Cornerback Aqib Talib has been the star of the secondary in New England for less than two seasons, but his play on the field when healthy commands the respect of a guy who could one day wind up in the Patriots Hall of Fame if he hangs around Gillette long enough. You’d never remember he was pulled off the Buccaneers’ scrap heap with a seventh-round draft pick for a mere fourth-rounder.
But the health, there’s the rub.
For two years running, Talib’s been knocked out of the AFC Championship with an injury, effectively ending the Pats’ season. Odds are his team would have fallen to the star-studded Broncos regardless, but there’s no question his absence created mismatches on defense that Tom Brady’s offense simply could not overcome. It’s hard to ignore the numbers from Demaryius Thomas with Talib on him (one catch, 29 yards) versus when Alfonzo Dennard and company were called into duty (six receptions, 105 yards, one touchdown).
During the season – long before Wes Welker’s legal knee-injury inducing hit – Talib dealt with a hip problem, one that dates back to just his fourth game with the Pats. For the first six contests of 2013, he contained some of the NFL’s top receivers with relative ease. He looked like a candidate for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year honor. When his hip injury resurfaced, it cost him three games on the sidelines and several more with inconsistent production. But, he persevered and was still named a second-team All-Pro and was selected to the Pro Bowl. He’s graciously passed on the free trip to Hawaii.
Now, the soon to be 28-year-old is a free agent.
It’s fair to ask: Did Talib’s latest injury cost him money in free agency, or actually justify that he earn more?
You see, on one hand, he’s displayed an inability to stay healthy. On the other, the Patriots have fallen apart without him twice. He’s perhaps as dynamic and as much a difference-maker for the defense as Rob Gronkowski is on offense.
There’s good news wrapped in the bad situation that was the AFC title game. For starters, it wasn’t the hip again. This was a freak injury. Second, there’s reportedly no structural damage and it appears Talib won’t need surgery.
Moreover, Bill Belichick’s unprompted rant against The Receiver Formerly Known as Wes the morning after the loss in Denver proved Talib’s head coach thinks very highly of him and is more than interested in retaining his services. Belichick wouldn’t admit it, but bringing back the shutdown defender is his team’s top priority.
This is Talib’s second go’round in free agency as a Patriot. Last spring, there wasn’t a market for his position and so he returned for one year and $5 million, reportedly passing on a five-year opportunity in hopes of really cashing in this time. A prove-it deal, if you will.
That five-year option won’t be there, and it shouldn’t be. The off-the-field cloud that floated over his head upon his arrival in Foxborough isn’t the problem. He’s been a good soldier and even a rare media darling in a sea of relative silence. The injury pattern, however, could scare the Pats into another short commitment.
The franchise tag is an alternative, though not a favorable one. Talib would leap at the chance to sign a guaranteed deal worth more than double his previous salary. The projected tag for cornerbacks is in the neighborhood of $11 million.
Intuitively, another $5 million a year pact would be warranted on the sheer logic that he’s damaged goods. Of course, his cornerback counterparts have salaries that make such a suggestion laughable.
If he opts to test free agency starting March 11, he could find suitors impressed enough with what he did in New England to give him a multi-year contract. Plus, it shouldn’t be another soft market with the likes of Alterraun Verner, Brent Grimes, Vontae Davis, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie available.
Had Talib stayed healthy through the postseason, his deal on the open market likely would have started at $7 million per season. Now, it might max out there.
That’s where his importance in New England comes into play.
For the Pats, Talib’s worth remains in that upper tier on account of his full body of work and the youthful potential that exists if he can stay on the field. Look no further than the consequences of his consecutive abrupt departures. Entering his seventh NFL season, he’s the best Patriots cornerback since Asante Samuel or even Ty Law, and the organization knows it. Dennard is not in that class, and it’s too early to know what Logan Ryan will be.
The team would be crazy to let Talib go, but equally loony to give him several years. Two or three years at a higher annual average value than he might command on the open market for four years best suits the Krafts.
Given his comfort here, it might also be ideal for Talib.
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Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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