The NFL Scouting Combine is set to begin this Thursday, and Patriots fans will likely be focusing on just a few positions that could help fill in the missing pieces that prevented a 14-2 team from becoming champions. You can likely cross quarterback and tight end off of the list, unless the position is drafted in the later rounds for depth purposes. Wide receiver has been a hot topic with some analysts, who think that the Patriots need a true #1 receiver that can blow the top off of a defense. I tend to disagree, because there are more pressing needs, and the Pats have won three championships without a true #1 and zero with one (Randy Moss). Free agency may or may not be getting underway soon depending on whether the league and the players can reach a new CBA by March 3. The Pats are likely not to hit free agency too hard, but they do have the trade ammunition with two picks in each of the first three rounds. Let’s take a look at the top 5 needs the Patriots are likely to target in the draft and free agency…
…or maybe not target. The Pats aren’t notorious for drafting based on need, but here are their top 5 needs anyway:
1. Pass rusher. For the past few seasons, really ever since Willie McGinest left and Mike Vrabel started to decline, the Patriots have been without a real threat at the pass-rushing spot, be it outside linebacker or defensive end. The big pass rushing position in the 3-4 is the outside linebacker, so that will be the area of focus. Opposing quarterbacks have enjoyed too much time in the pocket, which has led to the secondary having to cover receivers for a longer amount of time. This past season, the Pats were in the middle of the pack, tied at 14th overall with San Francisco with 36 sacks. Some of those were due to the impressive job done by the young secondary in coverage, led by rookie Devin McCourty. One has to wonder how much better the pass defense would have been had the Patriots had a legitimate threat at pass rusher. Luckily, the Pats could strike gold this year in the draft. (More to come on that later this week)
2. Offensive line. No matter how good the offensive line has been during the regular season, they seem to fall apart when it matters most in the playoffs. Tom Brady was under duress from the Jets virtually every time he dropped back to pass during their playoff game last month. Aside from that, the Patriots could be losing most of their offensive line this season and next season. Guard Logan Mankins has been franchised, but whether he plays this season for the Patriots or not is up in the air. Left tackle Matt Light is a free agent and his return is questionable, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return. Guard Stephen Neal has had his seasons cut short lately due to shoulder injuries, and he could retire. He contemplated retirement last season, and yet another season-ending shoulder injury could force his hand. If he plays another season, it will likely be his last because his contract expires after the coming season. Also expiring after next season is center Dan Koppen and top fill-in Dan Connolly. Re-stocking the line with youth is of the utmost importance in order for the Pats to maintain long-term success. Again, the Pats are poised to strike while the oven is hot this draft.
3. Defensive end. The Pats are fairly well stocked at nose tackle after re-signing Vince Wilfork last season, though they could add depth in the later rounds. However, the biggest position of need on the defensive line is defensive end. Ty Warren was lost all of last season and his ability when he returns is in question. Opposite him, there are no surefire starters. There has been a rotation of potential from young draft picks like Ron Brace, but no one has shown the ability to hold onto the position. Besides opposite Ty Warren, there is Warren’s position. He has been injury prone lately, and is no lock to make it through a full season. The Patriots need a starter and some depth out of this draft, unless they know something about their current personnel that we don’t know. Again, the Patriots are poised to…you get the idea.
4. Runningback. The need here is somewhat debatable, but it is true that they Patriots lack a dynamic back to take pressure off of the passing game. What they do have are compliments to the passing game, guys that take part in the passing game or carry the rock to try and maintain a semblance of balance. BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 1,000 yards this season and was a solid back, but he is not a game changer. Can the Patriots rely on him to move the ball and carry the offense if a team is knocking out the passing game, like the Jets did in the playoffs? Probably not. Danny Woodhead is a third down back who is most effective as a pass catcher and a change-of-pace back. Outside of Mark Ingram from Alabama, the Patriots may not be able to find that true back that can help carry the offense in the draft.
5. Cornerback. The Patriots have invested heavily in this position, with giving Leigh Bodden a big new contract last offseason and spending a first round pick on Devin McCourty last draft. However, outside of McCourty, what is there at the position? Bodden could return and re-gain his 2009 form, which would lock down the side of the field opposite McCourty, but that’s not a certainty. Darius Butler, a 2nd rounder in the 2009 Draft, has bounced in and out of the lineup. Jonathon Wilhite has proved that he cannot be a starter, but may be a decent nickel back. He was performing well at that spot until his season-ending injury. Kyle Arrington did well at times starting opposite McCourty but was definitely the target of opposing quarterbacks and was picked on quite frequently. With the NFL being a passing league now, you can never have enough quality corners. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a depth signing in free agency or yet another draft pick, even an early one, spent on the position.
The Patriots face less team-building issues this offseason than they did last offseason. What they look to do now is add the complimentary pieces that they are missing (like pass rusher) to help put the team over the top and win a Super Bowl. The Logan Mankins situation will help make draft and free agent targets a little clearer, but that situation may not be solved for a long time to come. In the meantime, we can look to these positions this week when following the Combine to find the next New England Patriots.