With the Patriots extension of left tackle Nate Solder valued at just over $20 million, through the 2017 season, Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio have set themselves up for a perfect offseason.
The following players are now the team's unrestricted free agent class of 2016:
OL: Ryan Wendell
TE: Michael Hoomanawanui
RB: LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis
WR: Brandon Gibson
LB: Dane Fletcher, Jonathan Freeney
CB: Bradley Fletcher, Tarell Brown
S: Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner
Would you consider any of these players to be a priority?
Wendell will turn 30, but the Patriots have been trying to replace him for the past three years. He was elected a captain, so he could stick around, but is he the type of player that the Patriots would enter a bidding war over?
Blount will turn 30 during 2016, too, and he came back to New England last season under a veteran's minimum contract. Who will try outbidding the Patriots for his services?
Wilson and Ebner are core special teams players, but they're certainly not going to be highly desired free agents. Fletcher and Freeney are special teams players, too. Fletcher and Brown were considered one-year rentals, and Hoomanawanui and Gibson are just as likely to go wherever Josh McDaniels becomes a head coach. Who knows what Dion Lewis will do this season.
The list of restricted free agents is more interesting, but it also involves players that are under the Patriots control (I will list exclusive players in italics):
FB: James Develin
OL: Josh Kline, Kevin Hughes, Ryan Groy
WR: Brian Tyms, Josh Boyce, Jonathan Krause
DT: Sealver Siliga
ED: Rufus Johnson
Siliga is a starter and, if he remains healthy, will receive a pretty substantial contract. Maybe Develin will be back. Kline is a pretty optimal back-up lineman. Tyms is a coaches favorite. Johnson was a preseason star and if that translates to the regular season, the Patriots are able to control his future.
So out of all of the upcoming free agents, Siliga, Wendell, Blount, and then Brown or Fletcher are the only players viewed as starters. Siliga is the only player that New England is likely to enter a bidding war over, and he's a restricted free agent.
This means that the Patriots can turn their long term focus to players that will be free agents after the 2016 season, which is a much more dangerous register.
OL: Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon
WR: Brandon LaFell, Matthew Slater, Aaron Dobson
RB: Brandon Bolden, Travaris Cadet
TE: Scott Chandler, Michael Williams (exclusive)
ED: Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Eric Martin (exclusive)
DT: Alan Branch, Chris Jones
LB: Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins
CB: Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler (restricted)
S: Duron Harmon
That's a pretty serious team core that will be up for new contracts after the 2016 season (to restate, the Patriots have two more full seasons before this happens). With Solder under contract, the Patriots can focus on the above players with three years of accrued experience (so not Collins or Butler) for potential contract extensions.
Players like Vollmer, LaFell, Slater, Chandler, Ninkovich, and Branch will be into their 30s so I don't expect them to be highly sought after free agents.
My expectation is that Hightower is the next up for a long term extension, pending his return from shoulder injury. If he shows that he is back to the level he was in 2014, the Patriots won't hesitate to keep him around. Depending on Chandler Jones' performance, he could receive an extension too. All the others likely won't be addressed until the 2016 season.