The New England Patriots season ended in disappointment last Sunday night, just as it has for 29 other teams this season and will for either the Baltimore Ravens or San Francisco 49ers on February 3, 2013. It is the way of the NFL playoff system that only 1 team is happy and 31 are waiting for next year. This year’s New England Patriots team had a great season until running into the Baltimore Ravens revitalized defense in the AFC Championship Game and losing 28 to 13.
Having already grown sick and tired of the calls of the fan base in online forums, talk radio, and the twitter-verse (“Trade Tom Brady!”, “Let Wes Welker Walk!”, “Fire Bill Belichick!”) but understanding that they come from a place of sadness and frustration, the first step of the off-season is to re-assess the Patriots roster and prepare for free agency and the draft. The Patriots continued offensive success and rapid improvement on defense in the second half of the season give hope that the window of opportunity for adding championships remain open. However, for the second year in a row, the season ended in frustration as the arguably best offense in football for the past ten years sputtered in the playoffs.
So here are three priorities for the New England Patriots as they head into the offseason a bit earlier than they hoped for this postseason:
DEFENSE AND SPECIAL TEAMS:
The defense needs help in New England. Everywhere. There needs to be turnover at secondary, help with linebacker depth (especially finding a linebacker strong in coverage) and depth and pass rush help along the defensive line.
The secondary needs help at cornerback, unless something miraculous happens like trading for New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis or cornerback Ras-I Dowling gets healthy and contributes as the big, fast cornerback he was advertised as when the Patriots used the first pick of the second round on him in 2011. Since neither of those two seems within the realm of possibility, the Patriots need to do more to improve the secondary by exploring trades (like the one that brought in cornerback Aqib Talib), the draft (is the solution out there for the Patriots to trade-up and grab in the first round?), or–not likely, but possible–through free agency. Three quality cornerbacks are needed in the NFL in these days of the spread offense being in vogue; re-signing Talib to pair with cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is a start, but another coverage cornerback is needed. Free agent cornerback Kyle Arrington is not the answer, and should not be back for more than serving as depth and special teams help at a veteran minimum contract.
The defensive line needs depth and pass rush help. In addition, the defensive line needs a solid backup to defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love are fine as complementary pieces, but former second round pick and Boston College alumni Ron Brace was a washout. Rather than making a “Titanic Two” with Wilfork, Brace instead was a mammoth disappointment as he battled injuries, ineffectiveness, and eventually lost his roster spot. The Patriots have already brought in former USC defensive lineman Armond Armstead from the Canadian Football League, a former top prospect who fell to the Toronto Argonauts after having heart issues in college.
Although more a long and lean one-gap penetrating defensive lineman, if he is healthy Armstead is a potential steal for the Patriots. This could be a sign of moving to a more attacking front four, or Armstead could be cut in training camp. He is a big unknown quantity. Armstead signed to basically a one-year minimum guaranteed deal, but with team control for two more years at close to minimum amount, which would be a bargain if he is able to contribute to the pass rush. For more on Armstead, check out the piece by Joe Soriano here at Musketfire.com.
Every team in the NFL is looking for front four pass rush, and big guys who can contribute to stop the running game and rush the quarterback are hard to find. It is good business to look outside the box, especially considering the success of defensive end Cameron Wake in Miami. Looking for another veteran to plug into the mix (like defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter in 2011) is an option, as is the draft (rookie defensive end Chandler Jones). The pass rush needs to improve and the rush defense needs to stay stout. This has to be a priority for the Patriots. Unfortunately, 30 other teams have the same priority.
The linebacker spot has three solid starters, little depth, and no one who can cover running backs and tight ends consistently (see any game against Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller). Drafting Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower was a step in the right direction towards improving the position, but more help is needed. A linebacker who is strong in coverage is a must (What happened to veteran linebacker Bobby Carpenter? Was he that ineffective?) Granted, with linebackers Jerod Mayo and Hightower on the field for three downs and linebacker Brandon Spikes in on early downs as a run-stuffing big hitter, the position is strong. But neither Mayo or Hightower is more than average or adequate in coverage, and Spikes is a liability in the passing game. The Patriots should be looking for another linebacker in the draft to plug into the rotation.
Special teams is generally a point of emphasis for a team coached by a former special teams coach (Bill Belichick cut his teeth back in the day on special teams in the ‘70s) and the Patriots are no exception. They bring in talented specialists and sign and draft players specifically for special teams. However, their one glaring hole is in the kick and punt returners. Running out the starting safety (Devin McCourty) and top wide receiver (Wes Welker) is courting disaster on a regular basis. Wide receiver Julian Edelman was fine in punt coverage, but he is a free agent as well. I always thought running back Danny Woodhead’s skills would translate into the return unit, but he never produced at kick return in 2011 and was never put back on punt returns. Woodhead is not the answer, and a free agent as well.
In addition, the Patriots continue to need a young, big play wide receiver who can replace wide receiver Deion Branch on offense and help out in the return game. Wide receiver Greg Salas looked like a fit initially, but the team tried to sneak him onto the practice squad one time too many and lost him to the Eagles, effectively getting nothing in return for the draft pick they sent to St. Louis for him. A receiver that can help on offense and special teams should not be difficult to find, but the Bill Belichick era has had terrible luck drafting wide receivers for some reason. That needs to change immediately to help the offense and special teams.
TAKE CARE OF THEIR OWN KEY FREE AGENTS:
The Patriots have ten free agents, but three key free agents who need to be addressed this off-season in starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, starting slot receiver Wes Welker, and starting cornerback Aqib Talib. All three players were essential to the success of the team this season and should be brought back. Yes, all three want as much money as their agent can get them (as is par for the course), but the Patriots front office needs to take care of business and take advantage of their window to sign all three. With a reported $18 million dollars in cap space available, the team has plenty of money to spend on their own free agents.
The Patriots do not have a lot of depth at offensive tackle, with only Marcus Cannon and jack-of-all-trades back-up center, tackle and guard Nick McDonald behind left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Vollmer has had injury issues since his eye-opening rookie campaign where he was voted second team all-pro following his Tavon Wilson-esque pick that left the talking heads (or talking hair in the case of Mel Kiper Jr.) scrambling through their notes to find out who this guy was that Bill Belichick selected outside of their top graded prospects. Vollmer has cemented himself in the right tackle role, which is fortunate with the lack of depth at the position, and will likely command a chunk of change as starting tackles are hard to find and are in demand in free agency.
Starting slot receiver Wes Welker is a unique case, as his position is magnified in the New England offense. That’s not to downplay his effectiveness, but like when he was in Miami, an offense not sure how to emphasize and utilize his skills would likely have little interest in his services. That said, there is likely to be interest in Welker from a handful of teams, and if Welker hits the open market, it reduces the chances of him returning to New England.
Finally, there is cornerback Aqib Talib. Talib is young, talented, and has rehabilitated his career in just half a season in New England after a few disappointing years in Tampa. Having a number one cornerback with the skills Talib brings allowed the Patriots to alter their defense and become a more aggressive group, blitzing more and playing man-to-man (a strength also of rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard) and able to blitz more frequently and not be concerned about poor secondary play giving up big plays. Unfortunately for the Patriots, once Talib limped off the field against Baltimore in the AFC Championship game, Baltimore began attacking the changed secondary. Fortunately, for Talib at least, it showed his value to the defense and drove up his cost on the open market.
FIND ANOTHER WEAPON ON OFFENSE FOR TOM BRADY:
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is arguably the most valuable player in the NFL. On the Patriots, his presence allows the offense to create instant mismatches against every defense in the NFL. With Gronkowski, the Patriots have a road-grading blocker to run effectively against a nickel defense, and he serves as a matchup nightmare in the passing game. Matching his size with a linebacker results in Gronkowski’s speed and quickness allowing him to get open; Covering him with a safety to match his speed gives him such a size advantage he can exploit; Even doubled-teamed, Gronkowski uses his body position, strength, reach, and soft hands to be an effective target on third down and in the red zone.
Unfortunately for the Patriots offense, injuries have limited Gronkowski the past two years. Against elite defenses, the Gronkowski-less offense often sputters on third down and settles for field goals in the red zone. Nowhere was this more evident than against the Ravens in the AFC Championship. Like the Ravens signing free agent wide receiver Jacoby Jones to complement wide receiver Torrey Smith this offseason, the Patriots need to find another weapon for the offense when injuries hit their skill position players. Another tight end with the skill set to make a difference is almost impossible to find, and the best bet is sign or draft a wide receiver who can create big plays in the offense. With another outside threat, the Patriots can give quarterback Tom Brady that other x-factor to defeat those few defenses capable of matching-up with their offense.
This is a tall order, and it seems strange that a team that has been consistently in the top of their conference to have so many needs, but to get over the hump and back to winning Super Bowls, the Patriots have to have these priorities to take the next step.