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INDIANAPOLIS -- In the aftermath of a crushing Super Bowl defeat, New England Patriots players gathered in their locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium and looked to coach Bill Belichick for comfort.
It was the 19th time Belichick addressed the team after a game, the 23rd time if the preseason is counted. At no other time could his words have left a more lasting impression, a collective Super Bowl scar leaving stunned, exhausted players vulnerable.
|While Bill Belichick said he really liked this year's Patriots team, he'll have to make some changes for next season.|
What Belichick said, according to one player, was simply a short message of appreciation. He told his charges how much he liked their effort and that he was proud of them, but they just came up a few plays short. Then he said that as long as he was coach, this was the goal -- to play in Super Bowls and hopefully win them.
The Patriots are well-positioned to do that. They should be back in the championship hunt again in 2012. In fact, MGM Resorts International lists the Patriots as 5-1 favorites to win next season's Super Bowl.
"I hope we do get back here again. I'd rather keep coming to this game and lose than not get here," quarterback Tom Brady said following Sunday's painful defeat. "I hope another opportunity comes."
Although he's been fortunate enough to play in five Super Bowls in the 10 years he's been a healthy starter, Brady knows such an opportunity is never guaranteed. His 2008 knee injury reinforced that thought. A lot of things can happen along the way and teams need some good fortune.
That's part of what made Super Bowl XLVI such a tough pill to swallow for Brady, who was the last player to change out of his uniform Sunday while just sitting at his locker, a towel draped over his head, as he stared down at the ground.
The Patriots had a golden opportunity, but didn't play or coach their best football. Now the team must figure out what it needs to do to get over that Super hump, as it's traditionally been a challenge for Super Bowl losers to rebound the following year.
Belichick often refers to the offseason as the team-building season, when the roster puzzle is pieced together through the draft, free agency and trades. Free agency begins March 13, but the Patriots will be busy before then as they have 18 players who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents (some, such as running back Kevin Faulk, could retire).
Here is one view of some of the key considerations moving forward:
Wes Welker's contract status. Welker is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent March 13, but if the sides can't hammer out an extension before then, the team is expected to assign him the franchise tag ($9.4 million on a one-year tender). It would be a shocker if the Patriots let Welker test the market without the tag. Part of the holdup with Welker is that the Patriots are probably concerned about the latter years of any extension for a 30-year-old receiver and might view it as better for the club to go year to year with Welker at franchise-tag figures. Also at receiver, Deion Branch is an unrestricted free agent, although he expressed his desire to remain with the team. Special teams captain Matthew Slater, who also chips in at receiver, figures to be a top priority to re-sign.
Setting the draft board. The Patriots, as usual, are well stocked in the 2012 draft. They have two first-round picks (their own and the Saints') and two second-rounders (their own and the Raiders'), to go along with a third- and fourth-rounder. That sets them up well to continue feeding the pipeline at positions where an infusion of youth could help, such as wide receiver. It seems like the same thing is said every year; the Patriots will be wielding some power on draft day.
Focusing on team needs. The defensive backfield, receiver and front-seven help top the list of positions that could use a boost. In the defensive backfield, more continuity figures to be a priority in 2012 as there was too much shuffling this season. As the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI showed, the defense could use a dynamic playmaker at any position, that game-changer that any club covets who can consistently help close out games.
How much for BenJarvus Green-Ellis? While Welker is the team's headline free agent, it's notable that Green-Ellis is scheduled for unrestricted free agency as well. He led the team in rushing with 667 yards on 181 carries (3.7 avg.), while totaling 11 touchdowns, and was Belichick's choice for extended work in the Super Bowl. One assumes the Patriots would want the sure-handed Green-Ellis to return, although they always draw a line as to how far they'll extend themselves. They have an insurance plan in place with 2011 draft choices Stevan Ridley (third round) and Shane Vereen (second round), with Danny Woodhead also under contract for 2012.
Cleaning up salary-related items. It's hard to imagine veteran receiver Chad Ochocinco will return, as he's due a $3 million base salary, the fourth highest base of players currently on the club for 2012 (behind Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork and Matt Light). The Patriots often talk about "value" and Ochocinco had just 15 receptions this season and was limited in the ways he could help the offense. Defensive lineman Mike Wright, who has battled the after-effects of concussions, is another player to watch from a salary perspective ($2.35 million base).
Defensive scheme going forward. When the 2011 season began, Belichick explained that he opened camp in a 4-3 defense because it was simpler to teach. This had a trickle-down effect on roster decisions, with Belichick considering free agents that normally wouldn't be a fit such as Andre Carter, Mark Anderson and Albert Haynesworth. While Haynesworth fizzled -- and can serve as a reminder to Belichick not to stray from his core football principles in signing players who don't love the game -- Carter and Anderson were excellent with double-digit sacks and consistent performance. Carter and Anderson both are unrestricted free agents and their value to the team figures to be tied to what scheme Belichick plans to play in 2012.
Center of attention. The team's two top centers --10-year veteran Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly (fourth season with Patriots in 2011) -- are unrestricted free agents and it could come down to a choice of one or the other. Koppen missed almost all of 2011 with a foot injury sustained in the season opener, while the 29-year-old Connolly continues to develop and projects as more of a long-term option.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.