FOXBORO - It won't be "rebuilding." There are too many pieces of the puzzle remaining in place from a Super Bowl appearance two years ago and another trip to the AFC Championship Game last year for the New England Patriots to risk falling out of contention in 2013.
But the future course of the Patriots will be a restructuring of sorts, and that's been underway for the past two months. The 78th annual NFL Draft of college players will be another part of the process, but it's highly unlikely to be as significant as some of the moves that took place in free agency - and that includes the departures as well as the arrivals.
The Patriots enter this week's selection meeting (starting Thursday at 8 p.m.) with just five selections - one apiece in the first, second and third rounds, and two in the seventh. The picks in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds were dealt away long before the draft order was set, and the NFL did not assign any compensatory picks to the Patriots for the third straight year.
They are slated to pick at the 29th, 59th, 91st, 226th and 235th positions, but if Bill Belichick's history as the Patriots' draft guru can serve as a guide, they won't be picking at some of those spots, if not all. Belichick moves his picks with reckless abandon, and is highly unlikely to pass up the chance to increase his stock in the middle rounds instead of overpaying for an athlete whose salary gets a big bump because he's taken just four picks before the start of a new round.
If that means trading out of the first round to get another pick or two inside the top 100, he'll do it.
It's not that Belichick can't pay a first-round selection; even with all of his free-agency moves in recent weeks, the Patriots are somewhere between $8 million and $10 million below this year's salary cap of $123 million. That gives him plenty of room to sign five or more draft picks, add a few new players as the organized team activities and minicamps approach, and still have a safety net entering the regular season.
What Belichick does in the draft will be influenced by the moves already made in free agency. Some of them lessened the priority of adding new personnel to a few position groups, while others - particularly at the wide receiver position - underscored the necessity of additional competition in the preseason.
With that in mind, the following is a look at how free agency impacted the need for the Patriots to address lingering needs in the draft, beginning with the positions where the greatest need exists.
With the departure of Wes Welker to Denver, the release of Brandon Lloyd and the likelihood that free agent Deion Branch will not return, the receiving corps is in for practically a total makeover. And while Belichick wasted no time in signing Welker's presumed replacement in Danny Amendola, it's also clear that he and returning veterans Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater aren't going to make anyone forget Welker any time soon.
The other free-agency signings are role players at best. Ex-Bill Donald Jones, like Amendola, has a history of health concerns and unfulfilled potential. Former Viking Michael Jenkins, who will be 31 in June, has been in decline for several years and is likely to show up only in multiple-receiver sets or in blocking situations. Neither is guaranteed to be on the roster on opening day.
The Patriots' history of developing young receivers isn't a good one, but once again, the pressure will be on Belichick to try. Especially with the two top tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, both recovering from offseason surgery, the Patriots need to add a field-stretching talent to a receiving corps that, lacking an infusion of youth and talent, may be the worst of Tom Brady's 13-year tenure with the team.
This seems to be an annual complaint as more and more of Belichick's past draft choices either fail or move on. The latest to do both was safety Patrick Chung, who lost Belichick's confidence early in the 2012 season and was quick to be snapped up by Philadelphia in free agency.
Devin McCourty (who was a first-round pick as a cornerback and basically had to be reinvented as a safety to stay in the league) and Steve Gregory were solid if not spectacular at the safety positions as the season progressed, but Belichick hopes that veteran Adrian Wilson (late of 12 years with the Cardinals) can be a hard-hitter reminiscent of Rodney Harrison, if not as accomplished. He might also be a "bridge" between the present and a future in which younger players such as Tavon Wilson or a 2013 draftee might be able to step up.
At cornerback, things were solidified somewhat when Aqib Talib was signed to a one-year contract. There are high hopes that the talented but troubled ex-Buccaneer will be able to bond with his new surroundings and prove he earns a longer-term commitment. It was also helpful that the surprise rookie of last year, Alfonzo Dennard, will avoid jail time for his assault upon a Lincoln, Neb., police officer until at least March 2014, if he serves any time at all.
Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole are also back, and the jury remains out on Ras-I Dowling, so it wouldn't be surprising if the Patriots opt for an early-round upgrade.
Depth was the purpose of bringing former Falcon Will Svitek on board; he's started only 16 games out of 61 in his career, but he makes up for the loss of capable reserve Donald Thomas to the Colts.
The Patriots have done a good job of keeping this unit intact, re-signing right tackle Sebastian Vollmer so that the same five starters (Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Vollmer) will take the field on opening day as spent most of last season on the field. Depth-wise, they are also in pretty good shape.
But with this draft being relatively rich in tackle and guard prospects, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Belichick commit a third-round pick to a lineman in hopes of further improving his depth. It may also be time to start watching Mankins, who plays hurt and could be wearing down, for signs of decline.
What? With Gronkowski and Hernandez having redefined the position in the NFL, how could this position group be even on the radar screen?
The answer is that both of them will miss a good portion of the preseason because of lingering injuries, and the growing fear is that neither can be expected to make it through a 16-game season without missing time.
There are precious few replacements for either in the draft, but the Patriots may have already addressed this concern when they stole Jake Ballard away from the Giants last year when Tom Coughlin tried to release him with an injury settlement and then bring him back at a lower salary. The Patriots also re-signed Michael Hoomanawanui, and Daniel Fells is still on the roster for the time being, so they could conceivably have the luxury of starting the season with both Gronkowski and Hernandez on the PUP list and still have three serviceable tight ends.
The Patriots are happy with Stevan Ridley (despite his occasional lapses at protecting the football) and Shane Vereen as their primary backs. Brandon Bolden was showing signs of rising up the depth chart before a PED-related suspension sidetracked him.
The loss of Danny Woodhead will sting a little, and the uncertainty surrounding Jeff Demps and his desire to keep track-and-field competition his personal priority is a nuisance. But both problems may have been addressed with the signing of Leon Washington once he was released by Seattle. Washington is still an elite returner, and it's been suggested that the coaching staff may consider him as at least a possibility to take over the "Kevin Faulk" role of third-down back that Woodhead had inherited.
If that is seen as a potential burden to Washington and it doesn't appear one of the others can't be groomed, the Patriots might consider a low-round choice.
The only thing that might heighten the priority level a little is concern that Vince Wilfork, the anchor of the unit, has spent more time on the field than anyone else lately and will be 32 at midseason.
No doubt, the Patriots have tried to address the pass rush during free agency. They have signed two productive Canadian Football League players - Brockton native Jason Vega, whose skills mirror those of Rob Ninkovich, and ex-USC standout Armond Armstead, who blames the school for supplements that caused a heart condition and kept him undrafted. Last year with the Toronto Argonauts, Armstead posted six sacks.
The latest signing, ex-Raider Tommy Kelly, may also be a steal. He has played full 16-game schedules the last five years and has 34.5 career sacks, and the disciplined environment of the Patriots' locker room could be beneficial to him.
There are at least 15 players in the position group entering camp, so there's not a lot of need for a rookie with a big salary and plenty of candidates to pump up the rush opposite Chandler Jones.
They're pretty well set here, and usually, Belichick doesn't like drafting linebackers unless it's almost certain he's going to hit a home run. So far, Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes have gone yard for him.
Depth is still a bit of an issue because Jeff Tarpinian, Mike Rivera and Dane Fletcher don't strike fear into anyone's hearts. You'd think that would boost the priority of this position a little, but Belichick seems content in finding his backups as undrafted free agents or with special-teams pedigrees on the open market.
They just signed Tom Brady to be a Patriot until he turns 40, so obviously, there's no sense of urgency there. Time will tell if it was a miscalculation; to date, Brady has shown no signs that a Drew Bledsoe-like fall from grace is likely.
The question, however, is whether Ryan Mallett is secure, or if the signing of ex-Eagle Mike Kafka (who's probably no better or no worse than Brian Hoyer was) might make Mallett draft-day trade bait.
Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko appear secure at the kicking and punting roles. Long-snappers are a dime a dozen and it won't take more than a few seconds to replace Danny Aiken if deemed necessary. In any event, no precious draft choices will be spent at any of these positions.