Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

Going concerns

Some high-profile players could be part of offseason turnover

Yesterday brought some uncertainty around the Patriots after Sunday's playoff loss, but Ellis Hobbs is signed through 2009. Yesterday brought some uncertainty around the Patriots after Sunday's playoff loss, but Ellis Hobbs is signed through 2009. (JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF)

In today's NFL, change is inevitable on a year-to-year basis. Free agents leave. Free agents come. A new load of draft picks arrives. And there are unpredictable Deion Branch-like turns of events along the way.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick decided long ago that he wasn't going to fight change, that instead he'd do his best to embrace it. So let the embracing begin.

Change is most certainly on the horizon for the Patriots following their run to the 2006 AFC Championship game.

Is linebacker Tedy Bruschi seriously considering retirement? Has receiver Troy Brown played his last game with the team? Will cornerback Asante Samuel be back? What about tight end Daniel Graham?

Will there be a big free agent signing? Might a high salary cap number lead the team to let a player go, like Willie McGinest last offseason? How will their two first-round draft picks affect the team?

The page turns quickly in the NFL, as the words "next year" already were being spoken in a somber locker room shortly after the Patriots' 38-34 loss to the Colts Sunday night.

"You try to remember what this feels like, and we'll get back to work," veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "It's just the nature of our guys. We will be back working there next week, out of habit."

But exactly who will be working is an ever-evolving picture that must take into account the four main aspects of any offseason: free agency, the salary cap, the draft, and the great unknown.

A check already goes into the Patriots' scorecard for signing center Dan Koppen to a five-year extension in October. The deal, which included a $7.5 million signing bonus, means Koppen is under contract through 2011. No other player on the team is signed for that length of time.

As the Patriots were consummating the deal with Koppen, they also were negotiating with at least two other significant players scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency: Samuel and Graham. Agents for both players indicated yesterday that talks are currently quiet on extensions for them.

Samuel and Graham headline a group of 14 players who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, a list that includes the team's all-time leading receiver, Brown, who will turn 36 in July. Brown has deflected questions about his future.

While Brown hasn't declared his intentions, 38-year-old linebacker Junior Seau has stated his hope to return to action -- somewhere -- in 2007. Seau played on a one-year, $1 million contract this season, making 10 starts at inside linebacker and helping solidify the interior of the 3-4 defense before breaking his arm. It's possible the Patriots bring him back, perhaps as an experienced hand who helps bring along a new generation of younger, athletic linebackers.

Meanwhile, four-year veteran Tully Banta-Cain is scheduled to hit the market and could draw interest from teams that play a 3-4 defense, as it often takes time to develop players at outside linebacker in that system. Banta-Cain did not finish strongly in the playoffs -- he did not have a tackle against the Chargers and was removed from the starting lineup for the AFC Championship game -- so it will be interesting to see how that affects potential negotiations.

On offense, fullback Heath Evans became a valuable cog, and it's likely he will return. He was emerging as one of the NFL's best bargains, contributing in a variety of roles, including special teams. Less certain is the status of free-agent-to-be Patrick Pass, the seventh-year running back who was limited to three games because of injury.

Top special teams players Don Davis and Larry Izzo also have contracts that expire, with Davis saying he wanted to see how his injured knee responded before guaranteeing a return. Meanwhile, anyone who saw the hit Izzo put on Terrence Wilkins on a kickoff return Sunday night can see how the special teams captain still can bring it.

The other players scheduled for unrestricted free agency are cornerback Ray Mickens, offensive lineman Gene Mruczkowski, quarterback Vinny Testaverde, and punters Todd Sauerbrun and Ken Walter. Sauerbrun's strong performance at the end of the season could lead the Patriots to bring him back, possibly to challenge Josh Miller (signed through 2008).

Defensive back Randall Gay, offensive lineman Billy Yates, and safety Rashad Baker are restricted free agents, and the Patriots have the option to tender contracts to those players and match any offers they receive from other teams.

The salary cap
Last year, the Patriots parted ways with McGinest when they decided they couldn't absorb his high charge on the salary cap. Might there be a few players who fall in that category this season, with the cap set to jump from $102 million to $109 million?

It's possible, although any player with a high cap number also could negotiate the figure down, making a return to the team more likely. Outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin has a high cap hit of $6.7 million, which makes him a prime candidate for some kind of adjustment.

Running back Corey Dillon is another player to keep an eye on, as his cap charge jumps from $2.6 million to $4.4 million. Dillon has been a touchdown machine since joining the team in 2004, and his performance that year (franchise-record 1,635 rushing yards) was instrumental in the team winning its third Super Bowl championship.

But Dillon's snaps were significantly reduced this season, as evidenced by the playoffs; he was in for 47 of the team's 204 official snaps, just 23 percent. The question the Patriots must ask themselves is whether they can afford to have Dillon taking up a significant allotment of cap space when he's only on the field 23 percent of the time.

The draft
The Patriots own two first-round picks, slotted 24th and 28th. In one respect, that's a bonanza for a team that advanced to a conference championship game. In another, the question is whether having Branch on the 2006 team would have been more valuable than a first-rounder. The 24th pick comes from Seattle in the Branch trade; the 28th pick is the team's own selection.

Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft believes the picks put the team in prime position, both for injecting talent onto the roster and managing the salary cap.

"The best value for high-quality players, if you pick right, is the second half of the first round," he said.

In recent years, the Patriots have been one of the NFL's more successful teams in hitting on first-round choices. Richard Seymour (No. 6, 2001), Graham (No. 21, 2002), defensive end Ty Warren (No. 13, 2003), nose tackle Vince Wilfork (No. 21, 2004), tight end Benjamin Watson (No. 32, 2004), offensive guard Logan Mankins (No. 32, 2005), and running back Laurence Maroney (No. 21, 2006) are all part of the core of the team.

The Patriots have picks in each round except the fifth, which was shipped to Oakland in a preseason trade for receiver Doug Gabriel. The team also has an extra late-round pick from Arizona from a preseason swap for offensive lineman Brandon Gorin.

In addition, as part of a complex formula, the NFL awards compensatory draft choices to teams that lose more free agents than they sign, and the Patriots could wind up with a few more picks. Kicker Adam Vinatieri, receiver David Givens, offensive tackle Tom Ashworth, tight end Christian Fauria, outside linebacker Matt Chatham, and wide receivers Tim Dwight and Andre' Davis were free agents lost, while the team's top signings were receiver Reche Caldwell and defensive back Mel Mitchell.

The draft is the fastest way for a team to add young talent, and the Patriots could use an infusion of young blood at linebacker, the oldest non-special teams position on the team.

Great unknowns
Each offseason seems to bring an unexpected twist, from linebacker Ted Johnson's retirement in 2005, to Seymour's holdout last year, to Branch's holdout and ensuing trade.

The Patriots' 2007 free agent class doesn't include any top-tier players in the class of a Seymour or Branch. Safety Eugene Wilson, who was limited to four games before being placed on season-ending injured reserve, is the top player entering the final year of his contract.

In 2003, the Patriots went off the board and spent heavily in free agency, signing Colvin and safety Rodney Harrison. Might they take a similar approach this year?

There is also the possibility of unexpected retirements.

After Sunday's game, Bruschi was asked about his future and said he needed time to assess the situation. He enters the final year of his contract in 2007.

"In my past few years, I just go year to year," he said. "I'm really emotional right now, so to say anything would be wrong. I need to sit back and just want to reflect on this season."

Dillon and Harrison are two other players nearing the end of their careers, although Harrison recently indicated he wants to play next season.

"I definitely want to continue to play," Harrison said before his most recent knee injury. "I'm excited about the future."

Mike Reiss can be reached at