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Key Patriots players entering contract years

Posted by Erik Frenz  July 11, 2013 08:00 AM

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The New England Patriots had a lot of big-name free-agents this past offseason: cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington, wide receivers Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and running back Danny Woodhead among the biggest name.

The team will have some big decisions on their hands in 2014, as well. In fact, two of last year's free agents were given one-year deals, and they'll have to be re-signed or allowed to walk following this season.

Aqib Talib, cornerback

2013 cap hit: $4,832,813

After a midseason trade of a fourth-round pick to the Buccaneers for Aqib Talib, the Patriots would have come under some scrutiny had they not been able to hang onto Talib for the 2013 season, but they made the right call in bringing him back and maintaining some stability in their secondary. They got some help from a dry market, though, and Talib came back to the Patriots on a one-year deal as the Patriots try to get a longer, closer look at concerns surrounding his health and his off-field behavior.

Hamstring and hip injuries have plagued him in the past, so it's no coincidence that the two injuries which nagged him in 2012 were to his hamstring and hip.

Talib's career got off to a rocky start when he had some brushes with the Buccaneers brass, and he served a four-game suspension after being charged with simple battery and resisting arrest. He also came to New England during the tail end of an eight-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances (Adderall was his drug of choice), and he also has legal troubles including felony charges for assault with a deadly weapon -- charges which were later dropped.

If he can stay healthy and out of trouble, the Patriots will have some continuity in the secondary. Indeed, the Patriots have reason to be concerned with a long-term commitment to Talib.

Rob Ninkovich, defensive end

2013 cap hit: $2,166,666

For four years, Rob Ninkovich has done whatever the Patriots have asked of him. He was little more than a special teams player in 2009, but stepped into a starting role at 3-4 outside linebacker in 2010. When the Patriots went to the 4-3 in 2011, he began playing outside linebacker in that front, and he most recently played the majority of his snaps at 4-3 defensive end.

He has been a favorite of the Patriots coaching staff for years, having earned 83.8 percent of the defensive snaps over the past two years according to stats website Pro Football Focus. His scheme versatility will add to his value to the Patriots, who often change up schemes during the course of a game.

The question then becomes how, and where, Ninkovich fits into the Patriots scheme, and whether a younger player might be asked to fill his role in the future.

Zoltan Mesko, punter

2013 cap hit: $1,369,812

In the famed words of Rich Eisen, punters are people, too.

Zoltan Mesko has been incredibly valuable to the Patriots since he arrived in 2010. The year prior, punter Chris Hanson landed 32.8 percent of his punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. That's not bad, but Mesko led the league in 2011 with 42.2 percent of his punts inside the opponent's 20. Last year, Mesko ranked third with 48.6 percent.

Considering his talent level, Mesko could be a consideration for next year's franchise tag. The number would be around $3 million, if we're looking at the average of the top five base salaries for punters in 2014.

Ryan Wendell, center

2013 cap hit: $1,015,000

The Patriots have dealt with some change on the offensive line over the years, and while they are carrying over the same starting unit from 2012 to 2013, they have to address their center situation next offseason.

Wendell was a backup interior linemen before last season, playing at both guard spots and at center in 2010 and 2011. The team showed a lot of confidence in naming him the starting center in 2012, and he played 99.6 percent of offensive snaps according to Pro Football Focus, missing just six snaps all season.

They've had some change at center over the years, with Dan Koppen going down to injury in Week 1 of the 2011 season before Dan Connolly took his place. Koppen returned for 2012 training camp, but was released and Wendell was named the starter.

"I think clearly the obvious is that he replaced a very, very good football player and a very popular football player," offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said of Wendell during the season. "That’s as tough a decision as we’ve ever had around here for those reasons. But we also knew that this is a young guy that has played very well when we’ve asked him to play. ...He’s a great kid. I’m glad we’ve got him."

Jermaine Cunningham, defensive end

2013 cap hit: $939,375

With a few players due for new contracts in the front seven, Jermaine Cunningham's situation bears watching.

He has played all over the defensive front seven for the Patriots, at outside linebacker in the 3-4 his rookie season, then as a 4-3 linebacker and defensive end in his second year, and followed that up in 2012 by playing a mix of 4-3 defensive end and lining up as an interior pass-rusher in sub-packages.

Cunningham missed four games in 2012 due to a violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, but he had an important role as a situational pass-rusher. The Patriots have been searching for that kind of presence for years, and if Cunningham can build off a solid 2012 campaign, he could work his way into the Patriots future plans.

Brandon Spikes, linebacker

2013 cap hit: $870,000

As the middle linebacker, Spikes has rightly earned a lot of attention as one of the biggest-name free-agents on the Patriots docket this coming offseason.

Spikes' health could be a factor. He has yet to play a full 16-game season at any point in his three-year career, but 2012 saw his highest participation by far with 863 total snaps, compared to 542 in 2011 and 365 his rookie season.

He spent part of the offseason working out at Bommarito Performance Systems in Florida.

"I just felt like I was trying to put myself in the best position to compete for a spot on the team and also help this team win a championship," Spikes said. "You guys know me; I do things a little different from everybody else. I don’t think that’s bad or a shocker. Honestly, if everybody in this world was a conformist, it would be one boring place."

The Patriots defense might be a boring place without Spikes, who is often regarded as an energetic leader for the unit, especially with his bone-jarring hits.

Julian Edelman, wide receiver

2013 cap hit: $765,000

After a tumultuous offseason at receiver, Julian Edelman is the last remaining wide-out from last year's team besides Kamar Aiken (who took three snaps in 2012) and special teams ace Matt Slater.

As such, Edelman might have the best understanding of the offense of any receiver outside of Danny Amendola, who has experience with Josh McDaniels' system from their time together in St. Louis.

A lot has been made of running back Shane Vereen lining up at receiver, but Edelman has an opportunity to cave a niche for himself in the slot role with Aaron Hernandez out of the picture. He was used primarily on the outside, running just 44 of his 182 routes out of the slot in 2012, but his short-area quickness makes him a good fit for that role.

Dane Fletcher, linebacker

2013 cap hit: $620,000

Dane Fletcher was brought back on a one-year deal after missing all of 2012 with a torn ACL.

The Patriots sorely missed the depth at linebacker when it came to covering tight ends over the middle, where they ranked 29th in the league according to Football Outsiders. Fletcher has been valuable to the Patriots on third downs for his abilities in coverage, but also have value on special teams.

As a result of Spikes' absence from OTAs, Fletcher earned some valuable time with the first-team defense. In terms of practice reps, it will be interesting to see how, where, and how many Fletcher earns in training camp, but he's been a valuable player on their team in the past, and has good utility for the Patriots in 2013.

Cap numbers via Spotrac.

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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »


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