Currently on the roster, there are 9 Patriots who get significant playing time and are on expiring contracts. Out of those 9, Chris Long is the only one who is likely not going to seek a big money or long term deal this offseason. The other 8, made up of DBs Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon, D-lineman Jabaal Sheard and Alan Branch, TE Martellus Bennett, RB Legarrette Blount, and LB Dont’a Hightower have all likely spoken to their agent at some point in the past 5 months about them playing for their next contract this season.
Whether the Patriots will re-sign these players in the offseason or not is another topic. The bigger question is, with all these key players entering free agency after the Super Bowl, will they be at the top of their game on Sunday looking to earn themselves a few extra million dollars on their deal this March? It’s not so easy to say for some. For instance, Martellus Bennett is playing with an injured ankle and knee, so does overextending himself and risking further injury outweigh any possible gain from a big game? That’s up to Martellus Bennett to decide, but if playing for a contract is on his mind, it will be a decision he’ll have to make.
It seems easy to say that a player looking to increase his value will try his hardest to have a big game in the Super Bowl when every scout, owner, and GM in America will be watching, but that’s not always a good thing. Although it appears simple to want any player to go out and have a huge game in the Super Bowl, in trying to do so some players could end up hurting the team, in particular some players in the secondary.
With the system Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia run, being in the right place in your zone is essential for the defense to be effective. If everyone ‘Does Their Job’ their shouldn’t be any big plays available for the Falcons. If Duron Harmon is thinking too much about the interception that could earn him more money this offseason, it could mean a blown coverage somewhere else on the field. I don’t expect this out of someone as disciplined and as professional as Butler during this game, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Harmon or Ryan get a little too aggressive on a play or two and blow a coverage.
On the other side of the coin, other players have less ways to screw up, making the benefit of having them play more aggressively all the more appealing. Playing with a little bit more energy for a guy like Alan Branch is obviously much more likely to go the Patriots way. Getting off blocks and creating push up the middle is all Branch has been asked to do all season, all that free agency being on his mind can do is make him do all those things at a higher level. For someone like Sheard it could mean not setting the edge on the run correctly once or twice, but if it’s coupled with just one or two potentially drive halting sacks, it would be worth it to get Atlanta’s offense off the field.
The only potential downside of a big game is obviously the market value increase. The Patriots are already weak in the secondary. If Logan Ryan is the one to make the big game changing play and he increases his value higher than the Patriots are willing to go, then it would mean making that weak secondary even weaker. Meanwhile, an MVP level performance from Dont’a Hightower could mean losing the most talented player on your defense if just one desperate team like Jacksonville of San Francisco wants to pay him Von Miller money.
Ultimately, these players could be what win or lose the Patriots the game on Sunday. Millions of dollars is enough incentive to do almost anything. The majority of these players being on defense means a lot because with two insanely talented offenses on the field, one sack, one interception, or one fumble recovery could change the game. A Logan Ryan pick six could mean you’re short another corner next season, but if it means a Super Bowl victory, it’s 100% worth it.
Photo Credit (CBSBoston + Sports Illustrated + USA Today)