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One of the most important decisions in New England Patriots history looms as owner Robert Kraft determines the fate of Bill Belichick and the direction of his franchise at the conclusion of the 2023 season.

Sources across the NFL believe Belichick is coaching his final games in New England, while his manner of departure, where he would go and who would succeed him all remain unclear.

Belichick could resign, or be fired, or be traded or retire. He has given no indications of his future plans, though it's widely believed he wants to get the all-time wins record.

Belichick trails Don Shula in all-time wins. He'd need at least three more years to catch Shula in both all-time regular-season victories, and at least two years to catch his record of combined victories with the postseason.

So if he's coaching next year, it's likely somewhere else. But how does he get there? Belichick signed an extension during the offseason, so he's contractually tied to the Patriots through at least 2024. The Krafts would, in theory, wish to receive draft-pick compensation for Belichick just like the Saints did last year for Sean Payton (and just like the Patriots had to give up for Belichick a quarter-century ago.)

But with Belichick -- at the very least -- controlling a great amount of say in football operations wherever he would go next, it's logical he would want to hold on to his draft picks. One league source gave this scenario: what if a staredown takes place? What if Belichick forces the Patriots to fire him so that he can earn his contractual freedom and join his next team with no draft pick compensation?

In this case, a mutual parting of ways could be the path for both sides. The Krafts can move on to the post-Belichick future after paying him a nice extension last year -- a thank you for the six banners, perhaps -- and Belichick can start fresh elsewhere with his full allotment of picks.

Asked this week about a report that his New England fate had been decided weeks ago, the head coach responded: "I'm getting ready for Kansas City."

The Krafts have also not commented publicly. Robert Kraft was put in an awkward situation last week during ESPN's "College GameDay" when Pat McAfee said to him: "I don't envy your position. What's about to happen. We all know. We don't have to ask."

Kraft and McAfee then shook hands. Sources took Kraft's handshake to not be confirmation of what McAfee said, but rather simply a gentleman not wanting to ignore the outstretched hand of another man.

Three head coaching jobs are currently vacant with more to come. The Raiders, Panthers and Chargers are all open. The Raiders must go through the interview process for their next head coach even if they want to keep Antonio Pierce, and Tom Brady could very well be involved in that process. Carolina owner David Tepper has said he wants his next coach to be there for the next 20 to 30 years, so that alone would eliminate the 71-year-old Belichick. (Tepper is expected to make another run at Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, and the billionaire spent a good amount of time with Johnson's agent at this week's league meetings.)

And then there's L.A.

The Chargers have seemed like the logical next stop for Belichick all season with the anticipated firing of Brandon Staley. They have the quarterback -- something Belichick hasn't had in four years -- but an aging roster that will need some salary cap work in a difficult division.

Because the Krafts haven't hired a coach in more than two decades, it's impossible to tell which way they're planning to go for Belichick's successor. Inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo has been considered for more than a year to be the leading internal candidate for the job, but there's no guarantee they'll stay in house.

Since Kraft purchased the team in 1994, it has mostly been a head coach-centric organization. And while Kraft has hired head coaches before, he has never hired a general manager with outright final say over football. Could that change with Belichick out of the building for the first time this century?

If Kraft wanted to get a jump-start on the GM process, at least, he didn't take full advantage of it at this past week's league meetings in Irving, Texas.

The league had its annual Front Office & General Manager Accelerator Program attached to the meetings, where there were several soon-to-be GMs in attendance. Team owners had the voluntary opportunity to meet with the 42 participants at a 90-minute cocktail reception on Tuesday night, and on Wednesday morning they were part of a networking roundtable with some participants.

Robert and Jonathan Kraft were not at the cocktail reception Tuesday and both showed up late to the networking round table the following morning, sources told CBS Sports. According to a team spokesman, the Krafts had mechanical issues with their plane Tuesday night and had to fly in Wednesday morning.

They then had "some delays" Wednesday morning upon their arrival that left them tardy for the 9 a.m. networking round table. Sources told CBS Sports they were the only team not represented at the start of the function, though they were apologetic for the time they missed.

Accelerator participants that spoke with CBS Sports didn't take any issue with it, and it's not that big of a deal anyway.

But it was a potential missed opportunity for the Krafts. One personnel executive there who sources believe will get at least one interview for a GM role called the event a "pre-interview" for candidates. Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk first met Ran Carthon at this program a year ago, and it was that meeting that propelled their relationship.

Sources said the two team owners most active and engaged with participants at the program were Washington's Josh Harris and Tepper, both of whom could have GM openings by the end of the season. League sources believe as many as a half-dozen GM jobs will be open.

Rumors abound in New England about what the Krafts will do, with many such rumors focused on fantasy football-like trades for a head coach and assembling a Dream Team of talent evaluators with Patriots ties to lead the front office as some three-headed monster.

They could decide to go the traditional route and hire a GM and then the head coach. That duo could then usher the Patriots into a new chapter with updated philosophies, sophisticated processes and stronger collaboration across departments.

Or maybe they've identified the next Belichick somewhere. And the Patriot Way may never die.