Though the Patriots’ loss in Super Bowl XLVI still smarts for players and fans, the coaches and front office staff have little choice but to turn the page toward the 2012 season. The Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game, the two events that typically kick off draft season in earnest, have already been held, and the annual NFL Combine will begin Feb. 22.
As of right now, New England has two selections in Round 1 of the draft, two in Round 2, and one each in Rounds 3 and 4, but none in Round 5 or beyond.
There are also free agency decisions to be made, both for players who played for New England this season and for those on other squads who will be available. Free agency opens on March 13.
With that in mind, let’s run down the roster the Patriots ended their run to the Super Bowl with and see who is under contract for the coming season, and who may be elsewhere:
QUARTERBACKS Under contract: Tom Brady (deal ends in 2014), Ryan Mallett (2014)
Expiring contract: Brian Hoyer (restricted free agent)
It will be interesting to see what happens with Hoyer. As he is a restricted free agent, the Patriots can tender him at one of several levels to keep him. But quarterback-needy clubs would be smart to take a long look at the former undrafted player out of Michigan State: He has made tremendous progress in his three years with New England in terms of mobility and accuracy, and the team feels he is starting material. Mallett, who was inactive during the season, also showed good development as his rookie year went on.
RUNNING BACKS Under contract: Danny Woodhead (deal ends in 2012), Lousaka Polite (2012), Stevan Ridley (2014), Shane Vereen (2014)
Expiring contracts: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk
After an underwhelming regular season, Woodhead was nearly a hero in the Super Bowl. Ridley’s fumbles in the regular-season finale and the playoff game against Denver meant he never saw the field again the rest of the postseason, and fellow rookie Vereen’s first season was lost to injury. Faulk has almost certainly played his last game, and deserves kudos for returning from a torn ACL at 35 years old. The wild card here is Green-Ellis; he isn’t often flashy, but he is dependable and a good locker room guy, and could step into the leadership void that will open if Faulk departs.
WIDE RECEIVERS Under contract: Chad Ochocinco (deal ends in 2013), Julian Edelman (2012), Tiquan Underwood (2012)
Expiring contracts: Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Matthew Slater
What the Patriots do with Welker may be the biggest question this team is facing. Acquired from the Dolphins in 2007, Welker has totaled 554 receptions in five seasons, has sent other teams scrambling to find a player like him for their own roster, and is one of Brady’s most trusted receivers. Welker and Robert Kraft have both expressed in recent weeks that they’d like to see him remain with New England, which is usually a good sign that something will get done. Branch has no desire to go elsewhere and was still effective when Brady needed him. Ochocinco could be back, but likely at a lower base salary; he is slated to make $3 million in ’12.
TIGHT ENDS Under contract: Rob Gronkowski (deal ends in 2013), Aaron Hernandez (2013)
Expiring contracts: None
Both blossomed in their second season and gave Belichick the ability to run the two-tight-end sets he has long wanted to run.
OFFENSIVE LINE Under contract: Matt Light (deal ends in 2012), Logan Mankins (2016), Brian Waters (2012), Sebastian Vollmer (2012), Nate Solder (2014), Nick McDonald (2013), Marcus Cannon (2014), Ryan Wendell (2013), Donald Thomas (2012), Matt Kopa (2012), Kyle Hix (2013), Rich Ohrnberger (2012)
Expiring contracts: Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly
After a stellar season in his first year with the Patriots, Waters surprised many in the moments after the Super Bowl when he didn’t immediately say he’ll be back next year, instead saying he’ll think about it for a couple of weeks. Koppen and Connolly, the top two centers, are free agents, but otherwise New England has the rest of its linemen under contract.
DEFENSIVE LINE Under contract: Vince Wilfork (deal ends in 2014), Brandon Deaderick (2013), Ron Brace (2012), Mike Wright (2012), Myron Pryor (2012)
Expiring contracts: Andre Carter, Mark Anderson, Shaun Ellis, Gerard Warren, Kyle Love (exclusive-rights free agent)
Love, who had a solid second season alongside Wilfork, will almost certainly be back, given his status as an exclusive-rights player, but the unknowns are Carter and Anderson. Carter was the Patriots’ best pass-rusher before suffering a torn quadriceps near the end of the regular season, but he will be 33 when training camp starts. Anderson had a respectable year, resurrecting what looked like a lost career with the Texans last year. The health of Wright, who has been sidelined by the effects of concussions, also bears watching.
LINEBACKERS Under contract: Jerod Mayo (deal ends in 2017), Rob Ninkovich (2013), Brandon Spikes (2013), Dane Fletcher (2012), Jermaine Cunningham (2013), Christian Cox (2013), Jeff Tarpinian (2013), Markell Carter (2012)
Expiring contracts: Gary Guyton, Niko Koutouvides, Tracy White
The Patriots extended both Mayo and, more quietly, Ninkovich, last season. Ninkovich - also quietly - has become a leader of this unit with Mayo, and has had several key plays in his time with New England. Spikes, once he returned from his knee injury, was an impact player in the middle of the defense, especially against the run. Cunningham is still a mystery; he was disappointing as a rookie and disappointing this season before being placed on injured reserve. Guyton had a precipitous decline off the depth chart over the final half of the season.
DEFENSIVE BACKS Under contract: Devin McCourty (deal ends in 2014), Kyle Arrington (2012), Patrick Chung (2012), Sergio Brown (2013), Sterling Moore (2012), Ras-I Dowling (2014), Malcolm Williams (2012), Josh Barrett (2012), Ross Ventrone (2012)
Expiring contracts: James Ihedigbo, Antwaun Molden, Nate Jones
This young corps, particularly with a healthy Dowling and Barrett, could show marked improvement next season, though there is the question of whether New England will make McCourty’s move to safety a permanent one or try to rebuild his confidence at cornerback. It’s hard to think the Patriots wouldn’t bring back Ihedigbo, a heady player who quickly became a leader in the group in his first season with the team.
SPECIALISTS Under contract: K Stephen Gostkowski (deal ends 2014), P Zoltan Mesko (2013), LS Danny Aiken (2013)
Expiring contracts: None
After trying out a couple of snappers since Lonie Paxton left in 2009, the Patriots seem to have found a keeper in Aiken, who was perfect this season. Mesko built on his solid rookie season, and Gostkowski continues to be reliable.