New England Patriots: 2012 Guide to Free Agency and the Draft

Michael KelleherContributor IIIFebruary 15, 2012

New England Patriots: 2012 Guide to Free Agency and the Draft

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    Super Bowl XLVI is now firmly in the rear-view for New England Patriots fans and the focus has shifted to 2012.

    With free agency and draft coming up, fans are beginning to immerse themselves in the team-building that each franchise will undertake over the next couple of months.

    Here is a guide to the New England Patriots roster for 2012.

    Who are the key free agents on the team's roster?

    What positions will be the team be seeking to upgrade?

    Here is a look at the key free agents and draft prospects which the team is likely to consider adding for 2012 as it seeks to return to the Super Bowl.

Wide Receiver

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    Out of contract – Wes Welker, Deion Branch

    On the roster – Chad Ochocinco, Julian Edelman, Tiquan Underwood

    Free agents available – Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, DeSean Jackson, Mario Manningham, Pierre Garcon, Laurent Robinson

    Draft options – Joe Adams, Juron Criner, Stephen Hill, Chris Givens, Ryan Broyles

    Both of the Patriots starting wide receivers, Wes Welker and Deion Branch, are free agents.

    Welker is a vital cog in the Patriots offense. He led the league in catches last season and has an excellent rapport with Tom Brady despite their miscues in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.

    He is likely to receive the franchise tag as he negotiates an extension to stay in New England. Branch is also likely to return. The coaching values his professionalism and leadership, and his services should come at a reasonable rate.

    If Branch somehow returns, it is likely to be as the number three receiver on the depth chart. The Patriots inability to stretch the field vertically is a weakness.

    They will look to add a deep threat who can draw coverage away from the middle of the field where the talented trio of Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez like to operate. Ochocinco was brought in to do this last year and was not up to the task. He will be released.

    Luckily for the Patriots there is an abundance of very talented wide receivers available in both free agency and the draft.

    Bill Belichick has always been a vocal admirer of Reggie Wayne. Brandon Lloyd has flourished under new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in the past and has already expressed a desire to continue their working relationship. His ability to stretch the field is exactly what the Patriots are looking for and he would be ideal if the price is right.

    Other options that they might consider are Stevie Johnson or Marques Colston. I don’t think they will be in the running for the top-notch players available such as Vincent Jackson and Dwayne Bowe.

    In addition to adding a veteran presence, New England is likely to address the position via the draft.

    It is a position they need to get younger at. The Patriots have never invested a first round pick in a receiver under Belichick. This trend is likely to continue, although Kendall Wright is a name to keep an eye on if he is able to fall into the latter half of Round 1.

    The Patriots are more likely to wait until at least the bottom of Round 2. Juron Criner and Stephen Hill are big physical receivers who can win versus one-on-one coverage on the outside. Joe Adams, Chris Givens and Ryan Broyles are all talented receivers who could boost the return game.

    Danny Woodhead was relatively solid but very unspectacular in the role of kick-off returner last season. Belichick would prefer a player who will be fourth or fifth on his depth chart to be able to contribute on special teams as he gets integrated into the Patriots highly complicated offense. All five of these prospects have the ability to stretch the field vertically.

    Likely moves - franchise Wes Welker, resign Deion Branch, release Ochocinco, sign a veteran receiver and draft a receiver

Running Back

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    Out of contract – BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk

    On the roster – Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen

    Free agents available – Marshawn Lynch, Peyton Hillis, Michael Bush, Mike Tolbert,

    Draft options – Chris Polk, Robert Turbin, Terrence Ganaway, Marc Tyler

    The New England Patriots running game anchored by BenJarvus Green-Ellis was solid but unspectacular last season.

    Green-Ellis had 181 carries for 667 yards. He is a free agent and it will be interesting to see what the Patriots do with him. They are likely to be interested in keeping him around but probably won’t be willing to overpay to do so.

    He is an excellent locker room presence and is extremely reliable on the field, a quality Bill Belichick prises. He is good in short-yardage situations and is excellent in the red-zone. He has scored 24 rushing touchdowns over the past two regular seasons since taking over the role of feature back. He also has never fumbled in the regular season.

    However Green-Ellis is not a very explosive and lacks speed. His average yards per carry figure of 3.7 for the 2011 season could only be described as average at best.

    The Patriots drafted two running backs early in the 2011 draft, selecting Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in the second and third round respectively. This is an indication that they were searching for more from their running game.

    Neither BenJarvus Green-Ellis nor Danny Woodhead enjoyed the same level of success that they had the year before so it stands to reason that the coaching staff is still hoping for more from the running game.

    Ridley had a decent rookie season rushing for 441 yards at a 5.1 average. Vereen, however, was a non-factor. He got injured early in training camp and was never able to catch up. It will be interesting to see if he can contribute next season because the organisation was very high on him when he was selected in the draft.

    How the coaches view these two players ability to contribute next season will dictate how they address the position in the offseason.

    If the Patriots are skeptical about what they have at the position, then they would probably be inclined to explore options in free agency. They are very unlikely to break the bank but there are some good mid-level free agents that may be good fits if Green-Ellis is not resigned.

    Michael Bush and Mike Tolbert fit the mold of what the Patriots would be looking for. They are both bigger backs who could bring a physical element to the offense.

    One intriguing option is Peyton Hillis. He had a very disappointing season in 2011 following his breakout year in 2010, during which he amassed over 1600 yards from scrimmage. At  6’2”, 250lbs he is an imposing physical specimen and could be unstoppable in the Patriots offense, where stopping Tom Brady is the focus of every defense.

    If the Patriots elect to draft a player, they are likely to look at bigger, more physical backs and are likely to wait until the later rounds.

    Robert Turbin, Terrance Ganaway and Marc Tyler are some names they could potentially consider on Day 3 of the draft.

    Likely moves - resign BenJarvus Green-Ellis

Interior Offensive Line

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    Out of contract – Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen

    On the roster – Ryan Wendell, Nick MacDonald, Logan Mankins, Rich Ohrnberger, Donald Thomas, Brian Waters, Marcus Cannon

    Free agents available – Scott Wells, Nick Hardwick, Chris Myers, Ben Grubbs, Craig Urbik

    Draft options – Peter Konz, Ben Jones, Michael Brewster, Phillip Blake, Kelichi Osemele, Kevin Zeitler, Brandon Washington

    The interior of the New England Patriots offensive line was tremendous in 2011.

    Both guards, Logan Mankins and Brian Waters, were named to the Pro Bowl. Waters in particular was outstanding. He was the Patriots best offensive lineman over the course of the season, which is remarkable considering his age (he is soon to turn 35) and the fact he was signed off the street a week before the first regular season game.

    The Patriots had some injury difficulties at center with long-time starter Dan Koppen, who was lost early in the season due to injury. Dan Connolly received more playing time in Koppen's absence and did well in the role.

    Both Koppen and Connolly are free agents.

    The team is likely to make a push to resign one if not both of these players. Koppen's leadership and Connolly's versatility make both men very useful assets.

    Koppen is 32 years old but should still have a couple of productive seasons left. Elsewhere along the line, Brian Waters should return after his stellar 2011 campaign. He had never won a playoff game prior to his arrival in Foxborough and he is, no doubt, well aware that the Patriots are among the favorites to get back to the Super Bowl in 2012.

    Marcus Cannon has the versatility to play guard as well as tackle and he may get some looks there this season with a view to him taking over in 2013.

    If the Patriots are looking for center help in the draft, the standout player available would likely be Peter Konz from Wisconsin. He should be available in the latter half of the first round so he may be another player to keep an eye on. 

    Likely moves - resign Dan Koppen and/or Dan Connolly and then use a later round pick on an interior offensive lineman to develop

Defensive Tackle

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    Out of contract – Gerard Warren, Shaun Ellis

    On the roster – Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love, Myror Pryor, Vince Wilfork, Mike Wright

    Free agents available – Calais Campbell, Kendall Langford, Cory Redding, Red Bryant, Adam Carriker

    Draft options – Devon Still, Fletcher Cox, Jerel Worthy, Brandon Thompson, Kendall Reyes, Jared Crick

    Vince Wilfork was absolutely outstanding in 2011. In his best season in a Patriots uniform, Wilfork was a warrior playing in 86.8 per cent of the team’s defensive snaps, as opposed to 69.8 per cent in 2010. He recorded 52 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 2 interceptions. He is the Patriots leader on defense and more valuable to the team than any other player except Tom Brady.

    Looking past Wilfork however, it is apparent that the Patriots have some questions their defensive line.

    Albert Haynesworth was a massive disappointment and was released during the season. Shaun Ellis failed to have the impact many hoped for and was anonymous for large portions of the season. Mike Wright is unlikely to ever play football again after sustaining a season-ending concussion two years in a row.

    Gerard Warren had his moments but at his age, one has to wonder how much he has left in the tank. Ron Brace has failed to justify his draft status and may struggle to make the roster for 2012.

    Brandon Deaderick, Kyle Love and Myron Pryor are all promising young players who have shown steady improvement in their time with the Patriots but none of them strike fear into opposing quarterbacks at this point in their careers.

    The Patriots need to add an impact defensive lineman to help take the load of Wilfork.

    The free agent pool is light on high calibre talent.

    Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals is outstanding but he is unlikely to hit the open market. He will be franchised. Kendall Langford of the Miami Dolphins is someone who could potentially be a fit. The Dolphins are moving to a 4-3 and already have a pair of quality defensive tackles in Jared Odrick and Randy Starks. Langford is a good young five technique who would fit nicely in New England.

    Cory Redding, Red Bryant and Adam Carriker are cheaper options the team could potentially look at.

    If the Patriots want to add an impact player they are likely to do so via the draft. I will be surprised if they do not select a defensive tackle in the first two rounds.

    Fletcher Cox, Jerel Worthy and Brandon Thompson are all likely to be available at the end of the first round. Jared Crick and Kendall Reyes are other solid options who should be available in the second round.

    This is an area I would expect Bill Belichick to be aggressive in addressing in the offseason.

    Don’t be surprised to not only see him invest a high pick at the position, but also to bring in a couple of veterans to add some experience to a very young group.

    Belichick has also had success with bringing in late round picks and undrafted rookie free agents (see Pryor, Love and Deaderick). He is likely to continue this. I would expect there to be strong competition for roster spots along the defensive line by the time training camp roles around.

    Likely moves - use an early pick on a defensive tackle, sign two veteran players, release Mike Wright and bring in a couple of late round/undrafted free agents to compete for a roster spot

Defensive End/Outside Linebacker

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    Out of contract – Andre Carter, Mark Anderson

    On the roster – Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich, 

    Free agents available – Mario Williams, Robert Mathis, Cliff Avril, Ahmad Brooks, Anthony Spencer

    Draft Options – Whitney Mercilus, Nick Perry, Andre Branch, Vinny Curry, Cam Johnson, Chandler Jones

    Rob Ninkovich has steadily improved in each season he has spent with the Patriots. He came on strong towards the end of last season and showed a penchant for coming up with big plays.

    Jermaine Cunningham was a massive disappointment in his second season with the team, barely seeing the field. He will have his work cut out to earn a roster spot in 2012.

    Andre Carter and Mark Anderson were both very successful in their first seasons with the Patriots, with each registering a team-high 10 sacks. Andre Carter was arguably the Patriots best defensive player during the regular season, with the exception of Vince Wilfork. His leadership was invaluable on a young defense.

    Mark Anderson saw his role steadily increase as the season progressed. He was a key part of the defensive game-plan by the time the team played in the Super Bowl and did well in the role. The Patriots will have interest in bringing both back if the price is right. Anderson is probably the more likely candidate to return given the fact he is four years younger.

    Carter’s age and health are concerns. He ended the season on injured reserve.

    Many Patriots fans have been salivating at the thought of Mario Williams coming to New England. This is a highly unlikely scenario however. He is likely to be franchised by Houston and it is not really Belichick’s style to break the bank in free agency.

    He is more likely to target a mid-level free agent. He has always spoken glowingly of Robert Mathis so maybe that is someone he might consider pursuing if the price is right.

    The Patriots should have a good opportunity to draft an impact player at this position.

    They are armed with two first round picks and players such as Whitney Mercilus, Nick Perry and Andre Branch are all projected to go in that range. Other options such as Vinny Curry, Cam Johnson and Chandler Jones should be available in the second and third rounds.

    Likely moves - use an early draft selection on a young pass-rusher, attempt to resign one of Andre Carter or Mark Anderson and also to cut Jermaine Cunningham

Cornerback

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    Out of contract – Antwuan Molden, Nate Jones

    On the roster – Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Sterling Moore

    Free agents available – Tracy Porter, Richard Marshall, Marcus Trufant, Cortland Finnegan, Brandon Carr, Terrell Thomas

    Draft Options – Janoris Jenkins, Stephen Gilmore, Chase Minnifield, Jamell Fleming, Brandon Boykin, Trumaine Johnson, Leonard Johnson, Casey Heyward

    The Patriots ranked 31st in the NFL in pass defense last season.

    Veteran players James Sanders, Leigh Bodden and Brandon Meriweather were all released at the beginning of the year. The results were hardly what Bill Belichick envisioned as his secondary struggled from start to finish.

    The unit as a whole looked overwhelmed and lacked any semblance of leadership.

    Devin McCourty regressed hugely after an extremely impressive rookie campaign which earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl.

    Kyle Arrington had decent year all around, but his play did tail off in the second half of the season.

    Ras-I Dowling, the 33rd pick in the 2011 draft, was placed on injured reserve after appearing in only two games. The Patriots finished the season relying on the likes of Antwuan Molden, Nate Jones, Sterling Moore and Julian Edelman to make significant contributions.

    The Patriots are likely to bring in an additional cornerback in the offseason and possibly two depending on whether the coaching staff sees Devin McCourty’s future at cornerback or safety.

    Ras-I Dowling will be like a new signing and should prove to be a major addition. Kyle Arrington and Sterling Moore should also contribute again next year.

    If the Patriots do sign a free agent to play cornerback, it is likely to be a more experienced player who can add some stability and leadership to a very young secondary.

    The higher end options on the market such as Cortland Finnegan, Brandon Carr and Stanford Rout are likely to be too expensive for the Patriots.

    They could look to bring in someone such as Marcus Trufant or Richard Marshall. They both have a lot of experience in the league and are unlikely to break the bank.

    The Patriots could also look at the position during the draft because there will be a deep pool of talent available.

    Janoris Jenkins could prove difficult to pass up if he falls into their laps at the end of the first. Chase Minnifield, Jamell Fleming, Brandon Boykin, Trumaine Johnson and Casey Heyward are all very promising players who should come off the board in the second and third rounds. 

    Likely moves - select a corner on day two or three of the draft

Safety

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    Out of contract – James Ihedigbo, Bret Lockett

    On the roster – Patrick Chung, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett

    Free agents available – Tyvon Branch, Michael Griffin, Dashon Goldson, LaRon Landry, James Sanders

    Draft Options – Mark Barron, Harrison Smith, Markelle Martin, George Iloka

    Safety was a massive problem for the Patriots in 2011.

    Former starters James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather were both released at the beginning of the season as the Patriots opted to go with a younger combination of Patrick Chung, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett and James Ihedigbo.

    This proved to be a big error by Bill Belichick as the secondary struggled throughout the season.

    The steady leadership of James Sanders in particular seemed to be missed on the back end of the Patriots defense. Patrick Chung missed eight games due to injury which did not help matters.

    Josh Barrett was placed on injured reserve after a November loss to the Giants. Sergio Brown struggled mightily in coverage, giving away some very costly pass interference penalties.

    James Ihedigbo was relatively solid once he got his opportunity, but he was often taken off the field on obvious passing downs.

    Safety is the biggest need for the Patriots for the 2012 season and may be the hardest to fill.

    The pool of quality free agents and players in the draft who can contribute quickly is relatively thin. With many NFL teams needing safety help the competition for their services promises to be strong.

    Dashon Goldson is a player that the Patriots were interested in last season. He was in New England for a visit prior to the season but he could not come to terms and signed a one year deal with the 49ers. He rewarded them by earning a trip to the Pro Bowl.

    Michael Griffin and LaRon Landry are two of the other safeties that are available, but they are likely to be highly sought after as well as higher paid guys, so they would be harder for the Pats to go after.

    Mark Barron is by far the top safety in the draft.

    Having played for Nick Saban in Alabama for four years he comes into the NFL having been very well coached and with a lot of experience. He is a very good all-around safety and should be able to contribute immediately.

    It is a relatively weak safety class, but a couple of other prospects who might interest the Patriots are Harrison Smith out of Notre Dame and Markelle Martin out of Oklahoma State.

    Both of these players are expected to be drafted in the top 100 picks.

    Likely moves – Sign a safety in free agency, draft a safety, resign James Ihedigbo and cut Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett