Expect unexpected with Patriots

When projecting how things will unfold with the New England Patriots and their free-agency plans, there is probably only one given at this point: The team always seems to make a few moves that are off the radar.

Whether that's an aggressive push as free agency begins tonight (12 a.m.), releasing a well-known player on the roster, working a trade or striking a contract extension, the Patriots figure to be busy. Watching their behind-the-scenes plans come to life, as well as those for the NFL's other 31 teams, makes this one of the more compelling times on the league calendar.

So what will the Patriots do?

They actually took a little suspense out of it with owner Robert Kraft publicly stating that nose tackle Vince Wilfork has been the team's No. 1 contractual priority and that the sides are close to an agreement. Finalizing that deal would help the Patriots get their free-agent maneuverings off to a strong start, but they'll surely be ready to proceed regardless.

A significant part of the team's thinking figures to be about their own players, and that means, in addition to Wilfork, monitoring the status of outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, running back Kevin Faulk and cornerback Leigh Bodden. They are top players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents and if extensions aren't reached before midnight, the team still figures to keep dialogue open with them. Sometimes a player wants to wait to see what the market bears before signing a deal, and that might apply in those cases.

Yet that alone wouldn't be enough for the Patriots, and that's why they figure to target at least a few other free agents or trade possibilities around the NFL. After all, they arguably have as many holes to fill as in any time over the past eight years under Bill Belichick, and their modus operandi has traditionally been to try to fill as many spots as possible before the draft so they aren't locked in to any position.

That's why linebacker (Oakland's Kirk Morrison?), receiver (Buffalo's Josh Reed?), tight end (a trade for Greg Olsen?) and defensive end (Baltimore's Dwan Edwards?) are areas that figure to be on the radar. It would be a surprise if they're in the big-money mix on Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers or Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby.

However it unfolds, one aspect to consider is that this year's free-agent class is one of the weakest in recent memory. Because the NFL will be operating without a salary cap, and players now need six seasons to become free agents (not four), it took more than 200 players off the open market.

So the idea of a 2001-type of haul, when the Patriots loaded up with quality players and locker-room presences like Mike Vrabel, Larry Izzo, Roman Phifer & Co., is highly unlikely on the unrestricted market.

The real quality in free agency is in the restricted market, where players can be signed to offer sheets and draft-pick compensation would be awarded if the offer is not matched.

The Patriots, more than any other club, have the ammunition to strike in the restricted market with their three second-round draft choices. Those picks also figure to be valuable chips in possible trades as this is considered a deep draft.

Last week at the NFL combine, most NFL coaches and personnel executives described the 2010 season, without a salary cap, as "uncharted waters." Yet Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio made it sound as if it the team would be operating as if it was business as usual.

"We have a budget in place like we do every year," Caserio said. "It doesn't really change for us in terms of what we do [with] spending and player acquisition. As far as what the situation is moving forward, I don't have a crystal ball."

Starting tonight, no crystal ball will be needed as the Patriots' plans will come to life. If history has told us anything, it's to expect the unexpected.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.