7 Free Agents the New England Patriots Must Target
Excellence is rare, but sustained excellence is even rarer. It begins with impeccable management, a brilliant coaching staff, a fantastic quarterback, a devoted fanbase, a disciplined work ethic and a culture of winning.
After that, it's all about building the right team and locating that elusive chemistry which ultimately leads to championships.
Free agency is a perfect market for that sort of construction; it's where the services of professional warriors are up for grabs. That's where the proven gold is.
Here are seven free agents the New England Patriots must target for the 2013 season.
Wes Welker has notched over 100 catches and over 1,000 yards in five of his six seasons with the Patriots. Still, despite his stunning production, he's only playing under a one-year contract. When the offseason hits, he'll be right back at square one.
Aside from his age (31), the real issue here is the contrast between his regular season production (which is stunning) and his playoff production (which isn't as stunning).
Last season, Welker topped 100 yards in eight different games. He also totaled nine touchdowns. But in New England's three postseason games, Welker never topped 60 yards, nor did he score in Super Bowl XLVI (he didn't score in Super Bowl XLII either).
Welker's stark contrast is symbolic of the struggles that have plagued the Patriots for years. The Patriots averaged 36.8 points per game in 2007, then scored only 14 points in Super Bowl XLII. They averaged 32.1 points per game in 2011, then scored only 17 points in Super Bowl XLVI.
These discrepancies aren't Welker's fault, but it still puts him in a jam during contract negotiations.
The fact remains: The Patriots haven't won in the Welker era. If the Patriots intend to give big contracts to players who help them win championships, then how much can Welker really be worth?
The evidence proves that Welker's true worth comes during the regular season, where he dominates with an iron fist and led the team to a phenomenal regular season record and a first-round bye.
This guy is tough as nails and as reliable as sunrise. He'll put the team in a great playoff position.
That alone is reason enough for the Patriots to target him as a free agent in 2013.
But a critical hiccup still exists: If the Patriots don't win the Super Bowl this year, will the team commit to Welker? As of now, his lack of playoff dominance is still a monkey on his back.
The easiest way for Welker to solve this whole problem is to get the job done by staying dominant in the playoffs, dictating the flow of these upcoming games and controlling the pace to lead the Patriots to a world championship.
If he can do that, he'll have the opportunity to remain in New England where he belongs.
All he has to do now is win.
The defensive backfield is still New England's most vulnerable spot. Even if they win the Super Bowl this year, repairs to the secondary will be Bill Belichick's top priority over the offseason.
Having said that, it's worth noting that improvements have already been made. Alfonzo Dennard has emerged as one of Belichick's strongest selections from last April's draft.
Steve Gregory has been a remarkable surprise, Aqib Talib has made big plays, and Devin McCourty has been hitting his stride in patches. Marquice Cole and Malcolm Wililiams also have serious potential.
The chemistry is there. What this secondary needs is one big addition to bring these pieces together.
Brent Grimes should be that addition. He's a proactive ball hawk and a tough tackler, tenacious and fast, with a generous radius and a keen sense for causing disruption.
Grimes would provide some durability and structure to a youthful New England secondary which has been known to drift apart and gives up fatal chunks of yardage. Grimes would be a leader.
His asking price may ultimately be too high, but it's worth keeping him on the radar. He's one of the best cornerbacks available in free agency.
Tom Brady doesn't have elite bodyguards—at least not on paper. Logan Mankins is a stud, but his health is constantly in limbo. Donald Thomas, Dan Connolly, Nate Solder and Ryan Wendell are all works in progress. Nobody here is in elite condition.
And yet somehow, this offensive line has overachieved in stunning fashion. It has kept Tom Brady safe all season and given him plenty of time to pick apart everyone from the Texans, to the Colts to the Broncos. Simply put: This offensive line has been outstanding.
Sebastian Vollmer deserves a lot of the credit. He has been a steadying influence on what otherwise might've been a very wobbly offensive line and a very disappointing season.
Vollmer adds a reliable dose of poise, which has effectively united Brady's bodyguards in a tremendous way.
Vollmer also has a mean streak, which was fully illuminated during battles with Mario Williams, in which Vollmer essentially ripped apart everything that the Bills spent their entire offseason building.
Keenan Lewis is a visionary young cornerback with a gritty backbone and a high football IQ. His style is mean and silky smooth. The Patriots could use a man like this.
Of course, availability will be an issue. Defense is Pittsburgh's meat and potatoes, which means it's likely to make Lewis its top priority. In that event, the Patriots may not get a real shot at him.
But never say never—anything can happen. The Steelers have their own financial troubles to deal with, coupled with a disappointing season that ended without a playoff spot. In that kind of stinging situation, all sorts of surprising decisions and unexpected possibilities can arise.
The Patriots should do everything in their power to make a play for Lewis. It would be a major step forward in their quest to bring back Bill Belichick's signature toughness on defense.
Danny Woodhead had trouble finding his comfort zone last season. It was clear that he belonged with the Patriots, but it wasn't clear how or in what capacity he belonged with them.
He wasn't a franchise running back, and he wasn't a deep threat. He wasn't a hotshot returner on special teams either. He was fairly good at everything, but he wasn't really dominant at anything.
That all changed when Stevan Ridley emerged as New England's top running back. It also helped when Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen emerged as other reliable options at the same position.
When that happened, something changed in Woodhead for the better—something clicked. Perhaps it was because the pressure was off his shoulders, or perhaps it afforded him the opportunity to just settle into the offense in his own way.
Whatever the reason might be, Woodhead found his niche in the dirty work of running difficult routes, converting unglamorous downs and rising to meet pressure-packed situations.
Woodhead ended the season with 76 carries for 301 yards and four rushing touchdowns. He also totaled 40 receptions, 446 receiving yards and three receiving scores.
In a funny way, Patriots fans always knew that Woodhead was the total package, they just wanted to see him prove it. This season he proved it.
The Patriots can't let this free agent get away. He's too important to the team's long-term success.
The Patriots need a crafty safety with toughness and swagger, which is the sort of lethal combination that Rodney Harrison brought to the team a decade ago. That combination wins championships.
Jairus Byrd isn't at Harrison's level of tenacity and brutality yet, but the potential is there. Byrd's a tough and clever playmaker. He has a special knack for diagnosing a quarterback's plan and forcing mistakes. He consistently disrupts the flow of an opposition's offense.
Back in 2009, Byrd tied for the top spot in the league with nine interceptions. Since then, he has capitalized on his opportunities and established himself as one of the most dynamic young ball hawks in the league.
If the Patriots could snatch a bright safety from a divisional rival, it would be so sweet.
Julian Edelman's evolution as a wide receiver took a twisty path. He was supposed to take his giant leap forward last season, but Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez exploded and assumed total control over New England's offense.
As the tight ends flourished, Edelman's slice of the pie dwindled, and his development as a receiver moved to the backseat.
Throughout 2011, the Patriots used him as an experimental defensive back, with the idea being that his athleticism, his energy, his adaptability and his coachable demeanor would lend itself towards plugging up the holes in a secondary that was sprouting leaks from all angles. The experiment was largely unsuccessful, but Edelman stayed strong nonetheless.
He proved to be an ace on special teams. A 72-yard punt return for a touchdown on Monday Night Football represented the work and dedication he put into keeping his mind and body sharp in what may have otherwise been a lost season for him.
When the 2012 season began, Bill Belichick allowed Edelman earn his stripes as a wide receiver while still expecting big production on special teams.
As usual, Edelman rose to the challenge. He shined in Week 11 against the Colts, when he returned a 68-yard punt for a touchdown. He shined again on Thanksgiving night against the Jets, when he returned a fumble for a 22-yard touchdown, then caught a deep left ball for a 56-yard score.
Throughout all the bumps and bruises and all the fluctuations in playing time, Edelman has remained an important member of the Patriots. His personality, his talent and his work ethic have made him essential.
Simply put: He makes the team better.
The Patriots need to make this free agent one of their top priorities.