|Tom Brady, who is signed through 2010, may be in line for an extension and a bump in pay. His 2008 cap hit is $14.6 million. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)|
PHOENIX - In the week leading up to Super Bowl XLII, high-ranking Patriots officials deflected questions about the team's future by saying the time to focus on those issues would be immediately after the game.
So in the wake of their heartbreaking loss to the Giants, the Patriots now look ahead to the opening of free agency in March and the April draft, in which they hold the seventh overall selection.
As is the case every year, there will be considerable changes.
The Patriots have 13 players scheduled for unrestricted free agency, with cornerback Asante Samuel and receiver Randy Moss topping the list.
There are questions about potential retirements with receiver Troy Brown, a longtime fan favorite, and linebackers Junior Seau and Tedy Bruschi.
Salary cap considerations could also play a part in the team's plans, as they did with Willie McGinest two years ago, when he left the organization. Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, whose scheduled $7.6 million cap charge in 2008 is second-highest on the club, will be one player to watch in this regard.
Potential changes on the coaching staff will also be something to watch; there is seemingly movement every year there.
Then there is the one question that will, and should, trump all: Does quarterback Tom Brady's contract need to be addressed?
Few could dispute that Brady is the most important piece of the Patriots' puzzle, so any offseason plans should always start with him. He has three years remaining on his contract, and while Brady has never been one to quibble with his pay, like anyone else it behooves him to make sure he's at least at market rates.
Considering that Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell signed a six-year, $61 million deal with about $30 million in bonuses and guarantees as the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2007, it would not be a surprise if Brady approaches the team about an extension that could lift him closer to the top of the quarterback market and also ensure that he spend the rest of his career with New England.
So Brady, whose salary cap charge is high at $14.6 million for 2008, will serve as the first domino this offseason.
Players: Tom Brady (signed through 2010), Matt Cassel (2008), Matt Gutierrez (2008).
Forecast: Brady is the key piece and top priority. Cassel, the team's No. 2 option, is an unrestricted free agent after next season, so the Patriots must account for the possibility of losing him. Gutierrez, who impressed as a rookie free agent this year in training camp, shows promise.
Top question: Will Brady and the Patriots look to extend his contract, which would affect all other offseason planning?
Players: Laurence Maroney (2010), Sammy Morris (2010), Kevin Faulk (2009), Heath Evans (2008), Kyle Eckel (2008).
Forecast: Despite rumblings this season regarding Maroney, who came on exceptionally strong at the end of the season, this is one of the most stable positions on the club in terms of the future.
Top question: Will Morris, who was placed on injured reserve after suffering a severe chest injury in Week 6, return to health and be effective?
Players: Randy Moss (free agent), Jabar Gaffney (free agent), Troy Brown (free agent), Donte' Stallworth (2012), Kelley Washington (2011), Wes Welker (2011), Chad Jackson (2009).
Forecast: It starts with Moss. While he has said he would like to return, it will be actions, not words, that determine whether he stays. The question will be how long the Patriots are willing to commit to him; there are varied opinions on whether Moss would be a different player if he gets a large payday instead of playing with something to prove. Stallworth ($8 million) and Washington ($4 million) have big option bonuses due that likely won't be paid, making them free agents. They could return with different deals. Gaffney has re-established himself in the NFL and, like Moss, has stated that he'd like to return. Again, it will come down to actions, not words. Brown could be looking at retirement.
Top question: Will Moss be back with the Patriots?
Players: Benjamin Watson (2009), David Thomas (2009), Kyle Brady (2008), Stephen Spach (2008).
Forecast: With every player returning, the short-term outlook is strong, although the Patriots will likely look to bolster their long-range plans at this spot, likely through the draft. Thomas, a 2006 third-round draft choice, showed promise as a rookie but spent most of this year on injured reserve with a foot injury.
Top question: Can Thomas return to health and add depth and production?
Players: Dan Koppen (2011), Matt Light (2010), Nick Kaczur (2009), Logan Mankins (2009), Stephen Neal (2009), Ryan O'Callaghan (2009), Billy Yates (2009), Russ Hochstein (2008), Wesley Britt (exclusive rights free agent).
Forecast: With every starter returning, the Patriots are in an enviable position, although the unit's performance in Super Bowl XLII will likely leave linemen with a sour taste throughout the offseason. Neal, the starting right guard, had a thick black brace over his right knee after the game. The severity of his injury could alter the outlook at the position.
Top question: Will Neal's knee injury in the Super Bowl affect plans for 2008?
Players: Ty Warren (2013), Richard Seymour (2009), Jarvis Green (2009), Vince Wilfork (2009), Le Kevin Smith (2009), Rashad Moore (free agent), Mike Wright (restricted free agent).
Forecast: Every starter returns for the next two seasons. Look for at least preliminary discussions on an extension for Wilfork, while the team will have to tender Wright - a backup who entered the league as a free agent - at the second-round level if it hopes to keep him as a restricted free agent.
Top question: Assuming they meet at the negotiating table, will the Patriots and Wilfork reach a contract extension?
Players: Tedy Bruschi (free agent), Larry Izzo (free agent), Junior Seau (free agent), Adalius Thomas (2011), Oscar Lua (2010), Mike Vrabel (2009), Rosevelt Colvin (2008), Eric Alexander (exclusive rights free agent), Pierre Woods (exclusive rights free agent).
Forecast: This may be the one position on the roster with the foggiest outlook. Bruschi and Seau both showed they have more left in the tank, but do they want to keep playing? Do the Patriots envision having spots for them in 2008? Ditto for Izzo, a special teams captain. The Patriots also must address Colvin's high salary-cap charge. When Colvin was lost with a season-ending injury in late November, few could have predicted how adversely it would affect the club, as they missed his pass rush dearly. Assuming nothing changes between now and March, Arizona's Karlos Dansby and Pittsburgh's Clark Haggans are two free agents of note if the Patriots look to bolster the position with veterans.
Top question: Will Seau, Bruschi, and Colvin return?
Players: Asante Samuel (free agent), Randall Gay (free agent), Eugene Wilson (free agent), Chad Scott (free agent), Mel Mitchell (free agent), Brandon Meriweather (2011), Mike Richardson (2010), Willie Andrews (2009), Ellis Hobbs (2009), Rodney Harrison (2008), James Sanders (2008), Antwain Spann (2008), Ray Ventrone (exclusive rights free agent).
Forecast: Samuel has played his way to unrestricted free agency, and his status is one of the top issues facing the club. Gay, who visited with the Jets last offseason as a restricted free agent, is also free to shop his services after going wire to wire as the team's third cornerback this year. A former starter, Wilson will likely depart for a fresh start elsewhere after falling deep down the depth chart late in the season. Overall, the safety spot appears to be in good shape - assuming Harrison returns for the final year of his contract - but the cornerback position is a bit more uncertain.
Top question: Will the Patriots and Samuel's representatives come to an agreement on an extension?
Players: Long snapper Lonie Paxton (free agent), punter Chris Hanson (2008), kicker Stephen Gostkowski (2009).
Forecast: The Patriots must decide whether they want to pay Paxton a minimum salary of $730,000 or see if a youngster who would cost the minimum $295,000 is worth developing, thus freeing up money to sign a player at another spot.
Top question: Will Gostkowski's confidence be shaken after the Patriots did not call on him to attempt a field goal of about 49 yards in the Super Bowl?
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.