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Who Should the Patriots Pay?

The Patriots and Logan Mankins are not close to reaching an agreement that would bring the left guard into the fold for this season. Mankins feels promises were broken, and the Patriots owe him a better contract than they have offered. Neither side has been willing to blink first. New England often takes a hard line in these negotiations, allowing talented players (Adam Vinatieri, Asante Samuel, Deion Branch) to leave the team rather than pay what they demand. The Patriots have also given generous contracts to players who they felt were worth it (Richard Seymour, Randy Moss, Vince Wilfork). There is no question Logan Mankins is one of the best guards in the game, and to some teams he would be worth $8m per year or more. However a salary cap makes it impossible to have the highest-paid player at every position. If the Patriots feel that is too much to pay for a guard, then where else do they see that money going? Here we examine players scheduled to become free agents after the 2010 season and determine who may be worth the investment.

Tom Brady, Quarterback, age 33
Brady is the first priority. He is going to get a new contract, likely during the regular season. Robert Kraft may announce it just before the start of the season to excite the fans, or he may wait until after a tough Patriots loss to bring morale back up. This deal is extremely important for the future of the franchise, and will probably be in the $100m over 6 years range. That's a lot of money, but it will be well spent. Brady plays the most important position in the game, and is the face of the franchise. He has recovered from the knee injury, and seems determined to bring a winning mentality to the team. I don't buy any of the nonsense about him "going Hollywood ," or becoming soft. The fact is Brady gives the Patriots a better chance of winning the Super Bowl than any other player they could trade for or draft. He has taken reduced contracts and restructured deals to help the Patriots in the past, and he deserves his payday (as much as any person deserves to make upwards of $15m per year).
Verdict: Pay him.

Stephen Gostkowski, Kicker, age 26
When Vinatieri, hero of numerous playoff games including two Super Bowls, was demanding to be the highest-paid kicker in the game the Patriots let him go - to the Colts no less. This controversial move proved to be a wise one as Adam's replacement, Stephen Gostkowski, has quickly matured into a top NFL kicker. Now Gostkowski is coming to a similar crossroads. This season he is being paid approximately $1.7m as a restricted free agent, and can hit the open market in 2011. Back in February the Raiders agreed to pay Sebastian Janikowski $4m per year for the next four years. That's a better salary than Chris Johnson will receive from the Titans this season. Gostkowski probably will not demand quite that much, but he should expect somewhere in the vicinity of $3m annually. That represents a huge jump from his rookie contract, and the Patriots will have to decide whether he is worth it, or if they should try for success again in the draft. In my view, the Patriots got lucky with Gostkowski. I think they will go for the known quantity and reach an agreement on a long-term deal.
Verdict: Pay him.

Matt Light, Left Tackle, age 32
Matt Light has been a quality left tackle for the Patriots his entire career. He has performed admirably both as a run blocker and pass protector. Light has good technique and strength, but occasionally speedy defensive ends and outside linebackers can take advantage of him. He is not an elite player, but has held down a very important and difficult position, protecting Tom Brady and helping make the Patriots offensive line consistently one of the better units in the NFL. Matt is now 32 years old, and nearing the end of his career. The Patriots have certainly got their money's worth from him, and have the promising Sebastian Vollmer waiting to step in as a replacement. Right tackle Nick Kaczur signed a three-year contract extension in the offseason, likely making Light the odd man out. Unless he is willing to come back for a short-term, reduced rate contract, the Patriots should thank him for his services and allow him to sign with another team.
Verdict: Let him go.

Randy Moss, Wide Receiver, age 33
The three-year, $30m contract Moss signed after his record-breaking 2007 season is in its final year. $10m/season is currently the benchmark for receivers in the NFL, and Moss will seek to match, if not top that. He is still one of the premier players at his position, and has shown no sign of decline. Yet. Jerry Rice continued to put up huge numbers late in his career, and it is conceivable that Moss could play at a high level for another two, three, possibly even four years. Maybe. Marvin Harrison had a steep decline, partially due to injury. Torry Holt was a lock for 80 receptions and 1,100 yards per season until suddenly he wasn't. There is no guarantee with aging receivers. I have little doubt that Moss enjoys playing in New England, and would love to keep catching Tom Brady passes until he retires. However, we know Brady will still be a great quarterback without him. He was before, and he can be again. Assuming the reinstatement of the salary cap, the Patriots can't afford to put over $25m a season in the Brady/Moss basket. While Moss is worth $10m/year based on talent alone, the risk is too great. I think the Patriots will offer him a contract they feel is fair, and Moss will politely turn it down and get a mega-deal elsewhere. I hope an agreement can be reached because Moss is a lot of fun to watch, but my feeling is this will be his last year as a Patriot.
Verdict: Let him go. (sniff)

Running Backs: Fred Taylor, 34, Sammy Morris, 33, Laurence Maroney, 25, Kevin Faulk, 34, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, 25
All five of the Patriots main running backs will be free agents after this year, and my guess is no more than three of them will be back for 2011. I think who those are will be influenced by how well the Patriots perform this season, and if they win the Super Bowl. I could see Taylor and Morris deciding to go out on top if that happens. Retirement is also a possibility for Kevin Faulk, although he is such a perfect fit for the team that he may be a Patriot until he's 40. Laurence Maroney I expect will take a low-end deal to remain with the team, unless some miraculous offer comes his way. Green-Ellis' situation is the hardest to predict. He has not been afforded too many opportunities with all the talented veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, but for the most part he has done a good job when given the chance. I would offer him a minimum deal or slightly better, but no more.
My thinking on this position is influenced by the fact that I suspect the Patriots will draft a talented running back in 2011, and he will be the main ballcarrier in the future. They will likely surround that player with a capable committee of specialists who can fulfill goal-line, blocking, kick return and third down duties. In this scenario I see only Faulk and Maroney coming back, and low-priced veterans or rookies rounding out the position. Generally the Patriots committee approach is a productive one, and helps reduce the risk of injury, but having an explosive running back changes how defenses play against you. With a number of high picks, and the possibility of a rookie wage scale in place, the time is right to add a playmaker to the backfield.
Verdict: Let them go. I don't support paying serious money to any of these players, but if they are willing to sign team-friendly contracts I would welcome up to three of them back. My order of preference would be Faulk, Maroney, Taylor, Green-Ellis, Morris.

Logan Mankins, Guard, age 28
The situation with Mankins was partially addressed earlier, but my opinion is that the damage has been done. Both sides know what the other wants, and neither is willing to offer it. I would try to trade him before the season starts. Spending $8m per year on a guard is not the best way to construct a competitive squad, especially if the relationship between that player and the team is seriously damaged.
Verdict: Let him go.