FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots return to Gillette Stadium on Tuesday to begin five full days of preparations for Sunday?s playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens. With the one-and-done format, the Patriots have no idea what they?ll be doing next week at this time, whether they?re working on game tape of the San Diego Chargers or dispersing to their homes across the country to begin their offseason.
For some, this could be the last time they ever don a Patriots uniform, as free agency looms closer with each passing tick of the clock. Naturally, a playoff loss would mean a fifth consecutive year without a Super Bowl, but it also signifies, to some extent, a new direction for the team, at least as far as personnel is concerned.
When looking at the Patriots? free-agent class, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork is the elephant in the room. Many speculate he?ll be slapped with the franchise tag — which is expected to be roughly $7 million for defensive tackles — if Wilfork and the Patriots can?t come to terms with a long-term contract extension.
That will keep Wilfork around for another season — and the price tag is certainly favorable — but it could cause a contentious relationship. After the Patriots tagged Asante Samuel in 2007, the cornerback couldn?t get out of town fast enough in 2008. Wilfork admitted last week it was difficult early this season to separate business from football, but he was able to move forward and handle the situation as professionally as possible.
"Never being in this situation before, it was a problem, and I could have talked to hundreds of people about it," said Wilfork, who was elected to his second Pro Bowl. "I talked to certain people and everyone had different answers. It basically boiled down to what I want to do, and what?s best for my family and me. My wife put it on my shoulders. She said, ?What?s best for you? You make the decisions.? She knows how much I love football, and right then and there I say you know what, it?s football. I am a true believer in everything working itself out, and I am sticking behind that. Once I put [the business aspect] behind me, it was behind me. I didn?t look back, and I don?t have any regrets. If I had to do it again, I wouldn?t change a thing."
Patriots left guard Logan Mankins is another player who was voted to his second Pro Bowl and has an uncertain contract situation after this season. Mankins is like Wilfork in a lot of ways, though, in that he would prefer to shed the spotlight, take care of his responsibilities and let his on-field work determine his upcoming contract. Also like Wilfork, Mankins is human and has had a tough time coming to grips with his first go-round in the cutthroat side of this business.
"Yeah, you think about it," Mankins said. "You see other guys signing extensions, and you wish you were one of those guys with an extension. But it is what it is, I guess. You will have to ask the powers that be around here if I?m going to get one or not because I don?t know."
While Mankins has stopped short of getting a Samuel-esque ?Get Paid? tattoo, the offensive lineman made sure to let his voice be heard with that quote at the podium of the Gillette Stadium media workroom. Certainly, it?s got to be difficult watching teammates such as right tackle Nick Kaczur, offensive lineman Dan Connolly and linebackers Eric Alexander and Rob Ninkovich ink new deals in the middle of the season, but the Patriots appear to be consistent with this strategy.
Since the NFL is facing the possibility of an uncapped season in 2010 — which could either turn into the ultimate banishment of the salary cap, or a completely restructured cap in 2011 — teams are having a tough time projecting their budgets. With that, some players believe they?re worth more money if the NFL proceeds without a salary cap.
Therefore, the Patriots have been signing their midlevel-to-lower-level players to contract extensions that aren?t worth a whole ton and won?t really affect other salary negotiations. However, big-money players like Wilfork and Mankins have been forced to wait it out.
There are other notable Patriots whose contracts are up after this season, including cornerback Leigh Bodden, edge rusher Derrick Burgess, running back Kevin Faulk, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, defensive end Jarvis Green, linebacker Gary Guyton, right guard Stephen Neal, linebacker Junior Seau, tight end Ben Watson and linebacker Pierre Woods.
That list includes some serious role players who could receive significant raises on the open market, and the Patriots might have their work cut out for them while trying to retain guys like Bodden, Green and Guyton. Of course, the players and front office understand there is one real way to delay that stressful process — keep winning, and the only business they?ll worry about will be on the field.