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Ranking the Patriots' free agents

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  January 29, 2014 11:57 AM

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The Patriots will have to determine whether they want to pay LeGarrette Blount or continue to look to Stevan Ridley as the future of their running attack. (Matt Slocum / AP photo)

If you were to play the role of Bill Belichick, general manager and coach of the New England Patriots, how would you prioritize the Patriots’ free agents?

With six starters and 12 players overall slated for free agency, the Patriots have to make a determination on who they want to return and how much they’re willing to spend on each. The team’s window for those decisions begins on March 8, when they can start negotiating with unrestricted free agents, and on March 11 when they can start signing players.

Here’s my view of the order of importance for each Patriots free agent. You can share your view in the comments, or you can vote on what they should do with each player in our Keep Him or Let Him Go feature.

1. Aqib Talib — The star cornerback, hurt in the AFC Championship, is expected to be a hot commodity on the free agent market. Already the fifth highest salary against the Patriots’ 2013 cap at $4.8 million, he could garner a hefty sum on the market. If the Patriots place the franchise tag on Talib, he would earn more than $10 million for 2014. And his injury, which kept him out of action of the AFC title game, likely won’t require surgery, according to Patriots coach Bill Belichick. It would be best to secure Talib long-term and continue to shore up the defense elsewhere.

2. LeGarrette Blount — Blount proved to be the top runner on the Patriots’ depth chart. With outstanding late season performances against the Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, and Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs, he certainly has the attention of running back starved teams. He made $680,000 in 2013 and could also see a significant bump in pay. Last year, running backs that were given the franchise tag earned $8.219 million. Blount finished with 772 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on only 153 attempts. But his fate may be tied to that of Stevan Ridley, who doesn’t become a free agent until 2015. The Patriots have the opportunity to carry two featured backs again, but might see Ridley as a cheaper option. Ridley is still under his rookie contract and will earn $777,750 in base salary next year.

3. Ryan Wendell —The center played every single snap on offense this year. Despite struggles at times against some of the league’s top pass rushers, he helped provide stability for a unit that saw quite a bit of flux. In 2013, he earned $1.015 million. The Patriots should consider bringing him back with small pay raise to keep the offensive line intact.

4. Julian Edelman — Tom Brady’s top receiver is certainly worthy of a payday. He caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns while serving as the team’s punt returner again. Last year, the market was lukewarm for Edelman’s services, and he returned to the Patriots, who were stockpiling wide receivers in free agency and in the draft. But he beat out everyone on the roster, proving himself to be the most consistent receiving threat on the team. His chemistry with Brady after five seasons doesn’t hurt either. He played on a 1-year deal for $765,000 and could earn much more on the market now that he’s proved to be steady and healthy.

5. Brandon Spikes — After a flare-up with his agent, who disputed the team’s notion that there was a mutual decision to put Spikes on injured reserve after the regular season, it doesn’t appear Spikes will come back. That’s not necessarily a good thing for the Patriots, who have come to rely upon Spikes’ toughness and run-stopping ability. He totaled 86 tackles and earned $870,000 in 2013.

6. Michael Hoomanawanui — Hoomanawanui is in a precarious position again with the team. The Patriots were reluctant to sign him to an offer sheet last season despite being a restricted free agent. He was forced to restructure his deal from $1.3 million base salary to $630,000, with incentives to reach $1 million. He was not viewed as a receiving option, despite soft hands, and finished with 12 receptions for 136 yards and a touchdown. He had a tough time run blocking, something tight end Matthew Mulligan helped shore up. He could very well find himself on a new team now that he’s an unrestricted free agent.

7. Matthew Mulligan — Mulligan proved to be a good blocking tight end for the Patriots and a nice backup for Rob Gronkowski as the Patriots shifted to a run-oriented offense late in the season. He earned $672,941 in 2013 and could possibly be brought back for similar numbers.

8. Danny Aiken — Aiken is the team’s only restricted free agent. As the long snapper, he’s part of a very small fraternity of NFL players lucky to have jobs. It helps that Belichick is a former special teams coach who never undervalues this position. Aiken had a base salary of $555,000 in 2013.

9. Dane Fletcher — The backup middle linebacker may find himself tied to Spikes. Does he stay or does he go, and what will that mean for him? Meanwhile, Steve Beauharnais waits in the wings. Fletcher earned $620,000 this year.

10. Will Svitek — The big tackle was supposed to be the insurance for both Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder, but when both players went down the Patriots opted to use Marcus Cannon at right tackle and Logan Mankins at left tackle. Svitek had a hard time run blocking when he did play a three-game stretch while Cannon was out. It’s hard to see him having a place on this team when Vollmer returns and while Cannon is still expected to be the team’s primary backup at tackle. Svitek earned $950,000 in 2013.

11. Austin Collie — If the Patriots don’t want to sign Julian Edelman for the money, they can certainly opt to sign Collie who couldn’t find a home before Belichick threw him a bone. He caught key passes on the team’s game-winning drive against the New Orleans Saints and was effective in the AFC Championship as well with four catches for 57 yards.

12. Andre Carter — The 12-year veteran defensive end was brought on after Week 7 of the season and expected to help with the team’s pass rush rush. He played 196 snaps and recorded two sacks. He counted as $326,471 against the team’s salary cap. The Patriots may not want to bring him back, allowing for younger players like Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette to get more snaps going forward.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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