Sorting out Patriots' offseason priorities

The New England Patriots' season is over, the attention now shifting to what’s next. The NFL combine (Feb. 22-25), free agency (March 11) and even the draft (May 8-10) aren’t that far away, so here’s a look at some of the pertinent areas relating to the offseason.

Biggest free-agent priorities: CB Aqib Talib/WR Julian Edelman. It’s hard to pick between these two. While wide receivers are typically easier to replace in the NFL, Edelman was the heart and soul of the Patriots passing game this year, becoming just the third player to catch at least 100 passes in a single season in Patriots franchise history. One thing is for sure with Edelman: He’ll earn much more than the one-year, $1.015 million he made this past season. Talib, meanwhile, will command good money after a standout season. All indications are that there is mutual interest between he and the team to work out a long-term deal, and given that he’s just 27 years old, he can be a foundation piece for this defense.

Free agent most likely to be re-signed: C Ryan Wendell. Wendell has played and started in every game since the beginning of the 2012 season and from a health standpoint has been the Patriots’ most durable offensive lineman. He’s an exceptionally smart technician, and while he’s often pitted against much larger players, he always holds his own. He was developed through the team’s practice squad and has steadily improved.

Free agent most likely to sign elsewhere: LB Brandon Spikes. He is a thumper against the run and has an infectious attitude that can set a tone for a defense, but the Patriots have depth at linebacker with the return of Jerod Mayo to go along with Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, recent high draft choices. Spikes probably will want to cash in this offseason with a lucrative deal, but given his limitations as a coverage player and the fact that he was late to a bye-week practice -- which played a part in him being placed on injured reserve -- it seems unlikely he returns.

Biggest under-the-radar free agent: TE Michael Hoomanawanui. A recent surge in play disqualified running back LeGarrette Blount from this category, though he’s an integral piece of the free-agent puzzle as well. But Hoomanawanui is our pick, as he stepped in and admirably served as the Patriots’ top tight end in the absence of Rob Gronkowski. He wasn’t a game changer and didn’t put up huge numbers, but he impacted the passing and running game, serving as a dependable offensive chip.

Most likely to receive an extension: S Devin McCourty. A captain and a leader through his communication and his play, McCourty is everything the Patriots look for in their cornerstones. He has one year remaining on his current contract (his rookie contract), but the Patriots might target him as a player to look to lock up sooner rather than later. Extensions not only retain players for multiple seasons, but also can create short-term cap flexibility. McCourty is a no-brainer to try and keep long term.

Most likely to be released: DT Isaac Sopoaga. It would be easy to look at the Patriots’ decision to trade for Sopoaga and assess it as a move that didn’t pan out given how often he’s been inactive, but the modest price (moving back by about 35 or so spots in the draft) made it a worthwhile risk. That being said, with a contract that runs through 2015 (when it will have a $3.5 million cap hit), it seems unlikely the team will keep Sopoaga into next season.

Biggest positional need: Tight end. Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead are expected to be healthy for the start of next season, making defensive tackle less of a priority than it is probably perceived to be right now. And while Hoomanawanui earned praise above as an under-the-radar free agent, the Patriots could stand to add another pass-catching tight end to both complement Rob Gronkowski and serve as a fill-in if he isn’t ready for the start of next season. The draft class is considered to have first-round talent at the position, led by Eric Ebron out of North Carolina.

Potential draft targets: TE, DT, coverage LB, interior OL. We’ve covered the tight end need, and while the Patriots have a potentially deep defensive tackle rotation if the aforementioned players return, Bill Belichick has said many times that you can never have enough good defensive linemen. Given how much sub defense the Patriots play, the same can be said for athletic linebackers to play in space. Finally, if Wendell leaves, the Patriots have a fill-in replacement in Dan Connolly, but that would increase the need for another guard. Another versatile interior offensive lineman would help.