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Appeal in Tom Brady case among biggest questions facing Patriots this offseason

The New England Patriots finished their season with a 20-18 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. Here are five questions facing the Patriots this offseason:

What happens with the NFL’s appeal of Tom Brady’s suspension being overturned? Brady had his four-game suspension for the start of the 2015 season overturned by U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman on Sept. 3. The NFL filed an appeal with the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that is scheduled to be heard March 3. Similar to the 2015 offseason, what happens in the courtroom in early March surrounding allegations the Patriots tampered with footballs will be the storyline that trumps everything else, as it’s still possible that Brady could be suspended if the NFL wins on appeal.

Which young defender is first in line for an extension? The Patriots don’t have any big-ticket free agents, but some strategic planning must be done to account for the fact that four promising young defenders all have deals that expire after the 2016 season: linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, defensive end Chandler Jones and cornerback Malcolm Butler. Of the group, Hightower and Jones have fifth-year options for 2016 that increase their base salaries considerably. Butler would be a restricted free agent after next season, so the Patriots retain some leverage in his situation and that puts him in a different category than the others.

How does not having a first-round draft pick affect the team? The NFL stripped the Patriots of a first-round draft pick because of Deflategate, which naturally will sting, even though it is toward the end of the round. Still, the cupboard isn’t bare as the club is expecting at least three additional compensatory draft picks, and one is likely to be as high as the third round from Darrelle Revis' signing with the Jets. The Patriots will look to duplicate their success from 2013, when they traded out of the first round and selected Collins in the second round (52nd overall). When assessing the team’s draft assets at this time, and considering that the skill positions on offense project as a top need, the draft will once again be critical.

Which free agents will be priorities to re-sign? Unlike last offseason, when Revis, running back Shane Vereen and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork were among the significant free-agent departures, the Patriots don't have the same caliber of players set to hit the market this year. Running back LeGarrette Blount, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and special-teams standout Nate Ebner are the top three free agents, and Hicks -- based on his size (6-5, 324), physical traits, the value of the position he plays and his age (26) -- is in line for the richest contract. The Patriots presumably would like him to return, but as is often the case, the market will dictate whether it happens.

Will receiver Danny Amendola and linebacker Jerod Mayo return on reduced contracts? Similar to Wilfork at this time last year, Amendola and Mayo have contracts that make it highly unlikely they will return unless the sides reach some type of agreement on an adjustment. Amendola has spoken about his appreciation of playing in New England, and how money isn’t a primary factor for him. Meanwhile, Mayo has been a longtime team leader whose on-field role diminished in 2015 as he kept mostly a low profile from a media perspective. Is there a role for him on the team in ’16?