There is much to do for the New England Patriots front office this offseason. College scouting kicks into high gear this month as the NFL Combine allows teams the opportunity to poke, prod, and probe (the minds) of the many draft prospects trying to catch the eye of a General Manager like an awkward teenage boy at high school dance. In addition, free agency will be kicking into high gear as teams will position themselves to re-sign their own free agents and woo the free agents available on the market. Some teams, like the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets are slashing to get under the salary cap and make moves, other teams, like the Cincinnati Bengals are ridiculously under the salary cap and will make a few small moves to give the appearance of trying to get back to the playoffs.
The New England Patriots find themselves in a position they have not been in since after the 2006 season. Then, they grasped the fact that significant changes were required to get back to the Super Bowl: They imported wide receivers Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, and Randy Moss; and the Patriots also brought in free agent linebacker Adalius Thomas. They geared up to make a run and just fell short in the Super Bowl against the Giants after making a historic run through the regular season and playoffs. Just like then, this team has the opportunity to gear up and make a significant run to attempt to win Super Bowls while their window with quarterback Tom Brady remains open.
Last offseason saw the Patriots attempt to kick-start the process, being aggressive in the draft and finding three first year starters (defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard) and another potential starter in safety Tavon Wilson. Building through the draft allows teams to bring in impact players for a fraction of their cost on the open market. Free agency implies that in almost every case, a team is overpaying for a talented player or picking up someone who was not wanted any longer by their prior team. Yes, teams do find valuable players who may need just a change of scenery or the right structure and motivation. Trades are more of the same (some team doesn’t want the player any longer) and also it costs the team in capital (either players or draft picks).
That being said, the Patriots have a lot of money available to spend in free agency. According to overthecap.com, the Patriots have between $15 to $19 million in cap space, before making any moves with players like guard Logan Mankins where they can easily free up some extra cash by restructuring by guaranteeing bonuses. With a lot of money available to spend if they so choose, these are the moves the Patriots SHOULD make in free agency, although, don’t hold your breath waiting for the Patriots to spend on free agents after the free agent defensive tackle Jonathan Fanene mess that led to him having over $2.5 million in dead money on the cap after not even playing a snap. However, the Patriots need to take advantage of their limited time with quarterback Tom Brady playing at a high level and go for it these next few seasons:
Defensive tackles are difficult to find. Next to Vince Wilfork, the Patriots have two young defensive linemen in Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love who have flashed some skill, but not a lot of consistent pressure. The Patriots front-office tied to address this position in free agency last offseason with the Jonathan Fanene debacle, and should not hesitate to get another veteran to line-up inside on defense next to Wilfork. Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks is a free agent and is someone the Patriots know well. Starks may be turning 30 next season, but he has the size and strength to line-up inside and collapse the pocket (4.5 sacks last year) while remaining stout against the run. Starks is a known commodity and has experience in the 3-4 and 4-3 and fits in both defenses very well.
Other options that will fit their scheme if unable to get Starks include defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson from Denver and Sen’Derrick Marks from Tennessee. Vickerson, like Starks, is going to be 30 next season, but he has quietly been a consistent force in the middle of the defense. Marks is more of a pass rusher, but has improved against the run.
There is no doubt that the Patriots also need help at defensive end, as rookie Chandler Jones had injury issues, back-up Jermaine Cunningham bounced back but also had a PED suspension. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich has played well, but additional depth and a pass rush specialist to bring in on passing downs is an area of need. The Patriots need to move past the big names like defensive ends Dwight Freeney, Cliff Avril, and Glenn Dorsey who are not great fits for the defense, and focus on ends like Michael Johnson from Cincinnati. Johnson is a big 4-3 defensive end (6-7, 270 lbs) and can get off the edge and get the quarterback (11.5 sacks last season). Johnson just turned 26 and is a rare find on the free agent market: a below-the-radar, in-his-prime, top-flite pass rushing defensive end with significant size to set the edge in the rushing game as well. If he had played anywhere but Cincinnati, he would have been off the market and locked up long term.
Other options at defensive end that would fit the bill for the Patriots would be Dallas Cowboy end Anthony Spencer and Baltimore Ravens end Paul Kruger. Spencer was miscast in Dallas playing outside linebacker, but with his skill set he belongs coming off the edge and locked in on the quarterback. He is more of a pass-rush specialist, but like Ninkovich, he has some flexibility to play different positions and line-up in various places in the defense. Kruger is likely to get a big offer from another team that prices him out of the Patriots range after his impressive playoff and Super Bowl performance, but the team saw in the AFC Championship Game the effect that he has getting into the backfield and causing disruption in the passing game. Kruger has the size, strength, speed, and non-stop motor that could make him a perfect fit in New England.
The Patriots have three talented, young, run-stuffing linebackers in captain Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, and Brandon Spikes. Beyond those three, they have nothing. They desperately need depth, and a big body at linebacker to match-up against running backs and tight ends in the passing game, as that was a glaring weakness and not a strength of any of their three starting linebackers. In today’s NFL, however, linebackers adept in coverage are hard to find on the open market due to their special skill-set and shortage throughout the league. For depth, there are some options that may fit, such as Philip Wheeler who was anonymous in black hole that is Oakland, but would be a great fit in New England as he would be a great fit to work in with the Patriots three linebackers. Wheeler can rush the passer, make tackles everywhere, and hit receivers in the middle of the field. Beyond Wheeler, the Patriots could make a run at Cleveland linebacker Kaluka Maiava and Green Bay linebacker Brad Jones, both of whom are linebackers who may slip under the radar but would be a great pickup for depth.
Cornerback is a position that is always difficult to fill through free agency, as the supply never meets the demand. The Patriots will likely try to bring back their own free agent, Aqib Talib, and then find some depth and a nickel cornerback to replace the oft-abused Kyle Arrington. The Patriots exploited Baltimore cornerback Cary Williams in the AFC Championship Game and should have no interest in paying him the top money he is looking for on the market. Atlanta has a good cornerbacks looking to cash in this offseason in Brent Grimes, but he has question marks that make him not likely worth the price tag. Beyond this group, there are few viable options in the free agent market. Improvement at cornerback needs to come from the draft.
The best bet for New England may be to find some depth options at cornerback through the draft or seeking a corner who can cover the slot in the nickel and re-sign Talib. Someone like Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn would be a great fit in New England as a third cornerback who contribute on special teams and, although undersized, has a great skill set for covering slot receivers in space. If the Patriots can sign Talib, keep Alfonzo Dennard at the other corner, pick up a good, young nickel cornerback, they have the flexibility to keep Devin McCourty back to safety and hope Ras-I Dowling can stay healthy and contribute as a depth cornerback while bringing along and developing another young cornerback for 2014.
Forget the older free-agent safeties with injury concerns and high price tags like Baltimore safety Ed Reed and New York Jets safety LaRon Landry, there are plenty of better options available on the free agent market. Houston’s Glover Quin, Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd, and Detroit’s Louis Delmas are all significant upgrades over anyone in the New England safety rotation. Quin would solidify the back of the defense with his coverage ability and smarts in the secondary. Byrd is a play-maker, which is what the Patriots secondary desperately needs. Byrd had 4 forced fumbles and 5 interceptions for Buffalo last season. Finally, Delmas will be only 26 next season and despite a knee injury, was able to cover a lot of ground in the secondary for Detroit. Any of the three would be welcome in New England.
Even with second-year safety Tavon Wilson likely being added to a rotation with returning safety/cornerback Devin McCourty and safety Steve Gregory, questions about quality play and depth remain as the secondary was repeatedly beaten deep by quality (and some not so quality) quarterbacks. Expect disappointing safety Patrick Chung to leave in free agency. Also, Gregory may be fighting for a job as well come training camp depending if the Patriots make any moves at safety in the draft or free agency. Despite improvement in the second half of the season once McCourty moved from cornerback to safety, there are significant upgrades to be made in order to upgrade the back-end of the defense.
Quarterback and Running Back:
Quarterback and running back are pretty much set, as the Patriots need only add a young arm to lessen the number of passes thrown in training camp by quarterback Tom Brady and another back to compete for a depth/special teams role. Things get interesting at wide receiver and the eternal struggle to find another tight end for when injuries strike.
The Patriots should be able to work out a deal with their own free agent wide receiver, Wes Welker. However, if not able to do so, there are other options as well. Pittsburgh Steeler’s wide receiver Mike Wallace has long been the target of Patriots fans due to his speed, route-running, and excellent hands. A true deep threat, he would give the offense a threat it has lacked at wide receiver since Randy Moss shot his way out of town. Veteran outside receivers Dwayne Bowe and Greg Jennings are both available and both bring similar skills as Wallace (though with more age and injury concerns).
As a slot receiver to pair with likely returning back-up slot receiver Julian Edelman, there has been much talk by fans of bringing in Danny Amendola of the St. Louis Rams. Amendola is likely a less expensive option to Welker, and has experience playing for former Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Amendola, like Edelman, has been injury-prone in his career, however. Letting Welker go and signing Amendola (and/or Edelman) leaves durability and dependability issues at slot receiver.
Of course, letting the slot receivers go and changing the offensive focus is always an option. Another point to consider in free agency is replacing the current receiver still under contract. Miami Dolphin wide receiver Brian Hartline is available if the Patriots explore an alternate to wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. Hartline usually lines up outside, but functions as a possession receiver, not going deep but catching intermediate routes with slick route-running making up for his lack of speed. His skill set is similar to that of Lloyd, and could pair with him or replace him.
Beyond their big two stars at tight end, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots have tight end Daniel Fells under contract with Michael Hoomanawanui a restricted free agent. Both Fells and Hoomanawanui could return as depth options, or both could be let go. On the free agent market are a few potential starters who may not be willing to take on a perceived reduced role in New England. Because of the injury risk and the effect of not having Gronkowski and Hernandez both on the field together at the same time, the Patriots need a strong option at backup tight end to keep their offense flowing through the two-tight-end sets that create so many mismatches for the offense..
The Patriots should be looking at overpaying for two quality tight ends in this deep free agent class. Tennessee Titan tight end Jared Cook is the class of the free agent crop at tight end as he has tremendous upside still to explore. The Patriots should also look to add San Francisco’s Delanie Walker as he brings good hands and good blocking skills to the position and also the ability to play fullback (more of that multi-role play that is popular with the New England coaches).
Beyond Walker and Cook, there are free agents like Miami’s Anthony Fasano, who has size and blocking ability to back-up Gronkowski; Houston’s James Casey is a smaller, more athletic tight-end who would fit as a back-up to Hernandez in the Patriots offense. Carolina’s Gary Barnidge is a sleeper who has a lot of upside and may need just the right fit in the right offense. Finally, Dustin Keller of the Jets is a free agent and, although slowed by injury in recent years, may still be able to help as a back-up in New England.
After deciding what to do with right guard Sebastian Vollmer (possibly the franchise tag if they cannot re-sign him), the Patriots desperately need additional depth at offensive line. Guard Donald Thomas was a surprise filling in at both guard positions this year, especially effective in the running game, and should be garnering attention from other teams this offseason. Behind the starters, the Patriots are bring back only backup tackle Marcus Cannon, Swiss Army Knife Nick McDonald (backup at all 5 line positions), and developmental projects tackles Marcus Zuseviks and Kyle Hix.
The Patriots will likely address the offensive line through the draft and undrafted free agents, but there are a few decent players on the free agent market. Buffalo guard Andy Levitre and St. Louis guard Louis Vasquez are starting quality guards who would step in for Thomas as top backup in New England in a heartbeat and push Dan Connolly for the starting right guard position. Guard Brandon Moore of the Jets and Kevin Boothe of the Giants are both depth options at guard who could be affordable pieces.
Tackles Jake Long (Miami) and Ryan Clady (Denver) are the only tackles on the free agent market capable of stepping in to replace Vollmer if he signs elsewhere. Quality tackles are few and far between and rarely hit the market without age or health issues, and these two (and Vollmer) are no exceptions. Brandon Albert and Gosder Cherilus are free agents as well, but neither are better than backup options for a contending team, and both will likely get deals paying them far more than they are worth.
So while the New England Patriots will likely be practical and limited in free agency, there are many options along this avenue that can aid in improving the team. The Patriots have a unique opportunity to rebuild their defense in a hurry and tweak and upgrade the offense to make a final run to the Super Bowl while quarterback Tom Brady is in his prime. The time to act decisively is now.
As always, feel free to comment on anyone that you feel was left out of the free agent options or if you disagree or concur with the options listed. All feedback always welcome!