The New England Patriots were only a play or two away from winning Super Bowl XLVI, yet they head into free agency/draft season with some significant needs on their roster.
Wes Welker, New England's best receiver by far, was just franchised by the squad. Other Patriots free agents include BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Mark Anderson and Andre Carter. However, the Pats won't only be looking to retain their own players.
This season's free-agent class is deep and talented.
Among players becoming available at the start of free agency on March 13 are pass-rushing master Mario Williams, explosive wide receiver Vincent Jackson and one of the NFL's premier guards, Carl Nicks. For New England fans, names like Brandon Lloyd, Reggie Wayne and Mike Wallace have been thrown around a lot in the past few weeks.
With a loaded free-agent class, it would be surprising to see Bill Belichick stand pat. A few big moves in free agency could propel the Patriots to another Super Bowl appearance next season.
Here are five players that should be considered necessities for New England come free agency.
*All ages in player pages are ages at the start of 2012 season.
**Please note that although safety is a need for New England in free agency, with Dashon Goldson, Tyvon Branch and Michael Griffin all receiving the franchise tag, no high-caliber safeties remain.
Tim Hightower's torn ACL injury in Week 7 last season may have been the end of his career as an NFL starting running back. Hightower was in the midst of his best game for the Washington Redskins to date, rushing for 88 yards on just 17 carries.
Following the injury, unfortunately, Roy Helu showed enough promise for Mike Shanahan and the Skins to feel comfortable moving forward without Hightower. They could still re-sign the bruising back, but he would most likely be relegated to bench duty with Helu and Evan Royster ahead of him on the depth chart.
The New England Patriots should be wary of the ACL injury, but plenty of players have come back in shorter time (anyone remember Wes Welker?) to be productive players in the NFL.
With BenJarvus Green-Ellis potentially leaving via free agency, a right he earned through years of hard work, the Pats will be scouring free agency and the NFL draft for a cheap solution to their impending problems in short-yardage situations.
Patriot Nation is excited for the young, dynamic duo of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen to take over the Pats' rushing attack in 2012, but let there be no doubt: New England must find a running back to replace BJGE's toughness in short-yardage/goal-line situations.
Who better than Hightower, a 6'1", 225-pound warrior, who has 24 touchdowns on just 523 carries (Green-Ellis has 29 touchdowns on 510 carries)?
Rarely mentioned as a top corner or as a prized free agent, Richard Marshall is flying under the radar this offseason.
Last season, his first year with the Arizona Cardinals, Marshall proved to be one of the team's best defensive players, with defensive coordinator Ray Horton going as far as calling Marshall Arizona's "defensive MVP."
He is an exceptional run-stopper, compiling 75-plus tackles in each of his six seasons in the NFL. He's also a ridiculously reliable player, having played a full 16 games in all six of those seasons.
In 2011, Marshall displayed the type of versatility that New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick admires, filling in at safety when starter Kerry Rhodes was sidelined with a broken foot. He finished the year with two sacks, three interceptions and 11 passes defensed.
The Cards would be crazy to not lock down their defensive MVP with a big deal for the 27-year-old corner. However, with New England's problems in the secondary, and with his reliability and versatility, the Pats should go hard after Marshall as well.
Especially considering the fragility of second-year cornerback Ras-I Dowling and the potential for a repeat disaster with Devin McCourty, the Pats would be wise to sign a corner as consistent as Marshall.
The New England Patriots have always loved taking fliers on veteran defensive players (guys like Bryan Cox and Ted Washington come to mind), but last offseason they really went all out signing Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter, Mark Anderson and trading for Albert Haynesworth.
Well, two out of four ain’t bad.
While Ellis definitely didn’t earn his $4 million contract and Haynesworth was an unequivocal bust, Carter and Anderson combined to become the first Patriots pass-rushing couple to record 10 sacks apiece since Andre Tippett and Garin Veris did it in 1985.
Carter has told his agent that he’d like to be back, and at 33 years old coming off a season-ending quad injury, that only makes sense. The Pats will probably re-sign him.
Anderson, however, is only 29 years old and just had a breakout campaign in New England. It won’t be as easy to keep the former Chicago Bear, but after not only stepping up in Carter’s absence (post-injury), but excelling, Belichick and the Patriots’ front office owe him a deal that gives him some security.
We all know of New England's long-term problem with finding a legitimate pass-rusher. Anderson was a solution in 2011 and he should be a part of the solution in 2012.
Reggie Wayne is still among the NFL's elite pass-catchers.
Without Peyton Manning last season, Wayne was still able to haul in 75 catches for 960 yards. The Indianapolis Colts were crumbling all around him and Wayne just kept chugging along. Maybe he wasn't as productive as his spectacular 111-catch, 1,355-yard season in 2010, but let's not get ahead of ourselves by saying that Wayne can no longer be an impact player.
Teaming him up with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady would undoubtedly revitalize his competitive nature and his career.
Wayne is Brady's ideal target.
He is as smart as they come, can run any route and has proved his mettle in every type of situation. And let's not forget he has one of the best sets of hands in the league.
It's going to be hard to forget the Chad Ochocinco catastrophe of 2011, but Wayne isn't Ocho. First of all, I think everyone would agree Wayne has been infinitely more effective in the last five seasons, and second of all, Ochocinco has 100 catches in a season zero times in his career—Wayne has done it three times. The last point I want to make clear is that I can't imagine Brady's offense in New England is more complex than Manning's offense in Indianapolis. It would surprise me, on the other hand, if Ocho's offense as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals was as complex.
It seems that the only number scaring away potential suitors is Wayne's age: 33. If the Patriots can look past that number, they could add (or in this case, steal) one of the best players in free agency to an already exceptional offense.
Wait, so Reggie Wayne, one of the best wide receivers of our generation is No. 2 behind Brandon Lloyd? The same Brandon Lloyd who has only one season with more than 51 catches and 1,000 yards?
Yes, and the answer is simple: He knows the system.
As much as I can argue that Wayne is not Chad Ochocinco, and that Wayne would come right in and make magic with Tom Brady, Lloyd can excel in this system—he's done it before. With Josh McDaniels taking over the offensive coordinator position, Lloyd's connection to New England is crystal clear.
McDaniels was Lloyd's head coach during his magnificent 77-catch, 1,448-yard, 11-touchdown season back in 2012. And that was with Kyle Orton under center.
Imagine how much Lloyd could accomplish in a McDaniels-run offense, with Brady throwing passes, and Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez assuring single-coverage on every single play.
It would be beautiful to watch.
Even if the Patriots can't reel in Wayne, Lloyd would give them enough talent, speed and athleticism to make this offense the NFL's most dangerous. Brady and the Pats (32 PPG) fell behind the New Orleans Saints (34 PPG) and Green Bay Packers (35 PPG) last season in the "you can't stop me" department.
Add Lloyd to the mix and New England immediately becomes home to the NFL's hottest aerial attack.