The Patriots have two major decisions coming up with both cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Julian Edelman both set to become free agents on March 11.
A tight salary cap situation might force them to pick one or the other, but if they want to get creative and if they think both are important enough to retain, there's a way they could keep both in a Patriots uniform for the 2014 season and beyond.
For starters, neither player is a top-of-the-market value. Both have significant injury histories, and Talib in particular was hobbled this past season with a hip injury. The 2013 season marked the first fully healthy, 16-game season of Edelman's career.
The copycat nature of the NFL may lead to Talib's value increasing a little bit, as teams search for that big-bodied cover corner to bring them one step closer to the Seattle Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" secondary which is loaded with size. Talib's 6-foot-1, 205-pound frame is comparable to Richard Sherman's 6-foot-3, 195-pound stature, although Sherman is quicker and has longer arms to lock up receivers in press coverage.
Based on Talib's talent alone, he could make a case to be one of the top five highest-paid cornerbacks in the league; add the injury history, and the off-field track record prior to his arrival in New England, and his stock goes down a bit. Overall, given where Talib stacks up compared to the other high-paid cornerbacks, he should make in the neighborhood of $8 to $9 million per year on his next deal, putting him right outside the top five highest average salaries for a cornerback.
Edelman, on the other hand, is arguably more valuable to the Patriots than any other NFL team for his chemistry with Tom Brady, who often locked in on Edelman toward the end of the season as the chemistry built and as the Patriots' options over the middle thinned out. In 2013, Edelman became just the third receiver in Patriots history to log over 100 receptions and the 10th to log over 1,000 receiving yards.
From this perspective, Edelman is worth no more than $6.5 million per year; slot receivers like Danny Amendola and Wes Welker made $5.7 and $6 million per year, respectively, last offseason.
Add Talib and Edelman's yearly averages together, and you're looking at somewhere between $14 and $16 million per year to keep both of them — keeping in mind that this is somewhat of an oversimplification of how contracts work, as the year-to-year cap charge for each player will most certainly change. In that sense, perhaps the Patriots could modify the numbers for each to make them more manageable in 2014, pushing the charges ahead to future years.
They may not have a choice, with only around $9.3 million in cap space to work with, according to Spotrac, a sports contracts and salary information website.
There are some moves the Patriots could make to free up some money in the meantime.
- Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly is set to count for $2,656,250 against the cap, but the Patriots could get back $2,156,250 of that by cutting him.
- Defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga is on the books for $3.5 million next year, of which the Patriots could recoup $2.5 million by cutting him.
- Guard Dan Connolly has a cap hit of $4,083,333 next year, but the Patriots could add nearly $3 million to the salary cap next year if they release him.
- Safety Adrian Wilson will count $1,833,333 against the cap next year, but the Patriots could get back $1,166,666 of that by cutting him.
There's the possibility of restructuring any of those deals, which would also put some money in the Patriots' pocket, if they want to keep those players around — but it takes two sides to agree to a restructured contract. That being said, by cutting all four, the Patriots would save a total of $9,322,915 on the salary cap, putting them at roughly $18.6 million.
That would be just enough to sign both players, but that would leave them next to nothing for other free agents like running back LeGarrette Blount, linebacker Brandon Spikes and center Ryan Wendell — although the latter two might have left the fold, regardless. The Patriots also must keep about $5 million to sign their draft picks, and they like to keep another $5 to $10 million in pocket change to spend during the season in case of an emergency.
That's where the Patriots may have to start racking their brain finding a way to restructure key veterans like defensive tackle Vince Wilfork ($11.6 million cap charge in 2014) and left guard Logan Mankins ($10.5 million cap charge).
No matter how they do it, the Patriots will find it tough to keep everyone happy and in a Patriots uniform.
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