AP NEWS

Plan in place, Patriots ready themselves for free agency

March 6, 2017 GMT

The next two days will begin to unveil the early tenor of the Patriots’ performance in free agency.

With the 52-hour legal tampering period opening Tuesday at noon, the Pats will start to truly get a sense of what it will cost to keep their prized free agents. Barring a drastic about-face, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, cornerback Logan Ryan, tight end Martellus Bennett and safety Duron Harmon will all hit free agency Thursday at 4 p.m., according to sources. Defensive tackle Alan Branch, another premier free agent, made strong progress with his negotiations last week, so it’s conceivable they could come to terms prior to the dawn of the new league year.

Hightower and Bennett want to assess their value on the open market, while the Patriots told Ryan and Harmon to shop around and come back with their preferred offer. At that point, the Pats will essentially determine whether or not they will match the pacts or at least make a relatively competitive offer.

But this is when it begins. Obviously, the expectation is the players’ camps had some backdoor discussions with other teams last week during the combine in Indianapolis. Now, the players can more officially discuss their terms during the legal tampering period. Teams can verbally discuss contractual parameters with players’ agents, but they can’t have any direct contact with the players, set up travel arrangements for a visit or put an offer in writing.

On a related note, the Patriots have yet to inform their restricted free agents, including cornerback Malcolm Butler, which tender they’ll receive, according to a source. The Pats have until Thursday at 4 p.m. to apply their restricted free-agent tenders.

In the meantime, there’s at least a slim chance the Patriots could reach an extension with Butler. Otherwise, the expectation is they’ll use a first-round tender on Butler. The league announced Monday the first-round tender will be worth a guaranteed $3.91 million for the 2017 season. And as a reminder, Butler and other restricted free agents can’t negotiate with other teams during the tampering period.

The Patriots will also continue to explore their options outside the organization, but don’t expect them to make any first-day splashes. That philosophy, sometimes preferred by teams like the Redskins and Dolphins, has been a proven failure.

The Pats have a different mind frame, and it’s not just price-oriented. They realize that players who hit free agency are often flawed (Hightower could be viewed as an exception since he wants to gauge his value), and their value becomes heavily inflated due to bidding wars. That can disrupt the structure of the depth chart if they overpay for an outsider when someone within the system has been a respected contributor and doesn’t make as much money. And that’s a recipe for locker-room issues.

Along with that, the Patriots won’t sign a free agent without first meeting with him, and they don’t budge on that. They want to talk with the player, see what makes him tick and figure out whether or not they feel he will mesh with the program. That’s all why it’d be a surprise if they added an outside free agent prior to Friday or Saturday. (Someone like Jared Odrick would also be an exception to that because he was released and has been free to meet with teams for several days.)

As of Monday, the Patriots had $59.7 million in cap space, according to the NFLPA, so one would surmise they’ve got to put it to use in some capacity. Their priority in the coming days will be to assess how much it will cost their big-name free agents because the Patriots will never waver from their strategy to draft, develop and grow from within.

Financially, the Patriots will be challenged as much as ever due to the caliber of their own free agents who will hit the market. But as the negotiations commence, the Pats will finally know what they’re competing against.