By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The New England Patriots have a short but striking track record of making tough decisions on key players on the back end of their contracts. At times, they have traded the players that they didn’t plan to sign long-term, a year or more ahead of free agency.

With several important Patriots set to become free agents in 2017 and beyond, the 2016 offseason could be time for another surprise.

One of the big positives that the Patriots can take away from 2015 is that they will have almost the entire roster back in 2016 and the only players they are at risk of losing are low-level free agents. However, many of their returning core players would become free agents after next season. Among those players are freshly minted Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, and Malcolm Butler – the “Big Four,” if you will. Among these guys, only Butler would be a restricted free agent.

It’s possible, but unlikely, that the team can retain all of these players on new contracts. This leaves the Patriots with a quandary that may only be solvable with a big trade. Based on their past decisions involving big-money players in big-money situations, one of their impending free agents could be on the move, perhaps as soon as the beginning of the 2016 season.

The prevailing narrative surrounding the Big Four has been, and will be, that Chandler Jones would be the odd man out. He could be set to score a lucrative long-term deal worth north of $100 million, which has become the norm for elite free agent pass rushers. There’s a better chance of Andre Tippett dusting off the helmet and cleats than Robert Kraft shelling out that kind of money for Jones – or any player ever. Jones should absolutely seek as big a payday as possible, and he won’t get it in Foxboro.

Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Richard Seymour. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Richard Seymour with the Oakland Raiders in 2009. The Patriots traded Seymour to the Raiders just before the 2009 season for a first-round draft pick. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The closest comparison to Jones’ situation is that of Richard Seymour, who had played in five Pro Bowls for the Patriots before the team traded him to the Oakland Raiders for a 2011 first-round pick (which they used to draft left tackle Nate Solder) just four days before opening night of the 2009 season. Seymour was 30 years old but could still very much make an impact, making another Pro Bowl and being named to the All-NFL second team in 2011. Jones turns 26 on February 27, which could make him even more valuable now than Seymour was then.

Jones had a great fourth season with the Patriots and a talented pass rusher is certainly a nice piece to have on the defense, but considering the emergence of Jabaal Sheard as a premier edge defender in 2015, Jones is expendable – and more easily replaceable through the draft – compared to the team’s other impending free agents. Collins has developed into one of the league’s best linebackers and most versatile defensive threats while Hightower has established himself as a force on the inside and the primary signal-caller of the Patriots defense. It’s highly unlikely that Belichick would suddenly start over at that position as Hightower enters his prime.

Despite the emergence of Collins and Hightower as impact players on defense, Butler may still be at the top of Belichick’s list. A high-end cornerback (like Darrelle Revis in 2014) is one of the only common threads in the Patriots’ first three Super Bowl championships besides Belichick and Tom Brady. Butler is also a restricted free agent, which would allow the Patriots to either match an offer sheet from another team or let Butler go for draft pick compensation. For this reason, the need to retain Butler’s services may not be as pressing as others.

Logan Mankins’ move to Tampa in 2014 is the most recent Patriots trade that surprised many and, ostensibly, caught the rest of the players off guard and contributed to their slow start. A year and a half later, the rebuild continues with the Patriots offensive line, which remains their biggest weakness. But fortunately, there is enough good young talent on the defense that trading one of the major pieces would not create too big of a hole in the roster.

Other surprising Patriots trades involved players who either held out of training camp for new deals (Deion Branch in 2006) or spoke publicly and angrily about their contract (Randy Moss in 2010). The Patriots clearly have little patience for players who ruffle feathers over their contracts, but are any of the team’s current defensive stars that kind of guy?

Ultimately, the Patriots may have too many good young players to keep them all on market-value contracts. The possibility of a talented player changing teams is as high as ever in Foxboro. It’s not a matter of whether someone is on the way out, but who that someone will be.

Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.

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