There was little time for mourning for Bill Belichick and the Patriots staff after their loss to Baltimore in the AFC Championship game. Not long after reviewing the film of the game, Belichick was talking about his team’s plans for the offseason and building the roster for 2013.
Twenty players on New England’s 53-man roster or injured reserve list are slated to become free agents when the new NFL calendar begins on March 12; 11 of those players were starters or key reserves this season.
ESPN reported last month that the Patriots have around $18.6 million in salary cap space for 2013, which is more than most teams have. However, Belichick said, not all cap numbers are created equal.
“I think ‘cap space’ is a very misleading term,” he said. “I don’t really think it has too much meaning until you take into [account] the number of players that are not under contract with that cap space. You can have not much cap space and a lot of players under contract, or you can have a lot of cap space and not as many players under contract.
“Each situation is different and cap space can be maneuvered, as we all know, in a number of different ways. I think the bottom line is you collectively take a look at all your different resources and try to put together the best plan to formulate your team and develop your team throughout the entire course of the offseason.”
It’s likely that Belichick and top personnel man Nick Caserio have made some decisions already — Belichick is always thinking two or three steps ahead — but we will have to wait to see what they are.
Until then, here is a breakdown of the roster by position and when each player’s contract is set to expire:
■ Tom Brady (signed through 2014), Ryan Mallett (2014).
Brady signed a four-year extension before the 2011 season, and though his deal was altered last offseason, lowering his base salary to the league minimum and combining some of his bonus money, he still (rightfully) carries a high cap number. Mallett is still on his rookie deal.
■ Brandon Lloyd (2014), Matthew Slater (2014), Kamar Aiken (2013). Free agents: Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Deion Branch, Donté Stallworth.
The big one here is obviously Welker. He played 2012 as the Patriots’ franchise player, and earned $9.515 million; if the team were to franchise him again, it would be at 120 percent of his 2012 salary, which is $11.42 million. It is hard to see the Patriots paying that much; they could let Welker go to free agency and see what the market is for a 31-year-old slot receiver who has more catches than any other player over the last five years.
■ Stevan Ridley (2014), Shane Vereen (2014), Brandon Bolden (2014), Jeff Demps (2014), Spencer Larsen (2013). Free agent: Danny Woodhead.
New England gets a lot of production from this group for very short money. Woodhead would probably like more touches, but he has shown himself to be highly effective as a third-down back and wouldn’t command that much in a new deal. The question for Woodhead: Did Vereen’s emergence in a similar role hurt his future with the Patriots?
■ Rob Gronkowski (2017), Aaron Hernandez (2018), Daniel Fells (2014), Brad Herman (2014). Free agents: Michael Hoomanawanui, Jake Ballard.
The Patriots broke from the recent status quo by locking up Gronkowski and then Hernandez last year, making sure the most dynamic pair of tight ends in the league will be in New England for a long time. Fells didn’t contribute much this season despite signing a three-year deal last offseason. The Patriots claimed Ballard last June from the Giants knowing he was recovering from a torn ACL. If the team thinks he can be a contributor, it’s hard to think he won’t stick around.
■ Logan Mankins (2016), Nate Solder, (2014), Dan Connolly (2014), Marcus Cannon (2014), Markus Zusevics (2014), Nick McDonald (2013), Ryan Wendell (2013), Kyle Hix (2013). Free agents: Sebastian Vollmer, Donald Thomas, Jamey Richard.
It will be interesting to see how things play out with Vollmer. On the one hand, he is one of the best right tackles in the league, a second-team All-Pro in only his second season; on the other, he has been dealing with back issues for much of his career, including this year. Thomas was solid as a fill-in starter at both guard spots.
■ Chandler Jones (2015), Jake Bequette (2015), Vince Wilfork (2014), Justin Francis (2014), Kyle Love (2013), Brandon Deaderick (2013), Jermaine Cunningham (2013). Free agents: Trevor Scott, Myron Pryor.
All of the key players are locked up through the coming season, though with Love heading into his fourth season, they could sign him to an extension. Scott signed a one-year deal and got more effective as the season went on. Pryor missed the entire year because of shoulder surgery.
■ Jerod Mayo (2017), Dont’a Hightower (2015), Rob Ninkovich (2013), Brandon Spikes (2013), Mike Rivera (2013). Free agents: Dane Fletcher, Niko Koutouvides, Tracy White.
Ninkovich was a playmaker and should be due for a pay raise, and the Patriots could try to extend Spikes as well. Fletcher, who was a top backup in 2010 and ’11, tore his ACL in the first preseason game this year and seems likely to be back. White is a special-teams ace and also saw spot time on defense; he played this season on a one-year deal.
■ Alfonzo Dennard (2015), Nate Ebner (2015), Tavon Wilson (2015), Devin McCourty (2014), Steve Gregory (2014), Ras-I Dowling (2014), Malcolm Williams (2013). Free agents: Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung, Marquice Cole, Derrick Martin
It already has been asked: Can the Patriots keep both Welker and Talib? They certainly need both. Talib’s importance to the secondary was underscored when he was hurt late in the first quarter against Baltimore. He is the best cornerback New England has had since Asante Samuel, but like Samuel, he could be gone. Though he comes with baggage, Talib may have rehabilitated his image enough during his time with the Patriots that another team will want him long-term.
■ K Stephen Gostkowski (2014), P Zoltan Mesko (2013), LS Danny Aiken (2013).
Nothing to see here . . . though these three do have good chemistry on and off the field.