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Free Agent Forecast: Defense

Picking up where we left off on Monday with the offensive forecast, here's a look at the defensive side of the ball.

CORNERBACK

Malcolm Butler: After three seasons, he's set to become a restricted free agent. The Patriots should, at the very least, offer him a first-round tender contract (valued this season at $3.9 million for one year), which would bump his pay up significantly without breaking the bank in the short term. They could then attempt to work out a longer-term deal either this offseason or before the end of the coming season.

Logan Ryan: There's still a chance he returns to New England, if he doesn't find as eager a market for his services as he might expect.

Stephon Gilmore: As long as we're dreaming here, a secondary that includes both Butler and Gilmore would be devastating.

A.J. Bouye: Young, rising star with excellent size for the position, much like Gilmore. Money will be a key factor for both him and Gilmore.

Jerraud Powers: Aging vet whom we seem to mention every year as a possibility. He's available yet again.

Mike Jenkins: See Powers, above.

Prince Amukamara: Solid veteran with starting experience and good size. Could be a competitive replacement for Ryan.

SAFETY

Duron Harmon: New England would love to have him back, but as a rotational role player, as he's been. He might get better offers elsewhere, however, with a chance to start for another club. With Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung the established starters, any addition to this position would have to be either a marginal veteran or a rookie. If Harmon doesn't return, my money is on the latter.

DEFENSIVE END

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Calais Campbell: Reliable, long-term starter in this league with consistent production. Could be the perfect upgrade to Chris Long and a great complement to youngster Trey Flowers.

Jabaal Sheard: Might want to get paid more than New England will offer, but still wouldn't dismiss the possibility that he returns.

Chris Baker: Could be the latest productive, experienced veteran to join the defensive end rotation here in Foxborough. He's been Washington's best d-lineman the past two seasons.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Alan Branch: He's been a significant contributor the past two-and-a-half seasons and a key component to New England's most recent Super Bowl championship teams. He'll see if he can get paid more somewhere else, but has already stated this offseason that he'd like to remain with the Patriots. They'd like him back as well, but not at an exorbitant price for someone his age (32).

Johnathan Hankins: Similar in size to Baker (see above), but more of an interior, run-stuffing player. New England needs to get deeper and more talented at d-tackle, and Hankins, who turns 25 this month, would provide both.

LINEBACKER

Dont'a Hightower: Obviously, the cream of this year's LB crop, and New England would surely love to have their 2016 co-captain back in the fold. My sense is he'd be OK coming back, but would prefer to be paid handsomely as well. The latter might take precedence, but if there isn't as big a market for his services, he could be back.

Zach Brown: In just one season in Buffalo (four prior with Tennessee), Brown registered 28 total tackles and a sack in each of his two games versus the Patriots last season. In the past, New England has taken an "If you can't beat 'em, sign 'em" approach to guys like this.

Lawrence Timmons: Even at age 30, the long-time Steeler can still play on all three downs. With or without Hightower on the roster, Timmons would be a solid addition to New England's LB corps.

Nick Perry: He's young (turns 27 in April) and is coming off his best season (11 sacks for Green Bay in 2016). He came into the NFL the same year as Hightower and could be an acceptable replacement if New England can't bring High back.

PUNTER/LONG SNAPPER

The Patriots appear content with incumbent veterans Ryan Allen and Joe Cardona, respectively. I don't foresee any movement by New England in free agency with either position.

Reminder: The 2017 NFL League Year and free agent signing period officially begin on Thursday, March 9, at 4 p.m. Eastern.

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