PHOENIX -- New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick often says it's the same process every year. Players come, players go. Each team must establish its own identity.
Still, few expected the Patriots to be doing so in 2013 without receiver Wes Welker, whose departure was addressed by Belichick for the first time Tuesday at the NFL's annual meeting.
"I think Wes was everything we hoped he'd be when we traded for him [in 2007]. He was tough, competitive and very productive," Belichick said during the AFC coaches' breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore. "I think what Robert [Kraft] said [Monday] covered it pretty thoroughly. I agree with everything he said."
On Monday, Kraft blamed Welker's agents for the star wide receiver's defection to the Denver Broncos. The agents later fired back, sparking some uncharacteristic, public contract-related fireworks with the normally tight-lipped organization.
As for the team the Patriots are putting together, much attention naturally will be placed on receiver Danny Amendola, the club's top choice to replace Welker.
"He's been very productive -- on the inside, on the outside," Belichick said, adding that Amendola's time with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in 2011 contributed to the philosophy that he would be a good fit in New England.
"[We] look forward to working with him. Any new player we get, they come into our system and [we] try to teach him the things that we do and let him do them and evaluate him and see how it all comes together."
Putting all the pieces together is what this time of year is about for Belichick and the Patriots. Belichick often refers to it as the "team-building" season.
"I don't think anybody's finished at this point; we still have team building left to do," he said. "I'm sure every other team in the league does as well, [and] I think there'll be a point later on this spring when we try to put it all together."
Belichick confirmed the team's voluntary offseason program is scheduled to begin April 15. That's when the club can get a better idea of the medical recovery of players such as tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Asked if he's happy with Gronkowski's approach to his rehab from a broken forearm, Belichick paused slightly, which some could have read more deeply into.
"When the program starts on April 15, we'll have a lot better evaluation of where everyone is," he said. "There's some limited information now, but I wouldn't put too much on that at this point. I'd say in most cases, it's pretty incomplete."
So, too, is the Patriots' roster, but that's by design. This is the way it goes in free agency, and Belichick doesn't see this year as much different than any other.
"The first few days, certain things get settled," he said. "The next couple days, there's still a filtering process, a little musical chairs, where one guy ends up here, and other dominoes somewhere else, and another second wave of free agency. That'll last a little while.
"Then there's another wave of free agency after the draft. It'll die down probably two to three weeks prior to the draft, but I wouldn't be surprised to see another flurry of activity in the next week to 10 days, somewhere in there."
That could include the Patriots, who would like to see starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer return, although they are prepared for the possibility that he could accept a more lucrative offer elsewhere.
"There are a number of players out there, both on our team and other teams, that are unsigned; we're in conversations with some of them. And there are other guys we'll be in conversations with that we aren't now," Belichick said. "We'll see how the whole process works itself out.
"My crystal ball is as cloudy now as it usually is. We'll monitor the situation. If there is an opportunity we feel good about, we'll act on it. It always takes two parties."
"There are changes on every team every year, so no need to act like this is the first time a free agent signed with another team," he said.
But when it comes to changes, few saw what was coming with Welker and the Broncos.
It was a topic Belichick was mostly moving on from on Tuesday, even though he was asked about it multiple times by different reporters.
"I don't have anything to add to it," he said. "I'm not going to get into it."