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Five free NFL free agency thoughts

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  March 13, 2012 03:41 PM

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Was it P.T. Barnum or every NFL player agent since the advent of free agency who grinned ominously and said, "There's a sucker born every minute"?

More often than not free agency turns out to be a Pyrrhic pro football endeavor. Inevitably, some covetous team with cap space will pay a No. 2 wide receiver like a No. 1 wide receiver or ink a presumed shut-down corner who shuts it down once he gets his money. NFL free agency is fraught with opportunity, but also with peril and outsized expectations. Just ask the Philadelphia Eagles.

Usually, the Patriots stay away from the fray of the NFL's off-season auction. But coming off a Super Bowl appearance and with Tom Brady turning 35 in August and auditioning for a post-football life of attending Lakers games dressed like a cross between Jack Nicholson and Woody Allen, free agency takes on a little more urgency for the Patriots than usual. The Patriots have a little more money than usual as well. Including the $1.6 million they'll get from uncapped year scofflaws Washington and Dallas, Bill Belichick has between $17.2 and $17.8 million in salary cap room to use to build his team.

Since things in free agency get costly quick, here are five free Patriot-centric thoughts.

1. Catches cap -- We all know the Patriots need help at wide receiver. That has led to speculation that making a play for Steelers restricted free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace or San Diego Chargers unrestricted receiver Vincent Jackson would make sense. Don't plan on it.

The Patriots have an artificial cap of what they can pay a wide receiver on a long-term deal, and it's the $9.515 million franchise tag number they placed on Wes Welker. It would send a horrible message to Welker and the locker room if the Patriots didn't sign Welker, who set a franchise-record for receiving yards last year (1,569) and has led the NFL in catches since 2007 (554), and then lavished $9.5 million plus on a player who has never played a down in Foxborough.

Welker has been trying to get this contract since 2009, when he switched agents. Three years of blood, sweat, big hits, and a torn ACL deserve some kind of monetary merit. That's why Brandon Lloyd make so much sense. He'll be well below Welker on the pay scale.

To sign Wallace away from Pittsburgh, the Patriots would have to offer a deal probably north of $9 million per year, surrender a first-round pick, and probably alienate Welker. It's not worth it.

2. Safety considerations -- What the Patriots do, if anything, at safety will help indicate the future of Devin McCourty. If the Patriots strongly pursue one of the free agent safeties on the market like Reggie Nelson, who is looking for $5 million per year, or lower-cost options like Cleveland's Mike Adams or the recently-released O.J. Atogwe then it indicates McCourty's future is at corner.

One of those veterans could be paired with a draft pick to play opposite Patrick Chung.

The Patriots need a free safety type who can play center field like he's Jacoby Ellsbury. Those are increasingly hard to find. Neither of the top safeties in the draft, Alabama's Mark Barron or Notre Dame's Harrison Smith, completely fit that mold. They profile to be more like Chung, strong safety/free safety hybrids. McCourty has corner athleticism and excellent ball skills. He might be both the best and most cost-effective way for the Patriots to fix their safety play.

3. Hiring a new Law Firm -- The two flaws of the Patriots offense were that they couldn't threaten teams outside the numbers in the passing game and they couldn't exploit six- and seven-defensive back sets in the running game. Free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is expected to draw interest from other teams, is a reliable and admirable running back. But he didn't have a single run longer than 18 yards last season in 219 carries (including the post-season).

While he has 24 touchdown runs the last two seasons, second only to Arian Foster, most were the equivalent of tap-in putts. Paying a running back who can't make people miss more than $2 million per year doesn't make sense. Green-Ellis made $1.835 million last year.

A good free agent fit for the Patriots would be Ryan Grant. The 29-year-old Grant's stated first preference is to return to the Packers, but the Patriots should give him pause. Grant had back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons before he missed nearly all of the 2010 season, tearing ligaments in his right ankle. He found himself in a platoon role last season. However, in the Packers' final five games, including the playoffs, Grant flashed some of his old form, averaging 5.5 yards per carry.

4. (Pass) rush to judgment -- Mario Williams is a pass-rushing pipe dream. A return for Andre Carter makes sense if his torn quadriceps is properly healed. Mark Anderson was a bargain for the Patriots in his role as designated sub rusher; at a base salary of $1 million he produced 10 sacks.

But the Patriots should be wary of re-signing Anderson because his sack numbers through the first 10 games of the season (seven) were inflated by a combination of garbage-time sacks, poor competition, and blocking breakdowns. He could be Tully Banta-Cain 2.0.

John Abraham would be an upgrade as a sub-rusher. Second among active players in career sacks, Abraham is creeping up there in age -- he'll be 34 in May -- but he can still be a disruptive pass rusher that teams have to account for in their blocking schemes. Last season he had 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles while garnering much more blocking attention than Anderson. He's exactly the type of venerable veteran that Belichick likes to squeeze a final year or two of production out of.

5. Peyton's place? -- The Patriots have no control over where Peyton Manning decides to gesticulate at the line of scrimmage next season, but hopefully it's not the AFC. The Patriots faced three elite quarterbacks last season -- Eli Manning (twice), Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers. They went 1-3 in those games. We can throw a broken-ribbed Tony Romo in there to pad the record to 2-3, but that necessitates an asterisk because Cowboys coach Jason Garrett went into the fetal position to protect a late 16-13 lead and didn't let Romo throw.

Unfortunately, for the Patriots it appears that no matter where and when the Peyton Across America Tour ends he's going to end up on the Patriots' schedule. Manning is presumed to have a final four of Denver, Arizona, Miami and Tennessee. All of those teams are on New England's schedule. Even the two Super Bowl-ready teams Manning would like to see express interest that really haven't, the San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans, venture to Gillette Stadium in the fall.

Imagine the Patriots' secondary trying to stop Manning from throwing deep to Larry Fitzgerald or a resurrected Randy Moss. I'd rather not.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news


...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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