The Patriots’ 2023 season essentially is over before Thanksgiving. They’re set to have more than $90 million in salary cap space this offseason. More than a dozen key contributors are in contract years.

Regardless of what changes, if any, Robert Kraft plans to make to his coaching staff and front office, you can safely expect New England’s roster to look significantly different in 2024.

This team badly needs an infusion of talent, especially on offense, to ensure its current residence in the NFL basement does not extend past January.

But which current Patriots should be pillars of that rebuild? We surveyed their current roster and selected five, ruling out several other candidates based on a few important factors.

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For instance, tackle/guard Mike Onwenu and safety Kyle Dugger both are valuable starters, but they’re impending free agents who might not re-sign. Rhamondre Stevenson might be the best offensive player on this team, but next season is the last of his rookie deal, and of the 10 Bill Belichick-era running backs the Patriots drafted before him, just one re-signed (James White).

Edge rusher Matthew Judon was a slam-dunk signing for New England, but he’ll be 32 when next season begins. So will center David Andrews, whose replacement (2023 fourth-rounder Jake Andrews) might already be on the roster.

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Rookies Keion White and Marte Mapu could develop into game-changing defenders down the road, but neither has shown enough thus far to warrant inclusion on this list.

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Here are the five players who did make the cut (plus a bonus sixth selection):

CB Christian Gonzalez
The Patriots used a first-round draft pick on Gonzalez, and he immediately lived up to that billing, winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in September before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 4. The 21-year-old already has shown the ability to lock down No. 1 receivers and deliver impact plays, like his spectacular interception against Tyreek Hill in Week 2. How Gonzalez responds physically following his injury will be an important variable, but he has all the makings of a legit No. 1 cornerback.

WR Demario Douglas
The Patriots’ receiving corps needs a full-scale makeover this offseason, but Douglas deserves to stay. The Liberty product already looks like a sixth-round draft steal and should continue to improve as he hones his route-running and adapts to the nuances of the NFL game. The Patriots don’t have much on offense, but they have their slot receiver of the present and future in Douglas.

DL Christian Barmore
After a nondescript sophomore season derailed by injury, Barmore has been a flat-out beast in Year 3. The 2021 second-round pick is graded as one of the top 10 interior pass rushers by Pro Football Focus, and he’s greatly improved as a run defender, as well. Re-signing Barmore should be a priority as he enters the final year of his rookie contract in 2024.

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S Jabrill Peppers
This has been a banner year for the hard-hitting safety, who’s now fully recovered from his 2021 ACL tear and playing the best ball of his career. Elevated to a starting role following Devin McCourty’s retirement, Peppers has played 94.5% of defensive snaps this season and is PFF’s fourth-highest-graded safety and highest-graded run defender. He’s also emerged as an important locker-room leader as the number of dynasty-era holdovers continues to dwindle. And though he’s much more experienced than Gonzalez, Douglas or Barmore, Peppers still is just 28 and should have plenty of good years left.

LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
Is Bentley a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker? No. But he’s the unquestioned leader of the Patriots’ defense and has developed into a very good player over the past few seasons. Bentley can blitz, play the run and hold up reasonably well in pass coverage. Jerod Mayo has called him one of the best and most underrated ‘backers in the NFL. It’s also not hard to envision Jahlani Tavai being the Kyle Van Noy of the next contending Patriots team.

Featured image via Eric Canha/USA TODAY Sports Images