Welcome to NFL free agency, which officially began on March 9 at 4 p.m. ET. Like every other team in the league, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots have vital decisions to make when it comes to preparing for the 2017 season. As we have seen from this organization over the last decade and a half, they have seemingly perfected the business of football in the salary-cap era. And the club has already been extremely busy over the last days. A few players have re-signed and others have left via free agency. But who still needs to return and who will the Pats let hit the road?

Bring him back

The team has re-signed defensive tackle Alan Branch and safety Duron Harmon. That’s good news for a team that allowed the fewest points in the NFL in 2016. The team has also added tight end Dwayne Allen via a trade with the Indianapolis Colts. And the New England Patriots also gave a five-year contract to former Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore. ESPN’s Adam Schefter is also reporting that the Pats have added defensive end Kony Ealy in a trade with the Carolina Panthers to bolster the pass rush. But will head coach Bill Belichick bring back play-making linebacker Dont’a Hightower, one of the heroes of the club’s amazing comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI?

He remains an unsigned free agent and despite all the newcomers, having the veteran and versatile defender back in the fold is imperative.

Let him go

While the club has brought in some newcomers on both side of the ball, the New England Patriots did see quality cornerback Logan Ryan sign with the Tennessee Titans.

Outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo has moved on to play for the Colts, but you didn’t get the sense that he would be back in Foxborough. With the continued improvement of young defensive end Trey Flowers (team-high 7 sacks in 2016) and the acquisition of Ealy, it somewhat reinforces the notion that defensive end Jabaal Sheard isn’t in the team’s plans for 2017.

But things can change in a hurry in this league.

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