QB – Drew Brees
Brees injured his shoulder in the Chargers season finale against the Broncos and needed surgery but he's expected to be fully recovered by the time training camp starts. After throwing for 6,732 yards and 51 touchdowns the past two seasons, Brees would be in high demand on the open market but don't expect the Chargers to let that happen. If a quarterback leaves San Diego this offseason, his name will be Phillip Rivers, not Drew Brees.
Potential PatsJamie Martin, Shane Matthews, Chris Weinke
With Doug Flutie's return in question, the Patriots will be looking for a cost-friendly backup to compete with Matt Cassel. Luckily for New England, there is a plethora of unspectacular quarterbacks to choose from this year in free agency and the three mentioned above certainly fit the bill.
RB – Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin JamesTwo huge names at the running back position could be available this March but only James will probably make it that far. One would have to figure that after rushing for 1,880 yards, an NFL-record 28 touchdowns and winning the MVP award, Alexander won't be going anywhere. James, on the other hand, is a different story. If the Colts break the bank to keep receiver Reggie Wayne, Edge could become the most sought after free agent of 2006.
Potential PatsShawn Bryson, Verron Haynes, Maurice Morris, Jonathan WellsThis is a position the Patriots will upgrade either through free agency or the draft. Bryson and Haynes are the versatile halfback/fullback hybrids the Patriots seem to like. Both players are decent runners and can catch the ball out of the backfield. Morris has been Shaun Alexander's backup in Seattle for the past four years but the Seahawks really like his game. He's a player who could have a lot of suitors in free agency. Wells is aCorey Dillon-like pounder who has been productive for the Texans when he's had a chance to play. Wells would be a solid veteran addition in case something should happen to Dillon.
WR – Reggie Wayne, David GivensWayne is unquestionably the biggest free agent prize at the receiver position but Colts General Manager Bill Polian has already come out publicly and said Wayne isn't going anywhere. If the Colts re-sign Wayne, that makes Givens the cream of this year's receiver crop. Givens is a solid possession receiver who plays his best in big games. The Patriots will make a run at him but it's doubtful they will be able to match the kind of money Givens will command on the open market.
Reche Caldwell, Joe Jurevicius, Josh Reed, Antwaan Randle ElWhile Givens is the most important receiver the Patriots could lose this offseason, Troy Brown, Tim Dwight and Andre' Davis are also unrestricted free agents. It's almost a certainty – no matter what happens to Givens – that the Patriots will sign at least one free agent receiver this year. If the Patriots lose Givens, Jurevicius would be a nice compliment to Deion Branch. He's a good possession receiver who has the kind of attitude the Patriots look for. Caldwell is coming off a season where he only caught 28 passes but he's shown flashes of potential in the past and could be intriguing to the Patriots for the right price. Reed has been a disappointment in Buffalo but he has the talent to be a productive slot receiver and a change of scenery might serve him well. A lot of people have linked Randle El to the Pats but he isn't the kind of receiver to replace Givens. If the Patriots do sign Randle El, look for him to make more of an impact as a return man and a deep threat than a dependable No. 2 receiver. Randle El is a great player to have on your team because of his versatility and big-play ability but he doesn't make the tough catches in crunch time like the reliable Givens.
TE – Aaron SheaSlim pickings at tight end this year. Shea caught 18 balls as a backup in Cleveland this season and he has good hands. However, he's probably nothing more than a decent backup tight end for most teams in the NFL.
Chris Baker, Dan CampbellBecause the tight end position is weak in free agency this season, the Patriots might just decide to re-sign Christian Fauria for one more year. If Fauria – an unrestricted free agent - leaves, the team will be searching for a third tight end. Baker has some potential as a receiver but Campbell would be a more likely candidate. Campbell doesn't catch many balls but he's known for his blocking. In Dallas, Bill Parcells used him almost like an extra tackle on running downs. He would be a good fit in New England because the Patriots already have two receiving tight ends in Ben Watson and Daniel Graham, so Campbell could be used solely as a blocker and short-yardage receiver much like the team uses Fauria.
OL – Jon Runyan, Steve Hutchinson, LeCharles Bentley, Stephen Neal, Matt LepsisRunyan is getting older but teams are always in the market for an experienced right tackle. Hutchinson is a road grader at guard and he's been a big part of Alexander's success in Seattle. The Seahawks have a lot of high-priced free agents they need to sign this year so they may have to let Hutchinson walk, unless they slap the franchise on him. Bentley is arguably the best center in the NFL. It would be surprising if the Saints don't try to re-sign him before the free agency period starts. Bentley has a lot of value because he can also move over and play guard. The Patriots like Neal's toughness so there is a good chance he will return to New England. If he doesn't, the team could be looking to replace two starting offensive linemen this offseason because tackle Tom Ashworth is also an unrestricted free agent. Lepsis has helped anchor one of the NFL's best rushing attacks over the past decade and can play both left and right tackle. However, the Broncos have already started talking about a long-term deal to keep Lepsis in Denver. Don't expect Lepsis to be available come March.
Potential PatsTom Nutten, Todd FordhamNutten is a tough, versatile player who played both guard and center in his eight years with the Rams. He's the kind of experienced inside linemen the Patriots could be interested in, especially if they lose Neal. Fordham is another versatile linemen. He has 30 career starts at right tackle, 12 at left tackle and one at right guard. Fordham has played nine seasons in the NFL, the last two being with the Carolina Panthers. Both of these players are the kind of experienced, diverse linemen the Patriots usually go after. Expect the team to sign an offensive lineman or two - even if Neal and Ashworth return - to add depth to a unit that was decimated by injuries in 2005.