Missing Pieces the New England Patriots Could Still Get

Oliver Thomas@OliverBThomasContributor IJune 4, 2012

Missing Pieces the New England Patriots Could Still Get

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    Between free agency and the 2012 NFL draft, the New England Patriots put together one of the strongest offseasons in recent memory. In fact, updated ESPN power rankings notch New England as the NFL's second-best squad. Yet, there's always room for improvement with last-minute signings.

    Coach Belichick and the front office experienced many gains and very few losses via free agency.

    By retaining assets, the Pats managed to build upon an already strong roster. New England held onto key contributors like Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly and Matthew Slater for another year in Foxboro.

    With the offseason's whirlwind already in the books, it's now time to watch the competition unfold in OTAs, training camp and preseason games. However, there's always some late additions that suffice as the cherry on top.

    Here are the missing pieces that New England could still sign in 2012.

Oshiomogho Atogwe, Safety

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    Oshiomogho Atogwe may be too much of a high-profile name to add to the New England Patriots' roster at this point in the offseason, but he could be a difference-maker at free safety.

    Atogwe was cut by the Washington Redskins on March 12, after just one season where he recorded 60 combined tackles and three interceptions. Yet, the Stanford product has proven to be a ball hawk since entering the league in 2005 with the St. Louis Rams—picking off 25 passes.

    At age 31, Atogwe may be on the back nine of his NFL career, but he has lured attention from the Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions, New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings, according to Evan Silva of NBC Sports.

    As a member of the Rams in 2007, Atogwe led the NFC in interceptions with eight, but his production has since regressed. Nonetheless, Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald found Atogwe to be an intriguing option for the Patriots prior to April's draft.

    "I think Atogwe makes plenty of sense," said Howe on March 30. "He had a pretty good year in Washington and obviously fits one of the Patriots' greatest needs."

    New England's plan looks to have changed a bit. The team selected safety Tavon Wilson in the second round, and special teams defensive back Nate Ebner in the sixth round. Not to mention, Steve Gregory was also signed to fill the void as a potential starting safety.

    These transactions dwindle the possibility of inking Atogwe, but his caliber of play is hard to ignore this late in free agency.

James Ihedigbo, Safety

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    James Ihedigbo left East Rutherford for Foxboro in 2011, and was thrust into a starting role when injuries got the better of the New England Patriots' defensive backs.

    In four years with the New York Jets, the former UMass Minuteman did not start a single game and was primarily a special teamer.

    Yet, his first season in New England was a different story.

    Ihedigbo started 12 games for the Patriots, racking up 69 tackles despite nursing a shoulder injury.

    Now, Ihedigbo is a free agent who's still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. The Boston Herald reports that No. 44 is not completely healthy, but would love to return to New England.

    "While the Patriots have options at the position, they valued Ihedigbo in 2011," said Jeff Howe. "They might just be keeping an eye on his shoulder status before making a firm decision."

    He's not a top talent, but the 28-year-old gave the Patriots toughness and leadership. For that alone, James Ihedigbo could still be on New England's radar.

Jim Leonhard, Safety

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    Jim Leonhard is a blue-collar type of player who might just fit into the Patriots' defensive secondary.

    Unfortunately, the eight-year veteran suffered a torn patellar tendon late last season with the New York Jets, casting his future in a shadow of doubt.

    Is the 29-year-old the type of player who could catch New England's eye? Well, the answer is both yes and no. WEEI's Christopher Price said the following:

    He’s lost a step and because of the injuries he’s suffered over the last few seasons, he’s developed a rep (fair or not) of being injury prone. (He’s been IR’ed over the last two seasons.) He’s smart and could bring some of the state secrets from a divisional rival, but it’s questionable what sort of impact he could have long term on the New England defense.

    Regardless of injuries, Leonhard is a savvy player who has fought to stay in the NFL after the Buffalo Bills signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2005.

    He may be undersized at 5'8" and 188 pounds, but Leonhard's been a more-than-capable pro. During his three seasons with the New York Jets, Leonhard amassed 185 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions.

    The Wisconsin alum's medical history may throw up some red flags, but that also means that he could be picked up at a relatively affordable price—possibly even for the veteran minimum, cites Price.

    It's too soon to tell whether or not Bill Belichick and Co. are comfortable with their situation at safety, but experience is invaluable.

    Ultimately, if the Patriots want to join forces with the ex-Jet, it could pay dividends down the road.

Andre Carter, Defensive End

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    At 32 years young, Andre Carter battled like a man possessed in 2011. The 11-year vet posted 52 combined tackles, 10 sacks and two forced fumbles in his first season with the New England Patriots.

    A torn quadriceps tendon may have cut his 2011 season short, but Carter made his impact felt for the Patriots and earned a Pro Bowl nod.

    Now 33, Carter faces another opponent—Father Time. However, the 6'4", 255-pound pass-rusher stays in excellent shape and is aging like a fine wine. Since 2007, Carter has totaled three double-digit sack seasons. In his first six pro seasons, No. 93 accomplished the feat just once.

    As of March 24, the Boston Herald reported Carter was still "limping heavily," but he insists he'll be ready for the 2012 campaign. In fact, his name even surfaced in rumors with the Baltimore Ravens after Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles.

    If he can get 100 percent healthy, the former Cal Bear could be a force once again in 2011—but it all remains to be seen.

    "'If [Coach Belichick] feels I have the potential to be a playmaker, in a 4-3 or 3-4, than [sic] so be it,'" Carter told Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald this March. "'That decision I’m sure will be determined in the next few weeks through free agency or after. Regardless, I love playing for the Patriots. It’s been a blast.'"

    This offseason, New England has added depth at defensive end with first-round pick Chandler Jones, third-round pick Jake Bequette, as well as Trevor Scott and Jonathan Fanene via free agency. These fresh faces may take Carter's place, but there's still a slight chance the wily competitor will re-sign.

    "I thought it was a slam dunk," said ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss in a Patriots chat on May 10. "I'm not so sure any more. If I had to put a number on his return, I'd say 25 percent. Complete guess."

    The chances of an Andre Carter comeback in New England are growing more bleak, but there's still reason for hope.

Kevin Faulk, Halfback

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    Kevin Faulk currently has no plans to retire from the NFL, according to Mike Rodak of ESPNBoston.com:

    "I am training to come back to play," Faulk told reporters at a community appearance at Hasbro Children's Hospital. "But it's not up to me. It's up to the team and everything, but I am planning on coming back to play, so we'll see what happens." 

    The 13-year veteran may not be ready to give up the game, but his playing window is closing. The New England Patriots' all-purpose yards leader may no longer have a place in the team's backfield.

    New England's roster is already bolstered at running back, with ex-Indianapolis Colt Joseph Addai, Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden.

    Last season, the 35-year-old began the year on the physically unable to perform list, playing in just seven games. With limited snaps, the third-down back rushed for 57 yards and caught seven passes for 34 yards.

    Per Rodak's article: "'I'm hoping, I'm just praying,' Faulk said. 'A phone call will come, but it's not up to me to contact them.'" 

    The former LSU Tiger may have played in his last game, but he's not done with the game. NESN.com reports that Faulk would be interested in the field of coaching.

    It's mere speculation at this point, but Faulk's tenure in New England could lead to a job under Bill Belichick as a member of the team's coaching staff. Jeff Howe said the following in a Patriots mailbag on May 10:

    Faulk definitely wants to coach, and I believe he's got some interest in doing it in the NFL. It would definitely be a good match, even if he's assigned the general role of a coaching assistant. I just wonder if the timing is right. Should it happen this year? Next year? Five years from now? I don't know, but I'm sure Faulk would love to further his coaching career by serving under Belichick for as long as possible.

    Playing or coaching, Kevin Faulk is a highly admired figure in the Patriots' franchise, and he could be a critical piece to the puzzle in 2012.