Mapping out the Blueprint for a Patriots Super Bowl Run in 2013-2014
It hasn't yet been two weeks since the Patriots season ended, and everywhere you turn there's a pundit ready to list off all of New England's problems.
Tom Brady is in decline. The defense needs more attitude. And their wives are the most outspoken ones after losses, because Bill Belichick certainly isn't saying anything, even if CBS knew that ahead of time.
In reality, any time you win 12 games and host the AFC Championship you're certainly not very far off from being a Super Bowl winning team. Sometimes the bounces just don't go the right way, or sometimes you run into the one team that matches up perfectly with you.
Being the only team of 32 to win their last game is never easy, and there's plenty of things that need to go your way. Just a single play can change the course of a game and effectively end a season.
Despite all the problems the pundits can list for the Patriots, they'll remain in the hunt next fall.
Here's the simplest offseason version of how the Pats can fill their needs and improve on their weaknesses to get right back into the thick of a Lombardi chase.
Re-Sign Wes Welker
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The Patriots experimented with moving to a less Welker-based offense in the first game of the 2012 season, and it was a surprise to everyone. Welker has basically made the Patriots offense go since his arrival in 2007.
Need a big first down? Watch Welker on the quick out. Want to push deep into Giants territory with a lead in the Super Bowl? Look for Welker down the seam (as long as he hangs onto it).
Welker embodies everything that the Patriots offense has evolved to, and he remains their best weapon. It's amazing how consistent and healthy Welker has stayed despite all the big hits he's taken over the years.
2012 confirmed it. The Patriots can't afford to let Welker go.
For the Patriots to not miss a beat with their offense, they must find a way to re-sign him and re-sign him to a three-year deal if necessary. There will still be time to develop younger receivers, but having Welker on the roster certainly buys them some leeway so they won't have to thrust a new receiver into the starting mix.
Tom Brady is close to the end of his career. Letting his favorite wide receiver walk again like they did in 2006 with Deion Branch is not an option at this stage.
Re-Sign Aqib Talib
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Aqib Talib will be one of the only legitimate man-to-man coverage corners in this year's free agency class, and he's already familiar with New England. If he isn't looking to break the bank, the Patriots should be able to figure out a deal to bring him back.
Talib wasn't necessarily the shutdown corner many might have made him out to be after joining the Patriots. In fact, most of the statistical rankings were quite pedestrian, and he also was consistently battling injuries including one that caused him to miss the final three quarters of the AFC Championship.
For Talib it makes sense to re-up in New England. He'll be just 27 this month, and with a short-term deal he'd still get another shot to cash in on free agency in his prime.
Imagine how much more he could make after extended time playing for the Patriots. His image on and off the field would be significantly better, and he'd be sure to play in a lot of big games on national television.
With only Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling under contract, the Patriots have a big need at cornerback, and there is no better option than Talib. Without him they'll have to start over again, either with a rookie, a lesser free agent or hope that Dowling can suddenly stay healthy.
Talib wasn't individually great on the Patriots, but his arrival and the trickle-down effect helped the Patriots defense turn a corner when he was on the field.
He'd do the same thing in 2013 to an even greater extent because now the Patriots could build around him.
Break a New Receiver into the Offense
Jeremy Ebert found his way back to New England after being drafted and cut.
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The Patriots need to add a young wide receiver to the roster this offseason and give him some leeway to develop. Ideally it would be a guy who could play special teams and fill a third or fourth wide receiver role as he's slowly brought along in the offense. He could then really start to contribute down the stretch.
The Patriots lack a receiver with size and also one with great deep speed, but ultimately the most important thing is that he'll need to be smart. Many found it hard to get excited about Jeremy Ebert because he fit the Welker/Edelman mold of a small, quick receiver.
Regardless of their dimensions or measurables, there is no other position on the roster in greater need of some young talent.
Instead of squeezing every last drop out of Deion Branch, the Pats will have to turn the page in 2013 and give a young wide receiver a chance. The depth behind Welker and Brandon Lloyd would be perilously small, so the Patriots must prepare for the inevitability that either or both could get injured.
With a complementary piece on the outside to go with Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots offense could reach new heights.
Add Interior Pass-Rusher
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If you've read anything I've written here or at PatsPropaganda, you know that I've been beating the drum for an interior pass rush for almost two years now.
After losing Mike Wright and Myron Pryor, then not having Albert Haynesworth and Jonathan Fanene work out, the Pats just haven't been able to find someone to help in passing situations on the inside of the line.
Vince Wilfork can only do so much, and though Jermaine Cunningham flashed at times in 2012, he's not the long-term answer for that role. Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick both lack the explosiveness to get up field and really push the pocket.
I was delighted when the Pats picked up Armond Armstead who fits this need, but simply adding him is not enough. The Patriots need at least two more potential interior rushers, and that's even if they don't alter their base scheme to utilize a more traditional 4-3 defensive tackle.
The short passing game, especially aimed at the middle of the field, is where the Patriots defense has been destroyed over the past few years. Quick passing teams like the Buffalo Bills have racked up hundreds of yards like that.
For all the talk of the Patriots' pass-rush needs, it's a disruptive interior rush that will make the biggest and quickest difference, not only getting after quarterbacks, but also setting up the edge-rushers as well.
Add Coverage Linebacker
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One of the most underrated injuries of the Patriots season was the ACL tear that ended Dane Fletcher's year in the first preseason game. Fletcher just might be the best coverage linebacker the Patriots have, and that includes captain Jerod Mayo. He also just re-signed with the Patriots for 2013, showing he's clearly a player they wanted to retain.
Fletcher excelled in previous seasons in a dime linebacker role usually spying the running back. His work against the Ray Rice in 2010 was excellent. Fletcher has good speed, is also a sure tackler, and brings a coverage presence the Patriots completely lacked in 2012.
Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower are physical inside presences but they were both exploited when forced to play in space. Fletcher could surpass both of them in the nickel coverage role.
Or perhaps if Fletcher isn't the answer the Patriots should consider looking to free agency for other coverage linebacker options. There's no question the Patriots base defense and linebackers are excellent at stopping the run, but Spikes and Hightower had a bullseye on them in the passing game.
Hightower may ascend to a new level in his second year, but the Pats should beat the bushes for inside linebackers that excel in space both in free agency and the draft.
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With those five simple steps, the Patriots would immediately be just as good as they were in 2012 and probably better. Are there other areas that could be improved? Sure.
Steve Gregory is expensive and could be upgraded. Just about all of Patriots nation is clamoring for Ed Reed to be brought in, another move that would improve the Pats at the right price, though it could be a long shot for that to come together.
Sebastian Vollmer is also no lock to return, so replacing him, or at least bringing in some competition for Marcus Cannon, might also be necessary.
But overall the Patriots are well set for continued success. They still have some weaknesses, but most of them are manageable if they can find the right complementary pieces to fill out their roster.
When you have an excellent quarterback, line and running backs, your offense will be fine. The Patriots defense is still young and should progress, but their needs are obvious, and once Talib's fate is determined, the rest of the plan can take shape.
Regardless, the Patriots will be back for another Super Bowl run, but it will just come down to injuries and luck like it always does.