Patriots

Welker, Branch Among Patriots With Questionable Future In New England

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
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Wes Welker. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Wes Welker. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) – As the Patriots return to Gillette Stadium on Monday to pack their lockers and head home, with them will go many questions about the 2012 season.

Yes, unfortunately for New England, it is already next season. Parades, trophy tours and celebrations will be substituted with franchise tags, free agents and coaching changes.

So with the wounds of Sunday night’s 21-17 loss to the Giants still fresh, here’s a look at what lies ahead for some of the bigger names on the Patriots’ roster.

OFFENSE

Wes Welker
The final images of Wes Welker are of him dropping a pass that could have sealed a Super Bowl victory and him watching as Tom Brady’s desperation heave fell to the turf to end the game. While it was an unceremonious ending to the season, it cannot and will not overshadow the fact that he’s been an MVP for the Patriots in his five seasons in New England.

Welker will turn 31 in May, and he’s due for a major pay raise from the $2 million base salary he made this past season. He led the league with 122 receptions (No. 2 in that category had 100 receptions) and he was second in the NFL in yards with 1,569, the most of his career. His nine touchdowns were also a career high, as were his 21 catches of 20-plus yards, four catches of 40-plus yards and 77 first downs. By all measures, it was his finest season in the NFL, and he’ll deserve to make top wide receiver money.

He’s said he wants to stay in New England. Of course, such a proclamation doesn’t usually mean much in sports, but considering his connection with Brady (the quarterback said “I love that guy” when asked about Welker’s drop on Sunday night) and the way he’s appreciated by Bill Belichick, he should be sticking around. Whether that is via long-term contract or the franchise tag remains the biggest question. Last year, the franchise tag number on wide receivers was around $11 million. A comparable season of production from Welker would likely justify that price, but a long-term deal would obviously work to the team’s advantage.

Prediction: Expect the Welker situation to play out much the same way Vince Wilfork’s did two years ago. The Patriots will likely place the franchise tag on him to buy negotiating time before working out a deal likely in the range of four years and $32 million in guaranteed money. Welker’s earned that kind of cash, and the Patriots know it.

Deion Branch
The Patriots have lost Deion Branch before, and they could lose him again. That depends almost entirely on what Branch is looking for. If he wants more money, he’ll be gone, but if he’ll return for a low price, the Patriots would almost certainly return.

Despite contributing with 51 catches, 702 yards and five touchdowns, Branch appeared to be on the decline this season, particularly in the final four weeks, when he had just three catches for 37 yards. He proved valuable, though, in the playoffs, with eight catches for 148 yards and a touchdown in the three games.

Prediction: Branch will be back for around $2 million. He’ll turn 33 in July, and he learned his lesson from his Seattle departure that it’s a bad idea to leave  a good situation for a few extra dollars. His rapport with Brady and Belichick gives him the best chance to win another Super Bowl, and his appreciation of Robert Kraft will weigh heavily into his decision.

Chad Ochocinco
The superstar was hardly himself this season, catching just 15 passes for 276 yards and one touchdown, by far the worst of his 11-year career. He was greatly overpaid at $5.5 million this year, and that will definitely be the case next year, when he’s due to make more than $3 million.

Prediction: Ocho is gone. The production was bad, but worse was his inability to even get on the field. He never grasped the playbook enough to participate in the no-huddle offense, and he often stalled the entire operation by lining up on the wrong side or looking to Brady for extra instructions. He was a good citizen and caused zero problems during his season in New England, but the Ochocinco experiment did not work. Expect the Patriots to end it now.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis
One of Belichick’s most-used coaching tenets is simple: “Do your job.” No player follows that mantra better than Green-Ellis. He’s not flashy and isn’t particularly dominant in any one area, but he gets the job done without making mistakes.

That’s why his future in New England is worth questioning. He’s a free agent and has known just one team in his NFL life, but the backfield is a bit crowded with Danny Woodhead and youngsters Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen waiting for their chances.

Prediction: Green-Ellis will most likely be gone. With a base salary near $2 million in 2011, he’s due for a raise after scoring 11 touchdowns. While the Patriots — Belichick, in particular — have tremendous appreciation his role, the team can’t afford to dedicate more money in a position it simply doesn’t value very much. Expect a team that struggled to run the ball to give Green-Ellis a market deal. Don’t rule out the Giants, who could be parting ways with Brandon Jacobs.

Kevin Faulk
The noteworthy absence from that backfield picture was 13-year veteran Kevin Faulk. It was difficult for many fans to see Faulk’s name on the Super Bowl inactives list, but it was even more painful to realize that it was unquestionably the right decision.

Faulk, a winner of three Super Bowls and participant in two more, will soon be a member of the Patriots Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, there’s just not much left.

Prediction: Faulk will retire. Expect him to remain around the organization, though. He bleeds Patriots.

Brian Hoyer
The backup quarterback isn’t necessarily as big a name as the others on this list, but he’s important nevertheless. Hoyer has been under Brady’s tutelage for three seasons, and he’s been effective in limited action (62.8 completion percentage, 286 yards, one touchdown, one  interception on 43 attempts).

If it were just Hoyer and Brady on the roster, then it would be a no-brainer for Hoyer to remain in New England. Complicating matters is the presence of Ryan Mallett, the 23-year-old on whom the Patriots spent a third-round pick.

Prediction: As much as Hoyer appreciates the way the Patriots have groomed him over the past few years, the competitor in him will want to actually play football. The Patriots didn’t draft Mallett in order to leave him off the active roster every weekend, so in the unfortunate circumstance of a Brady injury (increasingly likely with each passing year), the responsibility could fall on Mallett.

DEFENSE

Andre Carter
For all of Belichick’s mistakes in the draft in free agency, he hit a home run with veteran Andre Carter this season. The 32-year-old nearly retired before deciding on joining the Patriots, and he provided a powerful pass-rushing presence. He racked up 52 total tackles and 10 sacks before suffering a season-ending quadriceps injury that required surgery. Though the defense managed without him, the loss was a huge one for a unit that struggled mightily to get off the field (28th in the league in opponents’ third-down conversions at 43.1 percent).

Prediction: Carter will be back. He was paid in the $2 million range, and a veteran who came that close to winning a Super Bowl will want another crack at it. Add in the veteran presence he provided in the locker room and on the field, and both sides will want to keep this union together.

Mark Anderson
The case of Mark Anderson is an interesting one. He had 12 sacks in 2006, but in the following four seasons, he had a combined 13.5 sacks, yet in 2011, he hit double digits again with 10 sacks. Some of those did come during garbage time, but he no doubt filled in nicely when Carter was injured.

Prediction: Anderson turns 29 in May, and this could be his last chance at making good money somewhere (he made less than $1.5 million in 2011).  Don’t expect that payday to come from the Patriots. Anderson was less than stellar defending the run, and the Patriots don’t value a pass-rush-only type of player as much as other teams might.

Rob Ninkovich
The Patriots’ success story on defense, Rob Ninkovich has become a reliable, every-down linebacker. His 74 tackles were fourth on the team, and he rounded out his season with two interceptions and 6.5 sacks. And he did it all for less than $1 million.

Prediction: The Patriots have to re-sign Ninkovich. They really don’t have any choice.

COACHING

Josh McDaniels
Tom Brady’s offense is due for some change with Josh McDaniels reassuming the position of offensive coordinator, which Bill O’Brien leaves behind as he departs for Penn State. McDaniels has two great accomplishments with the Patriots: the record-setting season in 2007 and the 11-5 Matt Cassel season the following year. He’ll have a much different offense at his disposal this time around, with tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski serving as the centerpieces instead of deep threat Randy Moss.

However, McDaniels could shape the team from a personnel standpoint. Wideout Brandon Lloyd — who’s just one year removed from a 77-catch, 1,448-yard, 11-touchdown season in Denver — has expressed a strong interest in following McDaniels wherever he ended up.

Change is certainly on the way, and with two first-round picks and two second-round picks, a whole host of new faces will be on their way to New England as well. The long road back to the Super Bowl officially begins now.

Salary information from PatsCap.com

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