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After the Championship: A look at the offseason

The following is the first in a five part series looking at the most critical questions facing the Patriots during the offseason.

The Patriots victory in Super Bowl XXXIX is less than two weeks old, but there is no rest for the weary.

The Patriots began their offseason with less than a month until the league's scouting combine in late February and the official start of free agency on March 2 quickly approaching. With that in mind, it's never too early to begin handicapping the most critical aspects of the offseason as the Patriots begin their quest of three consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

The following is the first in a five part series looking at the biggest questions facing the Patriots during the offseason:

1. Will Ty Law be back in 2005?

The name on the minds of many is that of Ty Law. The four-time Pro Bowl cornerback isn't one of the Patriots 19 free agents this offseason, but the question of whether or not he will return in 2005 is certain to be one of the most intriguing developments during the upcoming months.

At this time a year ago, it was considered a postseason certainty that Law would not be back in New England for 2004 because of his high salary cap number. The same presumption is also being floated this time around, but it is a leap that shouldn't yet be made.

At his press conference the morning after Super Bowl XXXIX, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked about the prospect of keeping Law at his current cap number next season.

"We'll have to -- the decisions we make on our personnel next year will be things that come up in the next few weeks as we get ready for the start of the new league year in March when free agency begins, we'll discuss the players and all of our options and do what's best," Belichick said. "We were able to do that last year, and it was unfortunate that he injured his foot against Pittsburgh, but that's just something we had to deal with last year; we'll take a look at our options this year."

Law is set to earn a reported $9.75 million (salary plus bonuses) next season, when he'll count for about $12.5 million against the salary cap in the final year of the seven-year contract that originally called for him to earn $48.1 million. While the salary cap is projected to rise to $85 million for the 2005 season, it remains to be seen if the Patriots will bring back Law, 31, at his current price, try to once again work on an extension, or cut ties with the the 10-year veteran.

Law's agent, Carl Poston, told the Boston Globe that he plans to contact the Patriots this week regarding the issue.

"We know something has to change and get done, so why not try and get it done sooner rather than later?" Poston told the Globe. "I think I know what they're going to propose, and then Ty and I have to see whether we can work something out that benefits everyone, or whether we need to make a break.

"Ty will play at his current salary. If they want to keep things as they are, that's fine."

Compounding Law's situation is the season-ending injury he suffered against Pittsburgh on Oct. 31. Law broke what he described in December as a "rare" bone in his foot and the Boston Herald recently reported it as a "Lis Franc" injury, which kept Law out for the remainder of the 2004 regular season and postseason. The Patriots do not comment on a player's injury specifics and did not confirm Law's condition, but the *Herald *reported that rehab for such an injury is considered intense and lengthy. He was placed on the injured reserve Jan. 7.

The Patriots won without Law last season, winning eight of their nine final regular season games relying largely on second-year player Asante Samuel and undrafted rookie Randall "Blue" Gay. The coaching staff was able to see both players in action against some of the league's top passing teams during the second half of the season, and the two would represent a more cost-effective alternative. Neither, though, has Law's credentials, which include a franchise-record 36 career interceptoins (tying him with Raymond Clayborn) and four Pro Bowls.

The least likely scenario is that the Patriots would release Law outright, as they did with safety Lawyer Milloy in 2003. That would mean dealing with close to $3 million in "dead" money plus the cost of finding his replacement.

If the Patriots do part ways with Law, finding a suitable replacement to fit within the team's salary structure is no guarantee. Veteran cornerback Charles Woodson, who had a base salary of $8.75 million last season as the Raiders franchise player, heads the list of free agent cornerbacks but is likely to be given the franchise tag again by Oakland. Also on the market are Gary Baxter, Andre Dyson, Ken Lucas and Fred Smoot, all second round picks in the 2001 Draft and unrestricted free agents.

It's not likely that any of the above free agents would be given a franchise tag this season, a figure the NFL Players Association announced as $8.9 million for the cornerback position -- the average of the top five players at that position. But all are expected to earn significant raises from their current salaries, an amount the Patriots may not be willing to pay for a potential replacement. Smoot, for example, is reportedly seeking a six-year contract in the neighborhood of $30 million, with a signing bonus in the $12 million range.

While trading Law is also a possibility, certain limitations stand in the way. Any team willing to give up what would likely be a substantial draft pick to acquire Law is likely to want to restructure the final year of his current contract as part of an extension. In order for that to take place, the Patriots would likely have to grant said team permission to negotiate with Law, something they didn't do with quarterback Drew Bledsoe following the 2001 season.

Consider the Jets, Chiefs, Colts and Packers as contending teams who are in the market for a veteran cornerback.

To put it simply, Law is still a commodity. A healthy Law would draw trade interest and would have market value as an outright free agent. Even on the north side of 30, there are few NFL cornerbacks who offer a better blend of coverage skills, physical ability and competitiveness. Considering the youth of the secondary and the job the coaching staff did this season working with an injury-depleted unit, the team faces a difficult decision. Don't expect the Patriots to lose Law without compensation. Even at his current salary, the Patriots may be best served to take a shot at their third consecutive Super Bowl title with Law in the lineup.

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