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Why the Patriots need to lock up Aqib Talib ASAP

Posted by Adam Kaufman  March 10, 2014 12:13 AM

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I wondered when Aqib Talib exited his second straight AFC Championship game with a knee injury how that would affect him in upcoming contract negotiations. Would his potential earnings take a hit on account of his lack of durability throughout his career, or would the Patriots’ defensive struggles without him ultimately prove he’s worthy of fair market value for a healthy player of his skillset?

We’re about to find out.

NFL players officially hit free agency on Tuesday, once the league’s bizarre “legal tampering period” has wrapped. So far, unlike a year ago at this time, the cornerback market is shaping up in Talib’s favor.

Last month, Brent Grimes – three years Talib’s elder – received a four-year deal worth $32 million from the Dolphins, including $16 mil guaranteed. He blew out his Achilles two years ago before responding with four interceptions, 60 tackles, and 16 deflected passes over a full season.

Over the weekend, Sam Shields – two years younger than Talib – was given four years at $39 million, including a $12.5 million signing bonus, to remain with the Packers. He recorded 61 tackles, defended 16 passes, and picked off another four in 2013 while suffering hamstring and knee injuries. That’s after dealing with ankle and shin issues a year earlier.

Both are inferior players to Talib, and basically just as brittle.

The veteran Pats’ cornerback had similar numbers with four interceptions, 13 deflected passes, and 46 tackles in his 13 games, but he was a game-changer, something proven time and time again in his short year-and-a-half in New England since coming over in trade from Tampa Bay. When healthy, he’s physical and capable of shutting down the best receivers in the league – Demaryius Thomas, Jimmy Graham, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Vincent Jackson, to name a handful – while also allowing his team to align more favorable matchups throughout the lineup.

When ailing, he lacks that quick first step, if he’s able to step on the field at all. In the 2013 AFC title game, many will attribute New England’s loss to Baltimore to Talib’s premature departure with what’s become a chronic hip issue. Back in January, the Pats likely would not have overpowered the offensively-potent Broncos, but Denver’s lopsided 26-16 win (and it wasn’t remotely that close) would have looked far different with Talib still on Thomas rather than Alfonzo Dennard, who failed miserably in his efforts.

It would be incorrect to say Talib’s in a class of his own. He isn’t Darrelle Revis, but he also doesn’t command Revis’s $16 million annual salary. After Revis, however, Talib’s certainly in that next class and he’s fit in admirably in Foxborough under the watchful eye of Bill Belichick, who has always spoken very highly of the cornerback.

The Patriots have a decision to make: Pay Talib what he’s worth, which now appears to be in the neighborhood of $10 million per year over multiple seasons, or let him go. He’s already received interest from at least one other team, the Redskins.

Forget about a hometown discount. A year removed from taking a one-year, $5 million prove-it deal, this is the 28-year-old Pro Bowler’s opportunity to get paid, and he’s looking for top dollar.

The Patriots can afford it, and they’d be foolish not to pay him.

Understandably, the club hasn’t tipped its hand. Owner Robert Kraft said at the Super Bowl in an interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub, “[Talib] wasn’t on the field a lot of the time since he’s been with us. It’s a balance of us balancing all that out and what is he worth. I think he’s happy here and would like to be here and we’re happy with him and we’d like to have him here, and now it’s just about doing business.”

Talib isn’t a run-of-the-mill free agent the Patriots were courting this weekend; he’s one of their guys. No, he wasn’t drafted and developed by New England, but this is the place where he emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber player when physically up to the challenge.

Unfortunately, that stigma and his troubled past is what must give the Pats or any other potential suitor pause. Should a team commit as much as $20 or $30 million guaranteed over four years to a player who is impactful when healthy, but has never played a full season in six years in the NFL? Should a team offer security to a player with off-field issues, knowing financial comfort and the lack of pending free agency could lead to him picking up another gun?

These are unenviable questions to try to answer, but the Pats must.

New England could opt to go in another direction. Alterraun Verner and Vontae Davis are on a similar level to Talib. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is an option. There’s his cousin, Antonio Cromartie, if the Patriots want another buy-low “value” guy, not to mention someone off the Jets’ scrap heap. Rumors have circulated that Revis is available, but he comes with a hefty price tag and as much personality baggage as Talib.

Me? I’d stick with the known commodity. The guy who’s well-liked and respected in the locker room and by his coach, emerged as a leader, and, most important, performed tremendously on the field to the point of redefining the defense. Plus, it’s kind of nice hearing an enjoyable sound bite from a Patriot – and, no, that’s not a reason to keep him.

I’ll readily admit I didn’t expect it to come to this. After his latest injury, I thought Talib could be re-signed for something in the neighborhood of two years and $18 million with most of that guaranteed or provided in incentives. Now, thanks to the money awarded to his peers, it appears that price tag will be double. Perhaps, in retrospect, a tag of the franchise variety (worth $11.8 million) would have been the way to go.

With any player, there’s a risk. It’s fair to argue with Talib that those risks are more prevalent than with most, especially in light of the Aaron Hernandez saga. But, in a strong, well-run organization with a rigid head coach, he’s been an angel – as far as we know. In terms of maturity, it’s possible he’s grown up. In regard to health, that’s unpredictable. Of course, Julian Edelman had never had a healthy season before last year, and now folks want to compare him to Wes Welker.

This is a gamble worth taking, not a mistake in waiting.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About this blog

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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