The New England Patriots have been the most consistent NFL franchise for the past decade-plus, winning 10 or more games in every season since 2003. The Patriots have continued to maintain a high-powered offense during this time, with Tom Brady at the controls.
Brady has continued to improve every season and he has managed to do it with a rotating cast of mostly unknowns at wide receiver. Aside from Randy Moss, Wes Welker and now Rob Gronkowski, Brady has had average receivers at best and the offense never misses a beat, scoring over 30 points per game every season.
The most consistent Patriots receiver over the past six years has been Wes Welker. Welker is coming off of his second consecutive season with more than 115 receptions (118) and he has more than 110 catches in five of his six seasons in New England. Welker played last season on a $9.515 million franchise tag and it is highly unlikely the Patriots will franchise tag him again.
Another one of Brady's targets from 2012 is questionable to return at receiver as well. Brandon Lloyd had a solid season (74 catches, 911 yards, 4 TD) during his first year in Foxboro, but he is due a $3 million roster bonus on top of his $1.9 million base salary and the Patriots may see it as a time to cut ties.
It's no question that the Patriots could use a big-time play-maker for Brady to play opposite the Gronk, especially if they don't bring Welker back, but who is available and at what cost. They may not even want to focus on a receiver in free agency and wait for the Draft to pick a young replacement.
They could choose to focus on the defensive side of the ball once the free agency period starts next March 12th. The Patriots continue to struggle when it comes to playing good, solid defense. They have consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in passing defense and Belichick just can't seem to find the right mix of talent.
The acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay last season helped shore up the secondary to an extent, but they don't have that dominating cover corner guy, or a ball-hawking Ed Reed type at safety, which may change starting in 2013.
If the Ravens don't re-sign Reed, who is a free agent, then it is likely he will become a Patriot. It is widely known that Belichick has a lot of respect for Reed and his game and the feeling is mutual from Reed. If not Reed, then maybe recently released All-Pro cornerback/safety Charles Woodson?
Here are five free agents the Patriots should target for the upcoming season.