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Breaking down the odds of 11 key Patriots free agents returning

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Mort: Patriots need to get help at WR, TE (1:45)

Chris Mortensen and Tim Hasselbeck break down the teams with the biggest positional needs this offseason. (1:45)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Setting the odds on Patriots free agents and their return: The Patriots are projected to have about $30 million in salary-cap space when the league year begins in 2020, a figure that accounts for incentives and other commitments, per a league source. Before they can turn their attention to players from other teams, they must assess what to do with their own.

The list is plentiful, including some of their core players, and here is one view of the odds of their return:

  • Tom Brady: Because the Patriots aren't flush with cap space like other teams, it adds a layer of context to what level coach Bill Belichick might value Brady's return. Contrast that to a team like the Dolphins, who have almost $100 million in cap space, and it underscores how the Patriots aren't in the most advantageous position. Owner Robert Kraft has spoken in the past about how the Patriots value a strong middle class and generally try to avoid one player's cap charge taking up a high percentage of the overall cap. But Brady, whom Belichick called an "iconic figure in the organization," presents the type of situation that could test that discipline. It's one of many layers to an intriguing situation. Odds of return: 80%

  • Jamie Collins Sr.: The wild-card-round loss to the Titans was telling in the sense that the Patriots played a 3-4 base defense aimed at stopping the run and didn't view Collins as one of their best four linebackers in that approach. So if another team views Collins as a surefire three-down starter, and pays him as such, it's hard to imagine the Patriots going there. Odds of return: 40%

  • Phillip Dorsett: His role at receiver declined as the 2019 season unfolded, even though the team had a significant need. Odds of return: 15%

  • Nate Ebner: The core special-teamer is 31, and with the Patriots looking to inject more youth, it wouldn't be a surprise if they eye a younger option for that spot. Odds of return: 20%

  • Ted Karras: The backup center/guard filled in as the starting center all season and accounted well for himself. It's hard to imagine the Patriots wouldn't want him back, with the threat of the market driving up the price too high for their liking. Odds of return: 55%

  • Devin McCourty: A case could be made that the longtime defensive captain has become better with age, so re-signing him wouldn't be about that as much as pure economics. With more coaches with Patriots ties branching out across the NFL, it could create a dynamic that pushes the franchise to the brink. Odds of return: 65%

  • Elandon Roberts: The first-year captain sacrificed his personal goals when the team asked him to add fullback duties to his plate this season. My sense is he will be looking for an opportunity to play defense (linebacker) on a more regular basis. Odds of return: 15%

  • Danny Shelton: The run-stuffing defensive tackle had a solid season and seems like a good fit overall. Odds of return: 70%

  • Matthew Slater: The special-teams captain is still playing at a high level, is a locker room leader, and any projected contract wouldn't take a big chunk out of the cap. Odds of return: 90%

  • Joe Thuney: A four-year starter at left guard in his prime years (27) who has never missed a game? That's a combination for a bonanza on the open market. Thuney was named second-team AP All-Pro this year. Odds of return: 10%

  • Kyle Van Noy: The outside linebacker has set himself up for the possibility of a nice payday with a team that plays a 3-4 defense, and given the Patriots' cap situation and volume of free agents, the club might find the bidding gets too rich for its liking. Odds of return: 20%

2. Patriots' offseason study -- impact of facing teams led by those with Patriots ties: Belichick is known for assigning staff members offseason studies on various topics, and if he's seeking suggestions on ideas, how about a deep dive on the team's approach against opponents led by coaches with extensive Patriots ties? Belichick has lost his most recent game against each of his former assistants and players who are active head coaches -- Tennessee's Mike Vrabel, Miami's Brian Flores, Houston's Bill O'Brien and Detroit's Matt Patricia. The idea of a study would be to determine whether there was a common link, and whether the Patriots need to alter course in any areas to counter some of the inside intelligence those coaches might have from their extensive time inside the offices at Gillette Stadium.

3. Timing hurts McDaniels on head-coaching interviews: Because of year-end work responsibilities, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels wasn't given the go-ahead to interview for head-coaching vacancies until Tuesday of last week, while special-teams coordinator Joe Judge was granted a quicker window to do the same. The timing hurt McDaniels, as the Panthers and Giants both canceled their interviews with McDaniels scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, after deciding to hire Matt Rhule (Carolina) and Judge (New York Giants). That has to sting McDaniels a bit.

4. Belichick takes part in marathon Hall of Fame meeting Wednesday: With the Patriots knocked out of the playoffs in the wild-card round, it opened up Belichick's schedule to be present at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Wednesday as part of his place on a blue-ribbon panel to select 15 members of the Centennial Class. The group debated the merits of 38 finalists, with the meeting starting at 8:45 a.m. and lasting more than 10 hours. The voting results will be announced Wednesday. The 15-member class is in addition to the five modern-era finalists who will be selected Feb. 1.

5. Too early to call Sanu trade a bust: It is fair to say that the Patriots expected more than 26 receptions for 206 yards and one touchdown from receiver Mohamed Sanu Sr. after trading a second-round draft choice for him on Oct. 23. But I also think it's too early to call the trade a bust. The combination of Sanu suffering a sprained ankle in his second game, learning the Patriots' offense on the fly, and playing above what his role should have been as a third/inside receiver didn't put him in the best position for success. Sanu looked robotic at times, and so I think a full offseason in the Patriots' system -- coupled with more talent around him -- will create a dynamic that could produce better results in 2020.

6. Watson couldn't believe quick turnaround with Brady jersey: Tight end Ben Watson wrote a heartfelt response to Brady's Instagram post this week, and his feelings could be summarized by something hanging in his locker late in the season: one of Brady's white Patriots jerseys that was personally autographed for him. Watson told me he had asked Brady for a jersey, only to be stunned about 30 minutes later when he returned to his locker to see it hanging inside with an inspirational message reminding him, among other things, that they were brothers for life. Those are the type of locker room stories that often go untold, but it came to mind after their social-media posts this week.

7. Judge sparks memories of Coughlin with Giants: Judge held his introductory news conference as Giants coach on Thursday, and his words and delivery signaled a shift away from the team's past two coaches, Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur. After Judge's fiery remarks that highlighted an old-school theme, senior VP of communications Pat Hanlon said out loud, "Former players are having flashbacks," in reference to Tom Coughlin. Amani Toomer, Justin Tuck and David Diehl were among three former Giants in attendance. Three buzz phrases Judge stressed: "Fundamentally sound, situationally aware and playing with exceptional effort."

8. Brown ready to dive into coaching career: While Judge's departure leaves a void on New England's coaching staff on special teams and at receiver, Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown is coming off his first year as a general assistant with the team, focusing on receivers. Brown was testing the waters to see whether it was the type of career move he'd be interested in making long term. The result: He loved it.

9a. Current draft-pick snapshot: The Patriots are projected to be awarded two third-round compensatory draft picks, as well as two sixth-rounders, according to OverTheCap.com. If that becomes a reality, this is what the team's allotment of total picks will be in April:

  • First round (original)

  • Third round (original)

  • Third round (compensatory)

  • Third round (compensatory)

  • Fourth round (from Chicago)

  • Sixth round (from Houston)

  • Sixth round (from Denver)

  • Sixth round (compensatory)

  • Sixth round (compensatory)

  • Seventh round (from Seattle)

  • Seventh round (from Atlanta)

  • Seventh round (from Philadelphia)

That's a lot of volume, but with seven of the 12 picks in the final two rounds, it alters the context of the team's position.

9b. Key dates ahead: The Patriots' offseason has started earlier than the norm, and with that in mind, here are a few key dates on the offseason schedule:

  • Jan. 18: East-West Shrine Game

  • Jan. 25: Senior Bowl

  • Jan. 26: Pro Bowl (Stephon Gilmore, Dont'a Hightower, Slater)

  • Feb. 11: Teams may sign players from CFL whose contracts have expired

  • Feb. 24-March 2: NFL combine

  • Feb. 25: First day for teams to assign franchise/transition tag

  • March 16: Legal tampering period

  • March 18: Free agency begins (4 p.m.)

  • March 29: Annual owners meeting

10a. Did You Know, Part I: Tennessee QB Ryan Tannehill has five wins as a starting quarterback (5-6) against Brady, which is the second most for any starter, trailing only Peyton Manning (6-11).

10b. Did You Know, Part II: Patriots receiver Julian Edelman had received double-digit targets in 12 consecutive playoff games prior to the Jan. 4 wild-card round loss to the Titans, when he was targeted only five times.

10c. Did You Know, Part III: The Patriots, who ended the season losing consecutive home games, went 104 home games between consecutive home losses. According to Elias research, that's the longest stretch in NFL history (Dolphins, 88 straight from 1976 to '86).

10d. Did You Know, Part IV: Brady was blitzed on just one of his 37 dropbacks in the wild-card loss to the Titans, which reflected Titans coordinator Dean Pees' plan to challenge Patriots pass-catchers to uncover consistently. It was the second-lowest blitz rate Brady faced in a game since 2006, when ESPN first began tracking blitzes, and highlights a key area for New England to address: pass-catchers who can consistently win one-on-one matchups.