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Patriots offseason needs

Linebacker: The Patriots could use one of their two first round selections in the upcoming draft on a linebacker. Starters Tedy Bruschi, Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel will all be over the age of 30 when next season starts. The Colts really exposed the Patriots lack of speed in the middle of the field during the AFC Championship Game, so that's something that really needs to be addressed. Right now, New England doesn't have a fourth starting linebacker set in stone. Junior Seau played well for the Patriots and could return for another season but he'll be 38. Tully Banta-Cain showed some pass rushing potential, although he's an unrestricted free agent. There are some good, young linebackers in the draft, while Pro Bowlers Lance Briggs and Adalius Thomas are scheduled to hit the open market. Two lesser known linebackers who could be on New England's radar are Thomas' backup in Baltimore Jarret Johnson and San Diego's Carlos Polk. Polk, in particular, has shown he can get pressure on the quarterback when given the opportunity. Both of these players have upside as a 3-4 edge rusher and wouldn't break the bank to sign. With virtually no depth behind their aging starters, it's time for the Patriots to begin restocking the linebacker position.

Wide Receiver: Reche Caldwell had a nice year and Jabar Gaffney stepped up late in the season but Tom Brady needs more weapons at his disposal. New England lacks the threat of a speed receiver to get down the field and keep defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage. Chad Jackson didn't do much as a rookie but he should benefit next season from having a year in the Patriots system under his belt. There's not much available at the receiver position in free agency, especially if the Eagles re-sign Donte' Stallworth. However, the draft is very deep at receiver. Even if the Patriots don't select one in the first round, they could come away with a quality player later on like Washington State's Jason Hill or East Carolina's Aundrae Allison. Either way, look for this position to have some new faces in 2007.

Defensive Back: Re-signing Asante Samuel is the top priority but with the money he's going to demand, it's not a guarantee he'll be back with the team next season. The Patriots could always franchise Samuel, keeping him in New England for one more year. Samuel's future with the team will be the biggest story surrounding the Patriots this offseason. Rodney Harrison's status is also up in the air after three major injuries in the last two years. Harrison has already stated that he plans on returning next season but with his recent injury history, it's hard to pencil him in for 16 games. One player who isn't being talked about much is Eugene Wilson. While he hasn't played his best football over the last two years, Wilson's ability to line up at both corner and safety should make him a key contributor to the Patriots secondary in 2007. New England will most likely add more defensive backs through free agency and the draft but all decisions at this position depend on what happens with Samuel.

Running Back: The Patriots running game was MIA in the postseason and although Corey Dillon had a solid year leading the team in rushing, it's obvious his age is starting to catch up with him. With Dillon and Kevin Faulk both getting up there in years, the Patriots may consider adding another versatile runner to their backfield. Chris Brown and Dominic Rhodes are solid veterans who will be available in free agency. In the draft, Rutgers' Brian Leonard is an unselfish player who does a lot of things well. He's a prospect whose stock will skyrocket after the combine because Leonard figures to test well in all the drills and will blow teams away in the interview process. Regardless of what happens with Dillon, there's a good chance the Patriots will add another running back this offseason to add depth behind Laurence Maroney.

Punt Returner: This isn't an area of major concern because Faulk did a solid job returning punts in 2006, but it can certainly be upgraded. Faulk is a consistent punt returner, although not a spectacular one. There's a chance the team could use Jackson more in this role next season. The rookie saw some time as a punt returner against Tennessee and averaged 32.5 yards per return. Dennis Northcutt is an unrestricted free agent. He hasn't done much as a receiver during his time in Cleveland but Northcutt is a dangerous return man. The Patriots could always select a receiver in the middle rounds of the draft who has the flexibility to also serve as a kick returner. It wouldn't be the end of the world if New England had to depend on Faulk again next year to return punts. However, like Maroney and Ellis Hobbs have done on kickoffs, a more explosive punt returner would help give the Patriots better field position throughout the season.

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