Commentary

Patriots busy with contracts, draft prep

Brady, Wilfork are top priorities as Belichick juggles offseason tasks

Updated: February 13, 2010, 8:26 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

When Bill Belichick picked up the pieces the day after the New England Patriots' disappointing playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, he talked about going through a detailed process that included analyzing the team's scheme, personnel and overall system. He used the word "process" eight times.

Four weeks later, that process has shifted into a higher gear.

So for those asking what the team is doing right now, the answer is a little bit of everything. There are a lot of footballs in the air.

Belichick has essentially set his coaching staff. Senior football adviser Floyd Reese is negotiating with some of the team's soon-to-be free agents. Director of player personnel Nick Caserio is overseeing the team's scouting process for April's all-important NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeTully Banta-Cain
Tom Croke/Icon SMIOutside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain has an expiring contract but is likely to re-sign with New England.

With this in mind, here is a breakdown of some offseason priorities:

Free-agent chatter and Vince Wilfork. Assuming that 2010 will be a season without a salary cap, the Patriots have nine unrestricted free agents and three restricted free agents. One of the top priorities among unrestricted free agents is nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who will almost certainly be assigned the franchise tag if a long-term extension can't be reached over the next two weeks. The window is now open for teams to assign the franchise tag; it runs Feb. 11-25.

Breaking down the unrestricted free-agent group. In addition to Wilfork, the following players have contracts that expire: outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, cornerback Leigh Bodden, defensive end Derrick Burgess, running back Kevin Faulk, defensive lineman Jarvis Green, punter Chris Hanson, right guard Stephen Neal and tight end Benjamin Watson. Some of the players, such as Green, are committed to testing the market. Others, such as Banta-Cain and Faulk, are more likely to re-sign before free agency begins March 5. Neal previously said he was considering retirement.

[+] EnlargeKevin Faulk
Elsa/Getty ImagesRunning back Kevin Faulk is at the end of his contract, too, but the Patriots will likely re-sign him before free agency begins.

Preparing for an important draft. With four selections within the first 53 picks of April's NFL draft, the Patriots have the makings of a defining draft. That also shines a brighter spotlight on the scouting process and the Patriots' evaluation of the players already on the roster. At this point, individual player grades from position coaches should be completed and the team should have a good feel for its greatest needs. The NFL combine is later this month in Indianapolis (Feb. 25-28), followed by the pro-day season, when prospects work out on their own campuses.

Considering free agents from other teams. After they got burned by their big-money signing of Adalius Thomas in 2007, and with re-signing Wilfork and extending the contract of quarterback Tom Brady both top priorities, it would be shocking if the Patriots delve into those rich free-agent waters again in 2010. Thus, a dream signing of Julius Peppers seems like a long shot unless Peppers is willing to come on a shorter-term, shorter-money deal. A more likely scenario is that the team targets a few midlevel free agents to give them more flexibility on draft day, similar to what they did in 2009 by focusing on running back Fred Taylor and tight end Chris Baker. Receiver Josh Reed (Bills) and linebacker/defensive end Jason Taylor (Dolphins) are two projected free agents who might fit the bill.

Tom Brady and a possible contract extension. This marks the first time in his career that Brady enters the final year of his contract, and he could command anywhere from $15 million to $20 million per season on a new deal. He is scheduled to earn $3.5 million in base salary and has a $3 million roster bonus due March 5, which could accelerate talks. Given the significant financial commitment of an extension, the Patriots' offseason strategy must take into account this possibility.

Restricted free agents must be tendered. In a season without a salary cap, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, left guard Logan Mankins and outside linebacker Pierre Woods would revert to restricted free-agent status. The club must determine the level at which to tender them contracts before March 5, protecting their assets so another team doesn't sign them away. That shouldn't be too challenging, and all three players should return.

Putting the finishing touches on the coaching staff. Belichick said last week that he wouldn't name a defensive coordinator in 2010, which answered a major question. Belichick also said he would be taking on more responsibility with the defense. But still to be resolved, at least publicly, is how some of the other coordinator responsibilities will be divided. Also, the team has yet to announce a tight ends coach and might add a few lower-level coaching assistants.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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