- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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The New England Patriots have nine players scheduled for unrestricted free agency in a 2010 season without a salary cap, and the picture is starting to become clearer regarding how each situation will unfold.
Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork will either sign an extension or be assigned the franchise tag.
Running back Kevin Faulk and outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain are most likely to re-sign before March 5 as the sides continue to talk. The Patriots have also expressed an interest in retaining cornerback Leigh Bodden, although it might be too enticing for Bodden to pass up the chance at testing the open market.
Finally, defensive end Derrick Burgess, punter Chris Hanson and right guard Stephen Neal (retirement?) are in a different category, one that would probably best be described as "uncertain" at this point.
Of that final group, Hanson's situation is easy to overlook because of the position he plays. Punters don't create much sizzle or generate many headlines, although their importance was highlighted on the game's biggest stage in Super Bowl XLIV when the Saints' Thomas Morstead, albeit on an onside kick, helped dramatically alter the course of the game.
The question is whether Hanson will return for a fourth season in New England or if head coach Bill Belichick and special teams coach Scott O'Brien will turn that position over to someone else.
"I'd love to come back for another year," Hanson said this week. "I don't think I'm done yet, mentally or physically, but this is something out of our control. Everything will happen for a reason."
At this point, the 33-year-old Hanson, a veteran of 11 NFL seasons, has no indication what the Patriots are thinking. After playing last season on a one-year deal, he acknowledged that he's at the point of his career where "long-term contracts aren't what we do," and while he'd like to return, he explained that each offseason he and his wife Kasey pray and leave the decision to God.
For those who appreciate the third phase of football -- special teams -- the decision is interesting to dissect because of the different aspects of analyzing performance.
Punters are mostly rated on average and net, areas in which Hanson doesn't find himself in the NFL's upper echelon, in part because of the elements in which he works. He finished 2009 with a 39.7 average and 34.1 net, both of which ranked last among the league's 33 eligible punters.
On the flip side, Hanson had only five touchbacks (a career low) and 18 punts fielded or downed inside the 20, statistics that reflect solid control and were helped by his change to more of a rugby-style punt. The left-footed-punting Hanson also produced other hidden statistics in terms of directing the ball out of bounds, away from dangerous returners, which is something the Patriots value.
"I'm not a numbers guy. I'm more about helping the team win and being a consistent player," said Hanson, who rates the Giants' Jeff Feagles as the gold standard at the position for his longevity (22 seasons), production and proficiency at directional punting.
"If I need to go out and keep the ball away from a return man, that's what I do. It's not flashy. I feel like I have a good leg, not necessarily one that will always bang it, but I can control it enough to keep it away from returners and limit returns. That's the whole goal, to limit returns and have fair catches."
Along those lines, opponents totaled just 20 returns against the Patriots last season, which was a league low. Hanson produced 16 fair catches by the opposition.
Over his three years with the Patriots, Hanson has fended off competition for his job both in training camp and during the season when the team kept punter Tom Malone on its practice squad.
If Hanson returns in 2010, it could be part of a competition, with the Patriots perhaps considering the possibility of devoting a draft choice for a top-rated punter like Michigan's Zoltan Mesko. If the Patriots are considering free-agent options, Hunter Smith (Redskins) is one of the few unrestricted possibilities, while Sam Koch (Ravens) is a top option on the restricted market.
Hanson is prepared for all possibilities, in New England or elsewhere, with the feeling that he still has something to offer.
"You always sit down at the end of the season, any season, and you know there are always things you could have done better," he said. "To me, the main thing is were you effective? Did you help the team or hurt the team? Looking back on last season, I don't think I hurt the team."
2hJohn Keim and Adam Caplan