Much of the Patriots’ journey to their fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 seasons was played under clouds of doubt. Their failure to capture a long-sought fourth Lombardi Trophy—and in heartbreaking fashion, at that—only exacerbates the need to fix those shortcomings.
Yes, New England will still have head coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady, slot receiver Wes Welker and the two-headed tight end monster of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez when the 2012 season kicks off. But a much more total team effort is needed if the Patriots want to capture their first Super Bowl championship since 2005.
And with both Belichick’s and Brady’s windows closing fast, now is the time to do so.
Where does New England need to improve the most? And how can the Pats best utilize their picks in the 2012 NFL Draft to make those improvements?
It’s a long season for any secondary that gets lit up by the likes of journeymen Chad Henne (416 yards), Dan Orlovsky (353) and Matt Moore (294). In the history of the NFL, only the 2011 Packers surrendered more passing yards (4,796) than the 2011 Patriots (4,703).
Devin McCourty, a 2010 Pro Bowler at cornerback, struggled so mightily that he was moved to safety. Kyle Arrington tied for the league lead with seven interceptions, but couldn’t consistently lock down opposing receivers. By season’s end, New England’s most impressive cornerback may have been Sterling Moore, who was cut twice—once by the Raiders, once by the Patriots—last season.
The Patriots have lacked a shutdown corner since Asante Samuel left as a free agent four years ago—and their pass defense has regressed each year since then. Belichick needs to draft and develop a lockdown cover guy if he has any hope of reversing that trend.
Best Option: Janoris Jenkins (North Alabama). Disciplinary problems got Jenkins booted off the Florida team before the start of last season, but his exploits at the Senior Bowl showed that his talent hasn’t waned because of it. And if Bill Belichick has any doubts, he can always get reassurance from his good friend and Jenkins’s former coach, Urban Meyer.
Yes, New England racked up a respectable 40 sacks in 2011, including ten each from both Andre Carter and Mark Anderson. But that masked a pass rush that had trouble consistently collapsing the pocket and putting pressure on the opposing quarterback.
And to expect Carter and Anderson to duplicate their 2011 campaigns would be naïve. The two end rushers are free agents this offseason, so it’s unlikely that the Patriots will keep both of them.
Even if they did, Carter will be 33 when the season starts and may have lost a step since suffering a season-ending injury to his left quadriceps tendon. And there’s no telling if Anderson’s season was a flash in the pan, as it was his first double digit sack campaign since his rookie season in 2006.
Pats fans have been begging the team to draft an edge rusher for a while. Considering the depth and the potential at that position in the draft, 2012 is as good a year as ever to do so.
Best Option: Nick Perry (USC). The 6' 3", 250-pound former Trojan led the Pac-12 with 9.5 sacks in 2011 and has the physical ability to transition from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 rush linebacker. Plus, there would be a positive, historical precedent with this selection. In 1994, the Patriots used the fourth overall pick to select USC defensive end Willie McGinest, who became a cornerstone for the New England defense, as well as the all-time postseason sack leader (16).
The Patriots would be wise to add to their safety corps from both a depth and skill standpoint. Patrick Chung has the talent to excel at the position, but struggled with injuries throughout last season. If the same fate befalls him in 2012, someone needs to be able to step in and ably direct the secondary.
Even with Chung in the lineup, the current New England safeties struggle in pass coverage. They allowed Lee Evans to get open for an almost game-winning touchdown in the AFC title game and Mario Manningham to grab a back-breaking sideline catch in Super Bowl XLVI, among other lapses.
There’s no telling how much Devin McCourty’s switch to the position can alleviate these problems. For the most part, the safeties available in the draft lack luster, but this is a need-based pick.
Best Option: Markelle Martin (Oklahoma State). If the Patriots opt to use one of their two first round selections on a safety, Alabama’s Mark Barron is by far the best on the board. Operating under the assumption that New England will use those picks on a cornerback and/or defensive end, Martin is next in line. His experience at free safety in Stillwater will mesh will with Chung’s strong safety skill set, and Martin's ability in pass coverage—out of both man and zone looks—is exactly what the Patriots need.
There’s no doubting the explosiveness of New England’s passing attack. Yet since Randy Moss’ departure, it’s been undone by the lack of a downfield threat at critical junctures in the postseason.
This is not a plea to bring the 35-year-old Moss back to Foxborough. But a receiver who can provide pure speed and gel comfortably with the team’s offensive philosophy—along the lines of David Patten in the early to mid-2000s—would make the Patriots offense that much more potent.
New England has tried and failed in recent seasons to find someone along these lines, going through the likes of Donté Stallworth, Joey Galloway and Brandon Tate. If someone like Eagles burner DeSean Jackson fell into the Patriots’ lap via free agency, problem solved. Realistically, Jackson (and others) will probably ask for more money that New England is willing to give, particularly if the front office is intent on locking up Wes Welker for the long term.
Best Option: Jarius Wright (Arkansas). New England is not likely to use a high round draft pick on a receiver, and Wright—who set a slew of Razorback receiving records during his senior season in Fayetteville—should still be available as either a third or fourth round pick. His size and route-running ability is similar to Deion Branch, who might leave as a free agent this offseason. And Wright’s speed (4.34 in the 40-yard dash) could translate to productivity either in the slot or on the outside.
Dan Koppen has been New England’s starting center since his rookie season in 2003, but he spent almost all of 2011 on injured reserve with a fractured ankle. Additionally, he turns 33 this year, and the Patriots would be wise to draft a successor who can apprentice under Koppen before taking the reins.
Best Option: Michael Brewster (Ohio State). A four-year starter and two-time Rimington Trophy finalist with the Buckeyes, Brewster projects as the third best center in this draft class after Wisconsin’s Peter Konz and Georgia’s Ben Jones. He’s slightly built (relatively speaking) at 6' 4" and 319 pounds, but his quickness and prowess in pass protection is a great fit for the Patriots’ offense.