- James Walker, ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter
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Here is an early look at New England's top players who are scheduled to hit the open market this offseason:
Aqib Talib, cornerback
2012 stats: 19 tackles, one interception, one touchdown
Analysis: Talib will be a very interesting case for the Patriots. He was a good midseason addition to New England's defense. The Patriots acquired Talib in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who wanted to get rid of the often-troubled corner. But Talib was a model citizen for several months in New England, and the Patriots must decide if that is enough to warrant offering him a long-term contract. On the field, Talib was easily New England's best cornerback. It was obvious when the Patriots’ pass coverage fell apart following Talib’s first-quarter injury in Sunday’s playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The Patriots need Talib or another corner of his caliber in the secondary, or it could be another long year for the pass defense.
Sebastian Vollmer, right tackle
2012 stats: 15 starts
Analysis: Vollmer is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. He is extremely steady and does an excellent job protecting the front side for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Vollmer also is tough and plays through pain. I think he’s the best right tackle in the AFC East. Vollmer has been a bargain find for the Patriots and he deservedly will look to get a sizable raise this offseason. New England must consider his injury history before committing to him with a long-term contract.
Julian Edelman, wide receiver
2012 stats: 21 receptions, 235 yards, three touchdowns
Analysis: The Patriots could have an interesting cat-and-mouse game in free agency with Edelman and Welker. These are New England’s best slot receivers, and the Patriots need to bring one back in the fold. However, the team may use one player against the other in order to get the best value in free agency. Most likely, the Patriots will re-sign Edelman because he is younger and much cheaper. Edelman split time with Welker in the slot this year and did pretty well. Edelman also is great on special teams. Welker had 112 receptions last year and made $9.5 million. His asking price could be too much for the Patriots.
Patrick Chung, safety
2012 stats: 44 tackles, two interceptions
Analysis: Chung was a disappointment this season. He continued dealing with injuries and was not consistent in pass coverage. The Patriots kept waiting for Chung to stay healthy and turn the corner, but he never developed into the playmaking safety they envisioned. In a contract year, Chung slid down the depth chart behind converted corner Devin McCourty and veteran Steve Gregory. It’s probably best for Chung and the Patriots to part ways.
Danny Woodhead, running back
2012 stats: 301 rushing yards, four touchdowns
Analysis: Woodhead is the type of player the Patriots like. He’s dependable and won’t make many mistakes. Woodhead has proved to be a valuable backup behind tailbacks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Woodhead also will come relatively cheap. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots bring him back with a team-friendly contract.
Kyle Arrington, cornerback
2012 stats: 74 tackles
Analysis: Arrington may have played his last game as a Patriot. He has good hands, as evidenced by his seven interceptions in 2011. But Arrington struggles mightily in man-to-man coverage. Often, Arrington was a liability this season that the Patriots tried to hide. New England played a lot of zone before the Talib trade and moved Arrington to the slot after the trade. Arrington also failed to step up when Talib was injured in Sunday’s AFC title game. The Patriots need better cover corners.
Deion Branch, wide receiver
2012 stats: 16 receptions, 145 yards
Analysis: Branch is at the point of his career where he won’t be a priority for the Patriots, but he’s usually on the waiting list. I don’t expect New England to re-sign Branch early in the offseason. He may get a job somewhere else. But the Patriots would only bring him back next season if they need his leadership. Branch doesn't bring much value in terms of production at this stage in his career. New England needs to find youth and athleticism at receiver.
Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker obviously is the biggest name. But that's not the only key player the reigning AFC East champion New England Patriots could lose in free agency.