COMMENTARY| The 2013 NFL season is still months away but it's never too early for the New England Patriots to start looking ahead. A number of key players are set to become free agents after the upcoming season, and it will be interesting to see who among them the team will try to sign to extensions.
Barring agreements reached in the next year, the Patriots will have decisions to make on their 2014 free agents. While the upcoming season will obviously play a role in determining who will and won't be back, taking a look at how things stand now gives a glimpse of how these decisions might unfold.
The following players are expected to play major roles for the 2013 Patriots but will be free agents after the season:
Wide Receiver Julian Edelman: After Wes Welker left New England to sign with the Denver Broncos this offseason, Edelman could have replaced him as the team's primary slot receiver. Instead, free agent Danny Amendola was inked to a long-term deal while Edelman settled for a one-year contract.
In addition to his work as a receiver, Edelman has also returned kicks and even played a little defense. He is currently low on the Patriots' depth chart but his versatility is something coach Bill Belichick values in players, so he is a good candidate to return in 2014 if the price is right.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes: Although the 25-year-old is one of the team's starting linebackers, he has not been a dependable three-down player. While he is a bruising force in the run game, he often struggles in pass coverage.
Spikes recorded 200 tackles in his first three seasons, including 92 last year. He recently drew headlines for being the only player on the roster to skip the optional team OTAs. Pro Football Talk's Josh Alper reported he opted instead to work out with a personal trainer in an effort to become more well-rounded and earn a better contract.
The Patriots aren't fans of players who rock the boat, so Spikes will have to put on-field effort and results where his mouth is if he wants his money.
Defensive Lineman Rob Ninkovich: The versatile defender has seen his role with the team increase in each of his four seasons with the team. This culminated with him being a force on the defensive line last year, posting 58 tackles, eight sacks and five forced fumbles.
About to complete a current modest two-year, $4 million contract, the 29-year-old Ninkovich will likely look to make a big score in the offseason. Even if he continues his productive play, he could find it difficult to get the Patriots to open up their checkbook for major money because of his age.
Cornerback Aqib Talib: Acquired in a trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, Talib stepped in and played well in the New England secondary. He had 10 tackles against the Houston Texans in the playoffs but exited early from the AFC championship game against the Baltimore Ravens because of injury. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco took advantage by tossing three touchdowns; taking his team to an eventual Super Bowl victory.
Talib returned to New England this season on a one-year, $5 million contract. He has a history of off-field trouble and was suspended last year for testing positive for PEDs. With the recent Aaron Hernandez controversy, the Patriots may not feel it's worth offering a long-term deal to the talented but risky 27-year-old defensive back.
Center Ryan Wendell: Offensive lineman is among the least-sexy positions on a football team, as the best are those whose names are rarely mentioned. By such logic, the unsung Wendell is one of the most under-appreciated players on the Patriots.
He was signed as an undrafted guard out of Fresno State in 2008 and since then worked his way from the practice squad to becoming the team's starting center last year.
According to The Boston Globe, Wendell was instrumental in the team accumulating 2,184 rushing yards last year. Including his work on special teams, he led the NFL in snaps, and missed just six offensive plays during the regular season. The Patriots covet developing hard-working undrafted linemen like Wendell but they won't be afraid to cut ties and move on to the next young player if they need to.
Conclusion: The Patriots have a reputation for being shrewd and unsentimental. Even though some of their impending free agents have been major contributors, there are no guarantees they will be retained beyond next season. It will all come down to how they perform in 2013 and if the team believes the years and the money are right on a case-by-case basis.
In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports. He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew
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