The days before an AFC championship game aren't the most common time to think about offseason improvements, but don't think Bill Belichick hasn't already started keeping tabs on free agents that could boost his New England Patriots for next season.
Right now, this Patriots team looks as good as it needs to be, but there are areas where New England can improve. There are still several better pass defenses out there. The Patriots still struggle to get to the quarterback consistently. And the wide receiver depth, especially if Wes Welker departs, could be upgraded.
Throughout his 13 years at the helm, Belichick has shown a preference to build through the draft rather than free agency, which is a more cost-effective and wiser way to construct a team. Free agency doesn't build a team; rather, it supplements one that is already built and is seeking an elusive piece that makes the difference between being a contender and a champion.
The Patriots have been in that position before, and Belichick took to free agency for the answer. In 2002, the Patriots had a solid foundation on defense and offense, but lacked a playmaker to provide leadership and attitude.
Belichick lured Rodney Harrison to Foxboro before the 2003 season, and the rest was history. Harrison immediately became one of, if not the best, safeties in team history and helped the Patriots win two Super Bowls by sparking the defense's transition from a passive group into the No. 1 unit in the league.
This year, if New England goes home without a Super Bowl championship, it'll be three straight years in which the Patriots came up just short despite being considered the favorite by many.
In that event, Belichick could be eager to find that one player to help them get over the hump. Here are some players that could fit the bill.