Any season that doesn't end in a Super Bowl has become a disappointment for the New England Patriots.
It turns out, the Patriots have found new ways to disappoint.
They've come up short, but have been close so much recently, it's hard to imagine what the Patriots must do to get back to the big game next year.
That being said, there are some big decisions on the horizon, and some big events to look forward to.
Here's what's next for the Patriots as they head into the offseason.
Figure Out Wes Welker's Long-Term Future
With the franchise tag now expired, wide receiver Wes Welker is on the path to becoming a free agent.
Replacing him will not be easy, for obvious reasons.
The most obvious of those is his production: over the past two years, Welker has 240 receptions (leads NFL), 2,923 yards (second in NFL) and 15 touchdowns (tied for 13th).
But Welker's impact goes beyond that; Mike Giardi of CSNNE.com brings up a valid point for why the Patriots could miss Welker if they don't bring him back.
Thing about Wes you don't get from any other receiver on team, not only production but durability: not Gronk, not Hernandez, not Lloyd.— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) January 21, 2013
Taking it one step further from Giardi, even wide receiver Julian Edelman, the guy who was supposed to replace Welker, couldn't stay healthy this year.
There is the possibility that the Patriots could franchise tag him once again, which would earn him $11.4 million for 2013.
That's probably the last thing the Patriots want. Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft.com has a suggestion for them:
There's something to be said for Welker being the No. 1 target in the No. 1 offense in the league over the past two seasons.
If the Patriots wanted to, they could use the franchise tag as a bridge to a long-term deal. That was perceived to be one of the possibilities last offseason, but the Patriots opted to ride out the 2012 season with Welker on the tag.
If the Patriots do sign Welker long-term, it would be something of an admittance of error on behalf of the front office; they had an opportunity to get Welker on a longer deal last season, but passed up in hopes of getting him at a better price.
Improve the (Interior) Pass Rush
One of the most inconsistent areas of the defense for the Patriots remains their pass rush. They made plays in spots, but in all, the team logged 37 sacks (17th in the NFL) and brought down opposing quarterbacks 5.9 percent of the time (20th).
Rob Ninkovich certainly lived up to his "big play Ninkovich" moniker yet again on Sunday, but he ranked 31st in pass-rushing productivity among 4-3 defensive ends according to ProFootballFocus.com. That's not necessarily his own fault; Ninkovich is probably not best suited as a pure 4-3 defensive end.
Chandler Jones was much better before his ankle injury than he was after it. The injury may or may not have affected him for the remainder of the season, but the numbers speak for themselves. Jones had not played fewer than 83 percent of the snaps before the injury, and only topped 60 percent once the remainder of the season. His role was minimal in Sunday's loss to the Ravens.
The edge pressure could have been better, but the interior pressure remains a trouble spot. Vince Wilfork is an animal in the middle of New England's defense, but he can't do it all by himself.
The Patriots need to find a well-rounded interior presence on the defensive line. Jermaine Cunningham carved a niche for himself as that sub-package interior pass-rusher, but is he a long-term answer?
Kyle Love is much more well-suited as a run-stuffing defensive tackle (has graded out positively against the run and negatively as a pass rusher in back-to-back seasons). Brandon Deaderick wasn't as successful rushing the passer this year (seven hurries, one sack in 418 snaps) as he was last year (nine hurries, three sacks in 383 snaps).
The front seven remains a dominant unit against the run, and they did a solid job against the Ravens on Sunday, but however it is done, the Patriots need to find a way to more frequently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Hammer Out the Secondary
The Patriots have a few big names with contracts coming up this offseason.
Some of the most recognizable names reside in the secondary, where Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington and Patrick Chung are all slated to become free agents.
In contrast to Wes Welker, Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe points out that Talib has not been healthy throughout his career.
Injuries was a background worry with Talib. Hasn't ever played 16 games.— Greg A. Bedard (@GregABedard) January 21, 2013
After giving up a fourth-round pick, the Patriots secondary changed dramatically with the addition of Talib, and for the better.
Would they be okay with parting ways with Talib, having traded a fourth-round pick for what would turn out to be a rental? Did they see enough in him to re-sign him to a long-term deal?
Belichick had very high praise of Talib (via ESPN):
He's a good football player, good teammate [and] he's very well respected because of his professionalism. He studies hard and prepares well. He's tough. He competes well, both in practice and on Sundays. Smart kid. I like him; the team likes him. He's a good guy to be around, and he works hard and competes well. I think those are his most impressive qualities. I'm glad he's on our football team. He's certainly made us a better football team.
Whether that high praise turns into a high-enough-paying contract remains to be seen.
Arrington is also slated to become a free agent. The four-year veteran has played a lot (83.5 percent of defensive snaps in 2010, 86.9 percent in 2011, 73.5 percent in 2012) over the past three seasons, but was up-and-down this year. He was seen as a liability on the outside, but played much better when he moved to the slot.
Patrick Chung did not play much of a role in the second half of the season; he was injured for four games square in the middle of the schedule, and after returning, he played less than 31 percent of the defensive snaps in all but two games. Chung's history of injury (has missed 14 games in the past three seasons) might lower his market value. Combine that with a potential hometown discount, and Chung could come on the cheap.
The most mind-boggling thing about the Patriots over the past 12 years has been the ease with which they move players in and out of the system while continuing to win games. The Patriots continue to give themselves opportunities to win championships, and in a weak division, it looks like they'll have another opportunity in 2013.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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