by Bruce Allen, Greg Doyle, Bill Barnwell, Tim Jordan, Kevin Thomas, and Scott Benson

The NFL’s veteran free agency signing period began at midnight, so we’ve headed back to the Roundtable for a look at the developments thus far in the Patriots off-season, as well as what lies ahead for last season’s AFC runner-up.

We’ve been hard at work on the personnel front ourselves. Today we welcome Bill Barnwell from Football Outsiders as a full-timer, and also introduce our old friend Kevin Thomas as the latest addition to the Row of Chairs.

The Pats already struck their first free agency blow when they designated corner Asante Samuel as the team’s franchise player. The move locks up Samuel – who intercepted 12 passes in 2006 – for next season (at nearly 8 million) and gives the team the chance to work out a long-term deal with the corner. What was your reaction to the Pats tagging Samuel, and will he remain a Patriot over the long-term?

Bruce: It’s good to know that either the Patriots will get something for him, or he’ll be back in 2007. I’m not sure if they’ll be able to work out a long term deal or not, but at the very least they won’t have let him go for nothing. His long term prospects as a Patriot I think lies largely with him and what he wants. He’s got his rings, does he want more, or does he want his money?

Greg: They really had no choice. They couldn’t let him walk for nothing. This gives them leverage, either they sign him to a reasonable deal or can deal him as they did when they franchised Tebucky Jones a few years back. Personally, I am in the trade him camp. I do not think he’ll have another season like he did this year again. He is a good player, but he’ll receive a contract as a great player from someone. I think the Patriots could recoup a first round pick for him as he is at his maximum value on the market after this past season and that is exactly what I’d do.

Bill: I think it was the smartest move that the Patriots could have made, under the circumstances. This is a team that has half of its defense on its last legs and the other half entering its collective peak. Player fungibility is all fine and dandy and relevant, but Samuel’s not a fungible player. Ellis Hobbs or Randall Gay? Replaceable. Samuel’s an upper-echelon corner entering the prime of his career, and his retention was absolutely necessary for the Patriots to stake any claim to a potential 2007 title. Bringing Samuel into the long-term fold is something that also requires some serious thought, especially when you consider his relative avoidance of the injury bug that’s bit Patriots defensive backs over the last few seasons (as well as Browns DBs under Romeo Crennel). In short: He’s a championship-caliber #1 cornerback entering his prime. You don’t let those get away.

Kevin: Count me strongly in favor of this move. Losing Samuel would be a big blow to the team in 2007, and would create yet another large hole to fill in what is shaping up to be a busy offseason. I don’t think you can get very far in this league without solid cornerback play. You really need players who can handle one-on-one situations with receivers, without drawing devastating penalty flags in the defensive backfield, and can also create their share of game-changing turnovers. Asante can do all of those things reasonably well, and has developed into a pretty damn good cornerback in his four years under Bill Belichick. There aren’t many guys at his level out there, and save for Nate Clements, none are readily available. Franchising Samuel gives the Patriots some serious leverage in their ongoing attempts to resign Samuel, but it also creates an incentive for the team to give Asante the long-term deal he wants in order to reduce the large franchise-tag cap charge for the 2007 season. It is my hope and expectation that they will resign Samuel this offseason.

To the surprise of some, the Pats did not work out a deal with tight end Daniel Graham, and word this week is that the veteran will have suitors on his doorstep as early as today. It’s looking like he’s a goner, and there have been rumblings that the Pats did not pursue him that vigorously. What are your thoughts on Graham, and the potential loss?

Greg: I think its a big loss. I have felt Graham has been very underrated as a player. His one down side is his inability to stay healthy for a full season, but when he does play he contributes more than he gets credit for. He’ll be missed a lot.

Bill: Graham’s a useful player, but you can get 90% of the role that Daniel Graham was going to fill in 2007 at 30-40% of the price. With the emergence of David Thomas in the passing game towards the latter half of the season, the Patriots can go out into free agency and acquire a blocking tight end without the price tag that Graham will be afforded because of his Super Bowl rings and former first round pick status. This is a perfect example of the type of move the Patriots make in letting a relatively fungible player go, as opposed to the Samuel move.

Kevin: Graham’s an interesting case, because he really hasn’t had a career that would justify him being paid as a top NFL tight end, but it appears that that is exactly what it’s going to take to keep him here in New England. If there’s one thing we can infer from Pioli and Belichick’s player personnel philosophy is that they’ll pay a player what he’s worth to them, and if another team out there is willing to go higher, they aren’t going to follow. No exceptions. You accept it and move on, even if it leaves you weaker in the short run. I think there is a legitimate debate about whether this is the right strategy in every case, particularly since we don’t know how long the Brady-lead Patriots will remain as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, but I think when this is all said and done, this is not going to be one of those cases. From all indications, this is going to turn out to be similar to the Damien Woody and David Givens situations, where the money elsewhere is just too good for the player to turn down and simply too rich for the team to even consider matching.

Bruce: The Patriots inability to get a deal done with Graham does not reflect disinterest on their part in retaining his services. They love the guy. He’s tough…tough in a way you can’t get enough of on your football team. Making him a captain midseason is a reflection of how highly is is regarded by both his teammates and the coaches. His loss would be huge, but more in the blocking area. While Graham is a capable receiver (and a desire to show that might be a motivation for him to go elsewhere) he is a devastating blocker. Someone like David Thomas might be able to pick up his receptions, but his presence would be missed in the running game and pass protection. I think they’ve made a sincere effort to sign him, but now that he’s so close to free agency, he feels he has to see what teams might throw at him for money.

The Pats have tagged Samuel and re-signed fullback Heath Evans. There were rumors that they tried to sign Todd Sauerbrun before the deadline but failed. Are there any remaining Pats free agents – a list that includes Sauerbrun, Tully Banta-Cain, Troy Brown, Larry Izzo, Don Davis and Patrick Pass – that the team should be concerned about losing?

Bill: Josh Miller’s under contract through 2008 and he’s been a very good punter outside of when he was hurt and tried to play through it. None of the players listed would represent a serious loss for the Patriots. The coaching staff’s confidence in Banta-Cain was evidenced when he barely played against the Colts so that Eric Alexander could stay on the field and chew on Dallas Clark’s dust. Izzo’s still an effective special teams player, but he’s not the stud of three or four years ago.

Kevin: No, not really. Banta-Cain and Brown were really the only players that played a significant role last season, and in both cases it was more out of necessity than anything planned. In Banta-Cain’s case, I would probably be looking to go in a different direction anyway, by finding help at middle linebacker and moving Vrabel back to the outside. Putting Vrabel in the middle and Banta-Cain on the outside, as the Patriots were forced to do late last season, really weakened the defense at two positions. Junior Seau, who is another one of Patriots’ free agents, is worth some consideration for a middle linebacker job, as he demonstrated last year that he can play relatively effectively in the Patriots’ system.

Bruce: Izzo and Davis are character guys on this team, special team players who add a veteran presence to the locker room. They would be missed more in that regard. Banta-Cain came on as a starter last season, and unless the Patriots plan on replacing him this offseason, his loss would be a hit. We don’t want to see Troy Brown in any other uniform other than the Patriots. Talk this week has him seriously considering retirement.

Greg: Not really. It would be nice to keep some of these guys, but there is no one irreplaceable on that list. Banta-Cain, due to his youth and upside, would probably be the one you’d most like to keep of that list.

League-wide, which free agents have grabbed your attention as possible fits for the Pats?

Bill: Of course, bringing Adalius Thomas in would be a glorious move, but by virtue of being the only stud linebacker on the market, he’s going to get a deal that dwarfs what Julian Peterson got last year. It’s hard to see the Patriots going far past that for an OLB. Beyond that, there are a lot of cheap veterans who would fit into the Patriots mindset. Although the Pats seem committed to Matt Cassel as their backup quarterback, bringing in Tim Rattay for competition wouldn’t hurt. Rattay’s played reasonably well when he’s gotten the chance to play, and Rattay was the player who they were debating selecting with the pick they used on Tom Brady in 2000. With the Dillon issue, a veteran running back to play alongside Laurence Maroney makes more sense than drafting a young one. Correll Buckhalter comes to mind as someone who could be a good fit for the Patriots scheme. At receiver, Drew Bennett would represent good value as a player who’s been asked to do too much since a breakout 2004. In a supporting role, he can be a real asset. Rams free agent receiver Willie Ponder has been an excellent special teams player in the past, and would be an excellent 51st-53rd man on the Patriots roster. Another low-value flyer the Patriots might want to take a shot on? Eagles safety Michael Lewis, who started off his career playing at a Pro Bowl level, but lost his starting job last year and seems like the sort of player whose play is likely to improve with the confidence boost of no longer playing in Philadelphia.

Kevin: Personally, I don’t think this is a good year to get too heavily invested in NFL free agents. I mean, when there are a decent number of teams out there with $20, $30, even $40 million of free cap space to spend, it doesn’t make sense to invest time or money chasing the big prizes of the free agent class. The one thing I have noticed in the last few days is that there seem to be more well-known names being let go and entering the free agent ranks (i.e., Joey Porter, Fred Smoot, Joe Horn, etc.), but the question is can any of these guys still play? Donnie Edwards, who is on his way out in San Diego, is one player I would take a look at.

Bruce: The usual suspects, I guess, Adalius Thomas is on everyone’s list, but there are also rumors that he already has a deal in place with the 49ers. There are a few other linebackers rumored to be out there, Donnie Edwards, London Fletcher-Baker who might worth a peek. A dark horse might be Nate Clements, if the Patriots could manage to land him in a multi year deal, playing him at the same time as Asante Samuel for at least one year might be worth a Super Bowl. The safety Lewis from Philadelphia might also be worth a look. In any event, I think the Patriots are going to be more active players in the free agent market this spring than they have been the last couple of seasons.

Greg: Nate Clements is a top corner I am interested in and would like to see them go after hard, while perhaps dealing Samuel for a pick. I also like Correll Buckhalter as a possible big back to replace Corey Dillon, if they decide to release him.

What is your reaction to Corey Dillon’s request that the Pats release him?

Kevin: I guess my initial reaction was that Dillon must really, really hate it here, since he recently signed a rich contract extension with New England, and he won’t come remotely close to earning that money on the open market. But, Corey must have known something I didn’t know — namely that he was a dead man walking in Foxborough, was never going to see the rest of his Patriots contract anyway, and decided to go out on his own terms. One thing that concerned me about Dillon was how he was going to handle the inevitable transition from being the starter to Maroney’s backup, (especially when one recalls how deftly he handled almost the exact same situation with Rudi Johnson in Cincinnati), so it’s probably for the best that the team decided to cut ties now rather than later. These running back tandems may be all the rage in the NFL nowadays, but one thing you’ll notice is they generally don’t have that long a shelf life, particularly when one of the duo is a former superstar on his way out, and the other is a rising star on his way up.

Bruce: All season long Dillon talked about what an old man he was, and how he was fine with splitting carries at this point in his career. I couldn’t tell really if he was joking about his age, taking shots at those who said he was washed up, or if he was serious. When I read his comments to Mike Reiss, it seemed like he was really going to retire, then his agent said he wasn’t, and would be looking at other opportunities where he could be the lead back and get more carries. It seemed such a contrast to what he had been saying all season. Of course the Patriots haven’t granted that release yet, so we really don’t know what is going to happen.

Greg: To some degree strange, how he backed off the retirement angle so quickly. I think the Patriots could maybe use Dillon for another year in a limited role, short yardage and maybe ten carries a game, but he does not seem interested in that. So it does seem wise to cut ties in my view. I thank him for two solid years and one incredible year.

Bill: This isn’t a big deal. According to Football Outsiders’ numbers, Dillon was the 21st best back in football on a per-carry basis. Laurence Maroney was 27th. The guys right around Dillon aren’t stars — they’re players like Ron Dayne, Mike Bell, Travis Henry, Leon Washington, and Brandon Jacobs. The Patriots can gain that level of performance from an improving Maroney and a replacement back like Buckhalter. The real problem here isn’t that Dillon requested a release; it’s that Dillon was under contract and in a position to do so. His re-signing after the Super Bowl victory in 2004 represents one of the worst missteps of the Belichick/Pioli era, the Patriots equivalent of the Jason Varitek Good Citizen After a Title Memorial Contract.

The Draft is still nearly two months away, but what positions would you like to see the Pats focus on?

Bruce: I’m no draftnik, so I really have no idea. I’d like to see some help in the secondary, perhaps another young safety for Rodney Harrison to groom, or some help at linebacker, receiver or even running back.

Greg: The obvious ones, wide receiver, cornerback, safety and linebacker. But some of this really depends on how things look at the end of free agency, so its somewhat premature to answer the question now. I also think they should consider taking a running back much higher than most are talking about now, unless of course they do something with that position in free agency. You could pretty much say that about any of the positions, it depends.

Bill: I can’t see how anyone can justify selecting anything but linebackers in this upcoming draft. There won’t be a talent available in the late first round at wide receiver that will be worth a selection, and the impact of a wide receiver in the first round is much more likely to be negligible than that of a linebacker.

Kevin: Safety would be my first choice. I think that’s a position where a young player can step in and contribute relatively quickly. I don’t think it’s quite as easy a transition for the linebackers, generally speaking. I think a talented young safety could give you tremendous flexibility and contribute right away, and in the long term could help the inevitable transition to the post-Rodney Harrison era.

Thanks for stopping by, everyone. The Roundtable will be back in early April to see how things are working out for the Patriots. In the meantime, check BSMW Game Day for news and draft updates.