Player: DT Akiem Hicks
September 1st, 2016 age: 26
How acquired: In a 2015 midseason trade with the Saints for TE Michael Hoomanawanui
Why he should stay: Hicks was a great defensive player down the stretch after taking over for the injured Dominique Easley. The 6'5, 320 lbs defensive tackle offers flexibility in both the 3-4 and the 4-3 and provides rotational coverage as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher.
The Patriots ideal defensive tackle rotation would provide roughly 45% of snaps for the top players in the rotation, and then 30% for the depth players. With Malcom Brown and Dominique Easley as two players within the rotation, Hicks' versatility could level out the snap counts in the rotation, with possibly 40% of the snaps for each player to keep them as fresh as possible.
Veteran Alan Branch will be 31-years-old this year and is coming off a quality season of contribution as the top defensive tackle next to Brown. That said, 2016 is the final year of his contract and Hicks could provide a younger alternative with a long term view in mind.
For the 2016 year, the quartet of Branch, Hicks, Brown, and Easley could be a great rotation, with the younger three players considered the future of the role.
Why he should leave: It's pretty clear that 40% of the snaps aren't that many and there's a chance that a team could be willing to offer Hicks more money to play a larger role in a defense. Based upon contract deals, Hicks could fetch New England a possible 5th round compensatory pick in 2017 if he receives an offer worth $4.5 million per season. That would be in line with what Terrance Knighton received from Washington ($4.45 million) and what Vince Wilfork received from the Texans (2 years, $9 million).
The Patriots might not be willing to pay that type of money for a rotational player, especially with a cheaper, albeit less talented, option like Sealver Siliga already in house.
Verdict: The Patriots should put an offer on the table for Hicks, but he's not integral enough to break the bank or salary cap strategy. Kendall Langford received a 4-year, $17.2 million contract from the Colts. Earl Mitchell received 4-years, $16 million from the Dolphins. Roy Miller received 4-years, $16.25 million from the Jaguars. Those are quality contracts for a defensive tackle that will play in a rotation.
Players like Stephen Paea (4-years, $21 million from Washington) and Tyson Jackson (5-years, $25 million from Atlanta) should provide the ceiling for Hicks' market value, but the Patriots shouldn't move beyond $4 million per year, if they even offer that much.
The Browns signed Randy Starks to a 2-year, $6.5 million deal that could fit what the Patriots and Hicks need in a deal. Hicks would be 28 at the end of the contract, primed for another big contract, and he would have a couple seasons to build his resume.
This deal would be above the $3 million per season floor created by the Buccaneers Clinton McDonald (4-years, $12 million) and Washington's duo of Ricky Jean-Francois and Chris Baker (3-years, $9 million), and the Patriots could fiddle around with additional playing time incentives and guaranteed money to make the money more palatable for Hicks.
While this might seem like a low amount of money, Mitchell, Starks, Langford, and Miller were 40-50% snap players prior to their deals. Hicks was floating around 30%. If he receives a market deal larger than those other players, it will be based off a projected role in the new team, and not off his expected role in New England.
Point is that Hicks' perceived value is probably greater in New England than in other locations. He was acquired midseason for a 4th string tight end for a reason. The Patriots should place a deal worth $3-3.5 million per year on the table and let Hicks make the decision.