The Patriots enter the 2014 offseason with a lot of very interesting questions about their future. Back-to-back losses in the AFC championship game coupled with Tom Brady's advancing age (believe it or not, Tom will turn 37 this August) have led to concerns about how much longer the Patriots window for contention will be open, along with the question of whether the Patriots should go all-in on the present in an attempt to win one more championship with Brady.

Unfortunately, this idea is contrasted with a less than ideal cap situation. Currently with only $3.9 million in space under the projected cap, the Pats will likely have to make some cost-cutting moves just to afford to compete for it's own key free agents (Aqib Talib, Julian Edelman, LeGarrette Blount to name a few), let alone to supplement the rest of the roster with free agent talent.

With that in mind, lets take a look at the top five free agent defensive lineman the Patriots could sign. While the Patriots have a very good defensive line on paper, there are a number of question marks here that necessitate bringing in some quality depth. Both starting defensive tackles, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, are in their mid-thirties, coming off of difficult injuries and carrying high cap numbers. Even if the team keeps both of them (which I think they'll do, albeit at a reduced rate for Wilfork), there will be an obvious need to cut back on their workload. Behind them are Armond Armstead, an intriguing prospect whose mysterious injuries have made him the "Yeti" of the Patriots organization, and Sealver Siliga, who emerged as a productive run stuffer in the final month of season. In a perfect world, all four of these guys will be healthy and productive, giving the team an excellent four-man rotation, but there are too many question marks here to justify inactivity. The team is also in need of a defensive end to supplement starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, both of whom wore down last year from an oppressive workload.

1. Arthur Jones

A little brotherly love never hurt anyone, right? The oldest of the three Jones brothers, Arthur, is set to hit free agency after four solid seasons with Baltimore. His versatility could make him an intriguing fit in New England; at 6'3" and 315 pounds, Jones has the bulk to play both inside and outside. The flexibility this would give Bill Belichick on defense could be crucial. On passing downs, Jones could move inside, giving big run stuffers like Wilfork or Siliga a breather, while also being a rotational option at defensive end.

Unfortunately, despite his vacationing with Chandler, Stevan Ridley, Aaron Dobson and others this January, it's looking increasingly likely that the market will drive Jones out of New England's price range. Most prognosticators have Jones amongst the top 5 defensive ends in the free agent market. At age 27, this is probably the elder Jones' only shot at a big money contract; it's hard to imagine him taking significantly less money even if it's to play with his brother on a championship contender. Perhaps the Pats win him over by adding an ice cream bonus to his proposed contract.

For more on Jones and his potential fit in New England, read my earlier post from our "Call to Arms" series

2. Jared Allen

The Patriots considered signing a veteran pass rusher last offseason but decided to stand pat, only to see John Abraham give the Cardinals 11.5 sacks. If they are still interested in bringing in a situational pass rusher, they could do much worse than Allen, whose reached double digit sacks the past seven seasons.
If the two sides can reach an agreement (it's unknown whether Allen still expects to be paid at a superstar rate), this could be a best case scenario for all parties involved. The Patriots get a perfect complement to Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, giving them a deadly three man rotation that should be able to stay fresh and dangerous the entire season. The soon-to-be-32 Allen could also benefit from a reduced workload, especially considering he's played all 16 games every season since 2004. 

Of course, all it will take is for one team to overpay Allen based on his name recognition to push his price tag out of New England's range. If the market is reluctant to pay him based on his age, the opportunity could be there for New England to swoop in and get a steal.

For more on Allen, read my "Call to Arms" piece on him here.

3. Red Bryant

Ok, so I'm cheating here. Bryant is technically under contract with the Seattle Seahawks, not a free agent. However, it's been reported that Bryant will likely be cut to open up cap space for the Hawks to resign Michael Bennett, re-opening the chance that Bryant could come to New England.

Re-opening? Yes, Bryant almost became a Patriot in the summer of 2012, thanks to a strong recruiting push from Bill Belichick. However, Bryant ultimately decided to stay with the team that drafted him, and was rewarded with a Super Bowl championship.

If he does wind up hitting the open market again, he could once again become a logical target for New England. At 6'4" and 323 (yeah right) pounds, Bryant is an immovable object in the middle of a defense against the run. While he doesn't offer much value as a pass rusher, adding that kind of rock to the interior of the defense could help the team make massive improvements against the run, where they ranked 30th in the league last year. A defensive tackle rotation of Wilfork, Bryant and Siliga would be nearly impossible to run against, while also allowing the Pats to keep players like Kelly fresh for pass rushing roles. Bryant was also a beloved and respected leader in the Seattle locker room, and would bolster what's already considered to be a strong locker room in New England.

4. Will Smith

The long-time New Orleans Saint became a cap casualty earlier this month, saving the Saints $11.55 million in cap space. At 32 (turning 33 this summer) and coming off of a torn ACL, there isn't expected to be much of market for his services.

Of course, that also means Smith could become a major bargain if he can regain the former that made him a terror with the Saints. While his sack numbers have dropped since reaching a career high 13 in 2009, Smith continued to put up solid overall pressure numbers (QB hits and hurries), using his physicality to bully offensive tackles and shrink the pocket. That physicality also serves him well in the running game, where he was still an excellent player before going down last offseason.

Rotoworld suggests that Smith can be had this offseason for a one year deal near the veteran minimum. If Smith's recent declaration that he's "just about 100 percent" recovered from his knee injury is accurate, this could make him a major bargain. Like Jared Allen, a reduced role supplementing Ninkovich and Jones could do wonders for Smith, who has a lot of miles on him as a 10 year mainstay in New Orleans. This could be a cost-effective way to fill a need, allowing the Pats to save some money towards filling another need.

5. Corey Peters

It's a bit surprising seeing Peters even in the Patriots price range. The Falcons defensive tackle is only 25 and was set to hit the market coming off of career highs in tackles (46) and sacks (5). However, a torn Achilles in Week 16 was a definite setback for a player looking for a new contract. 

League-wide wariness over investing too much in a player coming off of that kind of injury will likely force Peters to take a short-term, "prove it" type of deal. If that's the case, the opportunity could be there for the Patriots to add a talented young player to their rotation for cheap. There's certainly a risk here, but Peters is tentatively expected to be ready for game action at the start of the season. While adding yet another injury concern to the defensive tackle group is less than ideal, this could be a cost effective way of adding another talented player to the rotation.

Honorable Mentions: Everson Griffen, Willie Young, Brett Keisel, Tony McDaniel, Jonathan Babineaux

Ned Brady 2/25/2014 12:00:00 PM Edit

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