The New England Patriots have a lot of talent on their roster, but maybe not for much longer. With several contracts approaching their end New England have already had to trade Chandler Jones for something this summer rather than lose him for nothing next year. There are three other big names who’s contracts expire after the 2016 season, and with only the one franchise tag to use, they will have to hand out two big contracts or lose some key players going into 2017. Who are the three on the cusp, and how should New England deal with them? Malcolm Butler The hero of Super Bowl XLIX, Butler was an undrafted rookie out of Western Alabama in 2014 who barely played that season. But in 2015 he took over as the Patriots best corner and held up well one on one with some of the best receivers in the game. So far Butler has sat out of OTA’s as he hopes to get a new contract sorted with the team to better reflect his status. I don’t consider his level of play to be worthy of a big money contract, then again the Patriots have had a hard time finding quality at the cornerback position since Asante Samuel left. The thought of letting the one guy they have hit on won’t be palatable to fans, especially given Butler’s heroic status. The man never has to buy a beer in Boston, so maybe he will take a few dollars less to stay around New England next year. Jamie Collins Collins was a 2nd round pick in 2013 and has developed into one of the very best linebackers in the league. He can cover, blitz, play the run and his range is incredible. The Patriots are noticeably better with him of the field and pose much more of a threat on third downs thanks to his versatility. I think Collins would be the most sought after if he hit the free market, and will end up getting the franchise tag next year. Dont’a Hightower Taken 25th overall in 2012 Hightower has defied draftnik critics that he was “too slow” to play in the NFL and been a machine for the Patriots defense. The team picked up his 5th year option last year, paying Hightower just over $7 million for this season which is a bargain for a player of his calibre. He is much more of a blunt instrument in Bill Belichick’s defense compared to Collins. Hightower specialises in crushing the inside run game and is a bull of a blitzer. While he has proven to be better in space than many thought he would it still isn’t the ideal place for Hightower to be. The presence of these two has allowed New England to play in a nickel defense far more often than they would normally. They totally mitigated the decline, and now the retirement, of Jerod Mayo too. What Does New England Do? The decision of how the Patriots handle these three moving forward is very tough. They will have something in the region of $8 million in cap space once they cut down to 53 this season. Jerod Mayo and Dominque Easley account for $7.3 million on the cap this year in dead money so that will be freed up for the 2017 season, helping matters. However they also have depth players like Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon and Matthew Slater on contracts that expire after this season. Starters like Sebastian Vollmer and Jabaal Sheard will have to be re-signed or replaced and that won’t be cheap either. It is very unlikely that they will be able to get all 3 signed to long-term deals and leave enough cap space to keep the depth of the roster strong eough to compete at the top of the league. One of these three superstars could well end up on Belichick’s chopping block before too long. We’ve seen in the past that he is ruthless when it comes to roster management and cap considerations. From trading away Lawyer Milloy in 2003 to Richard Seymour in 2009 and Logan Mankins in 2014, Belichick has no difficulty trading a seemingly irreplaceable player just before the start of the season. I would not be shocked at all to see one of these three sent to Detroit or Jacksonville before week 1 of the season. If New England were to move on from one of them I think it would be Hightower. The positional value of your #1 corner and the versatility of Collins just make them more valuable and vital than Hightower – though he will not be easily replaced by what the Patriots currently have in place. If they can get a 1st round pick for any of them I think Belichick will grab it, and there will be someone desperate enough to give Foxboro a call as we get closer to the start of the season.