Beyond the Big 3: Donald Thomas

Donald Thomas proved last season that he can be a starter on a quality offensive line. Howard Smith/US Presswire

Much of the attention around pending Patriots free agents has been paid to Wes Welker, Aqib Talib and Sebastian Vollmer, three of the team's critical starters. But the Patriots have a number of other free agents who could hit the open market on March 12, and we'll use this space to review them and recap their 2012 season.

Player: Donald Thomas

Position: Guard

Key 2012 stats: 16 games played, 7 starts

Playing time (offense): 606 of 1,240 (48.9 percent)

2012 season recap: Thomas was one of the unheralded contributors to the Patriots in 2012, stepping in as an injury substitute and playing at a very effective level. Standout guard Logan Mankins missed six games, during which Thomas proved himself to be a starting-caliber guard at the NFL level. He's developed nicely during his two seasons with the Patriots, and is capable in both the running game and passing game. He plays with good power, is athletic enough to handle interior slant pressures, and is a cerebral lineman who understands protection concepts. Last season was his best year as a pro.

Outlook: The 2012 season proved what the Patriots perhaps already knew about Thomas -- that he can play as a starter on a quality offensive line. He has very good value to the Patriots as the team's top reserve interior lineman (he even worked at center during the preseason), and he has good football ahead of him at the age of 27. The questions are how much the team can afford to pay a player at a position where they already have resources committed to a pair of starters, and if Thomas will seek a full-time starting gig elsewhere. One would think the Patriots surely want him back after his performance last season.

Projection: Not re-signed; lands a four-year deal worth up to $14 million elsewhere. There are enough teams with a need at guard to think that Thomas will likely land the opportunity to start somewhere and be paid handsomely as a result of it. The Patriots and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia have done tremendous work in developing young linemen, and losing Thomas would turn the attention to players such as Marcus Cannon and Nick McDonald, who each could be in line for more snaps in 2013.