As free agency and the new league year open, the Patriots have as much work to do in terms of building a roster as at any other time in the Bill Belichick era. Clearly the top need is adding a productive presence to the team's pass rush, but the likely biggest overall priority is retaining key restricted free agents in G Logan Mankins and PK Stephen Gostkowski, and, clearly, working on a long-term extension with Tom Brady as he heads into the current year of his current deal.
Getting better is a priority for every team this time of year, but the Patriots must achieve that goal while also locking up some of the key pieces that have been a big part of its success in recent years. Because adding talent while losing some of its own players would end up a one-step-forward-two-steps-back achievement.
--NT Vince Wilfork got the long-term deal he has been wanting for the past year, signing a five-year deal reportedly worth $40 million with $25 million in guaranteed money, including an $18 million signing bonus.
--TE Chris Baker was released March 4. The eight-year veteran signed with New England as a free agent last March and played in 16 games with seven starts in 2009. He caught just 14 passes for 142 yards with two touchdowns.
Despite parting ways with defensive coordinator Dean Pees and going without an offensive coordinator last fall, New England is not going to fill out the coaching staff with any real veteran additions. Corwin Brown leaves an underperforming Notre Dame defense to help out in the Patriots secondary, but beyond that, stealing a quote that Bill Belichick himself has used in the past, "the status is quo" with the coaching staff, for better or worse.
In terms of player needs, the Patriots have a decent amount of holes to fill considering the team was the No. 3 seed in the AFC. The lack of a pass rush carries over as the major need of the last two years. Vince Wilfork has been re-signed. And the Patriots are fortunate in that their two other high-end free agents -- Logan Mankins and Stephen Gostkowski -- are restricted thanks to the rules of the uncapped year. Beyond retaining those three players New England will need to add talent at linebacker, wide receiver, defensive line. Improving in other areas is also not out of the question as the Patriots enter the 2010 offseason with as many question marks on the roster as at any other time in the Belichick era.
1. Defensive end/Outside linebacker: Whether it's in the four-man fronts that the team ran a bit more often in 2009 or in New England's traditional 3-4 sets, the Patriots must find a legitimate pass rusher. An inability to get to the quarterback, save for Tully Banta-Cain's overachieving and misleading 10 sacks, has been the major flaw in the New England defense for the last two seasons.
2. Wide receiver: Randy Moss isn't getting any younger or more productive. Wes Welker is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and is likely to open 2010 on PUP. And New England never found a No. 3 option behind those productive vets last fall. The Patriots must find at least two legitimate receiving options to work with Moss and developing youngster Julian Edelman.
3. Inside linebacker: Jerod Mayo battled a knee injury for a somewhat disappointing sophomore season. Former undrafted second-year player Gary Guyton was miscast on the inside in 3-4 fronts. And beyond those two young player New England has little talent or depth at inside linebacker. That's a problem, even playing behind one of the best nose tackles in the game in Vince Wilfork.
MEDICAL WATCH: WR Wes Welker underwent reconstructive knee surgery on the ACL in his left knee Feb. 2 in Boston. The All-Pro receiver will now begin 6-12 month of rehab in an effort to return to form.
--QB Tom Brady battled rib, finger and shoulder injuries throughout 2009, but said earlier this month that he would not need offseason surgery to deal with any of the injuries.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: NT Vince Wilfork (signed long-term deal).
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--CB Leigh Bodden played out a one-year deal in New England, hoping to cash in this spring after a big year. He tied for the New England lead with five interceptions, but otherwise had just an average season. Though the Patriots would probably like him to return as a bridge starter to their long-term youth at the position, Bodden could attract some attention as a proven veteran on the open market.
--OLB Derrick Burgess had an extremely quiet five sacks in his first season in New England after joining the team via training-camp trade from the Raiders. He drew curious high praise from Bill Belichick late in the year and could get a chance to return to the team at a position at which it is dangerously thin.
--RB Kevin Faulk had his usual productive season in 2009 finishing second on the team in rushing and tied for third in receptions. The respected veteran has openly expressed the hope to finish his career with the only team he's ever played for and likely will get that chance.
--DE Jarvis Green got more playing time in the wake of the Richard Seymour trade and did nothing with it. While he battled multiple injuries, he started 12 of 13 games played, but recorded just one sack. He wants to test the free-agent waters and will be given every opportunity to do so.
--P Chris Hanson had what may be best described as another "blah" year in New England. The Patriots have been happy with his situational punting in the past -- he had the fewest punts returned in the NFL -- but the team could and should look to upgrade at the spot after using the draft to add a young kicker and long snapper in recent years.
--TE Benjamin Watson played in all 16 games for the first time in his career as he played out his six-year rookie contract. But characteristically inconsistent hands made him an afterthought in the offense, catching just 29 balls though he did have five touchdowns. He probably will not be back.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT (not tendered offer)
--RB Chris Taylor (not tendered at RFA) was on injured reserve and has never played for New England. If he's brought back it will be as a camp body.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (*indicates restricted because of uncapped year)
--*K Stephen Gostkowski (tendered at $1.759M with second-round pick as compensation) is a former All-Pro. He had a decent season, and even showed improvement on his kickoffs. He'll get a decent tender and be back.
--*G Logan Mankins (tendered at $3.268M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) is becoming a perennial Pro Bowler. He would have been a top lineman available if he were unrestricted.
--*LB Pierre Woods (tendered at $1.176M with no compensation) had a chance to increase his role in 2009 given New England's lack of depth at outside linebacker. He played in 16 games with five starts, but was lackluster at best and remains a special-teams/backup type.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--LB Gary Guyton played a significant role for the team in his first two seasons, including 16 starts out of necessity last fall. Ideally, probably a versatile sub player.
--OLB Tully Banta-Cain: UFA; 3 yrs, $13.5M ($6M SB).
--OG Stephen Neal: UFA; 2 yrs; terms undisclosed.
--WR David Patten: FA; terms unknown.
--TE Chris Baker (released).
--LB Junior Seau (retired).