As the start date of the NFL's new year and free agency approaches (March 11), the difficult personnel decisions facing teams around the league are coming more clearly into focus.
Thanks to a list compiled by Rotoworld's Evan Silva, we can take a closer look at players who may be candidates to be released or have their contracts restructured.
The following are the Patriots players highlighted in Silva's league-wide list with our accompanying thoughts for each. While we agree that some of the players listed might make strong candidates for a restructure or release, we'd be surprised to see others go.
All dollar figures were put together by Silva based on information from the NFL Players Association and media reports.
Connolly has been a versatile, and durable, member of the Patriots offensive line for the last five seasons. He has started in at least 13 games every season since 2009, and he has made starts at both guard spots and at center. He started all 16 regular-season games for the first time in his career in 2013, but he suffered a concussion in Week 6 that forced him from New England's win over the Saints. Though his leadership would be highly valued at a position group that lost longtime coach Dante Scarnecchia to retirement, his $3 million cap hit in 2014 could make him a candidate to have his contract restructured.
New England's kicker is slated to make $2.9 million and a $100,000 workout bonus in 2014, but in 2013 he made his best case for why he's worth every penny. Arguably the league's best kicker this season, he made his second Pro Bowl after hitting on 38 of 41 regular-season field goals. He came through with clutch kicks against Bills, Texans, Jets, Dolphins, Broncos and executed a perfect onside kick against the Browns that was recovered and helped the Patriots win the game.
How will the 33-year-old recover from a season-ending knee injury suffered in Week 5 against the Bengals? The answer to that question will go a long way in helping to determine whether or not the Patriots decide to restructure Kelly's deal, which is scheduled to pay him $1.95 million, $500,000 in per-game roster bonuses and $50,000 in a workout bonus. Kelly only got to play three full games alongside fellow defensive tackle Vince Wilfork before Wilfork suffered a season-ending injury of his own in Atlanta in Week 4. Together, the two provided the Patriots with a great deal of power in the middle of the defensive line that the team missed without them. Rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano and third-year defensive tackle Sealver Siliga did their best to fill the void for the remainder of the season.
New England's special teams captain made his third straight Pro Bowl this season after another stellar campaign as one of the league's best at covering punts and kickoffs. That he did it after missing five weeks with a wrist injury made his performance all the more impressive. It would be surprising to see coach Bill Belichick -- a former special teams coach who has long stressed the importance of the kicking game -- make a move from the six-year veteran, especially since Slater has become one of the team's top locker-room leaders. Slater hasn't done anything to diminish his value, but his $1.2 million salary and $100,000 workout bonus for 2014 may seem for some outside the confines of Gillette Stadium like a high price to pay for a player who sees action offensively in relatively seldom-used sets.
Brought aboard midseason to help the loss of Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork, the 10-year vet played in six games for the Patriots, recording one sack. However, his playing time dwindled as the season wore on and he was eventually replaced by Sealver Siliga in the defensive line rotation. Made inactive for New England's final four games of the season (two regular-season games, two playoff games) it would seem unlikely that the team would bring him back for $3.5 million.
The 2013 season was the first time in Wilfork's 10-year career that he didn't play at least 13 games. In the three years prior, in fact, he played all 16 in the regular season. Now he faces the task of making a full recovery after having his Achilles torn in Week 4 against the Falcons. Wilfork's dedication to football is unquestioned, but it will be difficult to predict how the 6-foot-2, 325 pounder will look on his surgically-repaired ankle until he's back on the field. For a player of his stature in the Patriots locker room, it seems unlikely he would play anywhere else, but his $7.5 million cap hit and $800,000 workout bonus may make him a candidate for a contract restructure.