The New England Patriots are just about to begin their playoff run this weekend against the Houston Texans but they have a host of free agents whose contracts are set to expire at the end of the season.
It should be an interesting spring for a team with a lot of mid-level depth players up for renewal as well as two headline names that will be the top priorities, Wes Welker and Sebastian Vollmer.
Outside of Welker and Vollmer, the Pats will identify which players have the most long-term potential, and who it will be time to move on from.
Let's take a look at who the Patriots should keep and who they should let walk this offseason.
Kyle Arrington has become the poster child for a porous Patriots pass defense that has been torched every year that he's been a starter. But Arrington is also one of the team's most experienced and versatile defensive backs, and he rarely gets injured.
While there have been plenty of negative moments over Arrington's three years of starting for the Patriots, he's also put forth a strong end to his 2012 season.
After being moved back to primarily a slot corner role, Arrington has really started to excel, and despite some of his past struggles, he could really have a future if he continues to stay at this position and help out on special teams.
You cannot discount Arrington's experience and continued health in the Patriots system, especially when it's been so impossible for the Pats to not only find good cornerbacks, but ones who can actually stay on the field.
Still, once Bill Belichick reaches the end of the road with a player, the end is often swift. Just look at how he discarded Ellis Hobbs and Darius Butler.
Once he doesn't think you've got a future anymore, you're gone.
However, Arrington was out of position at outside corner. If the Pats can plot a course going forward with him staying in the slot, where his physicality and talent for blitzing can be maximized, then he should be able to secure another contract with New England.
Patrick Chung is an interesting player to consider when free agency hits. On one hand, he was a second-round pick, and he is one of the leaders of the Patriots defense, despite a significant deal of time missed due to injuries and poor performance.
The Patriots could, in theory, re-sign him to a cheaper deal with the stipulation that he will be a special teamer and the team's top backup safety, but it's more likely that Chung would prefer to go somewhere where he will get another chance to start.
Will any team be willing to give him that? Probably not.
Chung could have a chance to compete for a starting job in New England if he comes back. But so far in his first four NFL seasons, he just hasn't been healthy or consistent enough to still be considered a long-term starting option at safety.
Perhaps a stellar performance in the playoffs could change that.
He's great for the locker room, and no one will work harder than Chung. That kind of example is always good to have around, but how the Pats view Chung and how Chung views himself could be very different. It's likely that the difference will result in Chung leaving New England for a fresh start somewhere else.
Regardless of what happens with Wes Welker, the Patriots should bring back wide receiver Julian Edelman.
Yes, he's had injury issues, and there's no one position or stat for Edelman to really hang his hat on, outside of his 222 all-purpose yards against the Colts this season. But he's certainly flashed enough potential in a variety of roles over his first four seasons to earn another contract. And given his injuries this season, he should be affordable.
The Patriots were making a concerted effort to involve Edelman more in the offense early in the season. Unfortunately, he had a hand injury in Week 3 that forced him to miss three games. He returned against the Jets in Week 7 and was really starting to come into his own. He continued his strong play with a great performance against the Colts in Week 11, before breaking ultimately his foot against the Dolphins in Week 13, ending his season.
Now, 21 receptions for 235 yards and three touchdowns on the season isn't any reason to think Edelman is the next Wes Welker, but his versatility is what makes him so valuable.
He's a solid punt returner, and he has even played some defensive back. Edelman is probably the best wide receiver that the team has drafted since Deion Branch and David Givens.
With only Brandon Lloyd under contract at the wide receiver position for 2013, the Patriots can't afford to let someone like Edelman slip away. The Patriots are all about value, and with Edelman, they shouldn't have to break the bank to bring back a player who can do so many things.
Trevor Scott hasn't exactly been a huge presence for the Patriots this season, but he's had his moments. He filled in admirably for an injured Chandler Jones and has delivered some timely pass rushing skills.
He's had at least one QB hurry in each of the last seven games, and he is starting to carve out a small niche as a situational pass rusher. While it doesn't look like Scott is a long-term starter, he's versatile and can rush the quarterback, and you can really never have too many of those guys on your roster.
The Patriots gave one-year deals to defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson in 2011 but were unable to retain them. Scott hasn't played to the level that those players did, but he's shown enough as a situational pass rusher and on special teams to be worth bringing back.
With a year in the system, the Patriots might find even more ways to get him involved. The worst case scenario is that Jake Bequette or another young defensive end beats him out in training camp next season.
The only wild card here would be if Scott is unhappy with his role in New England and wants the chance to start elsewhere. If that's the case, it will not be a major problem for the Patriots to replace him.
When analyzing Aqib Talib's performance with the Patriots in the second half of this season, it's important to separate cause and effect. The Patriots defense always tends to improve in the second half and this season was the same story.
Did that have to do with Talib? Partly.
But truthfully, Talib has been just OK for the Patriots. He missed the final two games of the regular season with a hip injury, and who knows how healthy he'll be in the playoffs. He's has had just one pass defended and no interceptions since Week 12.
Has the Pats defense been better overall since Talib arrived? Sure. But there is not enough evidence to say that it's all because of him and that he's worth a significant contract.
Everyone knows New England balks at overpaying cornerbacks, so why would Talib be any different?
The Patriots will throw some sort of offer out to Talib, and if he was smart, he should take it. But if another team comes in and offers him a sizable contract, then it's likely that the Pats will let him walk.
He'd be a solid addition to a secondary that needs more talent, but the Pats can likely find a decent replacement for him in the form of Ras-I Dowling, a free agent or a draft pick.
It's likely that the Pats offer will be too low for Talib and he'll cash in elsewhere.
Dane Fletcher will present an interesting situation this offseason as well.
As an undrafted restricted free agent, the Patriots will have to choose how they tender him. They could put a first or second-round tender on him and run the chance of having to overpay him, or they could slap the low-round tender on him, which means that because he wasn't drafted, any other team could sign him to a contract without having to compensate the Pats.
This is a risk that the Patriots will likely take because there's no need to pay Fletcher second-round tender money, which will be around $2 million. Fletcher probably needs the Pats a lot more than they need him, so the chances are good that even with a low-round tender, Fletcher will remain in New England.
The Patriots have a need for a coverage linebacker, and that's a role that Fletcher could compete to fill. The Patriots should want him back, but it's unlikely that they'll tag him with a second-round designation, which would come with a $2 million dollar price tag.
Still, Fletcher might get a chance to start for another team where he isn't stuck behind three linebackers like Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower.
If he does get that chance, the Patriots will have an even bigger need for a linebacker who can run and cover.
Danny Woodhead is the unsung hero of the Patriots backfield, just like Kevin Faulk was before him. Stevan Ridley got most of the attention this year, but it was Woodhead who was the true spark in the backfield down the stretch, and he will be a big part of any playoff run that the Pats make.
On the season, Woodhead had 76 carries for 301 yards and four touchdowns along with 50 catches for 446 yards and three touchdowns. He was the best spread offense running back that the Patriots had, and his only fumble of the year ended up resulting in a touchdown. It's been a bounce back year for Woodhead, who battled injuries in 2011.
Woodhead has been a dynamic force for the Patriots since the day that he arrived in 2010 and, like Edelman, he is one of the most versatile offensive players on the roster. He has unique size and quickness, and in the right spots, he gives opposing defenses fits.
The Patriots have great depth at the running back position going into the offseason. They could overcome the loss of Woodhead with Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden, but even still, none of those players are as gifted and trustworthy in the passing game as Woodhead.
He's a unique player who excels despite his stature, and he always seems to play his best in the biggest games.
The Patriots always have a need for a player like that.
There's been some optimism lately regarding the Pats and Welker being able to get a long-term deal done this offseason, but his future with the team remains cloudy at best.
Here's what is clear, though: Welker is still as uncoverable as ever and has shown no indication that past injuries have caught up with him, even at the tender age of 31. This season, he had 118 catches for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns.
Welker is Brady's most reliable and favorite receiver, and there could be tough consequences for the Patriots offense without the always-open Welker.
The Patriots could always hit Welker with the franchise tag again, but the $10.35 million price tag would likely be too rich for them to use it for a second time in a row.
Perhaps the sides can hit the reset button on negotiations this offseason and find a deal that works for everyone, but it still could be a long-shot. The Pats must be wary of how long Welker can maintain his level of play and stay healthy.
Welker is so vital to Brady at this late stage in his career, so the Pats should accept the risk that comes with giving Welker a new deal. It will ensure that their offense continues at it's current rate for at least another season or two, and most of all, it will keep their franchise quarterback happy.
Sebastian Vollmer, not Wes Welker, should be the top priority for the Patriots this offseason. Despite battling injuries throughout the season, Vollmer has turned in another outstanding campaign, missing just one game on a short week, putting the concerns that his back problems were chronic to rest.
He's a dominating and versatile tackle, and at 28 years old, is in his prime. He should have at least another four years of peak performance ahead of him.
Vollmer's injury history should give the Pats some leverage, and right tackle isn't the hardest position to fill, but Vollmer's size and athleticism make him a special player.
If the Patriots do lose Welker this offseason, having Vollmer will help ease whatever transition the Pats will have to make without their star wideout. Paying Welker a significant contract and losing Vollmer because of it would not be a smart long-term move.
Four years from now, there's little question that Vollmer will be the more valuable player than Welker. 35-year-old slot receivers with elite quickness and the ability to take numerous hits over the middle just don't exist. That's a tough pill to swallow right now, but if the Pats' goal is sustained long-term success, then Vollmer has to be the top priority.