Shopping time for Patriots

It’s shopping time.

You can always tell who the desperate teams in the National Football League are; they’re the ones who shop until they drop during the first few days of the free-agent frenzy.

The New England Patriots, obviously, are never one of those.

But this is always an interesting time, as players can begin talking with teams on Tuesday, the NFL’s so-called “legal tampering period.” Late Thursday is when signings can begin.

In fact, the Patriots usually make more news for who they lose rather than who they go out and sign. Sometimes it’s “Who’s that?” when the news comes as to who they’ve secured. But they always seem to make a difference, don’t they?

Let’s start with who could walk: The key names from the unrestricted pool would be, obviously, led by linebacker Dont’a Hightower. After that: tight end Martellus Bennett, corner Logan Ryan, defensive linemen Alan Branch and Jabaal Sheard, and safety Duron Harmon. Those are the main ones, although running back LeGarrette Blount could be included but he’s likely to return.

Hightower? We say he’ll get a big offer but will end up staying because the Patriots will come close enough; his injury history may keep the dollars from getting out of sight. Ryan? Likely gone, because someone will pay him.

Same for Bennett, who will get decent dollars (Giants?) that the Patriots won’t want to match. They tried to negotiate an extension for him during the season, but with Gronkowski’s dollars, how much can the Patriots really invest in the tight end position as a sound move?

Can’t see Harmon getting big money, but Sheard might get overpaid because pass rushers are at a premium and the Patriots certainly won’t break the bank for him. Branch, an interior guy, is likeable with a simple view: he has kids and wants to maximize his worth for the future. But he and the Patriots have been talking, which is a good sign.

That leaves us with the other big name, Malcolm Butler, who is restricted. The Patriots likely will tender him a contract at first-round value (around $4 million), which means a team looking to sign him would have to give up a first-round pick. Not likely. He’ll be a Patriot next season either with a one-year deal or a long-term contract, the parameters of which had been reportedly discussed a year ago.

All this being said, who are the Patriots going to go after? Here are some possibilities:

n Brandon Marshall, WR – Everyone always wants them to upgrade at receiver, and Marshall is now out there after the Jets released him. It’s said there’s the good old “mutual interest.” Maybe. If the report that the Patriots offered – and were refused – their first rounder for Saints receiver Brandin Cooks is true, perhaps they’d go after Marshall. That trade rumor is very un-Patriotlike.

Many think Marshall would be perfect in New England, but he’s not second tier and the dollars, despite a down year last year after a stellar 2015 season, might be too high for Bill Belichick & Co.’s liking. The only way we see this happening is if the Patriots eat some dead money and release the popular Danny Amendola and Marshall agrees to a one-year deal. Doubt this is all going to happen, but the Patriots would likely at least consider it, although Marshall will go quick.

n Lawrence Guy, DE, Ravens – Guy can play multiple positions, which is certainly right up the Patriots’ alley. But his forte is stopping the run, and he’d be a pick only if they lose Branch.

n Devin Taylor, DE, Lions – He’s 6-foot-7, had 4 1/2 sacks last year as he underperformed, but used in the right way, with that height, if the Patriots like his film … you never know.

n Jairus Byrd, S, Saints – Byrd has underwhelmed for the Saints due to injuries but if the Patriots lose Harmon he could be someone they’d consider maybe a month from now if the price, as expected, goes way down.

n Nolan Carroll, CB, Eagles – If Ryan goes, the Patriots will need someone to take his place. Carroll is a seven-year veteran who turned 30 this winter and played last season on a one-year, $2.3 million deal with Philly, and was reliable (41 tackles, 14 solo, one INT, one forced fumble). Keep him in mind.

n Robert Woods, WR, Bills – He had 51 catches for 613 yards and a TD last year, a Chris Hogan type. The Bills would cringe at the thought of the Patriots scooping up another of their lesser-known receivers and turning him into a Hogan-like success, but not much they can do about it now.

n Karl Klug, DE, Titans – He’s used to the 3-4 system and doesn’t have a lot on the ledger as far as statistics, but could be a bargain if the Patriots think they can get the most out of him.

n Kevin Minter, ILB, Cardinals – Not as athletic, perhaps as the Patriots would like, which is one reason why the Cards are letting him move on. But if Hightower goes, the Patriots will need bodies at the ILB spot.

At any rate, we’ll see what happens beginning Tuesday for a team that is already stacked. Fitting since it’s National Pancake Day.

Tom King can be reached at 594-1251, or @Telegraph_TomK.