There are big decisions and then there are whoppers.
The Patriots will face both — and a whole bunch of other resolutions of varying degrees — as preliminary plans for the 2020 roster are put together.
The colossal choice, of course, is what to do with Tom Brady, the six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback whose contract is set to expire March 18.
Brady, who will turn 43 in August, made it clear this week he still has “more to prove,” so the only remaining question is whether Foxborough will continue to be his proving ground.
With more than two months to hammer out a deal, the guess here is that Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft will find a common ground and the show goes on.
Once the Brady is situation is sorted out, attention — and money — can be paid to some of the other key contributors who also are set to become free agents, including Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton, and Joe Thuney.
Here’s a rudimentary roster breakdown — remember it’s January — including the year each player’s contract is up.
■ Tom Brady (deal scheduled to void March 18), Jarrett Stidham (2022), Cody Kessler (2020).
Stidham had a solid spring and a super summer in 2019, but, as is the case with Brady’s understudies, playing time was hard to come by once the games began. He has a year working with Brady and Josh McDaniels under his belt and could still be the quarterback of the future, regardless of whether Brady signs for Year 21.
Kessler impressed as a practice player as he took some reps to keep Brady’s wear and tear at a minimum. Though the four-year veteran was inactive for all of his 12 games on the roster, Belichick praised him for his leadership and ability to run the offense on the back fields.
■ Sony Michel (2021), James White (2020), Rex Burkhead (2020), Brandon Bolden (2020), Damien Harris (2022).
Michel is the lead back and played in all 17 games. Though he struggled at times (his yards per carry dipped from 4.5 in 2018 to 3.7), he had some of his stronger games down the stretch.
White is a receiving and running threat (908 yards from scrimmage and 49 first downs) who can line up anywhere. His skills were really on display when the screen game heated up late. Also solid in blitz pickup.
Burkhead is another solid dual threat. He runs hard and has good hands. He could be a cap casualty (his number is $4 million) or he could be asked to restructure.
Bolden is a superb special-teamer and also knows this offense inside and out and can play any spot. He’s also a superb teammate.
Harris was essentially red-shirted, the result of a couple of injuries and a crowded depth chart. His fight for a larger role has already begun.
■ James Develin (2020), Jakob Johnson (2020).
Develin was lost to a serious upper back/shoulder injury, and his absence hurt an offense that employs the fullback in a number of schemes. He was a constant presence at practice and games, and his return could be a big boost to this team.
Johnson’s rise up the depth chart was remarkable. A product of the international player pathway program, he began his Patriots career as an afterthought. Belichick credited Johnson’s intelligence and dogged work ethic for his ascension. Just as he started making an impact, he landed on injured reserve with a shoulder problem.
■ Ben Watson (UFA), Matt LaCosse (2020), Ryan Izzo (2021).
Watson led this group with 17 catches for 173 yards and acknowledged after the Titans loss that he probably has played his last game. The 39-year-old flashed excellent athleticism and toughness and was a thoughtful leader in the locker room. He’ll be missed.
LaCosse was a camp standout but got sidetracked by an ankle injury in the preseason and had to play catch-up. He caught 13 passes, including a touchdown, but struggled some as a blocker.
Izzo had six catches in the first six games but suffered a concussion in Week 6 and was inactive for the final 10 games.
■ Julian Edelman (2021), Mohamed Sanu (2020), N’Keal Harry (2022), Phillip Dorsett (UFA), Jakobi Meyers (2021), Gunner Olszewski (2021).
Edelman was phenomenal. He caught 100 passes for career-high 1,117 yards despite dealing with chest, shoulder, and knee injuries virtually all season. His toughness helped set the tone for this club.
Sanu was slowed by an ankle injury shortly after his arrival and never fully got on track. His targets and production should soar after a full offseason in the program.
Dorsett struggled with consistency.
Harry was another player who shined in the summer but got sidetracked by injuries. His size and strength were obvious when he returned, but his lack of reps affected his ability to become a more effective weapon. This is a big offseason for the 2019 first-rounder.
Meyers was the star of the summer and flashed some during the middle of the season. The undrafted rookie’s production should rise in his sophomore season.
Olszewski was another undrafted rookie, and the long shot earned a spot as a punt returner and part-time receiver. An injury cut his season short, and it’ll be interesting to see how much bigger his role is in 2020.
■ Tackle: Marcus Cannon (2021), Isaiah Wynn (2021), Korey Cunningham (2021), Marshall Newhouse (UFA), Yodny Cajuste (2022).
■ Center: David Andrews (2020).
■ Guard: Joe Thuney (UFA), Shaq Mason (2023), Ted Karras (UFA), James Ferentz (UFA), Jermaine Eluemunor (RFA), Hjalte Froholdt (2022).
This group could be in for a dramatic overhaul at nearly every spot. The loss of center/leader Andrews (blood clots in his lungs) in the preseason was huge. His return would be huge, but if he can’t play, signing the versatile Karras becomes a priority.
Thuney was again a rock. He’s in line for a huge raise, whether it’s here or elsewhere. Mason dealt with an ankle injury for a chunk of the season but surged late. Ferentz is another versatile backup and Eluemunor has untapped potential. Froholdt (shoulder) missed his rookie season. Could he be Thuney’s successor?
Cannon had an uneven year (six sacks allowed) and is due nearly $9 million in 2020. Wynn (toe) missed a hunk of the season but performed well down the stretch. He could slide into Thuney’s spot if a tackle emerges.
Rookie Cajuste never saw the field, and this will be a huge offseason for the 2019 third-round pick. Newhouse and Cunningham provide depth.
■ Danny Shelton (UFA), Lawrence Guy (2020), Adam Butler (RFA), John Simon (2020), Deatrich Wise (2020), Chase Winovich (2022), Shilique Calhoun (UFA), Byron Cowart (2022), Derek Rivers (2020), Keionta Davis (ERFA), Eric Lee (ERFA).
Shelton thrived in his second year in the system. He was quick to the gaps and the ball and clearly loves playing here. The bet is he returns. Guy is durable, dependable, and cost-efficient at $5 million. Butler is a consistent force as a pass rusher, and his role and snaps expanded this season. That should continue in 2020.
Simon is a solid edge-setter. Wise and Winovich are disruptive edge rushers. Winovich could see an expanded role if Van Noy and/or Collins leaves. Calhoun was a sub package pass rusher and valuable special teamer.
Injuries have thwarted Rivers, who has played just six games in three seasons. This is a big offseason for the edge rusher. Cowart flashed nice athleticism, but a late-season concussion stunted his development. Davis and Lee should get opportunities to find a rotational role.
■ Dont’a Hightower (2020), Jamie Collins (UFA), Kyle Van Noy (UFA), Elandon Roberts (UFA), Ja’Whaun Bentley (2021).
Lots of questions, with three major contributors looking for new deals. Collins had a happy return season (7 sacks, 11 QB hits, 3 interceptions) and loves playing with Hightower. Van Noy’s career took off after he arrived in Foxborough, and he’s due for a big payday after another terrific season (7½ sacks, 15 QB hits). Why he wasn’t allowed to consistently rush the passer in Detroit is still baffling. Roberts will pop a guy’s fillings out whether he’s on offense, defense, or special teams.
Hightower is an excellent run defender, pass rusher, and leader. His cap hit is just over $11 million, and a mutually beneficial restructure/extension makes a lot of sense. Bentley is a gap-filling run stuffer.
■ Stephon Gilmore (2021), J.C. Jackson (2020), Jonathan Jones (2022), Jason McCourty (2020), Joejuan Williams (2022), D’Angelo Ross (2021).
Gilmore is the best defensive player in the business. He scored more touchdowns (2) than he allowed (1), had 6 interceptions, and 20 pass breakups. Jackson has excellent mirror moves, instincts, body control, and confidence. Late-season groin injuries were devastating for McCourty and Jones. Expect a big bounce-back.
Williams played well in limited snaps. He provides excellent depth and insurance if McCourty doesn’t return. The speedy Ross got hurt in the preseason and he’ll get another look this summer.
■ Devin McCourty (UFA), Patrick Chung (2021), Duron Harmon (2020), Terrence Brooks (2020), Obi Melifonwu (signed future contract), Malik Gant (2021).
The Big Three — McCourty, Chung, and Harmon — are versatile and valuable.
McCourty is coming off one of his best seasons, and getting his name on a new deal should be a high priority. Chung was beat up this season. He spent the summer in a noncontact jersey (rehabbing from a broken arm suffered in the Super Bowl and a shoulder ailment) and then dealt with chest, heel, and ankle injuries. Some rest and relaxation should rejuvenate him. Harmon is an excellent and instinctive center fielder.
Brooks proved he was more than just a special teamer, filling in solidly for Chung on occasion. Melifonwu’s two-year stay has been marred by injury. If this supremely athletic dude can stay healthy, he can be a matchup guy.
Gant’s a player to watch. He was injured late in the summer, but he has range and his hits leave impressions.
■ Matthew Slater (UFA), Brandon King (2021), Justin Bethel (2020), Nate Ebner (UFA), Stephen Gostkowski (2020), Nick Folk (UFA), Joe Cardona (2022), Jake Bailey (2022).
Slater was spectacular as always. It’d be a stunner if he doesn’t return for a 13th season. With Slater and Bethel, the Patriots had the top gunners in the league.
King missed the year with a torn quadriceps, but he’ll be back. A healthy Ebner had a strong season and, like Slater, he should get another deal. Cardona was pretty flawless again, and Bailey handled punting and kickoff duties with aplomb.
Gostkowski had hip surgery, and it’s possible he handles only field goals next season, when he carries a cap hit just north of $5 million. Folk was great in relief, hitting 14 of 17 field goals and going a perfect 12 for 12 on extra points.
. . .
In addition to Melifonwu, the Patriots also signed defensive linemen Tashawn Bower and Nick Thurman, receivers Quincy Adeboyejo and Devin Ross, safety Adarius Pickett, linebacker Terez Hall, and offensive lineman Najee Toran to future contracts.