The Free Agent the New England Patriots Need

Mike DussaultSenior Analyst IJanuary 12, 2009

While most of the Patriots-following world are thinking about Cassel and the Franchise Tag, McDaniels and the Broncos, or Pioli and the Chiefs, I'm thinking about how the Pats are going to address a defense that has been the team's weak link for the past three seasons.

One needs to look no further than the two defenses playing in the AFC Championship to see what New England lacks by comparison. Playmakers.

One more defensive play made could've been the difference for the '08 Pats getting into the playoffs. But even if they had gotten there, no one can argue that the Pats D is on the same level as the Ravens and Steelers, and thus it needs to upgraded. 

Pass rush and pass defense are complimentary elements of defensive football. If you don't pressure the quarterback, he's going to find open receivers. But if the coverage is poor, the quarterback will be able to get the pass out no matter how fast the pass rush is coming.

It's hard to say which was the weaker link for the Patriots this season but I tend to blame the pass defense more than the pass rush.

With the return of Adalius Thomas and Pierre Woods from injury, along with the progression of young linebackers Vince Redd and Shawn Crable, the Pats pass rush should be okay.

Put it this way: No free agent outside linebacker is going to overtake Mike Vrabel or Thomas as a starter, and Woods and/or Crable should be an adequate third OLB off the bench.

But in New England's defensive backfield things are a lot more murky, with two of their four starters, Deltha O'Neal and James Sanders, up for free agency.

That is why the Patriots must pursue Free Safety Oshiomogho Atogwe as their number one free agent priority this off-season.

Atogwe is a playmaker, coming off a season in which he recorded five interceptions and six forced fumbles, while winning the Rams' defensive MVP award. And, at 27 years old, he's just entering the prime of his career.

By comparison, James Sanders, the starting free safety for the Patriots the last three seasons, has just eight interceptions in his entire career. Sanders is also a free agent so the Patriots will have a decision to make at the position and Atogwe is a clear upgrade.

When the Patriots met the Rams in 2008, Bill Belichick had this to say about Atogwe:

"I can't pronounce his name but he is a very productive guy with eight interceptions last year and he has already had a bunch this year including pre-season. He is around the ball a lot."

Atogwe also picked off a Matt Cassel pass in the game.

This is the kind of player that the Pats sorely need. While it looks like Brandon Meriweather is the future at the Strong Safety position, Atogwe would bring a playmaking backline presence that could elevate the Patriots defense back to elite status.

A ballhawking free safety can make up for sub-par cornerback play, just look at Ed Reed. While cornerback remains a need, Atogwe would instantly upgrade the entire defense in a way that no available corner could.

While some might argue that another hard-to-pronounce defensive back, Nnamdi Asomugha, should be the target, the Patriots have enough depth and youth at cornerback to concentrate on developing talent there. They also can address cornerback with one of their three picks in the first two rounds of the upcoming draft.

The Raiders will probably hit Asomugha with the Franchise Tag anyway.

Atogwe will surely be an in-demand free agent with a high price tag, but as we've seen in the past, the Pats have an ability to get players who want to win without breaking the bank.

After four years in St. Louis, Atogwe just might be ready to sacrifice a few bucks to be part of a winning organization.

Mike Dussault is a Patriots Community Leader at Bleacher Report, and also a contributor at His Patriots blog can be viewed here, and he can be contacted at