New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his three-year contract extension may have loosened up the team's coffers for a free-agent search in March.
According to several reports, the three-time Super Bowl winning quarterback agreed to a three-year $27 million extension, that included a $30 million signing bonus. That deal freed up $15 million of salary cap space for New England over the next two seasons.
For 2013, Brady’s contract now gives the Patriots more than $23 million in cap space, according to USA Today, and New England has several areas they need to address if Brady hopes to tie Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana for most Super Bowl wins by a quarterback.
The No. 1 priority for the Patriots must be their secondary. Last season, New England's defense was ranked 29th in passing yards, and gave up a whopping 74 pass plays for 20-plus yards -- by far the worst in the NFL.
New England and head coach Bill Belichick tried to address the problem early last year when they traded for defensive back Aqib Talib. The Patriots only surrendered a fourth round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but that had more to do with Talib’s major troubles away from the field, which included a performance enhancing drug suspension and run-ins with the law.
Despite those off-the field issues, Talib’s talent is evident and signing him to a long-term deal could be in New England’s best interests. Placing the franchise tag on Talib could be more costly than a lengthy contract. The market for cornerbacks might put an $11 million tag on Talib, and teams may shy away from him considering his history, which gives New England an advantage in negotiations. In six games with New England, Talib had one interception, which he returned 59 yards for a touchdown, along with two passes defended.
New England could go another way, and sign future Hall Of Famer Ed Reed. The 34-year-old safety made headlines when he praised Belichick during the week leading up to the Super Bowl, and the two apparently share a mutual admiration. The active leader in career interceptions with 61, Reed may walk as the Ravens try to ink quarterback Joe Flacco to a long-term deal.
Though since Brady re-structured his deal, that may have lowered the cost of the exclusive franchise tag the Ravens can place on Flacco, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Baltimore may now have the breathing room necessary to bring Reed back.
The Patriots must also decide what to tender, if anything, to wide receiver Wes Welker. The five-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro showed no signs of slowing down last season. Welker snagged 118 catches for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns, and has led the NFL in receptions three times in his career.
New England placed the franchise tag on him last season for $9.5 million, and could do it again in 2013, but that would cost roughly $11 million according to the Boston Herald. The Herald also reported Tuesday that the Patriots and Welker are currently discussing a new contract, and that New England is unlikely to tag him again.
Welker will be an unrestricted free agent in March, and should he leave, the Patriots have several options on the market to choose from.
Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace went through a contentious negotiation with the Steelers, and like Welker, Pittsburgh may not tag him. The speedy deep-threat could be a cheaper alternative than Welker. Wallace is prone to dropping passes, a habit Brady and Belichick could break quickly.
Last season, Wallace caught 64 passes for 836 yards and led Pittsburgh wide receivers with eight touchdowns.