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Who’s next: 10 looming contractual questions for Patriots

09.23.13 at 8:43 pm ET
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With Rob Ninkovich in the fold — the defensive end signed a three-year extension with the Patriots over the weekend — here are 10 contractual questions facing New England over the next year-plus that have to be addressed.

Contract up after 2013

Cornerback Aqib Talib  In a depressed free agent market for corners, Talib took $5 million to return to New England on a show-me deal last offseason. That deal was a win-win for both sides: the Patriots got a player motivated by a one-year contract, while Talib will get a chance to hit the market again after the 2013 season. He’€™s off to a terrific start (three picks in three games), and could be in line for a big deal when he becomes a free agent at the end of the year.

Linebacker Brandon Spikes ‘€” A huge question. One of the league’€™s best run-stoppers, he remains a force in the middle of New England’€™s run defense. But at the same time, he hasn’€™t shown an ability to evolve much beyond that into a fully formed three-down linebacker. If he’€™s looking for a big deal, his struggles in coverage could limit him, but if he stays healthy over the course of the 2013 season, he should also command a big contract when he hits the open market.

Center Ryan Wendell ‘€” Wendell has done a very good job of holding down the middle of New England’€™s offensive line since he moved into the full-time gig at the start of the 2012 season. Last year, Pro Football Focus rated him as the best run-blocking center in the league, and his durability was unmatched — his 1,379 snaps were the most among all New England players. The Patriots have never been shy about doling out big deals to their offensive linemen, and Wendell could be the next in line for a tidy payday.

Wide receiver Julian Edelman ‘€” The slot receiver was a free agent afterthought this offseason, signing a deal to return to New England after visiting with the Giants. But Edelman’€™s familiarity with the system and the quarterback has paid off over the first three games of the year to the tune of 27 catches — only one other pass catcher over the last decade has had a better start to his season than Edelman (Wes Welker, who had 31 catches in the first three games of the 2011 season). If Edelman stays healthy, he could be rewarded with a big payday next offseason — bigger than the $765,000 deal he got last offseason, anyway.

Contract up after 2014

Cornerback Devin McCourty ‘€” His leadership, versatility and ball skills make him a truly unique defender in the New England system. Unless something unforeseen happens, either this year or in the offseason, McCourty will likely be next in line for a big contract from the Patriots.

Running back Stevan Ridley ‘€” Ridley is entering a key phase of his career, one that could determine what sort of contract he could be looking at when his rookie deal is up after next season: He finished 2012 with 1,263 rushing yards, and could lay claim to the fact that he was one of the best young backs in the game. However, 2013 started on a down note, as the ball security issues that had dogged him in the past reappeared. If he can regain that mojo and manage to hit the 1,000-yard mark at least once more before the end of the 2014 season, he could be setting himself up for a nice deal — not Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson kind of money, but a base salary in the neighborhood of $2 million a year.

Running back Shane Vereen ‘€” Vereen is in a similar situation to Ridley, and if he’€™s able to get past the wrist injury he suffered at the start of the season and display consistency, he could also land a healthy payday. But he needs to have a good finish to the 2013 season and a good followup in 2014. Despite the fact that he’€™s produced big numbers when he’€™s been healthy, because of his injury history, New England may wait on making a decision about possibly extending Vereen before his rookie deal is up.

Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork ‘€” Big question. After hitting him with the franchise tag between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, the Patriots gave Wilfork a massive new deal, one the longtime Patriot has probably outplayed over the course of the last couple of years. This figures to be the last contract of Wilfork’€™s professional career — he’€™ll turn 33 during the 2014 season — and it will be interesting to see how New England handles the situation.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski ‘€” Gostkowski currently has one of the highest cap hits on the team, and despite the fact that he actually had a better percentage of makes over the first seven years of his career than Adam Vinatieri, the franchise isn’€™t shy about moving on from core specialists if they feel the price isn’€™t right.

Quarterback Ryan Mallett ‘€” Mallett is going into his second full season as the lone backup to Tom Brady, and — in the minds of many — he remains the most tradable chip on the roster because of his Patriots pedigree and college numbers. (Particularly when you take a look around the league at some of the awful quarterback play.) If New England is going to deal him, it would make sense to do it sometime before the 2014 draft — that way, the Patriots could walk away with a pick before Mallett’€™s deal runs out.

Read More: Aqib Talib, Brandon Spikes, Devin McCourty, Julian Edelman
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