The Patriots head into the offseason with a few key needs, a couple key decisions and plenty of draft picks with which to stock an already impressive young roster. The biggest question will be what the team does with All-Pro guard Logan Mankins. At this point in the CBA-less process, the team has placed its franchise tag on Mankins, with the option of either trying to squeeze another season out of its best lineman or with an eye on trading him to get some value in return.
The rest of the team's potential free-agent decisions are more minor in nature, as running back Kevin Faulk, defensive lineman Gerard Warren, tackle Matt Light and safeties Brandon McGowan and Jarrad Page, would be the most likely candidates targeted for a return. Of that group, Light is the most likely to be let go after spending his entire career in New England, although his return could be tied to how Mankins' situation plays out as the team would be taking a risk by allowing its two best, most consistent linemen to walk in the same offseason.
Most intriguing may be the fact that the Patriots head into the draft with six of the top 92 selections, including a pair of first-round picks as well as three of the first 33 overall. Those could be used to target such areas as the pass rush, lack of offensive line depth or adding offensive playmakers at either running back or wide receiver. Regardless of the targets, Belichick clearly has the ammunition to trade up or move around the draft board as he so often sees fit to maximize his take on draft weekend. And after taking a dozen players in each of the last two drafts, 2011 may be more about getting fewer top-end, impact rookie talents than adding as many young bodies as possible.
1. Outside linebacker: The Patriots have been looking for help on the edge, and a consistent pass rush, for the better part of the last three years. It remains by far the biggest need heading into 2011, and a key if the defense is to progress moving forward. Though 2010 second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham (one sack) may have a solid future, heading into next season with he and Tully Banta-Cain (five sacks) as the foundation of the pass rush is a less-than-ideal scenario.
2. Offensive line: Pro Bowlers left guard Logan Mankins and left tackle Matt Light are both set to be free agents and oft-injured aging starting right guard Stephen Neal landed on injured reserve yet again. Center Dan Koppen isn't getting any younger. Second-year, second-team All-Pro right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is the only sure thing on the line at this point, with few projected starters coming up the ranks.
3. Running back: BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a restricted free agent who should be back after his 1,000-yard effort, as will free-agent find Danny Woodhead. But with Kevin Faulk (coming off an ACL injury), Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris all set to hit free agency, New England's committee backfield could use both a draft pick and veteran addition to restock the running game.
4. Wide receiver: Beyond Wes Welker and Deion Branch, New England doesn't have much certainty at receiver. Brandon Tate's struggling to develop and 2010 third-round pick Taylor Price didn't play until the season finale. In the post-Randy Moss era, there's a big need for a big-play receiver to stretch the field and take some pressure off the undersized underneath targets.
5. Defensive line: Vince Wilfork is the centerpiece around which an otherwise uncertain line will be built. Ty Warren returns from hip surgery, but Gerard Warren is a free agent. There is some youthful depth from recent drafts, but a higher-end prospect or additional experienced veteran could supplement a spot that got a bit thin late in the season.
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