With free agency in full swing at last, the New England Patriots have big questions regarding their “big three” free agents: cornerback Aqib Talib, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and wide receiver Wes Welker. Beyond those three, however, the Patriots have a number of other free agents hitting the market. Reports have guard Donald Thomas already cashing in on his strong half-season as fill-in starter and getting a deal from Indianapolis (see MusketFire.com’s Cyrus Geller’s article here). Below is an analysis of the other 2012 New England Patriots free agents (in alphabetical order) with a brief background about their role last year and a prediction on whether they return to New England this fall:
S/CB Will Allen
BACKGROUND: Will Allen came into training camp and was expected to compete as additional depth as a back-up safety and cornerback. Instead, he got hurt and went on Injured reserve for all of 2012.
PREDICTION: Pending any other team having any kind of interest in the former Giants and Dolphins cornerback, he should come back and compete for a back-up role again for the veteran’s minimum.
CB Kyle Arrington
BACKGROUND: Arrington has been the subject of many different and conflicting opinions this off-season, as he is either considered a superb slot cornerback or a horrible outside cornerback. While the truth lies in the middle somewhere, Arrington is looking to cash in during an off-season where there are a number of aging cornerbacks on the market.
PREDICTION: The Patriots have no intention of paying Arrington what he thinks he may be worth, but if a cornerback needy team fails to fall in love with him, Arrington could return at a reasonable price for a year and try free agency next year.
S Josh Barrett
BACKGROUND: Barrett was expected to provide a special teams boost and provide depth at the safety position. Instead, 2012 was a lost year as he spent the entire season on injured reserve.
PREDICTION: At some point, guys run out of “redshirt” seasons in the pro game. Barrett will likely try to drum up interest from other squads in the off-season and come back to training camp to try to latch on to one of the last roster spots.
WR Deion Branch
BACKGROUND: Branch surprisingly was cut early in the season and came back as one of quarterback Tom Brady’s safety blankets at wide receiver. Without his quickness to allow separation as in the past, Branch is merely injury protection or desperation at this stage of his career.
PREDICTION: If the Patriots need him, he will return as he is comfortable with the offense and can make a big catch still now and then. No one signed him when he was available last season, and is likely waiting for a call from the Patriots to come back for the veteran’s minimum.
S Patrick Chung
BACKGROUND: The former second-round pick was one of the early season goats as wide receivers blew past him for large gains in the passing game. Once he moved to the bench and fellow safety Steve Gregory teamed with Devin McCourty the defense made huge strides.
PREDICTION: Chung needs a change of scenery and the Patriots appear to have little interest in bringing him back. He has enough talent to be intriguing enough for a couple teams to make an offer to see if he can turn things around. Chalk up Chung as another early-round secondary whiff.
CB Marquice Cole
BACKGROUND: Make no mistake, Cole was with the Patriots for his stellar special teams play. As the Ravens showed in the AFC Championship game, if Cole is lining up in the secondary then the quarterback need only look his way up his completion percentage. Cole may still have some value at cornerback as a slot corner, but really his value is on special teams.
PREDICTION: The Patriots were not bidding against anyone else for Cole last year, so expect him to come back at a low-cost and compete for a final roster spot if the Patriots have interest.
WR Julian Edelman
BACKGROUND: Edelman looked ready to displace wide receiver Wes Welker in the offense for a brief time early last season, but when the injury bug again stuck the diminutive Edelman, he lost his role and further injuries knocked him out for the season.
PREDICTION: Edelman has enough talent to garner some interest in the off-season from teams looking to duplicate the Patriots’ success with Welker at a discounted price. His fate may be tied with Welker, as if the Patriots bring back Welker at a high cost, Edelman will likely look for opportunity outside Foxboro. If Welker leaves, Edelman will have the upper hand in negotiations with the Patriots and could cash in with a decent multi-year deal. Edelman is likely going to see what happens in the market and where his value lies.
TE Michael Hoomanawanui
BACKGROUND: The Hoo-man came in as an unheralded pick-up at tight end behind the higher-cost Daniel Fells and the higher-profile Visanthe Shiancoe and ended up picking up the majority of playing time behind the oft-injured duo of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
PREDICTION: As per reports today (again, MusketFire.com has the news covered in detail by Cyrus Geller here) the Hoo-man was tendered by the Patriots and will likely return next season.
LB Niko Koutouvides
BACKGROUND: Koutouvides is another special teams player who is constantly battling for a final roster spot.
PREDICTION: With a limited market for his services and no team likely to pay more than a veteran’s minimum contract, so look for him to return if the Patriots want him to return.
CB Derrick Martin
BACKGROUND: Martin is yet another special teams player who is constantly battling for a final roster spot and not one to get many reps in the regular defense.
PREDICTION: Martin is another player with a limited market for his services and no team likely to pay more than a veteran’s minimum contract, so look for him to return if the Patriots want him to return.
OL Jamey Richard
BACKGROUND: The former Indianapolis Colts 7th round pick was stashed on injured reserve (with a concussion) for all of the 2012 season early in training camp, after being expected to come in and provide some depth on the offensive line.
PREDICTION: Look for him to try to find someone to give him a shot so he can come in and compete for a back-up guard position. There is a chance the Patriots bring him back to take a look and see if the concussion issues are finally gone.
DE Trevor Scott
BACKGROUND: Scott was a typical Patriots pick-up, as the veteran pass rusher came in at a low cost and provided some pass rush help when injuries gave him a chance to contribute.
PREDICTION: Scott and his agent are likely to get more interest in free agency once the defensive end market shakes down and someone gets desperate for a pass rusher. Don’t expect to see Scott back unless the market for defensive ends bottoms out and he has no other option but to come back as depth.
WR Donte’ Stallworth
BACKGROUND: Stallworth came back to New England and flashed some speed and vertical attack prowess in his only game, catching a 63 yard pass for a touchdown against Houston. Unfortunately, he only played that one game due to injuries.
PREDICTION: Stallworth has 24 receptions over the last 3 years: teams are not beating down his door to sign him. Expect him to sign after the draft and come to training camp to compete for a spot on the roster.
LB Tracy White
BACKGROUND: White is a special teams regular in New England and does not play often in the regular defense.
PREDICTION: A veteran’s minimum contract is all he is likely to receive, if the patriots want him back. Another player with limited options giving the Patriots all the leverage.
RB Danny Woodhead
BACKGROUND: Woodhead again served as the 3rd down back, filling the role made famous in New England by Kevin Faulk.
PREDICTION: As Woodhead came from the scrap heap and not all teams spread the defense as regularly as the Patriots, his options may be limited. There are multiple undersized running backs coming out of the draft in the late rounds each year as teams try to find another Leon Washington or Darren Sproles. Woodhead’s best chance to contribute in New England, but running back and 2nd round draft pick Shane Vereen may be in line to steal his role in the offense. Woodhead may be back to battle for a final roster spot in New England.
Not all of these players will return to New England this off-season, but the odds are good that a number of them will have the opportunity to come back and compete for playing time in training camp this fall. Though not always the “sexy” move made by the team, filling these back-up, special teams, and depth positions can be the small moves that pay big dividends in the fall. As a fan, it is easy to overlook these players, but be sure that coach/general manager Bill Belichick and the front office are giving these players a lot of scrutiny in deciding whether to bring them back in the fall.