Team building is an important aspect of a sustainable franchise and there's been no team better than the Patriots. The tough job of the GM is to single out which players are aging and on the downslope and to replace them with younger talent with upside.
The Patriots love to operate in a seamless fashion, where there's a small overlap between an aging veteran, in their last season or two, and a new rookie or young player so there can be a smooth transition. Oftentimes this transition period is escalated due to injury (see: Nate Solder starting a rookie due to injuries to Sebastian Vollmer and Matt Light), but the plan is simple.
Replace older talent before they get too old and move forward as a franchise.
I ran through the roster and found the age of every player on September 1st and bucketed the players by age group:
32+: Players usually considered at the back end of their career. Usually looking to replace these players.
30-32: Players at the tail end of their prime. These players can be upgraded, but it's not imperative.
28-30: Players in the meat of their prime. You can usually tell a player's potential by this time so you can cut them loose if they fail to meet a certain standard.
26-28: Players entering their prime. They still have upside so you can hold on to these players. It's rare to cut these players unless they fail expectations. Usually the end of their rookie contract so they can play them out for little money.
-26: Players starting their careers. You hold on to the lesser talent in hope that they can develop and show their promise. Still, you cut ties with the back-end of these players will little repercussion.
I've also assigned a grade for every player:
9+: Elite player
8-9: Above average starter
7-8: Average starter
6-7: Below average player
I've used these scores as a way of determining needs and creating improvements.
If a player scores a 7 and they're 28-30, I might consider that a negative, while a 7 for a player under the age of 26 would be a positive. Players under the score of 7 are always going to be replaced.
I've also assumed that Isaac Sopoaga will be cut and Brandon Spikes won't be resigned. I've ignored practice squad players.
Tom Brady will be 37 at the start of the season, but he's still an elite player. Others in the group, who score well, are Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, and Tommy Kelly. These three are candidates for contract restructuring. The other two players are Andre Carter (free agent), a rotational defensive end, and Will Svitek (free agent), a depth tackle. Both were veterans brought on to help the team and Carter definitely brought some leadership aspects.
Carter wasn't supposed to be on the team to start the season, so he's likely not considered part of the future. Svitek is a replaceable piece that holds a roster spot a rookie or practice squad tackle could take.
This is a strong part of the roster, with Stephen Gostkowski, Rob Ninkovich and (!) Sebastian Vollmer all grading out as above average or elite starters. Dan Connolly and Steve Gregory, who are graded as average starters, also fall into this category.
Connolly and Gregory aren't improving, but they're reliable (if unspectacular) starters. If the Patriots improve these positions, I wouldn't be surprised. If they use these players are starters next year, I wouldn't be surprised. They can be improved upon, but it's not imperative. They are potential contract restructure candidates.
Add in rising sophomore Duron Harmon and the plethora of interior linemen on the practice squad/bottom of the roster, and there's a chance an in-house candidate could surprise people in the off-season.
The meat of the franchise and the players asked to take the team to the next level. Three free agent candidates (Aqib Talib, Ryan Wendell, Julian Edelman) will all be 28 years old. These are the players you want to have back on your roster, if they're above avaerage.
Talib, Edelman, and Jerod Mayo are the above average starters in this range. The Patriots should try and bring Talib and Edelman back, which is a sentiment we'll be hearing for the next month.
Behind them, Wendell, Danny Amendola, and Kyle Arrington are average-to-above average starters (I scored them 7.5). Amendola and Arrington just recently signed long term contracts and should be safe. Wendell might have to take a team-friendly deal in order to return.
Matthew Slater is difficult to grade, so I have him as a solid 7. He provides no upside on offense, but he's one of the best special teams players in the league. Value that however you will. He needs to have his contract restructured.
Austin Collie (free agent) is a solid depth player, but he's not an essential character. It'd be nice to have him around, since he played well when healthy, but he won't make-or-break the roster. He's not considered part of the team's long term plans, but he'll be around if they need him. He can be improved upon.
Matthew Mulligan (free agent) will be improved upon over the off-season.
Devin McCourty and Nate Solder are elite talents and will be around for a while, although both are due for contract extensions.
LeGarrette Blount (a free agent) is slightly above average, but still replaceable. Don't expect the Patriots to sell out to bring him back. Marcus Cannon provides depth as a slightly above average back-up tackle.
Dane Fletcher (free agent), Michael Hoomanwanui (free agent), James Develin, and Kenbrell Thompkins receive "average" grades as starters. Interestingly enough, they're all at very different points in their careers. The two free agents aren't imperative to bring back, but they're quality guys you want to have be the second guy off your bench.
Develin and Thompkins are both just starting. While they played well, they weren't transcendent players and likely won't prevent the Patriots from looking for upgrades at these positions.
All four of these players are great to have around, but the Patriots won't break the bank or change their team building plans to keep them around.
Behind them in long snapper Danny Aiken, who struggled mightily this season. The Patriots would do well to bring in competition this off-season.
The future of the team. Among the above-average/elite players are Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Rob Gronkowski, Alfonzo Dennard, Chandler Jones, and Dont'a Hightower. Some of the younger players who showed promise are Ryan Allen, Sealver Siliga, Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, and Aaron Dobson. These players are worth building a team around and they play at a high enough level (for their levels of experience) to deter the front office from looking for upgrades.
Behind them are Joe Vellano, Chris Jones, and Duron Harmon, all who played well as starters, even though they should have been kept in a more reserve role. They'll all battle for time next season and while they can't be considered potential cornerstones, they provide enough depth to prevent the Patriots from grabbing mid-tier talent. And they still have room for improvement.
Behind them are Nate Ebner, Josh Kline, Brandon Bolden, Tavon Wilson, Michael Buchanan, and Josh Boyce. All will come back next season, but it wouldn't be surprising if all players made the roster, just like it wouldn't be surprising if none of them made it. The Patriots can look to improve upon all of these players and they'll likely work on these positions in the off-season.
Pulling up the end are Chris White and Jake Bequette. It wouldn't be surprising to see both let go in the first round of cuts (although Chris White could stick around as a Tracy White type of ST linebacker. I think that goes to Steve Beauharnais).
So what are we left with? The Patriots should look for a replacement 3rd pass rusher and they need to find a fourth tackle for the roster. They can upgrade the tight end position, while the resigning of Julian Edelman will determine the Patriots need for another wide receiver.
The Patriots are fortunate where some of their less strong players are free agents, giving the Patriots an easy opportunity to upgrade without having to cut some other player on the roster.
The Patriots are a young team, with just nine players under contract who will be over the age of 30 to start the season. All nine can be considered potential starters. Six of these players (Kelly, Wilfork, Mankins, Connolly, Gregory, Gostkowski) are options for contract amendments. Brady, Ninkovich, and Vollmer seem to be the only locks for next season under their current contracts.
If the six players adjust their contracts, it's like the freed up money will move to the players between the ages of 26-30. Talib, Edelman, McCourty, and Solder all need to be brought back for the next five years.
The reality of the Patriots roster is a clear need to upgrade some role positions (DE3, WR4, OT4), as well as possibly plan for the future. They have two DTs over the age of 32, with the back-ups under the age of 26 not setting the world aflame. Their interior line is aging with Mankins (32.5) and Dan Connolly (32nd birthday on 9/2!) likely needing replacements in the next year or two.
This exercise doesn't unveil anything new. We already knew that the Patriots were deficient at DT, IL, TE2, and at DE3. What it should do is allay some of your fears.
The Patriots are fine at wide receiver. Dobson was a bright spot and as long as Amendola heals, having Thompkins as a WR3 doesn't sound like a terrible situation. Bring back Edelman and Thompkins at WR4 sounds ideal.
The Patriots are fine at cornerback. Ryan and Dennard are both capable starters, while Arrington is good enough in the slot. Bring back Talib and the quartet should be great, especially with a full season under their belts).
The Patriots future is in great hands. The team is young and full of potential, while the old guard should be looking at grooming their replacements in the upcoming seasons. It's obvious where the needs lay and this is the perfect off-season to plug the holes.