Patriots Free Agency Preview: Mario Williams & 6 Players New England Must Target
It's almost time. Speculation will soon be confirmed or denied, rumors will either be given life or snuffed out and players you couldn't imagine wearing different colors will wear gleaming smiles as they hold up jerseys you couldn't imagine them in.
Though the draft is the most important day of the NFL offseason, free agency takes the honor for the most important stretch of days. Players whizz around, from AFC to NFC, north to south, San Francisco to Miami. Some teams spend the time twiddling their thumbs, watching everyone else go nuts, while other teams park themselves right in the middle of the frenzy.
If you follow the New England Patriots and don't shut your football antenna down after Bill Belichick coughs and murmurs through his final press conference, you know that the defending AFC champions are at the heart of plenty of meat market rumors. The Pats need offense and they need defense. Even a team finishing one play away from a Super Bowl title can stand to be improved here and there.
Here are players the Patriots should be thinking about as we get closer to Tuesday and the start of this festive period. The Patriots won't come away with all of these players—heck, they might very well get none—but if New England is doing its due diligence, it's planning on being in the running for these players right down to the wire.
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Yes, Mike Wallace is restricted. Yes, he'd cost a first-rounder. Yes, the Patriots cherish their draft picks. Yes, yes and yes.
And yes, the offense would be lethal with Wallace sporting the Flying Elvis. And that's the way Bill Belichick and Co. have to be thinking as Tuesday approaches.
The Patriots scored the third-most points in the NFL this season, but they showed some cracks throughout the year. Their receivers had trouble beating man coverage outside the numbers. They got bogged down when defenses flooded the intermediate area of the field. They were susceptible to the pass rush.
Good teams, by and large, were able to limit the Patriots offense. They couldn't stop it. But they could keep it from killing them.
Adding Wallace would take the book written on stopping the Patriots and put it through a shredder. Gone are man coverage woes. Gone is the over-attention to the medium passing game. Even a pass rush is easier to face when your options are getting open sooner.
The Patriots defense was a yardage-churning, chains-moving machine last year, but the team looked out of its element when trying for the long pass. Of course, with a group of receivers in Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez, who just don't have the wheels to burn defenses deep, the the pickings were slim.
The long pass is a dangerous play to live off of, but it's a terrific option to have in the bag. With Wallace on board, the Patriots get a receiver naturally suited to the deep ball who can also turn quick passes into long gains and handle the dirty work of running inside routes. It doesn't make it easy to win without improving the defense, but it's close.
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The Patriots need a safety almost as much as the Washington Redskins need a quarterback. And the Redskins apparently really, really needed a quarterback.
The revolving door of James Ihedigbo, Sergio Brown, sometimes Matthew Slater and sometimes Devin McCourty didn't produce the solutions Belichick was expecting at the safety spot next to Pat Chung, as the group frustrated as often as it succeeded.
LaRon Landry could be the man the Patriots are looking for.
Landry is an incredibly talented player who, after bouts of inconsistency during his first few years in Washington, began to develop into a reliable and effective player. He's still prone to injuries, but on the field, he's an aggressive player and hard hitter who uses his head instead of leading with it.
The Patriots won titles with secondaries led by Lawyer Milloy and Rodney Harrison, safeties who were hard hitters and tone setters. Landry would be a natural fit to that mentality.
The other reason Landry is intriguing is that he'll likely be the best option. The Patriots need a safety, but the only one projected to go in the top round is Alabama's Mark Barron, and potential free agents Michael Griffin and Dashon Goldson were tagged by the Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers, respectively.
Landry's a natural playmaker, and the Patriots need one. This is definitely a match worth looking into.
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If the Patriots don't explore the potential for Brandon Lloyd, they're nuts. A receiver who's been one of the most productive in the NFL over the past two seasons, who accomplished his best season under the tutelage of current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and who fits the biggest offensive need is suggesting he'd make it easy on the New England front office.
This is a gift-wrapped scenario for the Patriots. Belichick undoubtedly has all the information there is to have on Lloyd, whether New England goes ahead with the signing or not.
Lloyd would seem to fit the Patriots perfectly. He's a downfield threat with great hands, and while he lacks the blazing speed of Mike Wallace or DeSean Jackson, he's proven adept at getting open and being productive on all routes, all over the field.
In addition to his physical skills, the time Lloyd spent mastering McDaniels's Denver offense would seem to rule out the chances of a recurrence of the mental struggle that kept Chad Ochocinco from becoming a factor a season ago.
Lloyd knows McDaniels, and McDaniels will be calling the shots in Foxborough. Though bringing a new receiver into an offense can always have its complications, Lloyd in New England would be as clean a transition as they come.
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Coverage was a disaster for the Patriots last year. New England struggled mightily while playing man all season, to the point that Belichick moved Devin McCourty to safety and basically chucked the whole scheme out the window. The defense couldn't handle it. Man coverage would have to wait until next year.
Now it's next year, and if the Patriots pick up Brandon Carr, they can start to put the coverage pieces back together.
Carr has a lot going for him, especially in a passing-dominated league. Carr is only 25 years old, he's great in coverage and he's only getting better.
A Carr signing would give the Patriots him and McCourty at the starting spots, with Kyle Arrington, Sterling Moore and Ras-I Dowling rotating in sub packages. It's not a bad situation at all.
Carr likely has a big payday coming, and those tend to scare the Patriots off, but New England might not face too much competition if they made him a target. Cornerback is projected to be a deep position in the draft, with Dre Kirkpatrick, Morris Claiborne and Janoris Jenkins widely considered early-round material.
Having spent two picks within the first 33 selections over the past two years on corners, the Patriots could be in the market for more of a sure thing. Carr would be that, and having played for former New England defensive coordinator and current Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, the transition to Belichick's scheme could be a relatively simple one.
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With all of the star wide receivers available in this free agency period, there are several who have been falling through the cracks of media hype and fervent speculation.
One of those players is Pierre Garcon, one of several Indianapolis Colts not returning as Jim Irsay continues to carpet bomb his own team.
Garcon went from no-name to quality NFL player courtesy of the right arm of Peyton Manning, but even without Manning on the field last year, Garcon continued to improve. His 70 catches, 947 yards and six touchdowns were all career highs, and at 25 years old, he's still just entering his prime.
Garcon would be a quality addition to the Patriots receiving corps. He's fast and an elite athlete, and has produced some spectacular catches. His route running can get better, but his ability to quickly adapt to a Manning offense shows that he can get the Patriots' complex offensive patterns down pretty easily.
He's a talented player, and Bill Belichick has seen this for himself. Belichick has had problems defending Garcon since his breakout in 2009, as he has racked up 17 catches for 262 yards and three touchdowns in the last three Patriots/Colts matchups. Belichick has always been one to remember the players that burn him, and Garcon has embarrassed his defenses on several occasions.
Garcon also figures to be a cheaper option on the market. While receivers like Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston will be choosing between high bids, Garcon should go for a modest price. A receiver with Garcon's high ceiling at a more favorable cost should be a combination that attracts the Patriots' focus.
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The New England Patriots have made it clear over the years that predicting their personnel decisions is a bad idea. The expected rarely happens in Foxborough, while the unexpected is par for the course.
If the Patriots are considering another of their trademark violations of conventional wisdom, Mario Williams presents a terrific opportunity for it. Because going toe-to-toe with other teams over a player on the verge of as massive a payday as Williams is typically a game the Patriots don't like to play.
The Patriots have splurged in free agency only twice since Bill Belichick took over in 2000. The first time was 2003, when they spent big on Pro Bowl linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, and the second was in 2007, when they brought on linebacker Adalius Thomas.
Colvin was solid, though a hip fracture robbed him of some burst, and Thomas was a tremendous bust. If the Patriots haven't been scared off from big contracts forever, the signs might indicate they're considering a run at Williams. Colvin and Thomas were brought on to fix glaring weaknesses, as the 2002 Patriots couldn't rush the passer or stop the run and the '06 team was slow and aging.
This year, there's another need, and it's for a player of Williams's skill set. The Patriots have not had a pure, established pass rusher since Mike Vrabel, and their defense has suffered without that dimension. Andre Carter and Mark Anderson were productive, but they're far from the elite pass-rushing forces, who are players like DeMarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney, Jared Allen...
The Patriots should bite the bullet and open themselves to the idea of entering the high-stakes auction for Williams. With the exception of last year's injury-hampered season, Williams's lowest non-rookie sack total has been 8.5, and he's had 12 or more twice. He's a versatile player, able to rush as an end in a 4-3 or linebacker in a 3-4, which gives him a leg up in the versatility-loving Belichick's scheme.
The Patriots have plenty of cap room, and plenty of draft capital. They can afford to spend. They've set themselves up for a run at a top-tier player like Williams.
Will they pull the trigger? Conventional wisdom says no. Of course, that's never stopped New England in the past.