Not to get ahead of ourselves, but with only so much left to be said before kickoff, let's take a quick look at the next season.
Who is most likely to not be a Patriot next season? DT/DE Shaun Ellis(age), DT Gerard Warren(age), LB Gary Guyton(ineptitude in coverage), S James Ihedigbo(ineptitude in coverage), S Nate Jones(why keep him?), WR Chad Ochocinco(inability to get on the same page with Brady), possibly Dan Koppen(age), and C Dan Connolly(an OK backup, not a starter). Andre Carter(age, recent injury) is I think up in the air and while WR Deion Branch will be around, he's getting older and looking slower.
The areas of need for the Pats are pretty obvious. So are the areas where they don't need starting-calibre help. Their linebacking corps is set for the most part, with Mark Anderson/Rob Ninkovich as the starters with Markell Carter awaiting on the practice-squad. Inside, Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo have Dane Fletcher as backup. Their LB corps doesn't need help except for depth. Their TE corps doesn't need help. Their RB corps doesn't need much help. Their Tackles-corps is pretty set.
At Cornerback, the Pats will have Devin McCourty(inconsistent year), Kyle Arrington(inconsistent year), Sterling Moore(promising..), and Ras-i-Dowling(could be injury prone). They might want to add help here, but their Safety-corps is even more in need of help for next season. The Pats could use another Guard, considering Brian Waters' age, but they definitely need a young and promising Center to solidify the starting offensive line. The thing with Safety and Center is there is only so much talent worth a 1st-rounder for those positions, like usual, so they can use 2nd and 3rd round picks there. The Pats got great options at receiving between the numbers thanks to the Big 3 of Welker, Hernandez, and Gronk, but they'll need to add some talent outside of the numbers to the WR-corps. Even if they get Brandon Lloyd, they'll want a young guy they can groom into a centerpiece of the starting lineup outwide. With Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, and Gerard Warren all getting near 35, they'll want to think about a starting-calibre option for the line that can play with Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork in the base 3-4. Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace are the only options left after the two big guys.
So DT/DE, WR, C, S, and CB are the positions of need. Those appear to be the only obvious-positions. Let's look at the upcoming draft. Rather than focus on prospects for a mock-draft(let's wait for the Combine), let's consider what is likely to be available at what picks for the Pats;
First things first; it's about value in the short-term and the long-term.
The 27th overall pick, via the Saints through trade. A WR like Alshon Jeffery might be available and would be worth it unless someone else drops or rises, a DT/DE like Michael Brockers could be available(draws comaprisons to Richard Seymour), and a C like Peter Konz might be available. For DBs, S Mark Barron might be available but I don't see Belichick going for him when he can find great talent for S in the 2nd/3rd rounds. As for CBs, I don't see Belichick using high draft picks on CBs for the 3rd year in a row(1st rounder McCourty, 33rd overall Ras-i-Dowling). Personally at this point I'm rooting for DT Michael Brockers(LSU) until someone else changes my mind. If the Pats want Konz and he's available, they'll need to take him here as Baltimore will be likely to pick him up to replace Matt Birk(likely to retire).
With what I predict to be the 32nd overall pick, the Pats will try their best to trade it. Count on it. Belichick plans to have a strong season next year therefore the Pats 2013 placing in the draft order will probably be low. Belichick wants a chance to have a higher-pick, and maybe see about getting a 3rd or 4th rounder too. While the new CBA makes 1st rounders cheaper in terms of contracts, and I'd love for Belichick to go all in for the now, Belichick is unlikely to use this pick unless someone incredible is avalable. So let's just say it right here and now to lower expectations; the Pats will be using one 1st-rounder in April and only one.
48th overall, via Oakland. through trade. If the Pats went D-Line in the 1st round, they could still have a chance to get a good WR for the pick. Dwight Jones comes to mind. This would also be the ideal place to secure whomever the Pats feel is the 2nd best S or C available, as neither Mark Barron or Peter Konz will be available at this point. For S's, Harrison Smith, George Iloka, and Markelle Martin are the most likely options. For C, it's either Ben Jones from George or Mike Brewster. The Pats I think are most likely to try shoring both S and C up in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. If they didn't beef-up the D-Line in the 1st round, I could see them going for Fletcher Cox or even Jared Crick here but I'd rather wait for the Combine before being sold on either of them.
With what I predict to be the 64th overall pick, I figure the Pats will again try to trade back into 2013-2nd round or the 2012-3rd round unless they see someone they feel can't be left hanging. I'm keeping my expectations low.
With what I predict to be the 96th overall pick, a good C or S will likely be still available if one wasn't already scooped up. Some WRs are likely to still be hanging around as well.
Any valuable talent that has fallen and might fit a need or add needed depth? We'll find out.
In short for the 2012 off-season,
I figure the Pats will add to their defensive-line, safety corps, probably WR corps, and find a startng-calibre C to anchor that formidible O-Line for the foreseeable future. For WR as I said before, it sounds inevitable that Brandon Lloyd will follow Josh McDaniels. There are a lot of other WRs that will be available, including several from the Colts, so it's conceivable that the Pats could load up at WR in FA and take care of WRs through the draft in 2013. If C Jeff Saturday were younger, I'd say he should be a FA-target but he's got to be thinking about retirement.
What I think is most-certain is that Pats will add a 4-3DT/3-4DE, a S, and a C in the first 3 rounds and try to get someone's 2013 1st and/or 2nd rounders. If they end up using 4 of the 5 picks they have available in the first-3 rounds, I'd think WR or CB the most-likely runners-up. Once they resign the guys they got to resign(see; Welker, Anderson), they'll be just a few positions short of an imposing team for the next season.