Big-spending offseasons loom for Patriots

Posted May 23, 2012 @ 11:55 a.m.
Posted By Kevin Fishbain

Two of the game’s top playmakers, Texans RB Arian Foster and Eagles RB LeSean McCoy, recently received lucrative contract extensions before entering their respective fourth NFL seasons, which would have been followed by unrestricted free agency.

With those contracts fresh in the minds of teams around the league, one club in particular could be facing an expensive spring in 2013. The Patriots have more than one playmaker entering his third season in 2012, and to make matters more difficult, two of those players play the same position.

TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have two years left on their rookie contracts, and have combined to be the most prolific tight-end tandem in the league. The pair has helped revolutionize the position and made the Patriots’ offense hard to stop the past two seasons. It’s difficult to predict how owner Robert Kraft and the organization will handle the unique situation of having two top players at the same position with contracts expiring at the same time.

Why worry now? Well, the Patriots’ inability to agree on a long-term deal with WR Wes Welker could factor in. The Pats know what is in store for them in the next 20 months involving two — and maybe more — of the game’s best young stars.

The Patriots have an interesting way of going about contracts for stars. In some ways, they have been sure to take care of top players, most recently Jerod Mayo, who, like McCoy, got a big contract before entering the final year of his rookie contract. Tom Brady got a monster deal before the ’10 season. After he was franchised, Vince Wilfork got rewarded handsomely. And Logan Mankins got his deal before the ’11 season — after sitting out eight games the previous season and also receiving the franchise tag, something that Mankins, like Wilfork two years prior, was less than enthused to get.

But as Tom Curran of Comcast SportsNet New England wrote on Tuesday, it hasn’t been that easy, with the Patriots playing hardball almost annually with top players as they refuse to overpay. This offseason, it's Welker.

That brings us back to the “Boston TE Party.” Gronk, who was unstoppable at times last season, likely will receive the biggest contract for a tight end in league history. But what about Hernandez? Can you pay two tight ends big money? Hernandez may play second fiddle in Foxborough, but he is certainly among the best at his position. 

I could go on about the Gronk/Hernandez contract situation, and it will be one closely watched following the ’12 season, but they might not be the only players looking to get out of a rookie contract next year, or hope for (and deserve) big money after 2013. Here’s where things could get trickier for Kraft’s checkbook.

What if CB Devin McCourty returns to his rookie-year form, when he picked off seven passes? Cornerback is a high-paid, important position in the NFL, and he could be looking to cash in. MLB Brandon Spikes has been inconsistent in his two seasons, but a big third season, assuming he stays healthy, and Spikes may be ready for a payday — though his bargaining power may have been diminished with the addition of Dont'a Hightower.

These are the problems that come when you have a successful draft class.

Obviously, the Patriots cannot (and will not) extend all four players before the 2013 season, let alone any of them. Gronkowski has the best chance of getting a new long-term deal, but what looms next spring will then carry over into the ’13 season and beyond as the Patriots continue to maintain the tradition of reloading, not rebuilding, which will involve locking up members of an impressive draft class.

Patrick Chung and Sebastian Vollmer, a pair of 2009 draft picks, certainly won’t make things any easier next offseason, either, as they look for extensions. Chung has the potential to be one of the league’s better safeties, and he is clearly the best one on the Pats’ roster. Vollmer, when healthy, has been a very steady pass blocker for Tom Brady.

The Patriots had plenty of free agents this past offseason, but only one young starter, like Chung and Vollmer will be labeled next offseason, and that was RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis. With plenty of other backs at the position, it wasn't too hard for the Patriots to refuse to engage in a bidding war for The Law Firm. They might not have that luxury with Chung and Vollmer, as well as Gronkowski, Hernandez and potentially McCourty.

This is how things circle back to the Welker situation. The league’s best slot receiver will get $9.5 million this season if a deal is not reached. Should he play on that one-year tender, where will he rank in the Patriots’ priorities next offseason? With Chung and Vollmer needing to be re-signed and potential giant contracts looming for the '10 draft class, what could Welker — who just turned 31 — possibly get from the Patriots in terms of a contract?

With the future contracts in mind, this offseason might be Welker’s best chance for an extension to allow him to finish his career as a Patriot, even if it’s not at his price. If a deal doesn’t get done and he joins his teammates looking for new contracts next spring, it wouldn't be a shock for the Patriots to part ways with Welker. In fact, they could decide to simply re-sign WR Julian Edelman, someone who knows Welker’s position well.

However, Edelman, who had two touchdown catchers in replacing Welker in the 2009 postseason loss to the Ravens, also will be a free agent in 2013. Edelman, in addition to the wideouts the Patriots recently added in free agency — Donté Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, Brandon Lloyd and Anthony Gonzalez — provide plenty of "Welker insurance," and that will only add to the contract dilemmas the Pats will face in the months to come as they try to maintain the offensive powerhouse that has been built in Foxborough. It all will start with Gronkowski and Hernandez.

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