With free agency ready to begin one minute after midnight on Wednesday or Thursday (No, they really mean it this time), the 14 Patriots who are about to become unrestricted free agents will be looking to cash in. Who will be staying around New England and who will be playing elsewhere in 2006? No one really knows for sure but we are about to find out soon. Here's a look at some of the Patriots high-profile free agents and what kind of interest they'll draw once they hit the open market.
Adam Vinatieri – The Boston Herald reported that Vinatieri turned down a deal from the Patriots that would have made him the highest paid kicker in the NFL. Don't read too much into that right now. Even though the Patriots offered Vinatieri a lot of money, it wouldn't be wise for him to sign just before free agency is about to start. He will test the open market and see if any teams blow him away with an offer he just can't turn down. There's nothing wrong with that. This is a business, remember, and Vinatieri wouldn't be doing himself justice if he didn't check to see what kind of money he can get in free agency. If a team is willing to offer him a lot more than the Patriots are, he will probably take it. If teams offer just slightly more than the Patriots proposal, he'll most likely return to New England. In other words, some team is going to have to drastically overpay for a kicker or there is a good chance Vinatieri will stay put.
David Givens – A player not as likely to stay put is Givens. The team would love to have Givens back and he himself would probably prefer to stay but there are a few obstacles in the Patriots way. Those obstacles are as follows:
- The Cleveland Browns have a lot of money to spend in free agency.
- The head coach of the Browns is former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
- Crennel said at the Combine the team is targeting a veteran wide receiver in free agency.
- Givens is a veteran wide receiver.
- Givens and Crennel are close.
Connect the dots and there's a good chance Givens may end up in Cleveland next season. Even if the Browns don't sign him, teams with money to spend like the Packers, Vikings and Eagles all need help at the receiver position. You can never say never with the Patriots but with this being a weak year for receivers in free agency and teams under the salary cap looking for pass catchers, there's a good possibility someone will come in and offer Givens a contract the Patriots just can't match.
Tom Ashworth – Not too many people are talking about Ashworth right now but anyone who has the ability to play both left and right tackle in the NFL is going to generate some interest on the open market. There's no substitute when it comes to experience - especially at the offensive tackle position - so expect Ashworth to draw some attention. At the end of last season, Ashworth was playing more tight end for the Patriots than he was tackle. Brandon Gorin and rookie Nick Kaczur where both ahead of Ashworth on the depth chart at the end of the year, so it will be interesting to see how badly the Patriots try and keep him in New England. Ashworth may not be a dominant tackle but he's a decent option as a starter – more so on the right side – and his versatility and experience will certainly draw offers from teams in the league who need depth along the offensive line. If Ashworth gets offered a solid deal from another team, will the Patriots match it? Based on how little he played on an injury-riddled offensive line late last year, probably not.
Stephen Neal – The market for guards is weak this year now that Steve Hutchinson and Terrence Metcalf have re-signed, which means Neal should be one of the most sought after guards in free agency. This is a problem for New England. Guards typically don't command huge money and the Patriots would love to have Neal back at a reasonable price. However, similar to Ashworth's situation, if a team were to offer him something beyond what the Patriots deem his value to be, Neal could be gone. This would be a big loss for New England. Other than Neal and Logan Mankins, the team really doesn't have another viable option at guard. Russ Hochstein and Gene Mruczkowski can both play guard if the team needed them to but both players are better suited as backups. Because they lack depth at the guard position, look for the Patriots to do everything possible to re-sign Neal. If they can't, get familiar with the names Max Jean-Gilles and Taitusi Lutui because guard will become a pressing need for the team in the draft if they lose Neal and don't replace him with another veteran.
Artrell Hawkins – Hawkins did a good job for the Patriots when they signed him off the street in November. Hawkins - who played cornerback his entire NFL career - made a smooth transition to safety and helped solidify a position the Patriots were weak at since Rodney Harrison was lost for the season. Two things stood out about Hawkins last year: his intelligence and versatility. He showed he was smart enough to quickly pick up a complex system like the one the Patriots run and he's versatile enough to play both safety and corner. Those two characteristics greatly improve Hawkins' chances of returning to New England. Bill Belichick likes intelligent players who are versatile enough to play more than one position. Based on what Hawkins did in his brief playing time last season for the Patriots makes him a good possibility to return in 2006. Update: According to Boston.com, the Patriots agreed to terms on a new deal with Hawkins Wednesday, assuring his return to the team next season.
Troy Brown – Brown is far from the productive receiver he once was but he's still important to the team because he's a reliable third or fourth receiver that Tom Brady has confidence in. Brown will most likely either retire or return to the Patriots for one final season. He rejected an offer from the Saints last year to stay in New England so it's doubtful he will end up playing for another team. If Brown comes back he will only catch 30-40 balls but he's a guy Brady can count on in crucial situations and someone who plays his best in big games. His career may be winding down but you can never have enough Troy Browns on your team. If Brown wants to play one more year, the team would probably welcome him back with open arms.
Andre' Davis – Davis is somewhat important depending on what happens with Givens and Brown. He's not a starting NFL wide receiver but Davis has value as a deep threat and special teams contributor. Since he only caught nine passes last year and was really a factor in just one game (New Orleans), it's doubtful teams are going to line up and offer Davis starter money. The Patriots will need to reload at the receiver position if Givens leaves, so there's a good chance Davis will be back in New England next year. Belichick seemed happy with his contributions on special teams and he's a guy with starting experience the team could use if one of their top receivers goes down with an injury. If Davis doesn't get much attention on the open market – and he probably won't – look for him to be in New England next season.
Other Patriots who are going to be unrestricted free agents: Matt Chatham, Tim Dwight, Heath Evans, Christian Fauria, Doug Flutie, Chad Scott and Michael Stone.
Out of that group, Chatham and Fauria have the best chances of returning. The Patriots need a third tight end so they will either re-sign Fauria or bring in someone like Dan Campbell to replace him. Flutie may be back for one more season but the Patriots should really consider bringing in a younger backup while Matt Cassel is still developing.