Patriots Ready To Hit Free Agency

Deion Branch, soon to be a free agent

The Patriots are ready to hit the free-agent market in search of reinforcements, but they're also keeping an eye on the draft board with this year's draft approaching in April.

The Patriots are ready to hit the free-agent market in search of reinforcements, but they're also keeping an eye on the draft board with this year's draft approaching in April.

By franchising wide receiver Wes Welker, the Patriots have reduced the need for another receiver, even though there are some intriguing targets on the open market. The No. 1 priority before anything else will be sorting out their own list of restricted and unrestricted free agents and deciding who's worth keeping.

TEAM NEEDS
Defensive end/outside linebacker: The Patriots used more four-man fronts in 2011 and got a bit of a boost in the front from Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, as each of the first-year New England defenders notched 10 sacks. But both are free agents. Belichick will want to continue to remain versatile on defense, but there is little question that he still needs to add a young, athletic playmaking pass rusher on the edge of the front. Plenty of rookie pass rushers had an impact for their new teams in 2011, and Belichick would benefit from injecting a youthful impact player to his rush in 2012.

Safety: New England had a revolving door at the safety position after cutting former starters James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather in training camp. The play in the middle of the back end of the defense was suspect at times and downright dismal at others. Patrick Chung is a solid starter when healthy, but he's the only starting caliber safety on the New England depth chart at this point. The team needs to add stability to the position this spring, through either free agency or the draft. Or both.

Free Agent Rankings
B.Ruud
Patriots DE Andre Carter ranks among Scout.com's Top 5 free agent DE's (link)
Defensive line: It's difficult to project exactly what kind of linemen the Patriots need to add based on the team's bouncing between three- and four-man fronts last fall. Vince Wilfork is really the only proven player up front who is under contract. Former late draft picks and undrafted players like Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick and Myron Pryor have contributed, but none from that group is a proven commodity. Gerard Warren and Shaun Ellis are free agents and likely done in New England, as is Mike Wright who was cut. The Patriots need to add a couple of starting-caliber pieces around Wilfork, who's playing time has increased greatly out of necessity over the last two seasons.

MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: WR Wes Welker (tendered at about $9.4 million).

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--WR Deion Branch has watched his role diminish over the last two years with the emergence of the two tight ends, but he could be back at a reasonable price if the Patriots are unable to nail down a legit No. 1 receiver.
--DE Andre Carter suffered a season-ending injury toward the end of the year, but had a breakthrough season prior to that, which should earn him a sizeable pay day this offseason. The two sides have already discussed an extension.
--OG Dan Connolly dealt with some injuries in 2011, but is an incredibly valuable, versatile player who fills an important role on the offensive line. The Patriots should nail down an extension quickly.
--DE Shaun Ellis did not fit in defensively throughout most of the year, and his playing time suffered because of it. Highly unlikely he re-signs with New England.
--RB Kevin Faulk had a hard time handling the workload this year after returning from the physically unable to perform list and was ultimately phased out of the offense to the point where he was inactive for the Super Bowl. He's expected to retire, but no announcement has been made yet.
--RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis has developed into the team's most reliable ball-carrier for his ability to pick up the tough yards and exceptional ball control. He's yet to fumble in the NFL. Expect to see him in New England next year.
--LB Gary Guyton watched his role reduce dramatically this season and likely won't return next season.
--S James Ihedigbo filled in nicely with all the injuries the Patriots suffered in the secondary, but he has limited ability and won't be back unless it's for cheap money.
--CB Nate Jones was a late-season fill-in for Phillip Adams and probably won't be back unless no one else signs him this winter and he's invited to camp in the summertime.
--C Dan Koppen missed most of 2011, though he hopes to re-sign with the team. This is a dicey proposition. The Patriots got by without him last year and might decide to go with a younger, cheaper and healthier alternative for the long haul.
--LB Niko Koutouvides doesn't have starter potential considering he bounced back and forth from the practice squad to the active roster; it wouldn't cost much to bring him back, but he's no guarantee to make the final roster.
--CB Antwaun Molden dealt with some injuries toward the end of the year, but should be in the mix next season given the team's lack of a true shutdown corner. Like most free agents, he'll be back at the right price.
--WR Matthew Slater is the team's special teams ace. Though he's not much of a threat offensively, he's arguably as important as any free agent on the market and will likely be re-signed once the Patriots decide on a price.
--DL Gerard Warren wasn't as productive this year, but he provides a veteran presence. If he doesn't retire, he could return for cheap money.
--LB Tracy White is the kind of player who the Patriots would like to have back, but won't break the bank to hold onto. For the right price, he's a solid backup on sub defense packages and consistent special-teamer.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--QB Brian Hoyer, who has been Tom Brady's backup for the past three years, is expected to be tendered at the second level, so it's likely he'll stay in New England.
--S Brett Lockett is a physical specimen, but he can't stay healthy. He'll probably be at camp this summer, but it's a long shot he makes the final cut unless he's 100-percent healthy.
--DL Kyle Love should be back next year since he is an exclusive rights free agent, and it would only cost $540,000 to keep him at the minimum salary for third-year players.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: None.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED: None.

PLAYERS LOST
--OG Rich Ohrnberger (released/failed physical).
--DE Mike Wright (released/failed physical).

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