New England Patriots: 5 Key Veterans Who'll Take a Back Seat in 2012

Oliver Thomas@OliverBThomasContributor IMarch 23, 2012

New England Patriots: 5 Key Veterans Who'll Take a Back Seat in 2012

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    With the 2012 NFL offseason well underway, the New England Patriots have already made a slew of moves. Through free agency and the draft, plenty of fresh faces (including wideout Brandon Lloyd) will call Foxboro home next season.

    With that said, signing a free agent is a double-edged sword.

    A new player is likely to make another one obsolete. As a result, the incumbents could see a decrease in production, playing time and may no longer be part of the team's future plans.

    It's an exciting time of the year for football fans, but for some, it's also bittersweet. Certain veterans will take the following paths: sit on the sidelines, retire or get cut.

    Here are five Patriots who will take a backseat in the 2012 campaign, that is of course, if they're on the roster.

Danny Woodhead, Halfback

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    Danny Woodhead was a Division II star at Chadron State, and the runt of the New York Jets' practice squad.

    Then the 2010 season gave the shifty, 5'7" running back a chance to shine when he arrived in New England. He became the change-of-pace back that the Pats sorely missed in Kevin Faulk's absence.

    That year, Woodhead had 97 carries for 547 yards and five rushing touchdowns. He was a passing threat as well, catching 34 balls for 379 yards and one receiving touchdown.

    Yet 2011 was a different story. The runningback-by-committee approach reduced Woodhead's touches in the offense. With the crowded backfield of Benjarvus Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk, plus rookies Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, No. 39 saw his numbers shrivel in every facet of the game.

    The Pats' backfield has landed on uncertain times. Green-Ellis has gone to the Cincinnati Bengals. Will Faulk retire? Will a running back be added via free agency or through the draft?

    These questions, compounded with the impending emergence of youngsters Ridley and Vereen, could negatively impact Woodhead's future as a Patriot.

    Ridley is going to see a spike in carries next year. The LSU product is tough at 5'11", 225 pounds, but he's got nimble feet and rushed for 441 yards on 87 attempts in his first year. With the Green-Ellis Law Firm running elsewhere, Ridley is a favorite to take the reins.

    In respect to the third-down back situation, Vereen could be Woodhead's biggest threat. In limited action last season, the former Cal Bear had 57 yards and a touchdown. As a Patriots second-round selection in the 2011 NFL draft, Vereen is expected to have much more responsibility in 2012.

    The culmination of all these variables could put a dent in Woodhead's job description.

    He's become a fan favorite in New England, but will he outplay his younger and more highly touted counterparts come the preseason?

Deion Branch, Wide Receiver

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    Deion Branch is one of Tom Brady's most trusted receivers. Sadly, Super Bowl XXXIX's Most Valuable Player won't produce the same way he has in past seasons with New England.

    In 2011, Branch caught 51 passes for 702 yards and five scores. But inevitably, the Brandon Lloyd signing pushes Branch down the totem pole.

    On March 22, the Patriots agreed to terms with Branch on a one-year deal. Even though his responsibilities will likely be reduced, the former Louisville receiver is happy to be back for another season in Foxboro.

    No. 84 broke the news to his Twitter followers soon after a deal was reached with the Pats:

    "It's truly an honor and a blessing to be back with #Patriots next year. Can't wait to get back in the swing of things," said Branch. 

    The wide receiver position is currently a logjam with Wes Welker, Lloyd, a newly-signed Anthony Gonzalez and Donte' Stallworth. Additionally, the back end of the depth chart includes Ochocinco, Julian Edelman, Matt Slater, Tiquan Underwood and practice squadder Britt Davis.

    The Patriots were anticipated to draft at receiver as well, but now perhaps their direction has changed course.

    All in all, it remains to be seen if Branch will make the 53-man roster in September. But if he does, the 32-year-old will spend less time on the field.

Matt Light, Left Tackle

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    Matt Light has been protecting quarterback Tom Brady's blindside for the past 11 seasons.

    The former second-round pick in the 2001 draft is a four-time Pro Bowler and has won three Super Bowls with the Patriots. No. 72 seems to get better with age. In fact, some would argue that 2011 was Light's best season as a pro.

    All these accolades are great, but the fact is that the former Purdue Boilermaker could very well retire this offseason.

    According to Ian Rapoport of the Boston Herald, Light's future in New England is very cloudy.

    "While it hasn’t been said officially, the expectation is that Matt Light will not be back next year (with retirement definitely possible)," said Rapoport.

    The success of 2011 first-rounder Nate Solder has made the transition a bit easier for the Patriots. The Colorado Buffalo saw action in all 16 regular-season games of his rookie season, starting 13 of them.

    If right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is healthy, Solder could slide into the starting left tackle spot and be Brady's security guard for years to come.

    With young blood on the offensive line, this may be the perfect time for Light to call it a career.

    "[If] Matt Light decides to retire. He's someone that's been with us the whole time," said Patriots owner Robert Kraft on March 22. "He's been such an outstanding person both on and off the field."

    It appears as though Light could very well be done playing football. After all, what else does he have left to prove?

Dan Koppen, Center (Unrestricted Free Agent)

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    Dan Koppen's 2011 season did not go as planned. The 32-year-old center out of Boston College broke his ankle in Week 1 and was placed on injured reserve.

    Now Koppen is ready to test the waters of free agency. If he can't find a new employer for the deal he's looking for, he could return in 2012. However, the chances of that happening seem bleak.

    Koppen told the Boston Herald that he'd like to return to New England, but he understands that there are many factors involved in the situation.

    "It’s one of those things where, I’m not closing any options," said Koppen.

    "I’ve been around this league a long time, I know it’s a business. I know the business, I know the business side of it. I’ve seen things that happen in the past and some things just work out and some things just don’t work out. I understand that the Patriots have gotta do what’s best for them and I gotta do what’s best for my family."

    In the meantime, New England has re-signed guard and center hybrid Dan Connolly. The team could also add a center through the draft. Nevertheless, it will be tough to replace Koppen's veteran presence in front of Brady.

    "There's only one other butt on this planet I like: Koppen's and my wife's," said Tom Brady last year on WEEI.

    Jokes aside, Koppen won't be holding his breath for a deal to get done with the Pats.

Kyle Arrington, Cornerback

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    Undrafted free agent Kyle Arrington made a name for himself last season for the Patriots.

    But the question is, were his league-leading seven interceptions a fluke?

    Due to injuries and a lack of talent at the cornerback position, the former Hofstra defensive back seized the starting cornerback spot across from Devin McCourty. Yet free agency and April's draft could change Arrington's role on the team.

    The Patriots barely got to see the potential of Virginia rookie Ras-I Dowling in 2011. The second-round selection found himself on injured reserve midway through the season. If Dowling can stay off the injury report, he could steal Arrington's spot.

    Arrington has already exceeded his expectations but may fall back into the nickle position come next year.

    Depending on the success of players like Dowling, Sterling Moore and others, Arrington's starting role could be in jeopardy.