Most of the talk this offseason about the New England Patriots is about wide receiver Wes Welker (will he come back?) or cornerback Aqib Talib (can they afford to lose him?), but the guy going under the radar is their right tackle.
Sebastian Vollmer, 28, rounds out the Patriots' "Big Three" of free agents. Welker and Talib might play the big-money positions, but Vollmer was just as valuable to the Patriots than the other two. Maybe more.
Protecting the franchise, Tom Brady, over the last four seasons, Vollmer has been one of the most consistent linemen for the Patriots. He's battled injuries over the last couple of years, but he's still appeared in 51 games in his brief career.
Vollmer was a second-round pick out of Houstin in the 2009 NFL Draft. He was a part-time starter in 2009, logging eight starts and appearing in 14 games. But once the Patriots didn't bring back Nick Kaczur (he started 13 games at right tackle in 2009), the job was Vollmer's.
He responded by starting all 16 games in 2010 and having his best season as a pro. His followup year, 2011, was injury-plagued and he appeared in just six games. He was more reliable in 2012. He started 15 games but did miss one in Week 11 due to injury.
After the Patriots declined to use their franchise tag, Vollmer is expected to hit the open market when free agency begins March 12. Vollmer recently had arthroscopic knee surgery, but that shouldn't have a great impact on his next contract.
Do the Patriots want Vollmer back? Most think so. But the Patriots aren't inclined to overspend on Vollmer. In fact, they never want to overspend. On anyone. But that's just the way Bill Belichick runs his football team. If Belichick thinks Vollmer is worth $7 million a season, that's what he'll offer. But if Vollmer wants $9 million a season elsewhere -- and someone gives it to him -- Belichick and the Patriots won't stop them.
And if the Patriots think they can replace Vollmer easily, they'll do it. Marcus Cannon is a backup lineman who some think could take over the right tackle position on a full-time basis. Cannon, 24, appeared in all 16 games last year and started one.
So if the Patriots can't re-sign Vollmer, where will he land?
Perhaps the Cincinnati Bengals will pay Vollmer to be their starting right tackle. Not only do the Bengals have a lot of money to spend this offseason, but they might need a right tackle, too. Andre Smith, who started 30 games at right tackle over the last two seasons for the Bengals, is set to be a free agent. Plus, he wants a lot of money. Plus, he's had his share of off-the-field incidents. Vollmer would fit nicely on the right side of Cincinnati's line.
Another team looking for offensive line help is the Chicago Bears. The Bears are thought to be a Super Bowl-caliber team, but to do that they need to keep quarterback Jay Cutler upright. Cutler has been sacked 148 times over the last four seasons, including an NFL-high 52 times in 2010. If the Bears brought in Vollmer to anchor the right side and, perhaps, drafted a left tackle, they'd have the makings of a very good offensive line in the works. Maybe one good enough to lead them to the playoffs.