The New England Patriots' season has come to an abrupt end, and the focus now shifts to preparing for their 2013 campaign. With free agency and the draft quickly approaching, here are some thoughts on how things might unfold this offseason:
Biggest free-agent priority: WR Wes Welker -- The first player in NFL history to record five 100-catch seasons, Welker has been named to the previous five Pro Bowls and could be one of the best players available on the free-agent market this season. The Patriots will have to decide whether to assign Welker the franchise tag for a second consecutive season, at the steep cost of $11.4 million, or allow him to test the open market.
Free agent most likely to be re-signed: OT Sebastian Vollmer -- The 28-year-old right tackle had his best season in 2012, and the Patriots will likely move quickly to lock him up. There is risk in a long-term deal for Vollmer, however. He has dealt with back problems the previous two seasons, and so the Patriots may opt for a shorter-term deal and turn to the draft for insurance.
Free agent most likely to sign elsewhere: S Patrick Chung -- Chung, like Vollmer, was a 2009 second-round draft choice, but it appears unlikely his second contract will come with New England. Bedeviled by injuries in 2011, Chung was largely healthy this season but his role in the defense still diminished. The best bet is that the two sides will agree to move on.
Biggest under-the-radar free-agent: RB Danny Woodhead -- While he appeared ready to take a step forward at times this season, second-year running back Shane Vereen still has yet to emerge in the Patriots offense, so the 28-year-old Woodhead remained a significant piece in the backfield. Woodhead provided a spark when the Patriots needed one, without the ball-security questions of his younger teammates, Vereen and Stevan Ridley. It would be an upset if he didn't return in 2013.
Most likely to receive extension: DE Rob Ninkovich and C Ryan Wendell -- Both of these players are set to become free agents after the 2013 season, but were major contributors this past season. Wendell made the smoother-than-expected transition from guard to center, replacing longtime snapper Dan Koppen. Meanwhile, Ninkovich has improved in each of his four seasons in New England, with his versatility an important asset for the team. There's a good chance both of these underpaid players will get their due from the Patriots before next spring.
Most likely to be released: TE Daniel Fells -- Signed to a three-year deal last March, Fells wasn't the next-man-up insurance for top tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez that the Pats likely imagined he would be. He started just four games, and was even a healthy scratch in Week 11, when Hernandez remained out with an ankle injury. The Patriots could decide that a $1.25 million base salary in 2013 is too rich, especially with Jake Ballard and restricted free agent Michael Hoomanawanui expected to be in the mix at a deep position.
Biggest positional need: Wide receiver -- Like last offseason, the Patriots are, at least initially, down to bare bones at receiver. Brandon Lloyd, who had an up-and-down season to kick off a three-year deal, is the only true veteran receiver under contract for 2013. Bringing back Wes Welker and/or Julian Edelman would provide some relief, but even after stocking up in free agency last offseason, the Patriots were thin at the position throughout their 2012 campaign. They'll need to add pass-catchers this spring.
Potential draft targets: WR, DT, OT, CB -- Even if Welker and Vollmer return, adding a receiver and/or offensive tackle early in the draft would provide insurance at two important positions. At defensive tackle, the Patriots are still looking for the interior pass-rusher they thought they'd have in 2012 with free-agent pickup Jonathan Fanene. Depth behind Vince Wilfork was thinned once Fanene was released in August. At cornerback, Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington are unrestricted free agents, while it's unclear what position cornerback-turned-safety Devin McCourty will play in 2013. With 2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling hobbled in his first two seasons, adding another young cornerback to the mix is good business.