I'm going to open this by saying all Patriots fans who are interested in some of the behind-the-scenes happenings of team management should have Miguel's Cap Page favorited. It's the clear authority on the Patriots salary cap and he does more than a phenomenal job maintaining the website's accuracy.
The Patriots are in an intriguing position. They have four starters and a fifth integral role player hitting free agency this season. LeGarrette Blount, Julian Edelman, Ryan Wendell, Brandon Spikes, and Aqib Talib. The general expectation is that Spikes will move on from the Patriots, leaving four key players for the Patriots to bring back.
Edelman and Talib are heads and shoulders above the other prospects. Both the best players of their respective positional units, both were key to the team's success. The Patriots should do near anything to bring them back into the fold.
Blount, while successful, is slightly more expendable as running backs are shown to be more fungible of an asset. Wendell, finishing his second season as the starting center, left much to be desired, but remains a key piece of the offensive line.
The Patriots have, approximately, $6mm in open cap space available to sign these players, before trying to massage the cap. This number could go down, depending on how Devin McCourty's cap escalators affect his contract for the 2014 season (Mike Reiss expects them to almost double his cap hit).
There remains three distinct areas of focus for the cap. Cutting players to save money, extending players to relief their cap hit, and signing free agents.
Per Miguel, there are 22 players who could save the team cap space if they are released, totaling $24.24mm, or just under 20% of the cap. Many of these 22 players have minimal hits that won't factor in to whether or not they make the team (D.J. Williams, Chris White, Nate Ebner). Others are good enough to warrant their cap space (Alfonzo Dennard, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Devin McCourty). There are roughly nine players who eat up a considerable portion of the cap who need to be evaluated.
Let's start from the bottom:
1. S Adrian Wilson ($672k) - Wilson is a likely cap casualty and was kept as a locker room leader and a veteran presence. It's unlikely the Patriots view him as a piece of the future.
2. Matthew Slater ($1.1mm) - Slater is a key piece of special teams, featuring as a perennial Pro Bowler and a captain. Is $1.1mm worth it for a special teams player? Possibly.
3. Tommy Kelly ($1.74mm) - Kelly was a stud at the beginning of the season, but will be returning from a season ending injury. He wants to return, so it's likely the Patriots will fight to restructure his contract to save space.
4. Steve Gregory ($1.86mm) - Gregory is a starting safety and considered the smartest defensive back on the roster. His play on the field has not met his cost, though, and rising sophomore Duron Harmon could be a possible starter next season. Gregory's spot on the roster is far from certain.
5. Isaac Sopoaga ($2.01mm) - Sopoaga will be cut. He was a late season aged veteran rental who fell behind the depth chart.
6. Logan Mankins ($2.01mm) - This is tough since Mankins is a leader on the team. It's unlikely that he'll be willing to reduce his contract, although his level of play is certainly not where it has to be.
7. Stephen Gostkowski ($2.51mm) - Ghost is undeniably a top 5 kicker in the league. While his cap hit is great, he's not of real risk to be cut due to the consistency he provides.
8. Dan Connolly ($2.51mm) - Connolly has consistently been one of the lowest graded, if not the lowest graded, starting linemen for the past four seasons. He's extremely valuable as a utility depth player, but his contract represents the second greatest cap savings figure and that might be too enticing to ignore for a likely-replaceable player.
9. Vince Wilfork ($7.51mm) - The big dog. Wilfork's cap savings will be a large specter hanging over the off-season. He's old, coming off a season ending injury, and he wasn't playing elite football at the start of the season. Still, he's a fantastic lineman, leader, person, and someone you want on your team with no questions asked. Wilfork will be with the team next season, one way or another.
The Patriots move forward with ten potential free agents after the 2014 season. Here's the play-by-play.
1. Vince Wilfork - As stated before, his cap hit is way too large. Expect the Patriots to extend him into a three year deal to spread his cap hit over time and reduce its 2014 impact.
2. Dan Connolly - Connolly will likely have to restructure or be released. The only ways I see it. I see him restructuring as well, turning in another three year deal and getting moved to Center.
3. Stephen Gostkowski - Ghost needs to be around. He'll get another four year deal, likely with a consistent salary and will flatten out his cap hit. He currently posts a $3.8mm cap hit, based on his $2.9mm base. Look for a $2.5mm base with a greater signing bonus, although I wouldn't be shocked if he played out his contract.
4. Steve Gregory - Gregory will get the Connolly ultimatum; restructure, or walk. I see him walking and Harmon holding down the fort.
5. Tommy Kelly - Kelly wants to walk off into the sunset and he wants to do it with the Patriots. He'll willingly restructure to reduce his cap hit.
6. Matthew Slater - Slater is like Ghost; he could restructure, or he could play out his contract and wait until after the season. I wouldn't be surprised by either.
7. Devin McCourty - DMC's contract is due to escalate because of his outstanding performance on his rookie contract. He's a key piece to the defense and the Patriots want to keep him around. Look for the Patriots to find a way to sign him to a Mankins/Gronkowski-esque 6 year, $45-50mm contract to stay with the Patriots. The Patriots will have to spend money to keep D Money.
8. Shane Vereen/Stevan Ridley/Brandon Bolden - All three are free agents, but don't expect the Patriots to break the bank for them. They'll play out their contracts, the Patriots will offer team-friendly deals, and will let them test the market.
9. Nate Solder/Marcus Cannon - Solder has a 5th year option, so it's possible the Patriots will utilize that feature. However, it's also likely they'll extend him in order to structure his cap impact. Cannon doesn't have the option, but his role on the team is in question. Do they view him as a guard or a tackle? Cannon's likely to play out his contract.
Signing Free Agents:
The Patriots have some clear needs that hinge upon the free agents that sign back. If the Patriots bring back all three of Wendell, Talib, and Edelman, then their only real need is at the tight end position, with some luxury of freedom regarding quality of depth at the other positions. Those three would plug up the three starting positions the Patriots could possibly have vacant.
That still doesn't guarantee that a) the Patriots will sign them all, or b) the Patriots want to sign them all.
At corner, there are a few quality free agent possibilities in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Vontae Davis, and Brent Grimes. Trumaine McBride, Will Blackmon, Captain Munnerlyn, and Walter Thurmond are all depth options on the field. Talib is possibly the best fit with the Patriots, although the world wouldn't be over if he signed elsewhere. Still, Talib is someone they should try and keep around.
If the Patriots want to bring in a third defensive end behind Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, they're going to have to dig deep. There are a ton of defensive ends hitting the markets, but they're all of starting quality. If the Patriots want a rotational guy, they might be interest in Justin Tuck. Beyond that, they might be better off continuing to groom Michael Buchanan.
The need for a defensive tackle is up in the air as both Kelly and Wilfork are unknown commodities returning from injuries, while Sealver Siliga remains the only above-average defensive tackle from this season. The depth position is filled with youth, as Joe Vellano and Chris Jones are solid rotational players, but the Patriots might be interested in top tier starters. The talent is available, with Tyson Jackson, Arthur Jones, and Linval Joseph all hitting free agency. In all likelihood, however, the Patriots could opt to take advantage of the talent in the draft.
At wide receiver, there is some aged talent in Anquan Boldin and Jerricho Cotchery who could be worth looks, while Robert Meachem could be a dark horse. Eric Decker will be a hot choice, while Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate also deserves further attention. Still, Edelman remains the optimal choice to bring back.
The tight end spot is barren, with the 34 year old Ben Hartsock playing the "Alge Crumpler" type of free agent. Beyond that, there's Jimmy Graham, who isn't leaving New Orleans, and Kellen Winslow, who is struggling to stay out of trouble. This is a position that cannot be fixed in free agency.
On the interior line, Geoff Schwartz is a guard who could step in and be a stud from day 1, while Shelley Smith of the Rams could be an interesting prospect. Jon Asamoah and Mike Pollak are two depth players who could step in as cheaper alternatives to Connolly.
The Patriots are fortunate to be in their current position. Of the final four teams, the Patriots are more similar to the 49ers with the number of expected critical free agents. Denver and Seattle are likely going to lose more than just a couple of their key contributors from this season.
The Patriots have some clear goals for this off-season, prior to attacking the free agency period or the draft. They have to cut free some of the fat (Sopoaga, Wilson) restructure some of the heavier contracts (Wilfork, Kelly, Gregory, Connolly; Mankins? Gostkowski? Slater?), and then take care of some of their own (McCourty, Solder). This is ignoring any possible cap fall out with the implications of Aaron Hernandez's trials.
Once the dust settles, the Patriots will likely have some spending money left over for the free agency period. I hope the Patriots can take care of their own by bringing back Edelman and Talib, while leaving some extra space to bring in either a free agent wide receiver (how much fun would Boldin be?) or interior lineman (Schwartz would be a stud pick-up).
The Patriots are fortunate that they can address their needs for offensive weapons in the upcoming draft. It's rich with wide receivers, and there's a quartet of top flight tight ends available in the first round. If the Patriots can manage their cap space over the next couple of months, they should find themselves in good standing to move forward in the off-season.