All four of the guys mentioned could have a big impact next year. Fletcher could really help out in coverage, while Demps could bring some explosiveness to the kick return game again. We’ll all be holding our breath for Ras-I to stay healthy again as well.

But perhaps most impactful, especially against physical teams like the Ravens and 49ers that the Pats couldn’t beat this year is:

Tight end Jake Ballard: Hey, another tight end. Why not? The 25-year-old Ballard, who suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots while playing for New York, was acquired this past summer by the Patriots (he was signed off waivers from the Giants, much to the consternation of New York coach Tom Coughlin). Undrafted out of Ohio State in 2010, he turned himself into a effective downfield threat in 2011 with the Giants (38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns), and could provide the same sort of presence in 2013 with the Patriots. The 6-foot-6, 275-pound Ballard compares with Rob Gronkowski in his bulk and his overall playing style, and the idea of deploying a three-tight end set with Ballard, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez would be an intriguing matchup problem for opposing defensive coordinators. Figures to weigh heavily in the Patriots’ plans for 2013.

A few of you have asked why the Patriots would even want Ballard, seeing that they already have two excellent tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Well, the Patriots play two tight ends on nearly every offensive snap; last year, Gronkowski and Hernandez each played more than 1,000 offensive plays. You can’t count on them to stay healthy, and New England needs a solid third tight end (and maybe a fourth) to play all the schemes in its playbook. And if New England signs Ballard for the third-year tender price of $640,000, that means it will have paid $1.17 million, total, for 2012 and 2013 to employ a good tight end in the hope he can help next season. Maybe he can’t. But the gamble seems worth it for a guy who made so many big catches for the Giants in the last two months of the season last year.