Julian Edelman has emerged as Tom Brady's favorite target this season.
With 2013 drawing to a close, the New England Patriots head into the new year with designs on another Super Bowl run.
After that? They have some difficult decisions to make on key free agents in the organization.
In a salary-capped league, you can't sign them all. So let's pick out a few that the Pats absolutely need to retain in 2014.
With his other options injured or departed, quarterback Tom Brady has turned to Julian Edelman as his top target this season.
Edelman is 11th in the NFL in targets, and the Brady-to-Edelman pairing has been impressively efficient. Edelman has caught 96 of those targets for 991 yards. That's a 68.5 percent completion rate and a 7.1 YPA on the season.
His stats are remarkably similar to Wes Welker's numbers with the Patriots last season—Welker finished with a 67.8 percent completion rate and 7.8 YPA. Both players also had six touchdowns on the season, though Edelman has one game remaining.
The Patriots chose to let Welker go, but they can't do the same with Edelman. In a relatively thin free-agent WR crop, the Patriots can't afford to let Brady's favorite target walk for the second straight season.
Must might be the wrong word in this intriguing scenario.
Aqib Talib is the team's top free agent and the Patriots player most likely to command top dollar. If he demands something like a $27-30 million dollar guarantee (above what players like Johnathan Joseph and Brandon Carr got in 2012) then the Pats should let him walk.
But if other teams are scared off by his injury history and off-the-field issues, the Patriots may be able to get him at a reasonable deal.
Talib has been a model citizen in his time with the Patriots and has played very well, especially in the first half of the 2013 season, when he shut down top receivers like AJ Green and Julio Jones.
His hip issues cropped up again as the season progressed, costing him time and hampering his performance in the second half. Still, his ability to play man defense against top receivers makes him incredibly important to the Patriots defense.
The Patriots do have two promising corners in Alfonzo Dennard and rookie Logan Ryan, but without Talib they lack a shutdown corner who can reliably slow top receivers.
The 2013 AFC Championship loss to the Ravens proved how much the Pats need Talib as Anquan Boldin picked apart Marquice Cole. If the Pats let their top corner walk, their finally-promising secondary will take a huge hit.
No matter what happens with center Ryan Wendell's contract, the Patriots will draft young interior linemen. They simply lack talent along the inside of the line, especially with Logan Mankins entering the downslope of his career (strong performance at left tackle against the Ravens notwithstanding).
But offensive line depth for the Patriots is critical, so the Pats should look to re-sign Wendell at a reasonable deal.
Wendell hasn't been great this year—he's ranked just 30th overall at center per ProFootballFocus, and second-to-last in the league at pass-blocking.
He did post a solid game against the Ravens, helping to slow their ferocious interior line and buy time for Brady in the pocket. Plus, his ability to play center or guard, along with his familiarity with Brady, make him a valuable interior swing lineman at the very least.
Look for the Patriots to bring him back on a short-term deal (Ben Volin of the Boston Globe posits a $2-3 million guarantee) while line coach Dante Scarnecchia grooms a mid-to-high draft pick as Wendell's eventual replacement.