Prior to the 2013 season, the New England Patriots almost made noise in the typically quiet Restricted Free Agent market. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders was a restricted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers and salary cap problems prevented Sanders from signing a long term deal.
New England offered a 1-year, $2.5 million contract in an attempt to revamp a wide receiver corps that was moving on from Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. If the Steelers failed to match, the Patriots would have sent their third round pick to Pittsburgh.
Ultimately, the Steelers matched the offer and Sanders stayed in Pittsburgh for another year before moving to Denver. Sanders is arguably a top 15 wide receiver in the league and just won the Super Bowl with the Broncos.
On a possibly painful side note, Sanders' agent said that the receiver wanted to be in New England. "[Sanders] said, 'Give me Danny Amendola's deal and I'm there.'" So that's forever a connection.
So with that in mind, let's look at the Patriots restricted free agents, and which players could possibly intrigue New England on the market.
Restricted free agents (RFA) are players that have accrued three seasons at the expiration of their contract. Unrestricted free agents have four or more accrued seasons. Restricted free agents are still under some form of control by their former team. Essentially, if an RFA signs a contract with a new club, his old club has the ability to match the deal to retain the player.
There are also Exclusive Rights Free Agents, that are players with two or fewer accrued seasons at the expiration of their contract. These are usually promoted practice squad players. If a team offers a contract, then the player is unable to negotiate with other teams.
The Patriots ERFAs are CB Justin Coleman, ED Rufus Johnson, OG Cameron Fleming, and S Brandon King. All four are players that are expected to stick around next season, as Coleman and King are key players on the roster, and New England held Johnson on the roster for most of the regular season. Fleming was a 4th round pick in 2014 and likely compete for a roster spot in camp as a possible cheap alternative to Marcus Cannon.
The Patriots have four RFAs as well. FB James Develin, DT Sealver Siliga, WR Brian Tyms, and OT LaAdrian Waddle are all options for offers. The running game floundered without Develin, and Waddle will likely compete with Fleming for a roster spot. Siliga was phased out of the defense, but will likely receive a deal thanks to a possible departure by Akiem Hicks. Tyms will be welcomed back as a possible outside receiver.
All eight of these players could return for camp, even if not all of them make the team. If I had to pick one lock, it would probably be King, who was a star on special teams. The coaching staff loves him and his versatility. Coleman and Develin are two other players that offer key roles, while the other players will be entrenched in camp battles for back-end roster spots.
There are also some possible target RFAs on the market, while ERFAs are probably off the radar due to the fact that they're so easily retained by their former teams.
Browns OL Austin Pasztor - A former Jaguar, Pasztor is similar to OT LaAdrian Waddle in the sense that he was a multi-year starter, but a torn hamstring ended his 2014 season. The Jaguars added veteran Jermey Parnell, which led Pasztor to move on to the Browns, where he was behind stud Joel Bitonio and first round pick Cameron Erving. Injuries let him start at the end of 2015. Pasztor is a viable back-up a both tackle and guard.
Broncos RB C.J. Anderson - Not happening, but the Broncos will likely retain him for cheap.
Saints RB Khiry Robinson - Robinson is 5'9, 205 lbs and is both a quality runner and receiver. While his long distance speed leaves much to be desired, he's explosive and quick and picks up plenty of yards after contact. He has finished consecutive seasons with major injuries that have prevented his growth.
Texans RB Jonathan Grimes - The 5'10, 205 lbs Grimes is a great receiver and a quality blocker. He's been improving his rushing ability, with 5.0 yards per carry on 56 rushes this past season. He collected 53 yards on 7 rushes against the Patriots this season.
Bills WR Chris Hogan - If the Patriots want to move on from Danny Amendola, Hogan could be a huge fit in the slot. At 6'1, 220 lbs, Hogan is bigger than most slot receivers, but he snagged 7 receptions for 95 yards in week 11 against the Patriots and he looks primed for more production in a different offense.
Ravens WR Kamar Aiken - A former Patriots receiver in 2012, Aiken has moved on to become a quality receiver with Baltimore. He collected 75 receptions for 944 yards and 5 touchdowns this season, which goes to show that a little patience (and opportunity) could pay off.
Ravens WR Marlon Brown - Brown has followed a similar career trajectory as former Patriots receiver Kenbrell Thompkins. Injuries forced the 6'5, 215 lbs Brown into the starting line-up in 2013 and he collected 49 catches for 524 yards and 7 touchdowns. His production evaporated with other players stepping up around him.
Giants TE Larry Donnell - Donnell has become a safety blanket for quarterback Eli Manning, so it's likely that New York will try to retain him. That said, the Giants seem to have an ability to groom quality tight ends in that offense, so perhaps New York would rather take a draft pick. Donnell picked up 63 receptions for 623 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2014, but injuries disrupted his 2015 season.
Colts TE Jack Doyle - Doyle plays a bit of fullback for the Colts, behind their duo of Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, but he flashes good hands out of the backfield. He doesn't have much production (209 yards on 35 career receptions), but he is versatile and has been stuck in the depth chart for most of his career.
Broncos LB Brandon Marshall - Can Denver manage to hold on to all of its talent? It's possible with some savvy contract work with their restricted free agents.
Falcons LB Paul Worrilow - A three year starter for Atlanta, Worrilow might be difficult to pull away, but he's a great fit in the modern NFL as a defender that can do it all.