Between Aqib Talib and Antonio Cromartie, two teams in the AFC East have either moved on from their top cornerback, or are preparing for that reality. Then there’s another team far more concerned with the guy who throws the ball, and making sure he doesn’t break.
New England Patriots
Estimated cap room: $12.7 million
Draft slot: 29th
End game: The first step to a happy Patriots offseason is retainment, or at least it is offensively. Julian Edelman plays a highly specific role very well, and he’s the perfect fit as the slot man when Josh McDaniels spreads the field. But more importantly, with Rob Gronkowski’s health once again highly in question to begin next season and Danny Amendola forever broken, Edelman is needed as insurance. While it’s true that the Patriots’ offensive machine can morph into different forms while marching onwards (from pass happy behemoth to running juggernaut), Tom Brady still needs targets he feels comfortable with. That wasn’t the case this past season with Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins after Amendola went down.
Meanwhile, Edelman was targeted 151 times on high percentage, quick-strike throws that put him in space. That’s nearly a quarter of Brady’s pass attempts, and it includes seven double-digit target weeks, and two with 18 or more. With that sort of volume it’s easy to see why the Patriots are making a strong push to keep Edelman.
The other notable offensive pending free agent is LeGarrette Blount, but as impressive as he was with a hulking frame and surprising speed in the open field (during a three-game stretch to end the season and start the playoffs, Blount had 431 rushing yards and eight touchdowns) there’s little need to spend money of any significance to retain him. Here again we arrive at the cruel fate of the readily discarded NFL running back, because with Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, and Shane Vereen waiting, Blount isn’t a priority and he’s easily replaceable.
Aqib Talib is the most stressing possible departure, and he’ll determine the direction of the Patriots’ offseason. Although he struggled though injuries to end 2013, he was playing at a Pro Bowl level earlier in the season while shutting down Jimmy Graham, and throughout the first six weeks he allowed a passer rating of only 30.8 on balls thrown in his direction. That’s just stupid, and now the contract Brent Grimes signed to stay in Miami serves as the baseline for any future Talib agreement with, well, anyone. And it’s likely he’ll get more.
Grimes signed on for four years at a cost of $32 million, with $16 million guaranteed. He fully deserves that cash after a fine season, but Grimes will turn 31 before the 2014 season starts, while Talib is 28. Then Saturday Sam Shields raised the top corner price further when he re-signed with the Packers on a four-year deal that averages $9.75 million. Herein lies the problem for the Patriots: look at their minimal cap room again, and then note that Talib is seeking a “top of the market” deal, which will surely cost at least $9 million. That makes retaining both Edelman and Talib difficult, and it means the latter likely won’t happen.
So now we’ve arrived at New England’s draft focus, or at least one of them. Losing a shutdown corner like Talib is crushing in today’s NFL, and reinforcing that area of their depth chart will be a priority. However, the Patriots are also keenly aware of Vince Wilfork’s increasing age, especially after his Achilles injury. At the tail end of the first round they’re in a prime position to target one of the top defensive tackles, likely Louis Nix or Ra’shede Hageman.
New York Jets
Estimated cap room: $30 million
Draft slot: 18th
End game: Geno Smith just might be horrible. Or he might be salvageable, and neither of those things is all that encouraging. That’s why the Jets have widely been rumored as a Michael Vick landing spot. Vick wants to start, because every player at every position wants to start. But at his age (34 before the start of next season) and brittleness, Vick won’t be handed a starting job. No, the best he can hope for is a legitimate chance to compete in training camp, and the best opportunity to do that is with the Jets. In fact, a Vick signing here makes too much sense, so it definitely won’t happen.
Both sides would win, with Vick getting his opportunity, and the Jets getting an established veteran who can push Smith throughout the offseason. Ideally Vick — who tops an always bare free agent market for quarterbacks, especially after Matt Cassel re-signed — would receive a cheap contract on a minimal term, a deal that would minimize any injury risk. Vick also makes sense because addressing any short-term quarterback needs shouldn’t wait for the draft.
Why? Because with the current roster the man under center will be napalmed by a severe lack of receiving options. If we assume Santonio Holmes and his oft-injured body is eventually cut, that will leave the Jets with the disappointing Stephen Hill as a starting wideout alongside journeyman David Nelson, and Jeremy Kerley in the slot. That’s a lot of barf there, and it’s a fine way to torpedo whatever potential and confidence Smith has. That’s why John Idzik could make it rain for either Eric Decker or Hakeem Nicks.
If the need for an impact wide receiver waits until May, Mike Evans will be gone by the time the Jets are on the clock at 18th overall unless they trade up, and Sammy Watkins would require a giant, bounding leap. So they’ll be left choosing between Marquies Lee, Combine superstar Odell Beckham Jr., and Kelvin Benjamin. Alternatively, they could get their capable set of hands at another position and take Eric Ebron, the draft’s top tight end who can be paired with Jeff Cumberland.
Oh and there’s also the need for a cornerback now after Antonio Cromartie finally became a widely expected cap casualty yesterday, saving the Jets $4.3 million. That extra cap room provides the flexibility to chase Alterraun Verner, though the sizzling hot market for the 25-year-old will inflate his financial demands fast, and acquiring his services could cost north of $10 million. Whether they look to Verner or elsewhere, the Jets will also be major players in the cornerback market with their new-found cash. Kyle Wilson has been a dud and Dee Milliner could be headed in that direction too, but spending yet another early-round pick on a CB isn’t at all appealing.
Estimated cap room: $34.4 million
Draft slot: 19th
End game: Say, are you large, strong, and reasonably mobile? Then YOU can play on the Miami Dolphins offensive line in 2014.
A line that was already weak lost Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito when the toxic waste piling in their locker room spilled over, corrupting the team and decimating Ryan Tannehill’s production further. The result was 58 sacks allowed — easily a league high — and nine games when Tannehill was taken down four or more times.
That glaring protection deficiency made the Mike Wallace signing an immediate money pit. The real shame was that in the rare moments when he was sort of upright Tannehill showed some promise in his second season, but the constant onrush of defensive bodies in his grill skewed whatever minimal sample size we were dealing with. Was he just frantically using his athleticism to roll out and pull off the odd desperate throw? Or was it all real, and not a mirage?
In short, passing judgement on a quarterback who was sacked nearly 60 times isn’t a wise thing to do, which is why a premier left tackle is now atop new general manager Thomas Hickey’s wishlist. As ProFootballTalk reported yesterday, it won’t be remotely surprising to see Branden Albert sign in Miami shortly after the market opens Tuesday. Although he’s the best blindside protector available, Albert also has a recent history of injuries after missing seven games over the past two years, and yet he’ll still cost somewhere in the vicinity of $10 million annually. If his price escalates too high then Eugene Monroe and Jared Veldheer are also options.
Along the defensive line the Dolphins are preparing for a mass interior exodus, with both Randy Starks and Paul Soliai departing. A run stuffing presence will be sorely needed then, and with whatever cap room is left after the offensive line is addressed Hickey could chase Henry Melton, B.J. Raji, or Jason Hatcher. That need might wait until early in the draft when the Dolphins will either continue to load up at tackle with Zach Martin, or pounce on Aaron Donald.
Estimated cap room: $23.1 million
Draft slot: 9th
End game: Is E.J. Manuel the quarterback of the future? Let’s all shrug our shoulders in unison. What I do know (or at least I think I know) is that the Bills aren’t ready to torch the Manuel experiment yet, especially not after a rookie year when he was limited to only 10 starts due to a knee injury. But in those 10 starts his touchdown total (11) was facepalmingly close to his interception total (9), and he often left the pocket far too early. Bringing a veteran quarterback in for some healthy, wholesome competition (say, where have we heard that before? 2013 wasn’t a kind year to rookie QBs) would be a smart idea. But smart ideas and Bills quarterbacks often don’t mix, and they seem content with Thad Lewis behind Manuel.
Which is a damn shame, because it feels like they’re only a quarterback away from at the very least contending for a playoff spot. Sure, the defense is about to lose Jairus Byrd, which sucks, but they locked up Aaron Williams, Kiko Alonso is quickly becoming one of the best all-around young middle linebackers not named Luke Kuechly, and Buffalo’s hurtful front four with their 57 sacks will more than compensate for any secondary issues. And between C.J. Spiller, an aging yet still effective Fred Jackson, Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods, and Marquies Goodwin, there’s plenty of youth and speed at the skill positions.
But it’s that safety hole that needs to be addressed, or at least fortified. Dipping into the second-tier of free agents is likely, with Chris Clemons (who won’t be re-signed by the Dolphins) a possibility, along with Malcolm Jenkins.