By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Martellus Bennett sounds like he’s ready to don a different uniform in 2017 – but that doesn’t mean the Patriots shouldn’t try to keep him around.

Bennett was practically the perfect Patriot in 2016, excelling both on and off the field. He gave the Patriots some much-needed insurance when Rob Gronkowski couldn’t play due to injury and was one of the most colorful, affable characters to ever grace the Gillette Stadium locker room. That doesn’t mean that Bennett won’t wear out his welcome if he were to stay long-term, but his performance in 2016 was the best solution the Patriots ever had for how to withstand the almost inevitable loss of Gronk.

Staying in his lane, playing through multiple injuries, and doing his job at every turn, Bennett proved invaluable to the Patriots offense. He played well as both a pass-catcher and a blocker depending on his role, which Patriots tight ends outside of Gronk have rarely been able to do.

Bennett would like to stay with the Patriots and join them in their quest for a sixth Super Bowl title, but he also has an obvious desire to get paid. The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport tweeted on Tuesday night that Bennett will indeed test free agency and that “based on his asking price & likely offers” he’s likely to sign elsewhere. For what it’s worth, Bennett himself later tweeted that he hasn’t been thinking much about free agency.

It sure doesn’t feel like Bennett will be in a Patriots uniform in 2017, but it’s still possible for both sides to work out a deal if it can benefit each of them. Without Bennett, the Patriots would need a Plan B as far as Gronk insurance, but that plan would likely be a far cry from what Bennett brought to the table.


OTHER PATRIOTS FREE AGENTS: Dont’a Hightower | Logan Ryan | Alan Branch | LeGarrette Blount | Michael Floyd


Here’s a look at Bennett’s free agency situation with the Patriots:

What did he make in 2016? In the final year of a contract that Bennett originally signed with the Chicago Bears, he earned a $5.085 million base salary and a $100,000 workout bonus – a total cap hit of $5.185 million.

What’s his value on the open market? As a free agent, Bennett could command a long-term deal that would place him among the highest-paid tight ends in the league in terms of average annual value and guaranteed money. Factoring in his talent level and age – he could very well be signing on the dotted line on his 30th birthday on March 10 – a good comparison for a potential Bennett deal could be the Panthers’ Greg Olsen.

The Carolina tight end signed a three-year, $22.5 million extension with the Panthers in 2015, including $12 million guaranteed. He was days away from turning 30 at the time. Bennett could be seeking a deal that tops those numbers, and perhaps approaches Jimmy Graham’s four-year, $40 million deal that he originally signed with the New Orleans Saints. But he won’t get that in New England.


SEE ALSO: Patriots Free Agency: A Dont’a Hightower Breakdown


What’s his value to the Patriots? Bennett didn’t contribute as much in the passing game with the Patriots as Olsen has for Carolina in recent seasons. His receiving stats could certainly be used against him at the negotiating table, whether with the Patriots or another team. But, of course, the two were playing under vastly different circumstances. Bennett was never Brady’s top target, with or without Gronk on the field, while Olsen was Cam Newton’s most targeted pass catcher in each of the past two seasons.

Bennett provided strong insurance against the loss of Gronkowski, especially as a blocker. The Patriots targeted wide receivers and running backs in the passing game with their new-look offense after Gronk went down, so the team has already proved that it doesn’t necessarily need Bennett as a pass catcher. But they likely don’t want to go into 2017 with Matt Lengel as their only Gronk insurance, so it would behoove them to at least make a competitive offer for a front-loaded deal while they draft a potential replacement for 2018 and beyond.

Why wouldn’t the Patriots keep him? He may prove too expensive. If Bennett can get himself a four-year deal with a team that is anywhere near Graham’s deal with the Saints, he’s good as gone. But if the Patriots can give him close to top-of-the-market money in the first year of a multi-year extension, there’s a small chance he decides to stick around in New England.

Conclusion: Bennett can’t stop making references to his pending free agency and appears poised to accept an offer from the highest bidder. That is almost certainly not going to be the Patriots. Perhaps Bennett and the Pats can surprise some people with a team-friendly extension that would pay him handsomely in the early portion of the deal, but Bennett’s rhetoric overwhelmingly suggests that he ends up in a different uniform next season.

Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.

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