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After 2016, Patriots’ future murky as cap and free agency questions loom

The Patriots have several key contributors set to enter free agency after this season. Who will Bill Belichick try to lock up ahead of time, and who will make it to the open market?

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It’s no secret that the Patriots have been the model of consistency under Bill Belichick, especially in recent years. After going through a bit of a transition period (by their standards) during the latter half of the previous decade, New England has been to the conference championship game the last five seasons, reaching two Super Bowls and winning one. Vegas does not expect that success to change this season: Bovada has the Patriots installed as the pre-season Super Bowl favorite.

Things can change quickly, though, and as of today, the future beyond this season is murky for the Patriots—perhaps more than it has ever been during Belichick’s tenure.

Aside from the fact that Tom Brady turns 40 next August, the Patriots have a whopping 14 starters or key role players who will experience some form of free agency after the 2016 season, including core starters Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard and Logan Ryan. Most are on the defensive side of the ball, where New England has done a great job rebuilding a unit that struggled before the recent run.

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What are the Patriots planning to do? For one thing, they’re not going to panic and throw a dumb contract at any of those players out of desperation. They just don’t do that. An important factor to keep an eye on is that while the Patriots have about $9.7 million in cap space for the rest of this season, they have been saving up for the “rainy day” that awaits in 2017. The Patriots have $63.2 million in cap space next year, third-most in the NFL behind the Broncos and Buccaneers, according to Expect the ’17 surplus to be a big factor one way or another, whether it comes through in the form of roster bonuses or new deals for older veterans. But also remember that the Patriots won’t have that money available to use on expired contracts until the first day of the new ’17 league year, which coincides with free agency. You can say, “Just sign them next off-season,” but by waiting you are giving the other 31 teams an opportunity to talk to the player and, in most cases, driving up the price tag.

Don’t think next off-season isn’t weighing heavily on the Patriots. They know they have a lot of balls in the air, but feel like they have the right plan to keep the team’s future secure. In fact, that plan already started when Chandler Jones (who was on track to be another ’17 free agent) was traded to the Cardinals for guard Jonathan Cooper and what turned out to be two draft picks (OL Joe Thuney and WR Malcolm Mitchell). New England already had its pecking order for ’17, decided Jones wasn’t a priority and decided to clear his space from the books and move ahead with those who were in the team’s long-term plans.

Let’s take a look at the Patriots set to hit the market next year—and a few others—and project the most likely outcomes for each. (All players are set to be unrestricted free agents next spring unless otherwise noted.)

LB Jamie Collins (2016 cap hit: $1.2 million) — The former second-round pick is coming off two standout seasons in which his immense athletic talents have wreaked havoc on opposing offenses. Hightower might be the most consistent down-to-down player on the defense, but the Patriots likely view Collins as the top priority because his ceiling is so high and his skills are more difficult to replace.
Projection: Collins gets a contract extension before the season that uses a large roster bonus in ’17 as a vehicle to get him the bulk of his money. If the Patriots feel strongly about rewarding Butler, Collins may have to wait until next year to get paid with the franchise tag and then an extension.

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LB Dont’a Hightower (2016 cap hit: $7.8 million) — He seamlessly replaced Jerod Mayo when the former captain went down with injuries and became the heart of the defense.
Projection: Hightower’s extension becomes the first one on the list completed. Any deal will likely lower his cap number for this season and perhaps free up enough money to address other names on this list.

CB Malcolm Butler (restricted free agent; 2016 cap hit: $600,000) — Butler went from little-known Super Bowl hero to one of the better cornerbacks in the league in short order. The former undrafted free agent is making next to nothing and deserves a raise, but will the Patriots see it that way?
Projection: He could get an extension if he’s willing to take the Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez route and take less than market value for the sake of security. In the most likely scenario, Butler is forced to play out this season and gets a first-round tender (worth around $4 million) in ’17 that perhaps facilitates a team-friendly deal.

TE Martellus Bennett (2016 cap hit: $5.19 million) — New England will be in wait-and-see mode on the former Bears standout acquired via trade in March, especially considering Bennett can be an acquired taste.
Projection: If he has an average season, the Patriots will let him hit free agency and join the bidding. If Bennett has a big season, the franchise tag is not out of the question if it is not used elsewhere.

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DE Jabaal Sheard (2016 cap hit: $6.6 million) — After being on a milk carton with the Browns, Sheard was an invaluable part of the defense as the best per-down rusher on the team.
Projection: An extension to lower his cap hit could be in the works if he’s willing to take less than his market value to stay in what has been a good situation for him. But considering Sheard is 27 and has yet to get his first (and only?) big-money contract, he might be willing to bet on himself and hit the market. In that scenario, he is another candidate for the franchise tag.

RT Sebastian Vollmer (2016 cap hit: $5.2 million) — A standout at right tackle, Vollmer has battled injuries the past handful of seasons and will be 33 by Week 1 of 2017.
Projection: Considering his age, the Patriots let him hit the market and then keep tabs on bringing him back as long as Vollmer doesn’t opt for retirement.

CB Logan Ryan (2016 cap hit: $1.8 million) — The former third-round pick became a starter last season and delivered a mostly good season, but he’s still prone to inconsistency.
Projection: The Patriots try to strike a deal in principle before free agency starts, but with ’16 second-round pick Cyrus Jones waiting in the wings, they’ll be O.K. if they are priced out of Ryan’s market.

DE Rob Ninkovich (2016 cap hit: $4.8 million) — An underrated, versatile performer, Ninkovich has been a mainstay in the front seven, whether he’s rushing the passer or dropping into coverage.
Projection: He will be 33 next season, so the Patriots likely let him hit the market and then bring him back on a modest one-year deal.

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DE Chris Long (2016 cap hit: $2.4 million) — After dealing with injuries the past two seasons with the Rams, Long was forced to take a one-year deal from New England.
Projection: He’ll be 32 next season, but if he stays healthy and enjoys some success, it’s easy to see him returning on modest one-year deals to stay within a winning program.

DT Alan Branch (2016 cap hit: $2.2 million) — Branch had a good second season with New England both against the run and as a pass rusher.
Projection: He will be allowed to hit free agency, and New England will monitor it from there.

NT Terrance Knighton (2016 cap hit: $2 million) — Knighton was one of the best two-way tackles in the NFL during his two seasons with the Broncos before an underwhelming 2015 season with Washington.
Projection: He will be 30 in July, which isn’t old for a mostly two-down player. If he buys in and regains his Denver form, I could see the Patriots retaining him in free agency next year.

S Duron Harmon (2016 cap hit: $1.8 million) — Harmon developed into a mostly reliable deep safety in sub packages.
Projection: With 2015 second-rounder Jordan Richards and some other young players waiting in the wings, Harmon will likely test the market.

WR Matt Slater, RB Brandon Bolden (2016 cap hit: $3.2 million) — Slater and Bolden are grouped together because they provide the same value on different sides of the ball as special teams standouts.
Projection: Considering the team’s tight cap situation, both will see the market but are likely to be retained unless the Patriots feel they have younger players ready to go.

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LG Jonathan Cooper (2016 cap hit: $2.4 million) — The No. 7 pick in 2013, Cooper busted out of Arizona and will get a chance to revive his career in New England.
Projection: No way to tell until he actually does something and proves he wants to play.

OT Marcus Cannon (2016 cap hit: $4.8 million) — Despite position changes and multiple second chances, Cannon has never developed into a consistent player. Perhaps the return of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will help him turn a corner.
Projection: Considering the Patriots will be looking for more cap space to get extensions done, they’re probably begging for anyone to develop into Cannon’s replacement so he can be released, but the tackle position is thin.

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Situations to monitor farther down the road:

TE Rob Gronkowski (FA after 2019, $6.6 million cap hit in 2016) — Considering he’s been passed by Travis Kelce and Jordan Reed on the average annual salary leaderboard among tight ends, it’s time for the Patriots to tear up that team-friendly option they picked up.
Projection: Gronkowski gets a new contract with built-in injury protections next year.

QB Jimmy Garoppolo (FA after 2017, $950,154 cap hit in 2016) — If Brady serves his suspension and Garoppolo fares well in his place, he could bring a haul of picks after this season, provided that the Patriots think rookie Jacoby Brissett has a chance to develop into something. Brady’s contract runs through 2019, but the team can start to think about moving on from him in a cap-friendly way starting after ’17, the same time Garoppolo’s contract expires. So maybe the Patriots keep Garoppolo around, see where Brady is at in two seasons and make a decision then.
Projection: It’s impossible to know until Garoppolo actually plays. If the courts reverse the suspension and send him back to the sidelines, he will stay in New England for another season.