The Definitive Blueprint to the New England Patriots' Perfect Offseason
The New England Patriots are headed into the playoffs with designs on another Super Bowl run. But with the Pats earning a bye with their win over the Dolphins, we've got Wild Card Weekend ahead of us before we even learn who their first opponent will be. To that end, let's pass the time by examining their upcoming offseason.
Regardless of their postseason finish, the Pats head into the offseason with a host of big question marks. The biggest one, obviously, is what to do with impending free-agent WR Wes Welker, but they've also got big decisions to make on a number of other UFAs—not to mention who to take in the 2013 draft.
Let's take a look at five things the Pats can do to make their 2013 offseason perfect.
Re-Sign Wes Welker
WR Wes Welker's impending free agency is one of those do-you-bite-the-bullet situations that warrants valid arguments from both sides of the aisle.
The Pats might be hesitant to offer the receiver an extension beyond two years—after all, Welker is a year older than he was when he rejected the Pats' two-year, $16 million offer—and Welker might insist on a contract that guaranteed him some money through his age-35 season.
But with QB Tom Brady entering the late-afternoon stage of his career, the Pats need to surround him with the best available weapons while a Super Bowl is still within reach.
Welker's skill in the open field and blocking prowess make him a valuable player even if his separation abilities erode—which they've showed no signs of doing just yet. Welker is fourth in the NFL in targets this year and third in receptions.
While offering a third year with guaranteed money is a big investment, it may be the best way for the Pats to retain Welker while keeping his cap hit manageable. The franchise tag would likely result in a cap hit of about $10 million for Welker, which according to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston would tie up over a quarter of the Pats' cap in Welker and Brady.
That's untenable for an organization that emphasizes depth and flexibility.
So unless Welker is willing to reconsider another offer in the ballpark of two years and $16 million, the Pats should budge on their two-year maximum and sign him to a three-year deal at a lower annual value (say, three years for a total of $21 million).
Draft DT Kawann Short
The Pats' biggest need this offseason is an interior rusher to pair alongside DT Vince Wilfork.
Wilfork enjoyed another Pro Bowl season in 2012, but he needs help along the line. The big man from Florida played a remarkable 82 percent of the team's defensive snaps this season, and he'll be 32 years old next season.
The Pats' second-best DT, Kyle Love, plays well alongside Wilfork when it comes to holding the point of attack and maintaining gap discipline, but he struggles in getting upfield. To that end, the Pats sorely need a pass-rushing DT.
That man should be Purdue DT Kawann Short.
Like an interior version of Pats' 2012 first-rounder Chandler Jones, Short has a veteran's array of pass-rush moves. According to the ESPN Insider scouting report on Short, he's got moves ranging from powerful to finesse:
Powerful club move can knock blockers off balance. Flashes effective swim and spin moves. Above average athlete that can shake offensive linemen with lateral moves. Powerful bull rusher when sinks hips and stays low.
Short didn't lack for production in college, racking up 12.5 sacks in his last two years at Purdue. He's got the strength to hold his gap, the quickness to get upfield and the motor to pressure the QB.
He projects as a mid-to-late round pick, so the Pats may need to trade up a few spots if they go far in the playoffs. Still, given their needs and Short's skill set, that's a trade worth making.
Retain Aqib Talib
There's been plenty of trepidation regarding CB Aqib Talib's performance since he arrived in New England. The conventional wisdom is that he's been a solid corner but one who occasionally gets burned on a few big plays.
Given the (understandable) vacillations on his performance, I'll come out and say something definitive—Talib is exactly what the Pats need, both this year and going forward.
The presence of two physical press corners in Talib and rookie Alfonzo Dennard frees up third-year DB Devin McCourty to man the safety position.
McCourty, who struggled in man coverage as a corner this year and last, is an entirely different player when he's facing the QB. His play has hugely benefited the nickel corners in underneath coverage—it's no coincidence that slot corner Marquice Cole (12 targets, eight catches allowed for 121 yards) struggled in Week 16 with Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory behind him.
Dennard is young and promising, a seventh-rounder who looked like a high-round talent before his stock plummeted after assaulting a cop. But Talib's veteran presence prevents the Pats from having to rely too heavily on Dennard's progression.
In other words, Talib's presence means that Dennard isn't expected to consistently cover opposing team's top receivers. That allows him to progress naturally without getting abused by the Andre Johnson-type physical freaks of the NFL.
Speaking of Johnson, the Pats (who are typically unwilling to move their corners around) shadowed the Texans' top receiver with Talib during the first half of their Week 14 matchup against Houston.
It worked—Talib was targeted just five times, yielding three catches for 42 yards to one of the NFL's best receivers.
Franchise Sebastian Vollmer
The Pats will have a big decision to make as to whether to apply the franchise tag to Welker or RT Sebastian Vollmer.
Of course, they could choose neither—but if they do opt to use the tag, it should be on Vollmer.
The soon-to-be-29-year-old Dusseldorfian tackle continued to play at a high level this season in spite of chronic back issues. He's rated as the fifth-best RT in the league, according to ProFootballFocus, and his ability to switch sides of the line in a pinch makes him supremely valuable.
The franchise tag doesn't distinguish between LTs and RTs (or, in fact, any offensive line position), so the price to retain Vollmer via the tag will be steep—$9.66 million, to be exact, according to Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe.
But the Pats likely need a bridge to prospect Marcus Cannon, who missed most of his rookie campaign on the non-football Injury list after being diagnosed with a treatable form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
That bridge should be Vollmer, whose skill set fits well with what the Patriots need out of a right tackle (he's a strong run blocker and excels in getting upfield on screen plays).
The cap hit is steep, but given his back issues the Pats would be wise to avoid a long-term investment in Vollmer.
As for next year? That's a different story—the Pats will be much better off with Vollmer than without him.
Other Free Agents
Outside of the big three of Welker, Talib and Vollmer, Edelman is the most important of the remaining free agents.
The Pats need youth, athleticism and depth at the WR position (Brandon Lloyd is the only WR signed for next year) and Edelman has positional versatility as a slot or outside WR. He's also explosive on special teams. Given his injury problems (he's on IR with a foot injury), look for the Pats to bring him back on a team-friendly contract.
Woodhead has been Tom Brady's outlet this season, providing him with decent pass-blocking and a reliable threat out of the backfield. They've developed tremendous chemistry, and his (relative) veteran presence on a team with young backs like Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen is sorely needed.
He's a player who is likely more valuable to the Pats he would be on other team—especially given his role in Brady's hurry-up offense. Expect him to be back on a one- or two-year deal.
Two safeties were drafted out of Oregon in the second round of the 2009 draft in Chung and Jairus Byrd (Bills). The Pats picked the wrong one. Chung's reputation as a hard-hitting, in-the-box safety means that he'll likely get the chance to start on another team (and, more importantly, be paid like a starter). Pass.
He's settled into a slot role, but he's done so with a lot of bracket help from S Devin McCourty. It's no coincidence that reserve corner Marquice Cole has also succeeded this year with McCourty behind him. Arrington will likely be allowed to test the market, but if the Pats can bring him back on their terms (quite possible, given his reputation as one of the league's worst corners), he provides needed depth.
Scott has flashed a motor in limited time and could serve as a bridge to 2012 third-rounder Jake Bequette if he can be retained on a one-year deal.