The 2013 season is over the New England Patriots. We have to accept this fact. But one of the only good things about their season ending, is we can begin to talk about what they should do to get back to the AFC Championship in 2014. There is plenty to discuss, and it will take about seven months to get through it all. But to start, here is a breakdown of what I think New England’s top five position needs are, heading into the offseason.
1. Offensive Line
I was tempted to go with the wide receiver position here, but I think the offensive line is a bigger need, specifically the inside of the offensive line. Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer (when healthy), and Marcus Cannon are all solid tackles, and I think they will hold up just fine once again next year. Logan Mankins is good at the left guard slot, but the Pats have to revamp the center, and right guard positions. Ryan Wendell is set to become a free agent, and I don’t think he will be back. He is a small guy, and even though he fights hard, bigger defensive tackles can dominate him pretty easily. Next to him is Dan Connolly, who struggled mightily throughout the 2013 season. He is signed for 2014, but I think New England should look to find his replacement. Giving Tom Brady time in the pocket is the number one key to every single Patriots contest, and improving this starts with replacing Connolly, and Wendell.
2. Wide Receiver
The first item of business in this department is re-signing Julian Edelman. In a year where injuries reigned supreme in New England, Edelman stood strong, putting together one hell of a season. Obviously the Pats shouldn’t dole out a huge contract to number 11, but he deserves his fair share of money, as his presence on the field bailed out the Patriots all year long. Developing Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce on the outside will help get this offense back on track, but for what seems like the 10th straight year, we are heading into the offseason begging Belichick to go out and get a playmaker for Tom Brady. Brady isn’t getting any younger, and when you see all of these other teams chucking the ball around to 6’4 wide receivers, you feel bad for Brady. Stocking up on smaller, quicker receivers is great, but there comes a time where you need a guy that can just go out there and may a game-changing play on the outside, which is something the Pats have lacked since Randy Moss took off back in 2010.
3. Defensive Line
While depth at the defensive tackle position is needed, I don’t think the Pats are as decimated in this area as many people think. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly should be able to return to their starting spots, and behind them, the Pats have a solid group of players that now know how to play the position, because of the injuries in 2013. Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, and Sealver Siliga all showed late in the year that they can put together decent games up front, making them great depth pieces for next year. Armond Armstead is also a guy that might be able to contribute, as he could possibly bring an inside pass rushing presence to the group. But with that being said, I still believe New England should find a few guys for more depth on the inside. If Wilfork and Kelly go down, the Pats are left with 2013’s run defense yet again (which was not good). I am not saying that they should go out and spend $50 million, or waste a first round draft pick on a defensive tackle, but there is a need here, and it must be addressed.
Much like the defense line, if everybody could stay healthy, this position would be set. But in the NFL you can’t bank on everybody staying healthy all year long, which is why the Pats need to help out the defensive backfield. I personally think that Aqib Talib should be brought back to New England, at the right price. When he is healthy, there aren’t many cornerbacks that can cover as well as Talib can, but he has shown throughout his career that he has trouble staying on the field. If the two sides can come up with a decent price, I think Talib will be back. But if isn’t a Patriot next year, that leaves the Pats right where they were against Denver, where Peyton Manning racked up 400 passing yards. Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan are solid defenders, and I still believe that they will eventually blossom. But neither of them are number one guys, which makes it imperative that the Pats either re-sign Talib, or go out and get a guy that can be a number one corner (or both, I’m not greedy).
5. Tight End
If everything goes as expected, Rob Gronkowski should be ready to go for the start of the 2014 season. But as he showed us this past year, injuries happen, and you have to be prepared to adjust when they hit. Michael Hoomanawanui is a great backup, and I hope he is brought back for next year. But he isn’t a big receiving threat, which is something that this New England offense desperately needed as the season progressed. Gronkowski is the best tight end in the game, and as we saw with Aaron Hernandez, when you put him with another top threat, things can become scary for the opposition. And if Gronkowski goes down, they need at least one threat in the middle, to go along with Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola. Hooman is great for blocking, and occasional pass routes, but he can’t hurt a defense the way a Gronkowski, or Jimmy Graham can. Whether it is through the draft (Jace Amaro, Eric Ebron), or via free agency, New England needs another ‘Boston TE Party’.