The New England Patriots really only have one "big ticket" free agent in the sense that other teams will be interesting in signing them.
Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who the Patriots acquired from the New Orleans Saints in a midseason exchange for 4th string tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, is the team's third sting defensive tackle, behind rookie Malcom Brown and veteran Alan Branch. He's arguably behind former first round pick Dominique Easley, too.
But Hicks could be a hot item. Pro Football Focus says Hicks finished on a great note, and that "over the final 10 weeks of the regular season, he ranked in the top 10 defensive tackles in overall grade, run-stop percentage, and pass-rushing productivity."
Luckily for the Patriots, there's a total glut of talent at the defensive tackle position. Multiple draft analysts, from Mel Kiper to Mike Mayock, say that this is one of the best classes for defensive linemen in their long years of studying the draft. This will reduce the value of some of the free agents as teams can address the same position for far cheaper in the draft.
The current state of defensive tackle contracts is insane with the Dolphins paying Ndamukong Suh $19.1 million per year, the Texans paying J.J. Watt $16.7 million per year, and the Bills paying Marcell Dareus $16.1 million per year. Perhaps teams will rather find a cheaper alternative, although signs point towards teams showing a willingness to pay Quarterback money to defensive tackle.
No one questions the ability of the 6'5, 320 lbs Hicks, but he's not close to the top defensive tackle that's available.
Jets defensive tackles Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison could fight for top dollar. Broncos defensive tackle Malik Jackson wants more than $15 million per year, apparently.
The 49ers Ian Williams, the Rams Nick Fairley, the Chiefs Jaye Howard, and even the Lions Haloti Ngata can and probably will command more money than what Hicks will earn on the open market.
And then there are other veterans that could serve as temporary band-aids as teams invest in the defensive tackle-rich draft, with the likes of the Browns' Randy Starks, Falcons' Paul Soliai, Washington's Terrance Knighton, Chiefs' Mike Devito, and Seahawks' Brandon Mebane.
There are a few players, like Wilkerson, and Jackson, and Howard that can command long extensions as defensive cornerstones of whichever team is willing to pay them. Hicks is in the lesser tier of talent where teams either might question his visit, or believe there is more value in giving a roster spot to a younger, and cheaper, draft pick.
The Patriots have a few options when it comes to Hicks in the sense that they could let him walk, sign him short-term, or sign him long-term.
It's likely that Hicks' upper limit on annual contract will be around $4.5 million; despite his strong finish, teams will still question the fact he was acquired in the middle of the season. Also, $4.5 million is around the likes of the Colts Kendall Langford and the Texans Vince Wilfork (see? makes some sense).
Hicks could technically sign a long-term contract at that price range, but I think a two-year deal for $9 million would make more sense. It would be comparable to what Jabaal Sheard signed with the Patriots (2 years, $11 million) for a lot of the same reasons.
Sheard signed that contract because he would be 28 when it ended, allowing him time for one final big contract before the twilight of his career. Hicks is 26 right now and a 2-year contract would put him in a similar position.
Additionally, Hicks could use these two years with the Patriots to build up his market value; if he finishes his tenure as a top 10 defensive tackle like Pro Football Focus rated him as, then he'd be due for a monster deal upon his completion.
Hicks toiled away in New Orleans with a team that didn't know how to utilize his strengths. The Patriots do and they will maximize his value and potential. A strong draft, a strong free agency class, and a solid outlook in the New England defense will all help the Patriots retain the defensive tackle for the near-future.