New England Patriots: Front seven named biggest hole

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 31: James Harrison
FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 31: James Harrison /

The New England Patriots’ front seven was named their biggest hole heading into free agency.

The New England Patriots are going to have a busy offseason. If they are to continue their dominance in the AFC East and return to the Super Bowl, some areas of the roster need improving.

Free agency will be the first opportunity for the Patriots to upgrade their roster. They have a number of their own free agents that they will have to negotiate with. Running back Dion Lewis and offensive tackle Nate Solder top that list.

Solder is arguably the most important free agent that New England has. Yes, Lewis was a big part of their offense last season. However, a running back is a little easier to replace than a left tackle that protects the blindside of the franchise quarterback, Tom Brady.

Retaining Solder is important. If they do not retain him, offensive line becomes a glaring need for the Patriots. Right now, however, the front seven presents the biggest issue for New England.

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Over at ESPN, a piece was put together with the biggest hole that each organization has to fill. The front seven was the choice for New England, and rightfully so.

The Patriots linebackers will look different next season. Veteran David Harris announced his retirement earlier in the offseason. 2016 third round pick, Derek Rivers, missed his whole rookie season with a torn ACL and should be ready to go. Dont’a Hightower played in only five games because of a shoulder injury.

They were two players highlighted in the piece.

"With the expected returns of Derek Rivers (ACL tear) and Dont’a Hightower (torn pectoral), the Patriots have some upside but also some instability up front. Players such as Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy have been inconsistent, and after dealing away Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones, lack of talent was a major reason the Patriots cratered to 31st in defensive DVOA."

Without Collins and Jones, the Patriots lacked a consistent pass rush. Van Noy was solid, but injuries nagged him at the end of the season. Getting Rivers and Hightower back in the fold will help, but the Patriots defense is still lacking in the front seven.

As the ESPN piece states, New England has some depth in the front seven. However, there isn’t a feared pass rusher in the bunch, something that will be difficult to find in free agency in the coming weeks.

"The Patriots don’t have the means to completely fix this in one offseason because the problem isn’t depth — it’s a lack of top-line talent. Elite front-seven talent just doesn’t hit free agency often. DeMarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansahhave been franchised. The best New England could hope for in these areas are older players on the James Harrison path (Julius Peppers?) or a nice, solid player with some limitations, such as Trent Murphy or Avery Williamson.The decision to move on from Alan Branch and Martellus Bennett gives them a little more wiggle room under the salary cap. We’ll see how they use it."

Peppers is someone that has been discussed previously, as his signing would be a bold one. He fits the mold of what the Patriots have looked for from veterans in free agency. Harrison, another pass rushing veteran, who is considered to have a reasonable chance to return to New England.

Next: 5 Potential Cap Casualties On Patriots

It will be interesting to see how the Patriots use that new found cap space. They have some key free agents of their own they need to retain. How much of that cap space is remaining will dictate where they can look in free agency for outside help.