Having looked at the offense previously, Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s squad leaps to the forefront with the initial rush of the NFL free-agency period following the weeks of buildup, rumors and the hope of fans, the situation has settled down as the big names and big money are off the board, and teams which are not at or near their cap maximum (or what they’re willing to pay) turn their attention to filling their needs at the upcoming NFL Draft. As there are still hundreds of players looking for an opportunity at what will likely be a discounted rate, further moves in free agency on defense by the New England Patriots are going to be carefully weighed based upon need, draft options, player value (are they getting a deal or bargain), position depth, quality of the player, quantity on the market, and especially the player’s fit on the team, both on the field and off. Here is a look at the defensive side of the ball:
The Patriots have spent high draft picks on young defensive ends Chandler Jones and his back-up Jermaine Cunningham in recent drafts, and have solid defensive end/hybrid outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich currently manning the position. It is no secret that New England would like to add another pass rushing end to help contribute to getting pressure on the quarterback and take some pressure off the beleaguered secondary. The Patriots hit a home run adding veterans Mark Anderson and Andre Carter in 2011 as each contributed 10 sacks and then moved on in free agency, with Anderson cashing in with the Buffalo Bills and Carter hampered by a leg injury. Last season, free agent Trevor Scott showed glimpses of pass rush pressure, but failed to earn enough time or have the impact of Carter or Anderson.
This off-season, the fanbase has been excited about the Patriots bringing in veteran defensive ends John Abraham and Dwight Freeney. Although neither pass-rush specialist signed a contract with New England, both are still available. The veteran defensive end market remains flooded, with Chicago Bears end Israel Idonije and his 7.5 sacks last season still unsigned, and former Detroit Lion Kyle Vanden Bosch still available. Add in defensive end Trevor Scott still on the market, and there are still options available to the Patriots to find and contribute. Someone in this group will likely sign in New England, but as to which defensive end joins the fold it is still unclear.
At this point, Freeney and Abraham have to be at the top of the wish list, with the contract being the big issue as their agents try to meet the veteran’s anticipated asking price. Each day, the price drops. Teams drafting defensive ends will further shrink the market. The New England Patriots’ front office gains leverage over this group with each passing day, and will likely hold off any signings until a player is willing to meet their price.
The Patriots have made two moves at defensive tackle so far this off-season, adding Canadian Football League player Armond Armstead and former Oakland Raider Tommy Kelly. (For more about the Kelly signing, check out the MusketFire.com articles by Joe Soriano here and by Cyrus Geller here.) With those two moves, the Patriots have some depth next to and behind defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. With Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love to go with Kelly and Armstead, it will be hard to fit another player onto the roster at defensive tackle. One name to keep track of is internal free agent Myron Pryor, who impressed when he was healthy enough to play and could get an invite to camp to try to win a job.
Fans will see names like Vonnie Holliday, Sione Pouha, Amobi Okoye, Ty Warren, Richard Seymour, Shaun Cody, Sedrick Ellis, and Casey Hampton still available and think of how great some of these players were once upon a time. However, based on their departure, Warren and Seymour are unlikely to return even if they came cheap. Cody, Ellis, Pouha, and Okoye are likely not interested in a back-up position at the veteran’s minimum, and Vonnie Holliday’s best days were a long time ago.
This position may add a late-round or undrafted free agent to develop on the practice squad, unless one of the prospects at the position slides to them in the first round like Wilfork did when the Patriots stole him in the late first round of 2004, drafting the best player rather than based on need. Beyond that, the signing of Kelly seems to indicate the decision based on available free agents has been made by the Patriots front office.
Linebacker is another position with a plethora of options, but not many that leap off the page as a fit for the Patriots needs there. What New England (and every other team in the NFL, for that matter) wants and needs on defense is a linebacker strong enough to be stout in the running game, but agile and instinctive enough to cover running backs and tight ends in the middle of the field. Of course, those kind of linebackers are near impossible to find outside the first five picks of the draft, if they are even available then. With their solid SEC-core of linebackers in Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower, and captain Jerod Mayo, linebacker is hardly a position of need. Depth is needed, and expect the Patriots to again to add a late-round or undrafted free agent to develop on the practice squad or contribute on special teams while learning the defense.
With available free agents, despite popular players like Brian Urlacher, Bart Scott, James Harrison, Karlos Danby, Rolando McClain, Paris Lenon, Nick Barnett, Daryl Smith and Bradie James on the market, none are likely to be looking to New England to come in on a short, cheap deal and play primarily on special teams. Bringing a free agent or two to camp as insurance for injury would make sense, and in that case the best fit may be former Kansas City Chief Brandon Siler. Siler is former Florida Gator like Brandon Spikes, and played for Romeo Crennel in Kansas City giving him some experience in a similar defense. Siler is only 27 with decent size and projects well as a back-up in New England.
As usual in New England, the Patriots struck in free agency retaining their own free agents. The Patriots re-signed both starting cornerback Aqib Talib (who had come over in a mid-season trade from Tampa Bay) on a one-year deal and nickel cornerback Kyle Arrington to a multi-year pact. With the future of Alfonzo Dennard still up in the air pending his legal issues, another cornerback would logically seem to be a potential fit. Whether Bill Belichick and the Patriots address the need for depth at cornerback through the draft or free agency remains to be seen.
The cornerbacks on the market must be growing more anxious as each day brings the NFL closer to the draft. With a draft deep in cornerbacks, the free agents are going to be fighting for opportunities. This is a chance for the Patriots to really add some competition and depth to the backfield. Buffalo’s Terrence McGee is a serviceable back-up who can contribute on special teams; Bengals cornerback Nate Clements still has a little left in the tank and could come in and compete for a position; former Chiefs and Texans cornerback Stanford Routt is talented and could contribute in the right system; Antoine Winfield is expensive, but would be great competition for Dennard and valuable insurance policy for injury (see cornerback Aqib Talib in the AFC Championship Game leaving with injury and the defense falling apart); Chris Gamble didn’t really retire, did he? If so, maybe a winning team and some cash could talk him into coming back for a play-off caliber team; and former Charger cornerback Quentin Jammer is on the market and, although likely to be a dime corner or safety at age 33, can still provide veteran depth at a position that has hindered the Patriots these last five years.
The Patriots safeties have been an issue on this team since future hall of famer Rodney Harrison retired in 2008. Late last season, the combination of cornerback Devin McCourty and former Charger and free agent signing Steve Gregory played the best (by best, meaning not giving up multiple completions of over 30 yards repeatedly; Patrick Chung set the bar pretty low.). With a second-round pick invested in the intriguing Tavon Wilson and already having signed veteran thumper Adrian Wilson, the Patriots may have a deep group of safeties. In fact, considering the contract the Patriots gave Wilson, signing him rather than the over-priced former Baltimore Raven Ed Reed looks like a great move already. Including special teams ace and safety prospect Nate Ebner, the Patriots have reached the roster maximum which they will likely carry on the 53 man roster.
However, there is always the possibility that Devin McCourty returns to his natural position of cornerback and the Patriots have a roster spot open. As always, there are familiar faces available in free agency: Former Patriots safety James Sanders is available, as is eternal practice squad player, Ray Ventrone. Former Patriot (and injury-riddled) Josh Barrett is unsigned, as is veteran Will Allen who looked like an intriguing pick-up last season before spending the season on injured reserve.
Fans recognize former Jets safeties Kerry Rhodes (last seen in Arizona), Eric Smith, and Jim Leonhard (last seen in Denver), but all have issues that will likely prevent the Patriots from offering an invite to camp, be it age(Rhodes and Leonhard) or ineffectiveness (Considering how much Patriots quarterback Tom Brady liked picking on Eric Smith, maybe bringing him into camp as a morale boost for Brady is a possibility). Veteran Packers safety Charles Woodson garnered a lot of attention early in free agency, but seems less likely to come to New England with Adrian Wilson already in place. It is doubtful that safeties like veterans Ronde Barber, Quintin Mikell, or Atari Bigby have any interest in coming to compete for a back-up spot and play on special teams. Expect any depth at safety to come from late training camp cut-downs, if at all.
The Patriots defense has been their Achilles heel since 2008, and as the final years of the Tom Brady era appear to be closing in (even as he holds onto his spot as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever year after year), coach Bill Belichick has no more excuses not load up on defense by any means possible and give this team the chance to get over the hump in the playoffs. The Patriots have already made an impact in free agency on the defensive side of the ball, but the clock is ticking, the opportunity is there, and the Patriots need to stay aggressive in bringing in impact players on defense.