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What's next for Patriots


Gillette Stadium on a cold January Friday.

It's been pretty quiet around Gillette Stadium this week. Players are gone (for the most part), and an arctic chill has taken up residence. Most coaches and staff are still in the building, but there isn't nearly the amount of activity that there was here just one week ago.

That will change eventually.

Between February 18 and March 4, all NFL teams have the option of using the franchise tag designation on one of their players. New England will have to decide if they want to do so again with wide receiver Wes Welker, who is otherwise scheduled to become a free agent on March 12, when the new NFL league year begins. Perhaps they'll elect to use it on cornerback Aqib Talib or right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, whose contracts are also set to expire in March.

Welker, Talib, and Vollmer are among 18 Patriots who are likely to become unrestricted free agents this year (assuming they aren't tagged). Other notable names include wide receiver/returner Julian Edelman, cornerback Kyle Arrington, running back Danny Woodhead, safety Patrick Chung, and wide receiver Deion Branch. New England has a pair of restricted free agents in linebacker Dane Fletcher and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. Teams can carry up to 80 players on their roster during the offseason, and the Patriots are in the mid-50s right now with players who are under contract for 2013.

In the meantime, members of the Patriots' personnel/scouting department have already been attending the college all-star games around the country this month. In a few weeks, Bill Belichick and his assistants will head to Indianapolis for the annual Scouting Combine (February 20-26) to conduct in-depth interviews with all the draft-eligible invitees.

After that, the next most important dates are March 9-11. During that window, clubs can begin negotiating with their own players who are about to become free agents. Then at 4 p.m. Eastern on the 12th, free agency and the trading period begin with the start of the new league year. All teams must be under the salary cap at that time, too (New England is believed to be about $18-19 million below the ceiling already).

NFL power brokers will meet for the annual meeting from March 17-20, this year being held in Phoenix. Shortly thereafter in early-mid April, the 2013 schedule will be released and teams' offseason strength and conditioning programs will commence. The NFL Draft will take place April 25-27 in New York. A smaller, follow-up league meeting will also be held in Boston May 20-22.

Spring practices will start in May and continue with mini-camp in June. Then, there'll be a lull of about six weeks before training camps open in late July.

Hopefully, that comforting thought will warm your heart during these coldest of winter days in Foxborough.


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