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.
The Patriots have clearly made a shift on offense from a receiver-based unit to one based on tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski (when both are healthy, that is).
But Jennings, especially if Wes Welker leaves, could make a niche for himself in the New England offense. He's one of the top receivers in the game and an excellent sideline presence, which the Patriots could use if Julian Edelman takes over the slot responsibilities.
Just as importantly, Jennings has come up big in big games and was a crucial element to Green Bay's Super Bowl title run in 2010. If he came to Foxboro, he'd give Bill Belichick and Tom Brady a weapon they know they can trust when the pressure gets high.
The problem, of course, would be cost. Jennings won't settle for the kind of bargain Brandon Lloyd said yes to a year ago, and it would be shocking to see the Patriots give franchise player money to a player who would be a face in the crowd in their offense.
The difference between the Patriots' safety situations in 2011 and '12 is night and day, with this year's group being a considerable upgrade from last year's duct tape operation.
Still, the position is hardly set for the future. There's no guarantee Devin McCourty is there to stay (though it looks more and more certain with each passing game), and who's to say Steve Gregory is a lock at free safety going forward?
Add in the fact that Patrick Chung's contract is up after this year (and, considering he played one more snap than the fans in the stands Sunday, the team isn't exactly dying to have him back), and safety suddenly is a position in flux come 2013.
That could create the ideal situation for Byrd. Assuming the 26-year-old leaves Buffalo (a big "if" if the team has franchise tag ideas), Byrd could project as a perfect candidate to don the Flying Elvis. He's in his prime and an elite playmaker, which New England could use in a secondary that, while certainly improved, isn't anywhere near as good as it has been in the recent past.
The high-water mark for Patriots safety play was in 2003 and '04, when Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson roamed the secondary. A Byrd-McCourty pairing would rival that, but a familiar foe is getting in the way.
As a 26-year-old with top-notch ball skills in a passing league, Byrd will be able to rake in the big bucks with whatever team he ends up signing with.
Might be too rich for the Patriots' blood. But it's fun to think about.
Cornerback in New England is another open position going forward, as the team could decide to part ways with Aqib Talib. There would also be a need for another starting corner in order to keep Devin McCourty at safety.
In that case, Grimes would be worth a look. He's a fine cover corner when healthy, with a knack for being around the ball and a Pro Bowl selection on his resume.
He'll be 30 by the time next season rolls around, but that shouldn't ward off the Patriots. If anything, they often opt on the side of age with some of these deals.
Bill Belichick is big on being smart on the field, especially in coverage, which is why in free agency he's gone with proven players despite their age (Rodney Harrison, Tyrone Poole). On the other hand, he often passes on players with tremendous upside but a thing or two to learn about the game.
Grimes would certainly be a player Belichick can trust, and he might be available at a workable price. An Achilles injury ended the cornerback's season early and will no doubt be on the mind of some of his suitors.
If his stock drops the right amount, Belichick could come calling.
Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are good players who can get to the quarterback, but let's be honest: No quarterback keeps himself up at night wondering how in the world he'll survive in the pocket with the New England Patriots gunning for him.
That could change if Avril is freed from Detroit and decides to head to Foxboro. With 9.5 sacks this season, and 29 total the last three years, the 26-year-old can help turn the Patriots into the same sort of pass-rushing defense they've found hard to defeat the past few years.
There is a question of room and need, however. Defensive line is one of New England's strongest positions, with Jones, Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis all players who have gotten lots of snaps at end throughout the year.
Bringing Avril in would mean serious personnel juggling, maybe to an extent the team has no desire to go to. He does bring an element the team could really use, but a deep roster and high price tag could be too much to deal with.
This is what happens when you sign a franchise tender. The questions that were all the rage a year ago become front and center again.
Before the 2012 season, there was talk that New England should go after restricted free agent Mike Wallace. He presented the one player the Patriots' vaunted offense had a glaring need for: an outside receiver who could stretch the field and clear out some room for tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and receiver Wes Welker to go to work.
This year, Wallace's contract is up again, so why not kick the tires once more?
Sure, Brandon Lloyd has fit in nicely in his first year (despite being questioned through most of it), but he hasn't been the weapon some thought he would be.
He's been a work-the-sidelines, catch-the-slant-and-fall-down kind of receiver. No problem with that, but that's hardly the guy that slices through the defense, races down the field and hauls in the 60-yard bomb.
Randy Moss, in other words. Lloyd was thought by some to be Randy Moss; he isn't, and that's fine.
But Wallace is, or he's damn close.
He's lightning fast and a receiver who can catch every type of ball, whether on a screen or on a go. He would give the Patriots the one element they do not have, and if Hernandez and Gronkowski were to stay healthy at the same time, the three of them plus Lloyd and a dangerous assortment of running backs would be tough to stop.