The good news defensively for the New England Patriots is they don't have any major free agents that could potentially cost them a lot of money -- no one, at least, at the level of wide receiver Wes Welker, who figures to command a big pay raise, whether it's via the franchise tag or a long-term deal.
The players hitting the market are important to the team, but not necessarily deal-breakers. All told, there are nine defensive free agents.
The most important players the Patriots need to worry about keeping are linebacker Rob Ninkovich, a key component to this year's front seven, and cornerback Kyle Arrington, who tied for the team lead in interceptions. The good news on Arrington is he's a restricted free agent, and it's unlikely any other team would offer a draft pick -- or whatever the cost would be -- in order to obtain him. The Patriots should be able to retain him for minimal dollars.
Ninkovich is an unrestricted free agent and could get some offers, but nothing the Patriots can't watch if they want him back, which, by all accounts, they will do. Defensive end Shaun Ellis played a minimal role and probably won't be back unless it's a one-year deal for small money.
Defensive end Andre Carter, who had a breakout year with a career-high 10 sacks before suffering a season-ending injury, could field a few offers on the open market, but at 32, it's unlikely he'll get a long-term deal. The Patriots could certainly afford him at two, maybe three years for fair market value.
Linebacker Gary Guyton is a restricted free agent. His role diminished in 2011, but he'll likely be back in camp this year despite the fact his long-term future in New England is up in the air.
Retaining Arrington is a high priority given the team's problems in the secondary. There are some interesting veteran names available on the market, such as Ronde Barber and Will Allen, who are both unrestricted free agents. Strong safety Deon Grant of the Giants is also available and would be a tremendous boost to the secondary, but it's unlikely he'll leave New York.
With several early-round draft picks, the Patriots could look to this year's rookie crop for some help in the secondary. Their track record lately hasn't been great, but that likely won't dissuade them from targeting defense; there's talk that they could look at hybrid defensive linemen/linebackers, such as linebacker Vinny Curry of Marshall, Connecticut defensive tackle Kendall Reyes or defensive tackle Fletcher Cox of Mississippi State even though this year's class of linebackers and linemen isn't considered to be strong.
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