The New England Patriots went hard in free agency, addressing needs across the board on offense. While the team was able to plug some holes on the defensive side of the ball, the needs going forward will mainly be on defense.
This is a reflection not just on the Patriots free agency strategy this year, but also their draft strategy last year. The team used six of its nine picks—six of its first seven picks in fact—on offensive players.
So where do the Patriots need help the most in this year's draft?
Let's start from the top of the list, which happens to also be the top of the defense. If the names Matthew Slater and Sergio Brown don't send shivers down your spine, you clearly didn't watch much of the Patriots 2011 defense.
Age isn't an issue for the Patriots at safety, but depth certainly is.
The names on the list don't conjure up a lot of confidence. Even with the struggles they had at the position last year, they might very well wait on addressing the position in the draft after adding former Chargers safety Steve Gregory in free agency.
There is some mid- to late-round talent to be had, though, and Wes Bunting of National Football Post points out on the PatsPropaganda & Frenz Podcast two names the Patriots should look at: Kelcie McCray from Arkansas State and Christian Thomas from South Carolina State.
[Both are] smaller school guys, both around 6'1.5" 190-200 pounds, and they both ran sub-4.5, they run in the 4.4 range. Overall, I think there's natural fluidity, natural range over the top, there is some physicality to their game, they're both raw in spots, but if you're looking for intriguing mid- to late-round prospects that have the frame, that can run, that can be effective against the ball in the air, I'd say McCray and Thomas are both interesting guys.
Defensive end/Outside Linebacker
The Patriots indirectly addressed this need last offseason, adding Mark Anderson and Andre Carter as they transitioned to a 4-3 defense.
But with the loss of Anderson to the Bills, the uncertainty around Carter in terms of his age and his health as well as the uncertainty around the future of the Patriots defensive front, it may be time to find the edge presence of the future.
The improvement in their pass rush didn't exactly help the rest of their defense, but it helped them improve their sack total (from 36 in 2010 to 40 in 2011) and third-down percentage allowed (from 47.1 in 2010 to 43.1 in 2011).
While neither of those numbers indicate drastic improvement, the realignment to a 4-3 base should get some of the credit.
When it comes to this position, whether it's a defensive end or an outside linebacker, versatility will be key. Regardless of whether the Patriots are running a 3-4 or 4-3 as their base defense, they will run a mix of the two fronts as they usually do. The game plan specificity of their defense is the only thing that can be counted on.
For the past two seasons, the Patriots have had their depth tested on the defensive line. That depth includes names like Brandon Deaderick, Myron Pryor and Kyle Love. While they have had some playing time over the past couple of years (since 2010: 641 snaps for Deaderick, 278 for Pryor and 866 for Love), the question remains as to what their ceiling is.
Can the Patriots count on them as major contributors?
Rather than wait on the answer to that question, the Patriots would be best suited to address the position in the draft and give themselves more options for the future. Love was on the field for 697 snaps last year, proving that he can be counted on in a rather large way. Whether he can be as effective as he was last year with an even heavier workload remains to be seen, but his performance last year is promising in that regard.
The depth chart is filled with veterans that are near the end of their careers and unproven youth. Adding a disruptive force that can be counted on to contribute big-time snaps should be at or near the top of the Patriots draft priority list.
What happened to "all about the defense?" Okay, so maybe I lied a little, but while the Patriots have aggressively addressed this need in free agency, it could become a need again in a year or two depending on contract situations and whether or not certain free agent additions pan out.
You always try to have competition at every position. We’ve always had about that many receivers going to camp—10, 11, somewhere in there—[and] we’ll see what the roster limit ends up being this year. ...There are some guys that I'm sure will be at that position that aren’t even on our team right now, that we’re not even talking about. It’s just a process.
That process includes the draft, and although it seems that the Patriots have covered all their bases in free agency, things are never completely as they seem in terms of roster building—especially in New England.