The Patriots are on the verge of another playoff run, but regardless of the outcome they're going to have a lot of decisions to make in a little over a month.
There's never a dull offseason with Bill Belichick and the Pats, but in recent years they've taken steps to lock up some of their key pieces ahead of time—something they didn't always do in the past.
While Jerod Mayo, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez all received contract extensions long before their deals expired, there are still a number of Patriots that will face a crossroads this offseason.
Let's take a look at the 10 biggest decisions the Patriots will have to make this coming offseason.
If the Patriots and Wes Welker couldn't come to an agreeable contract last offseason, why should we hold out hope that this year will be different?
Welker once again was a vital cog in the Pats attack in 2012, and has already caught 110 balls while becoming the first player in NFL history with five seasons of at least 100 receptions.
There were many who believe the Patriots wanted to trade Welker earlier this season when they started the year off with Julian Edelman playing many snaps in spots Welker usually played. However once Edelman and Aaron Hernandez went down with injuries, the Pats were left with few options and Welker was back as Mr. Reliable.
It was surprising and disappointing that the Pats and Welker could not get a deal done last offseason. And really not much has changed. The Pats could franchise him again, but that would cost another $9.5-plus million, depending on how much it goes up this year. Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe wrote:
One of the major sticking points between the sides was a third year for Welker. New England was willing to do a two-year contract — and, in fact, had offered Welker a fully guaranteed, two-year, $16 million deal during the 2011 season, which was rejected — but was hesitant to go beyond two years, likely citing Welker’s age and potential durability issues as an undersized receiver who suffered an ACL tear in January 2010.
It's unlikely that Welker is going to suddenly take a deal that he wouldn't have taken last year.
But the option of franchising Welker again has to be on the table for the Patriots. They were willing to pay him $16 million for two seasons. How do they feel about potentially $20 million? Mike Reiss wrote this for ESPNBoston.com:
If Welker is tagged at $11.4 million, and you combine that with quarterback Tom Brady's approximate $22 million cap hit as a result of his 2012 restructuring, that's about 27 percent of the team's cap space on two players -- not the type of cap distribution the Patriots prefer because it affects the ability to build depth.
Welker has been banged up all year, but he's gutted it out. He does have quite a few drops, but otherwise at this point Welker is still pretty much uncoverable and in mostly perfect sync with Tom Brady.
They let Brady's favorite target get away once before with Deion Branch in 2006 and it very possibly cost them another Super Bowl. Welker does have some miles on him and he won't hold up forever, but right now he doesn't show any signs of slowing down.
There are plenty of reasons to say the Patriots need Welker. But there are also plenty of reasons to say they'll be able to overcome losing him. Namely Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and the talented young backfield, and a pretty solid X wide receiver in Brandon Lloyd who has developed some chemistry with Tom Brady.
There's no question, the Wes Welker storyline will be the biggest one to follow this offseason.
Sebastian Vollmer was one of the biggest question marks coming into the 2012 campaign. He had flashed some dominating ability in his first two seasons, but battled injuries in 2011, only playing in seven games.
After missing most of training camp, everyone was unsure if Vollmer could be counted on, but all Vollmer has done is turned in his best season as a pro.
Vollmer is currently the third-ranked offensive player on the Patriots by Pro Football Focus and their top ranked offensive lineman. His pass-blocking rating for the season is an excellent 10.0.
Perhaps best of all is that Vollmer has only missed one game: the short week Thanksgiving game. Clearly Vollmer is battling through injuries but it has not affected his performance—a clear victory for a player entering free agency.
Right tackle is not the hardest position to fill and the Patriots seemingly have a decent backup option in Marcus Cannon, but players with the size and athleticism of Vollmer are rare, and at just 28 years old he's still in his prime.
The negotiation will likely center around Vollmer's health and the fact that he hasn't been healthy but has played well will certainly complicate matters.
But the Patriots should make every effort to lock up Vollmer for the next five years. It will give them a monstrous bookend with Nate Solder that will be able to help the eventual Brady transition.
You can't put a price tag on long-term offensive line stability.
Early in the season it looked like Julian Edelman was poised to play a major part in the Patriots offense. First it seemed he had defeated Jabar Gaffney, Deion Branch and Donte' Stallworth in the wide receiver training camp battle. Then it seemed like he had even surpassed Wes Welker in certain spots in the first couple games.
But then injuries struck. First a hand injury against the Ravens that knocked him out for three weeks. He returned and was just starting to flash some of the best football of his NFL career when he was lost against the Dolphins for the season with a foot injury.
There's no question that regardless of Wes Welker, the Patriots like Edelman and seemed focused on finding ways to incorporate him into the offense.
Week 11 against the Colts was a small window into just what Edelman might be capable of, when he caught five passes for 58 yards and a touchdown, had 47 yards on a single rushing attempt and returned two punts for a total of 117 yards, one of which for a touchdown that tied him for the Patriots' all-time punt return touchdown record with three.
Given Edelman's injuries and how the Patriots see potential in him, it seems like a no-brainer for the Pats to bring him back at a reasonable price. With Brandon Lloyd being the only wide receiver under contract for 2013, the Patriots really have no choice but to lock up Edelman.
Danny Woodhead might not be the next Adrian Peterson but as we saw against the 49ers, he's a useful tool in the running back box. He can do a number of things, but is most deadly from the Pats' hurry-up offense where he's a matchup nightmare in the passing game.
He can pass-block enough to get by and is not afraid of contact or taking on blitzers.
It seems like Woodhead is such a perfect fit for the Patriots that they should be able to find some common ground to get a deal done. Bill Belichick loves versatile guys like Woody, and he provides a great change of pace to Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden.
But it's Woodhead's versatility that might be the biggest reason Bill Belichick makes an effort to retain him.
Aqib Talib will be the great mystery of the Patriots offseason. He's done some good things in his short time in New England and allowed the Pats some leeway in the coverages they're able to play.
But how much money will Talib be looking for?
Does playing for a winning organization like New England count for anything with him?
And does New England think he's a long-term answer at corner? Because they certainly never overpay corners despite not being able to draft them.
He had a hand on his hip after every rep he took against the Jaguars, so now it looks like healthy might be an issue for him.
My best guess, that they Patriots give him what they deem a reasonable offer, which as we know is maybe 75 percent of what he might be able to get going to a bad team willing to overpay.
Talib will either dig the spirit and style of playing in New England, or just try to maximize his pay day.
If Talib is smart, which at this point is anyone's guess, he should take any offer the Patriots give him and spend the next four years on a winning team with a high profile.
If he really wants to cash in, he'll get another shot at free agency when he's 30. Then he'll be worth far more than he is now.
But at this point it could go either way, so I wouldn't be surprised.
When the Patriots took Patrick Chung in the second round of the 2009 draft, he was envisioned as an aggressive-in-the-box safety with a similar playing temperament to Rodney Harrison. While Chung has shown leadership and impressive tackling, he has continued to struggle in coverage and with injuries.
Many were calling this a make-or-break year for Chung and unfortunately he was plagued by the same problems. He was still struggling in coverage before getting injured in Week 7 and missing the next four games, despite never missing a single practice.
There's no question Chung is tough and brings the kind of work ethic that can be infectious for a team. But it just doesn't seem to translate onto the field.
His two interceptions against the Jaguars should give his confidence a boost, but he'll need similar performances in the playoffs if he wants any kind of bargaining power after the season.
The Patriots are in the driver's seat with Chung, and can offer him a "take it or leave it" contract because Chung doesn't have much leverage. There's no other way to cut it: he just hasn't lived up to expectations of a second-round pick.
Whether the Patriots still see anything in him long term, we'll see...
It should be an easy decision for the Patriots to want to keep Dane Fletcher, but the question is what level do they tender him at?
If they tender him at the low level, Fletcher will be free to go anywhere since he wasn't drafted. And it doesn't seem likely the Pats will want to pay him $1.97 million that comes with the second-round tender.
The Pats might just let Fletcher choose since he probably needs them more than they need him, but if there's one thing the Pats have lacked, it's a coverage linebacker and Fletcher has flashed some real potential in that area.
He's fast, a solid wrap-up tackler who can spy running backs. He has a different skill set than Spikes and Hightower and might be useful.
So are the Patriots willing to pay nearly $2 million to someone who might only be a sub defense player?
If not Fletcher can pick where he wants to go, which I'm guessing would probably be to stay with the Patriots anyway.
Brandon Spikes still has another year left on his rookie deal but with the way Spikes has elevated his game this year, there's no reason to wait to extend him. Spikes has battled through injuries and made real strides in his pass defense, an area where he struggled with in his first two years.
But most impressive about Spikes is just his presence in the middle of the defense, especially against the run. He's the tone-setter for the defense and an undeniable force that opposing offenses have to take into consideration.
Spikes brings a level of intimidation to the Patriots defense that not many players can do. And he can almost single-handedly destroy a running game.
Because if Spikes hits free agency, there will definitely be some teams interested and Spikes seems just crazy enough to leave New England.
Kyle Arrington is an interesting free agent to break down. On one hand he's often been the poster child for the struggles of the Patriots secondary in recent years, and Alfonzo Dennard's emergence has reduced Arrington to a sub-defense role only.
But there's also an argument to be made that Arrington has excelled in a slot-only role and the Patriots don't really have anyone else in recent history that can say that. He also has a ton of experience in the Patriots defense and can play special teams. And let's not forget he led the NFL in interceptions (seven) in 2011.
So there's no doubt Arrington could be useful to the Patriots, especially given how injuries always seem to hit the secondary. But it also just might be time for the Patriots to cut ties and open up the roster spot to someone new and potentially better.
I can't imagine there are many secondaries out there that think Arrington is the missing piece for them.
However the fates of Ellis Hobbs and James Sanders show Bill Belichick will cut the cord pretty quick with a defensive back he gets sick of.
Trevor Scott has flashed some potential a couple times this season as the Patriots' latest defensive end reclamation project. He's been mostly reserved to third on the depth chart, though he saw some extended playing time against the Dolphins in Week 13 when he had two sacks.
Scott's fate is directly tied to Jake Bequette. If the Patriots like this year's third-rounder, there's no reason to re-sign Scott as his presence would only retard Bequette's development.
But really can you ever have enough pass-rushers? Scott would be affordable and, perhaps after a year in the system, he could really become a useful backup who can get after the quarterback from time to time.
Mike Dussault is a New England Patriots Featured Columnist, the creator/editor-in-chief of PatsPropaganda.com and co-hosts the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcastwith AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. You can follow him on Twitter here.