow Ben Volin on Twitter @BenVolin.

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