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Words With Frenz mailbag: Identifying potential salary cap casualties

Posted by Erik Frenz  January 31, 2014 07:00 AM

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We have transitioned from the high-tempo football season to the slow-paced offseason. That means more forward-looking speculation on the Patriots' potential moves as they look to improve the roster headed into 2014.

There are a lot of decisions to be made, from who will be signed as a free agent to who will be added in the draft to who could be released before the start of next season. The Patriots also have 11 unrestricted free agents they must either re-sign or replace.

Unfortunately, there's not enough money to keep everyone, so there are some tough decisions to be made; however, the Patriots could make some moves to free up money. We began the offseason outlook in last week's mailbag, and we'll continue it here. Let's get right to it.

Isaac, the best candidates I can think of are right guard Dan Connolly and defensive tackles Isaac Sopoaga and Tommy Kelly.

Connolly is set to count $4,083,333 against the 2014 salary cap, which is quite a rich contract for a right guard, but the Patriots don't have a great backup option on the roster; they would probably have to move right tackle Marcus Cannon to right guard if that were to be the case, but he has filled in all over the line and played admirably at right tackle after Sebastian Vollmer broke his leg, ending his season. He even filled in for Connolly at one point, when the right guard left the Patriots' Week 6 game against the New Orleans Saints with a concussion.

Sopoaga will count $3.5 million against the cap, which is the 17th-highest cap hit for a defensive tackle headed into 2014; They could, however, save $2.5 million by cutting him, since his contract only carries $1 million in dead money. The Patriots didn't give up much in the midseason trade that brought him in from the Philadelphia Eagles, trading down from the fifth to the sixth round in the 2014 draft. Sopoaga played 120 snaps in six games with the Patriots, and was inactive for the final two games of the regular season and the Patriots' two playoff games.

Kelly will count $3 million against the cap, but like Sopoaga, the Patriots could save $2.5 million by cutting him. The only difference: Kelly was one of the Patriots' starting defensive tackles when healthy, but he is 33 years old and attempting to come back from a torn ACL that ended his 2013 season in Week 5. If the Patriots don't cut Kelly outright, they may ask him to sign a different "ultimatum" contract.

The Patriots also have young backups Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Armond Armstead (more on him later) as well as practice squadders Cory Grissom and Marcus Forston all coming back. There's plenty of youth to fill in for the loss of those veterans, if that's the route the Patriots choose to go.

Matt, Arthur Jones would definitely make sense, given the question marks at defensive tackle. The only potential hangup is his scheme fit; the Baltimore Ravens run a 3-4 defense, where Jones has thrived, but the Patriots would be asking him to primarily line up as a 1- or 3-technique defensive tackle in their four-man front. Jones may be a little out of the price range under ordinary circumstances, but the aforementioned moves at defensive tackle could free up the money necessary to bring him in.

I would estimate Jones being paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million to $5 million per year on average, but the question then becomes whether the Patriots feel comfortable investing that much with Vince Wilfork's deal set to count for $11.6 million against the cap. They could still try to restructure Wilfork's contract, but the Patriots need to get serious about the contingency plans for life without him at some point.

Until Armstead sees the football field, my expectations for him do not exist. He was placed on the reserve/NFI list with the mysterious infection, and did not return. Same goes for Mark Harrison and his foot injury that landed him on the PUP list from which he never returned.

Harrison may have similar athleticism and size to what Aaron Hernandez had, and blocking is becoming less and less important for certain kinds of "tight ends" these days. Still, even those tight ends that are more like receivers (the Saints' Jimmy Graham and others) have some experience blocking, and Harrison has next to none; He may also need to add another 15 pounds — at least — to his 230-pound frame to ever be effective in that role. If he can add that bulk without subtracting from his athleticism, the Patriots could try it out, but it would be a project to say the least.

I don't know if that's what they were thinking when they made the pick, but that certainly looks like the way it's worked out. They drafted Jamie Collins as a piece they felt could add a lacking level of athleticism to the linebacking corps, but his presence makes the transition into the post-Brandon Spikes era.

Outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower could slide inside to Spikes' spot at middle linebacker, with Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins sharing the duties as weak- and strong-side linebackers and acting as the primary options when the team goes to its nickel defense.

Arjuna, that's a tough call. The Patriots currently have just north of $3 million tied up in running backs in 2013, and re-signing LeGarrette Blount probably won't be cheap. Stevan Ridley is set to hit the open market after the 2014 season, so if the Patriots are going to get anything for him, this has to be the year.

However, the Patriots have shown year after year that they favor the multi-pronged approach in the backfield, and that they do not value the position enough to place a high price tag on it. They let Danny Woodhead walk for a contract that averaged $1.75 million per year, and the Patriots didn't bring back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who signed a three-year, $9 million deal with the Bengals in 2012.

Unless Blount plans on taking a big discount, it would be a surprise to see him back in a Patriots uniform next year. That being said, if the Patriots bring back Blount, it would probably be a sign that Ridley won't be brought back after the 2014 season. They still shouldn't trade him, though; he's been a good back for them, despite his fumbling issues, and those running backs will be valuable next year on a team that could once again be short on weapons in the passing game.

It's hard to build for the post-Tom Brady era because that could be three or four years down the line. The Patriots may not be building for "life after Brady" in as many words, but they are always building for the long-term future of the team, which is a principle that will inherently build the team to remain successful after Brady retires.

At some point, the Patriots will have to get serious about the post-Brady plan, though. Backup quarterback Ryan Mallett is set to be a free agent following the 2014 season, so the Patriots will have to make a decision on him one way or another in the next 13 months. Not only does his contract expire, but they could also trade him; Greg Bedard reported that multiple teams had inquired about Mallett prior to the 2013 draft.

Even if he could prove himself to be a viable No. 2 during the offseason, he's not going to prove himself to be the successor until he's given that opportunity, and he has not improved dramatically over the past two years. He hasn't seen the field outside of preseason action, but that just means those reps become even more important as he tries to prove himself beyond a backup role.

This could be a big training camp and preseason for him, and for the Patriots, with regard to their long-term future at quarterback.

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