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10 questions for Patriots at start of offseason

01.22.14 at 8:00 am ET
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Julian Edelman figures to be a free-agent priority for the Patriots this offseason. (AP)

Julian Edelman figures to be a free agent priority for the Patriots this offseason. (AP)

With the offseason starting for the Patriots, here are 10 questions surrounding the franchise.

1. Among their own free agents, who will be prioritized?

The two who jump off the page initially are wide receiver Julian Edelman and cornerback Aqib Talib, players who were absolutely integral to the success of the franchise in 2013. However, don’t expect the Patriots to break the bank for either one of them. Both will draw interest around the league, but both come with some questions. In the case of Edelman, there’s his health (this was the first year he played 16 games) and while some of it might be misguided, there’s a belief that some of the success he has was due in part to the fact that he might be a product of the New England system. While he doesn’t project as a high-end free agent, he’ll certainly get more than the one-year deal with a base salary of $715,000 he inked to return to New England last offseason. Meanwhile, Talib also comes with his own set of health concerns. He has twice suffered injuries at the worst possible time, and has yet to play a full 16-game season. Late in the year, Talib spoke enthusiastically about being reborn with the Patriots, and it will be interesting to see how much of that feeling he’ll take into free agency. Regardless of the issues, he enters the market as one of the best available corners.

2. When free agency begins, who will they target across the league and why?

There are a number of really intriguing top-shelf free agents — NFL.com has a really impressive breakdown of the top 25 here — but so much of this aspect of team-building goes hand-in-hand with free agency, it’s tough to tell at this point, especially when you consider teams could still slap the franchise tag on their own free agents. (It also depends on what sort of cap flexibility the Patriots can create between now and March 11, when free agency opens.) Three early names that jump off the page as possibilities from this viewpoint: on offense, wide receivers Anquan Boldin — the 33-year-old wouldn’t make the Patriots receiving corps any younger, but the tough-as-nails vet is as respected as they come — and Emmanuel Sanders, whom they tried to land last offseason before he returned to Pittsburgh. On defense, cornerback Brent Grimes could be franchised by the Dolphins, but if he isn’t, and New England doesn’t retain Talib, he’s also a possibility. (In the interest of consistency, we’ve been on the Grimes-to-New England bandwagon for a long time.)

3. What is their cap situation?

It all depends on which veterans they might cut before the start of the new year in March — as well as a projected cap increase — but according to several reports (including the always reliable Miguel from Patscap.com and OvertheCap.com), the Patriots currently have between $6 million and $8 million in cap space. Again, those numbers can change very quickly with extensions, reworked deals, releases and bonuses, but right now, that’s where they stand. (For a good look at who has the best current cap situation, check out Joel Corry’s excellent breakdown here.)

4. What direction will they take in the draft?

The feeling is they need to get a little younger at a handful of positions, but with Vince Wilfork on the north side of 30, they might be inclined to try and find the next great young defensive tackle. (This statement is made with the understanding that they did a very good job building depth at that spot this year, as the loss of Wilfork and Tommy Kelly allowed them to get an extensive look at youngsters Joe Vellano, Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga. None of them would start ahead of Wilfork or Kelly in 2013, but they will provide excellent depth.) Tight end could also be an area of need this offseason for New England. Our pal Rumford Johnny of 2 Mugs Fantasy Football gave us four names for New England fans to watch. One, Eric Ebron, a tight end out of North Carolina who is a 6-foot-4, 245-pounder who has some positional versatility. Two, Jace Amaro who is a bit of a Hernandez/Gronkowski hybrid who made his bones as a 6-5, 260-pound pass catching tight end at Texas Tech. Three, offensive tackle Zack Martin, a nasty and versatile presence up front out of Notre Dame who could also switch to guard at the NFL level. And four, RaShede Hageman, a 6-foot-6, 311-pound defensive tackle out of Minnesota who is a Richard Seymour type who can play various spots on the defensive line.

5. Will any other coaches be leaving?

The Pepper Johnson news was jarring on a number of levels, including the fact that he was the only coach remaining from Bill Belichick‘s first staff in New England in 2000. There are a few possibilities when it comes to a potential replacement, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the team decided to promote from within or do some shuffling among the staff. There’s also the possibility that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia could ultimately pull double-duty and work as the linebackers coaching in addition to serving as the defensive coordinator. (Patricia coached New England’s linebackers for five seasons.) In addition, on Twitter Monday, Albert Breer of the NFL Network wondered about the possibility of the Browns loading up to make one final run at offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who has already turned Cleveland down once already.

6. What’s the future of Ryan Mallett?

The backup quarterback remains the Patriots best trade chip. The Arkansas product, who has now spent three full years in the New England system, hasn’t taken any significant snaps over the course of his career with the Patriots, but from a public perspective, has managed to reinvent himself in the New England system. He has one-year left on his rookie deal that will pay him $776,976. With the level of quarterbacking play continuing to spiral throughout the league, Mallett could be intriguing to a number of former Patriots assistants and Friends of Belichick throughout the NFL who might be in the market for a young, inexpensive signal caller who has learned Tom Brady‘s secrets the last three seasons. (Houston? Cleveland?)

7. Will any current player under contract receive an extension?

The most likely candidate here is Devin McCourty, the safety whose rookie deal runs out at the end of the 2014 season. The defensive back was invaluable to New England’s success in 2013 — while Talib was the best all-around defender, McCourty’s steady play, his ball skills and his work as a leader made him one of the most important players on the roster. He’s a key figure the Patriots need to return going forward. The Patriots could also rework some deals and hand out an extension or two as a result, as decisions on new contracts for Wilfork and Stephen Gostkowski are also due following the 2014 season.

8. When will Rob Gronkowski return?

The big tight end went down with a season-ending knee injury in the win over the Browns. He underwent surgery earlier this month, and is expected to make full recovery in time for the start of the 2014 season. Despite the initial optimism, given Gronkowski’s recent injury injury — and his track record when it comes to making his way through the rehab process — you might pardon Patriots fans if they wait to see how quickly things heal up before proclaiming him to be ready to start the 2014 season. The knee injury was the eighth known surgical procedure for the big tight end.

9. Will there be a surprise cut?

Isaac Sopoaga appears the likeliest candidate, at least at this point, but given the way his season ended, it won’t be much of a surprise. The defensive tackle, who was acquired in a trade deadline deal with the Eagles in an attempt to bolster the run defense, started strong. But he quickly dropped off, and was surpassed on the depth chart by Siliga. While he was still a popular figure in the locker room with some of the younger defensive linemen, his cap hit is likely too steep for the Patriots to carry forward into 2014, especially when you consider the fact that both Wilforlk and Kelly project to return, at least right now.

10. Are they still a part of the AFC elite?

Right now, that would appear to be the case. There’s a lot of time between now and the start of the 2014 season, but when you consider that they remain the prohibitive favorite in the AFC East, as well as the fact that they should get Wilfork, Kelly, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer and Gronkowski all back next season and get another season with Brady and Belichick at the controls, they are certainly on the short list of teams to consider among the best in the conference.

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