- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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But don't punch your ticket to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans just yet, Patriots fans.
The reigning AFC champions and Super Bowl runners-up still have a lot of work to do to rebuild into a title contender. The Patriots have 20 free agents -- approximately 38 percent of the 53-man roster -- and just a month to make decisions before most will hit the open market. Of New England’s 20 free agents, 17 are unrestricted.
So who stays? Who goes? Who are the potential replacements?
Analysis: Free agency can be unpredictable. But these are four locks I definitely see coming back to New England. Welker's production (122 receptions, 1,569 yards) is off the charts, and New England's offense wouldn't be the same next season without him. Welker will either get the franchise tag or a multiyear extension. But he will be with the Patriots in 2012.
Slater is New England's special-teams ace and made it to his first Pro Bowl this season. He found a niche in New England and eventually became team captain. Slater is a favorite of the coaching staff and will return. Love started 13 games and really came into his own this season. He's an exclusive rights free agent, so he's not going anywhere. Hoyer also is a restricted free agent. The Patriots hold all the cards with their backup quarterback. So unless New England gets a trade offer it can't refuse, Hoyer will back up Tom Brady again next season.
Replacement options: The Patriots probably won't replace any of these four players. But 2011 draft pick Ryan Mallett might be ready to push for the No. 2 quarterback job next season, which could make Hoyer a tradable commodity if New England receives a tremendous offer.
Like their chances
Analysis: Anderson (10 sacks) was New England's best pass-rusher last season. The Patriots need more pass-rushers, not fewer. Expect New England to make a strong pitch to bring Anderson back. Connolly is an intriguing case. He filled in well at center for the injured Dan Koppen (foot). Connolly, 29, started 11 games and the offense didn't miss a beat. He is three years younger than Koppen and not coming off a season-ending injury.
The Patriots won't spend big on two centers, so the smart money is on Connolly. Ihedigbo overachieved, working his way from a good special-teamer to a starter by the end of the season. Ihedigbo would be nice to bring back for depth and special teams.
Replacement options: Look for the Patriots to add another pass-rusher to complement Anderson via the draft or free agency. If they have to replace Anderson, there are some big names available. I think Houston Texans defensive end/linebacker Mario Williams would be a stud in New England's hybrid 3-4, 4-3 defense. The Patriots have the cap space to go after Williams, especially if they don't re-sign Anderson. But there would be tons of competition for Williams.
If it doesn't get a pass-rusher in free agency, New England could turn to the draft. The Patriots have two first-round and two second-round picks. The replacement option for Connolly would be Koppen, who is a favorite of Brady. But I don't see that as reason enough not to sign Connolly, the younger, healthier player . The Patriots will certainly replace Ihedigbo in the starting lineup next season.
New England needs another playmaking safety opposite Patrick Chung. Fortunately for the Patriots, there are plenty of good safeties available this year, including Michael Griffin, Dashon Goldson and Tyvon Branch.
Analysis: Welker is New England's biggest free agent, but Green-Ellis may be the most interesting. There are reasons to keep the Patriots' leading rusher and reasons to let him walk. New England drafted two running backs last year: Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. With Danny Woodhead also in the fold, I thought the writing was on the wall for Green-Ellis entering the final year of his contract. But Green-Ellis did everything that was asked of him and led the team in rushing yards (667) and rushing touchdowns (11). The coaching staff especially likes the fact that Green-Ellis has never fumbled in his four-year career. I think the Patriots will make a pitch to bring Green-Ellis back but won't overpay. If Green-Ellis wants to really cash in, he may have to sign elsewhere.
Branch is on his last legs but could return on a short-term contract in a limited role. New England will make some upgrades at receiver. Branch would be a backup next season. The Patriots will have an interesting decision to make on White and Koutouvides. Both were solid on special teams, but New England probably has to choose one or the other. White and Koutouvides are both backup linebackers. New England can't afford to let two special-teamers without much starting potential at linebacker hold roster spots.
Replacement options: If New England replaces Green-Ellis, it will be in-house. The Patriots have more than enough running backs, and letting go of Green-Ellis would be a sign that Ridley is ready for more responsibility. Ridley, Woodhead and Vereen may not be a bad trio if they all work hard and improve during the offseason.
Branch will be replaced in the starting lineup. I fully expect New England to have interest in free-agent receiver Brandon Lloyd, who has strong ties to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Lloyd has a lot of respect for McDaniels and credits him for jump-starting his career in Denver. The Patriots need a deep threat to go with Welker and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Lloyd, who averages 15.4 yards per catch for his career, would be a great addition.
Thanks for your service but ...
Analysis: This is the group that probably won't return next season. Carter is 32 and coming off a season-ending quad injury. The Patriots need to get younger on the edges. As we mentioned, Koppen missed the entire season with a foot injury, and the Patriots have to choose between two centers (Connolly and Koppen). Faulk was brought back during the season to add stability to a young group of running backs. But he was inactive in the Super Bowl and probably is close to retirement. Guyton showed a few flashes but eventually fell out of favor in New England. The Patriots are set at linebacker with Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich. So Guyton won't be back. Veterans Ellis and Warren provided depth and leadership on the defensive line. But both are over 30 and will be replaced by younger players in the offseason. Molden, a restricted free agent, had trouble covering receivers. He's most infamous for the 12 men on field penalty in the Super Bowl.
Replacement options: With the exception of Carter and Koppen, most of these players are expendable backups. It will be very easy to replace them, mostly with younger players and draft picks. Overall, the Patriots are in a good spot to improve their roster. Yes, they have 20 free agents, but Welker really is the only game-changer of the group. Expect a decent amount of roster turnover in New England. With smart moves, the reigning AFC champs could have an even deeper roster next season.