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After the championship: A look at 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 second in a five part series looking at the biggest questions facing the Patriots during the offseason:

[Wednesday, Feb. 16] 2. What will be the Patriots most notable free agent decisions?

Before the National Football League's annual draft in April, the Patriots will have some important decisions to make on the free agent front. The Patriots have 18 total restricted and unrestricted free agents heading into the upcoming free agent period starting on March 2. While only five of that group entered the season as starting players, many played key roles in helping the Patriots reach their third Super Bowl in four seasons.

The Patriots are ahead of the curve in that they've already completed deals with several players who would have been potential free agents this offseason. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi, offensive tackle Matt Light and special teams standout Larry Izzo all reached new contract agreements to stay off the free agent market. While several starters have been released or left via free agency in recent seasons - Lawyer Milloy, Ted Washington and Damien Woody to name a few - the Patriots track record has been to be proactive in signing their own free agents.

The Patriots currently have 11 unrestricted free agents: guard Joe Andruzzi, kicker Adam Vinatieri, fullback Patrick Pass, wide receiver David Patten, quarterback Jim Miller, linebacker Don Davis, wide receiver Kevin Kasper, offensive tackle Adrian Klemm, running back Rabih Abdullah, safety Je'Rod Cherry and cornerback Earthwind Moreland.

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]()The biggest name of this group is Vinatieri, who would represent a huge loss if he took his services outside of New England. It's likely that the Patriots would use the franchise tag on Vinatieri in order to re-sign him just as it did following the 2001 season. The tag, which would pay him $1.7 million in 2005 (the average salary of the top five players at his position), would essentially would work as a one-year contract offer to Vinatieri while the two sides work on a long-term contract extension. All NFL teams have until Feb. 22 to use the designations to create a longer negotiating window.

Andruzzi has been a key part of the Patriots offensive line under Bill Belichick, starting every game he has played in since the beginning of the 2000 season. He started 16 games this season for the second consecutive year, switching from the right guard to left guard in order for Stephen Neal to be inserted into the starting lineup. Andruzzi made $1.2 million in base salary in 2004, according to NFL Player Association figures, but it remains to be seen how much interest he will draw as a player who will be 30 when the season starts.

Patten, who will be 31-year-old at the start of next season, completed his fourth year with the Patriots by starting 11 of his 16 games this season after missing much of last season with a knee injury. Much of what happens to Patten, who made $1 million in base salary and a reported $200,000 in bonuses last season, is thought to be determined by the status of fellow receiver David Givens, a restricted free agent. Patten finished the season with 44 receptions for 800 yards - similar to his numbers in 2001 and 2002 - and tied for the team-lead with seven touchdown receptions. He was primarily the third receiver when both Givens and Deion Branch were healthy, but given the Patriots injury history at the position, depth is certainly a factor. Patten could be back if the price is right.

The Patriots biggest decisions will ultimately fall on the group of seven restricted free agents. Under NFL free agency rules, teams tender a first-, second- or third-level tender to a restricted free agent, who has 60 days with which to negotiate with other teams. If the player receives an offer, his original team must chose between matching the offer and retaining him, or losing his services in exchange for draft choice compensation.

If the Patriots chose not to match an offer on an unrestricted free agent they tendered at the first level, they are due a compensatory draft pick that matches the player's original draft round. The second-level tender brings a first round pick as compensation, while the third level tender brings first- and third-round picks in return. (In 2004, the first level tender was $628,000, the second level $1.3 million, and the third level was set at $1.8 million).

A key for the Patriots is that of their restricted free agents who saw substantial playing time in 2004, none entered the league as higher than a fourth-round pick. Givens was selected in the seventh round in 2002 and defensive end Jarvis Green was a fourth-round pick the same year, while offensive tackle Brandon Gorin was a seventh round pick of San Diego in 2001. Neal and offensive tackle Tom Ashworth were both undrafted. If, for example, the Patriots offered Green, Neal or Ashworth the low tender, they would have the right to match any offer, but would receive little in return if they elect not to.

Green played in all 16 regular season games with one start, but started the Patriots first two playoff games as an injury replacement for Richard Seymour. He finished with career-bests in total tackles (28) and sacks (4) this season, playing mostly behind Seymour and Ty Warren. Neal and Gorin both began the season as reserves but finished in the starting lineup. Neal entered the lineup in Week 4 and started the final 17 games through the playoffs. Gorin replaced the injured Ashworth in Week 8 at Pittsburgh, starting the remaining 13 games at right tackle.

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]()Givens, 24, had his best pro season in 2004, setting career-highs in receptions (56) and receiving yards (874) while adding three touchdowns. Given his increased production each season and his seventh-round draft status, he's the player likely to receive the most attention on the free agent market. It's difficult to imagine a scenario where he is offered a low-level tender, which would fail to deter teams from making big offers and would give the Patriots little in return if they decided not to match an offer. The more likely setting is that Givens is offered second or third-level tender as the two sides attempt to negotiate an extension.

The deadline for teams to submit a qualifying offer to their restricted free agents with whom they wish to retain a right of first refusal is March 1. That's also the date for clubs to submit minimum salary offers to retain exclusive negotiating rights to their players with fewer than three seasons of service.

The strategy the Patriots decide to take in free agency will ultimately decide their course in April's NFL Draft. With five offensive linemen (Andruzzi, Ashworth Gorin, Neal and Klemm) and two wide receivers (Givens and Patten) in the free agent mix, those positions could look drastically different by mini-camp in May.

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