Bill Belichick is not the type of head coach to sit around licking his wounds after a devastating loss to end the season. Belichick will already have spent a few weeks determining what he can do during this off-season to take that final step which eluded the team last season.
The Patriots enter the off-season in good shape with roughly $20 million in cap space.
While most of their key contributors on both sides of the ball are under contract, there are some pivotal role players who the team will be desperate to sign. Despite drafting two running backs last year, BenJarvus Green-Ellis' value to the team should see him re-signed.
Green-Ellis isn't a star, but he fits the Patriots' offensive philosophy perfectly because he never turns the ball over and can be trusted no matter the task assigned to him. Because he is not the most explosive running back, Green-Ellis should be re-signed at a reasonable rate.
Wes Welker is not only the most important free agent on the team's offense, he is the most important and most valuable player scheduled to hit free agency on March 13th. The Patriots have the franchise tag available for Welker but they should be able to get a long-term deal done with the receiver who has had a huge amount of success with the team.
Welker wouldn't be as good in another offense or system which lowers his value to other teams.
Green-Ellis and Welker shouldn't combine for more than $6.5 or $7 million against this year's cap. Once those two players are re-signed, either of veterans Dan Koppen or Dan Connolly will have to be re-signed to start at center.
Don't expect Deion Branch to return as Chad Ochocinco should fill his role in the offense next year. Ochocinco is an expert route runner and reliable possession receiver. With a full off-season and regular season of experience playing with the Patriots, he should be able to contribute properly next year.
Defensively the team has a lot of free agents, but outside of maybe Andre Carter, none would be seen as irreplaceable. With two first round picks in the NFL draft, the Patriots could potentially bring in more defensive talent to improve one of the least talented units in the NFL last year.
If those picks were spent on maybe another cornerback and linebacker, then the Patriots would be free to pursue one, or even two, of the strong defensive ends in this year's free agent class. Whether it be veteran John Abraham or youngster Cliff Avril, the talent is there to improve the Patriots pass rush and make their 4-3 defense a success.
Outside of that, the team could instead use both draft picks and try to improve their 3-4 defense.
It's generally pretty difficult to predict what Bill Belichick will do from season to season. Improving the team's secondary will probably be a focus, although the return of Ras-I Dowling should help them out there. If Devin McCourty can move to safety full time, then Dowling and Kyle Arrington would be solid starters at cornerback.
A starting back four of Pat Chung, McCourty, Arrington and Dowling would have the right mix of youth and talent which Belichick could mold into a productive defense.
Investing in one or two big time free agents upfront to help that defense would make a lot of sense.