Posted: Monday February 6, 2012 2:13PM ; Updated: Monday February 6, 2012 2:50PM
Don Banks
Don Banks>INSIDE THE NFL

Giants, Pats future (cont.)

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New England Patriots

Wes Welker
Though Wes Welker's drop in the Super Bowl is what he'll be remembered for this summer, he's an integral piece of the Patriots offense that they need to keep in free agency.
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Salary cap

Again, cap specifics are tough to come by at the moment, and New England is never too forthcoming when it comes to any piece of internal information. But in general, the Patriots are thought to be in very good shape on the cap front, with an estimated $20 million or so of room under the $120 million cap. That should allow New England to do some needed offseason shopping from a position of strength.

Free agency

The big issue in Foxboro is the fate of ultra-productive receiver Wes Welker, who is headed for unrestricted free agency, even though he'll likely never get there because of New England's option to slap the franchise tag on him. Welker would like a long-term deal instead of the tag, and is said to be a bit frustrated that his contract situation has yet to be addressed. But that's the New England way. The Patriots rarely get pro-active on that front unless they have to, and in this case they have way more leverage than Welker does.

The franchise salary figure for receivers is $9.4 million and New England could live with that number while still trying to negotiate a long-term deal with Welker. If the two sides are too far apart, the Patriots will simply go year-to-year with Welker and hope he does not grow disgruntled with that approach. It's possible Welker could try to skip a mini-camp or otherwise show his displeasure with the state of negotiations, but those moves don't often work in New England. At least until the Patriots start really paying the price for that absence, such as in the case of hold-out All-Pro guard Logan Mankins in 2010.

There are other potential unrestricted free agents who played significant roles for New England, but none that they look determined not to lose. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a nice player and the Patriots like his skill set. But if another team is willing to overpay him, New England will let him walk and thank him for his service. The Pats don't see him as special enough to stretch for.

Defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson both were productive acquisitions who produced more than was expected this season in the pass rush department. But Carter will be coming off the serious knee injury he suffered late in the season, and the tricky reality is they're both 4-3 ends. While New England played a bunch of 4-3 defense this season, it did so mostly because head coach Bill Belichick thought the lockout cost his team any chance to learn the more intricate 3-4 formation. The thought being that the Patriots could switch back to a more 3-4 centric approach in 2012, and maybe make it difficult for the club to measure Carter's and Anderson's value in that system.

Though the club wants to get a younger, more explosive downfield receiving threat in either free agency or the draft, there's likely a roster spot for veteran Deion Branch to return to next season, providing he's willing to take a deal that makes sense for where he's at in his career. Such is not the case for Chad Ochocinco, who is likely looking at a one-and-done New England experience. The Patriots aren't going to pay a guy who contributed just 15 receptions a base salary of $3 million next year, so Ochocinco will presumably now be more careful about what he wishes for, knowing that dreams don't always come true in the fashion we imagine.

Guard/center Dan Connolly is a player the Patriots will likely try to retain. With veteran center Dan Koppen spending this season on IR with an ankle injury, you could see a scenario where the club re-signs both players, with Koppen being the short-term answer at center and Connolly representing the future at the position.

Coaching staff

In one of the more seamless transitions in NFL coaching history, the Patriots don't have an opening with the loss of offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien to Penn State's heading coaching job, because they hired Josh McDaniels for that gig last month. McDaniels, the former Rams OC and Denver head coach, slides right back into his old office in Foxboro as if he never left after the 2008 season.

The only other defection the Patriots will suffer is offensive assistant George Godsey, who is the lone member of Belichick's staff who will be accompanying O'Brien to Happy Valley.

Draft position

Once again, New England is in position to be a major player (or trader) in April's draft. The Patriots have both the No. 27 pick they earned via last April's first-round trade with New Orleans (which took Alabama running back Mark Ingram with New England's second first-rounder in 2011, No. 28 overall), and their own No. 31 pick that comes with losing the Super Bowl.

In addition, the Patriots own a pair of second-round picks, at No. 48 (obtained from Oakland) and No. 63. Belichick loves to wheel and deal with that much draft capital stored up, but this could be the rare year where he sits tight and picks off four players to help upgrade a defense that was near bottom-of-the-barrel status statistically in 2010. New England's defense was 31st overall this season in yards allowed, surrendering more than 400 per game. The Patriots need help in the front seven, or at cornerback, so all options appear on the table.

If there's one instant impact defensive star the Patriots have a conviction on in the top half of the first round, having two first-rounders might allow New England to go up and get him. If there's anything this season illustrated, it's that the Patriots lack a Von Miller or Aldon Smith-like young playmaker in their front seven.

2012 schedule

The Patriots' list of 2012 opponents looks anything but daunting from this vantage point. New England has just four games against teams that made the playoffs this season, and only one of those, at Baltimore, is on the road. That rematch of the AFC title game will be an obvious highlight of next season, as will home games against NFC title game loser San Francisco, and a Broncos-at-Patriots rematch of this year's AFC divisional-round playoff showdown in Foxboro.

New England draws the NFC West and AFC South in 2012, and only the 49ers and Texans made this season's playoffs from among those eight teams. In addition, the Patriots will be heading back across the pond to face the Rams in London, and that late October matchup ensures New England a nice early November bye, exactly midway through the regular season.

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