From this writer's perspective, the Patriots' top needs are as follow:
Defensive Back: With Aqib Talib a pending free agent and the future development of Tavon Wilson an unknown, the Patriots need to add depth at corner and safety.
Defensive Tackle: The team needs higher-quality depth behind Vince Wilfork. Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick are probably better suited in situational roles.
With a focus on these needs, the following slides will highlight potential free agents the Patriots are likely to target.
1. Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis
Once one of the most-feared pass-rushers in the game, Freeney isn't exactly the force he used to be.
After adjusting to Chuck Pagano's 3-4ish defense, Freeney only tallied five sacks in 2012—a career low.
However, if used more as a traditional defensive end in the Patriots' four-man front, Freeney could still provide a hefty pass rush in passing situations.
2. John Abraham, Atlanta
Abraham will be 35 before the start of training camp, but he is coming fresh off of a 10-sack season in Atlanta.
Abraham would make any defense in the NFL better.
3. Connor Barwin, Houston
Barwin is coming off a down season, which will likely cause a dip in his free-agent value.
The Patriots could use another edge-rusher, and Barwin himself even likes the idea of joining the Patriots and is also willing to do so on the cheap (h/t Dan Hanzus of NFL.com)
1. Desmond Bryant, Oakland
The Patriots could use a guy like Desmond Bryant—an athletic defensive tackle that can pressure the quarterback.
Bryant was recently arrested (h/t Rodger Sherman of SBNation), but that might actually make his chances of being a Patriot greater, as funny as it sounds.
With his market value most certainly taking a dive, the Patriots may just pounce at the opportunity.
2. Alan Branch, Seahawks
At 6'6'' and 325 pounds, Branch is a massive man.
Branch isn't known for his interior pass rush, but a line with Big Vince and Branch in the middle on early downs would be a brick wall against the run.
The Patriots need more depth at defensive tackle and Branch, who is just 28 years old, would be a great place to start.
1. Aqib Talib, New England
Talib really shined in his brief time in New England and was a catalyst in a huge defensive improvement in the second half of the season.
The Patriots know what they have in Talib, so the risk is low from a fitting-in perspective.
If both sides can agree on the dollars, Talib is likely New England's No. 1 choice.
2. Greg Toler, Arizona
Toler won't be able to demand the big bucks like his counterparts given that he's really only started for one full season, but he truly is one of the best free-agent corners out there.
If the Patriots can't bring back Talib, Toler would be an intriguing alternative.
He has good size (6'0'', 192 lbs) and is oozing with talent.
Heck, I'd make him an offer even if Talib does get a deal.
3. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Philadelphia
DRC isn't coming off his best season, but as Mike Reiss over at ESPNBoston mentions, Rodgers-Cromartie is a top-notch athlete, who at 6'2'' has the length to cause problems for receivers.
4. Derek Cox, Jacksonville
Despite being on an awful team in 2012, Derek Cox has some serious talent.
Bleacher Report's Ryan Riddle summed up Cox nicely, writing:
Cox has ideal size (6'1", 195 lbs.) for his position, which has aided him in only allowing 54 percent of the passes thrown his way over the last two seasons to be completed. Of those completions, only one of them was for a touchdown.
With Sean Smith and Brent Grimes likely garnering the most interest from teams, Cox could be a hidden gem in free agency.
1. Ed Reed, Baltimore
Reed will probably go down as the best safety to ever play the game.
He's no spring chicken, but he still plays at an elite level.
Bill Belichick loves Ed Reed, and Reed is available. It makes sense that Reed will be the first safety Belichick calls.
2. Dashon Goldson, San Fransisco
The Patriots made Goldson an offer in 2011 and likely would have targeted him again last season if he didn't get the franchise tag.
Goldson would provide the hard-hitting mean streak that the Patriots secondary lacks.
It seems likely that Goldson will be targeted again, but after back-to-back Pro Bowl berths, he will not come cheap.
3. Kenny Phillips, New York
Phillips possesses a strong dose of both coverage skills and physicality.
When healthy, he's one of the more effective safeties in the NFL.
It would be a bit of a risk signing him, given his recent injury that limited him to just seven games last season, but the reward is well worth the risk.
1. Wes Welker, New England
That is the question.
No one has caught more footballs than Wes Welker in the NFL since he joined the Pats in 2007.
Needless to say, Welker is easily Tom Brady's favorite target. Unlike Brady's other targets, Welker is as durable as they come—only missing three regular-season games in his six seasons with the team.
While it's hard to get a good read on the situation given all the conflicting reports, it makes sense that the Patriots would want their ol' reliable back, first and foremost.
2. Danny Amendola, St. Louis
As much as I'm tired of the Amendola-for-Welker talk, signing the former Ram does make some sense if Welker decides to walk.
Amendola is only 27 and can do a lot of the same things Welker does in the slot and would likely come at a fraction of the cost.
He's no Welker—far from it—but he's still a good slot receiver.
3. Devery Henderson, New Orleans
In all likelihood the Patriots will draft a tall and fast wide receiver at some point in this year's draft—at least they should.
Even if they draft a guy and Brandon Lloyd isn't cut this offseason, the Patriots need to try to find a legitimate outside receiver, preferably someone with speed and/or size.
Henderson, while not tall at 5'11'', does have a thick frame at 200 pounds and certainly has speed.
He hasn't been very productive over the past few seasons and will be 31 this month, so the Patriots could likely get him at a reasonable price.
4. David Nelson, Buffalo Bills
Nelson is a restricted free agent, but he is reportedly not going to be tendered a contract by the Bills (per Adam Schefter of ESPN).
He was hurt last year but had a very productive 2011 season with 61 catches, 658 yards and five touchdowns.
At 6'5'', Nelson could certainly add some size to New England's small wide receiver group and would give Brady another big end-zone target.