Despite the fact that the Patriots are only a few days removed from the Super Bowl, they already have a laundry list of things to address in the coming months. Here are 10 points of emphasis for the franchise:
Wes Welker: The wide receiver is the No. 1 priority this offseason, and while the franchise tag remains a possibility (a cost of roughly $9 million), you would have to think that Welker’s camp would love to lock down a multiyear agreement, something in the three to four-year range. Many people around the league believe that unless some team offers him a ridiculous deal, Welker will ultimately return, as he is more valuable in the New England offense than anywhere else. Welker’s reps als understand how good he has it with the Patriots. (One important thing to remember -- Welker changed agents to David Dunn and Athletes First in 2009, a group that represents other Patriots like Aaron Hernandez and Zoltan Mesko, and historically has had a good working relationship with New England.)
Deciding what to do with Deion Branch and BenJarvus Green-Ellis: Neither one will see a big payday, but their overall familiarity with the Patriots’ scheme and the fact that Brady is a strong advocate for both of them likely means that they’ll be back with New England in some fashion in 2012. Branch is no longer the player that he once was and had some slippage in overall catch percentage (he caught 51 of the 90 passes thrown in his direction during the regular season), he remains a clear favorite of Brady, a fairly reliable target who is always on the same page with the quarterback. As for Green-Ellis, he started strongly but was slowed toward the middle of the season because of a toe injury. While he was pushed at times by rookie Stevan Ridley (and the Patriots also have youngster Shane Vereen), when healthy, he remains a dependable part of the New England offense -- he has never fumbled as a professional, had more touches than anyone else in the Patriots’ offense and over the course of the regular season, averaged just one negative play for every 19 times time he touched the football.
What to do if Kevin Faulk and/or Brian Waters decide to retire: The two veterans have kept the door open on a possible return, but also haven’t dismissed the idea of retirement. Even after spending the first six weeks on the PUP list, Faulk’s on-field role was greatly diminished this season -- per Pro Football Focus, he played just 90 snaps on the year, and 39 of them came in his first game back. However, his presence in the locker room is immense, and his retirement would leave a sizable leadership void. Waters was immense in his first season with the Patriots -- he was the only offensive lineman to start all regular-season and postseason games at the same spot, and his leadership was praised by offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. He was a legitimate Pro Bowler, and while Ryan Wendell remains an excellent backup among the interior offensive linemen, the loss of Waters would be tough for the New England to replace.
Ochocinco: The Patriots currently have just two wide receivers under contract for 2012 -- Ochocinco and Tiquan Underwood. However, it’s inconceivable Ochocinco would be on the books at his current $6 million salary. If he does return for another season, it would be either at or near the veterans’ minimum, which is just over $1 million.
Addressing the backup quarterback situation: Maybe one of the most fascinating aspects of the offseason. With the poor level of quarterback play across the league, does a team try and come after restricted free agent Brian Hoyer, who is further along in his overall development at this stage of his career than Matt Cassel was? Do the Patriots try and deal third-stringer Ryan Mallett, who impressed coaches and teammates as a rookie? And if they ended up losing one of the other, do they go out and try and find a veteran backup in free agency?
What’s going to happen to veteran defensive ends Andre Carter, Mark Anderson and Shaun Ellis? When healthy, the Patriots were able to get good production out of Carter and Anderson this past season, while Ellis struggled with injury on occasion and never really seemed to fully mesh with the New England system. All three are now free agents, which leaves the Patriots with some personnel decisions. The 32-year-old Carter is getting on in years, but was a great addition to the locker room, and the team would likely love to have him back at the right price, even after a calf injury ended his season in December. Anderson, 28, had a productive season, and is another guy the Patriots would love to see back in New England if the finances could be worked out. He hasn’t spoken on it publicly, but the 34-year-old Ellis might be a one-and-done. One thing that could affect all three is whether or not the Patriots decide to go with a 3-4 or 4-3 as their base defense in 2012. Much of the success that these three enjoyed was because of New England’s four-man front. If the Patriots decide to play more 3-4 next season, they might not fit as well in the Patriots’ scheme.
Draft angles: The Patriots have four picks in the first two rounds, with one at No. 27 (the result of a trade last year with the Saints) and their own pick at No. 31. The second-rounders are No. 48 overall courtesy of a deal with the Raiders, and their own selection at No. 63. New England has lots of options -- you figure they’ll try and get younger at wide receiver, and could also be in the market for some depth in the secondary. In addition, there’s the eternal pursuit of the next great pass rusher.
Pondering the possible pursuit of Brandon Lloyd: When it comes to free agency (which opens on March 13), Lloyd could be the most intriguing name on the radar for the Patriots. The 30-year-old, who split his time between Denver and St. Louis last season, is on record as saying he would follow Josh McDaniels, who will return to his role as New England’s offensive coordinator in 2012. (That affection for McDaniels could allow the Patriots to land Lloyd at a relative discount.) New England needs to get younger at the position, and while Lloyd isn’t exactly a pup anymore, he would bring an infusion of new blood to the Patriots’ passing game. There are also some pricey options at the wide receiver positions, including Reggie Wayne, Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston. You won’t get much younger if you sign any of these guys, but all of them would be interesting additions to the New England passing game.
Debating the future of Devin McCourty: The Rutgers product followed up a Pro Bowl rookie season with a big dropoff in 2011. He appeared to bounce back at the end of the year, and flashed some versatility with a move to safety, a spot where he did enjoy some success late in the regular season and into the postseason. While the Patriots will almost certainly look into the idea of taking a defensive back with one of the first four picks, McCourty’s positional flexibility, combined with the return of cornerback Ras-I Dowling, could mean that there’s more deep safety in McCourty’s future in 2012.
Getting coordinated, and other matters involving the coaching staff: The Patriots have lost offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien to the head coaching job at Penn State, but the return of McDaniels figures to make it a relatively seamless transition on the offensive side of the ball. As for the other positions, there remain constant rumors that tight ends coach Brian Ferentz will leave the Patriots to join his fathers’ coaching staff at Iowa. In addition, while safeties coach Matt Patricia served as the de facto defensive coordinator in 2011, would the Patriots make it official in 2012 and simply give him the title?