New England Patriots' 10 Biggest Offseason Priorities
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The New England Patriots need to prioritize some critical shortcomings to capture another Super Bowl title.
Chief among them are their laissez-faire attitude, lackluster defense, complacent coaching staff and need for edge-rushers and defensive backs. Luckily they have the necessary resources and personnel in place to address their issues with a focused and diligent offseason.
After the Patriots came three wins shy of hoisting two more Lombardi Trophies, fans in the area have adopted a bit of Chicken Little's "the sky is falling" mentality.
The Patriots have lost three home playoff games in the past four seasons, and certain media outlets are sticking the fork in them quicker than a medium-rare filet mignon.
Online sportswriters openly question whether or not Tom Brady and Bill Belichick still have what it takes to win the big game. Pundits appear ready to push the panic button as pressure mounts on the team to win its elusive fourth Super Bowl.
In our "what have you done for me lately" culture, Brady is suddenly treated with the same regard as a carton of milk left sitting on the counter. He has somehow soured and is ready to expire.
This is lunacy, of course. Without posting the eye-popping numbers of years past, Brady is still playing at an MVP level. However, few outside New England recognize that, as Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter touches on here in an excellent video essay.
With Brady and Belichick piloting the ship, the Patriots will always contend. However, given the impossibly high expectations surrounding the team, simply contending isn't enough.
The Patriots, particularly Brady and Belichick, are victims of their own success, and only another Super Bowl ring will wash away the foul taste of defeat.
Here are the 10 highest priority issues the Patriots must address to stop merely contending and resume winning in 2013 and beyond.
New England needs to bring back Rodney Harrison's hard-nosed attitude.
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Watching the recent AFC Championship loss, I couldn’t help but notice a glaring lack of energy on the Patriots sideline, which inevitably carried over onto the playing field.
As I detailed in a previous article, this was not an isolated incident. The Patriots have become reliant on machine-like efficiency, intricate schemes and finesse to win games. They lack the physical toughness to go toe-to-toe with the NFL’s bad boys.
When teams rough them up, they lack any apparent desire to fight back. The more physical opponents become, the less focused and more despondent the Patriots appear.
Players’ body language during the AFC title game in particular screamed of complacency. I have no idea how coach Belichick is behind the scenes, but given the lifeless demeanor he shows the football world, I have a hard time imagining him providing much of an emotional spark.
It’s time for him to bring some new blood into the fold who can reinvigorate the locker room and the defensive unit with a hunger to win and a willingness to demoralize opponents—not just by scoring in bunches but by physically breaking their will.
Bill Belichick needs to evaluate his staff.
First of all, they need to get rid of Belichick.
OK, that was a joke, but the team does need to review some of the other coaches on staff.
The hooded mastermind is obviously firmly entrenched atop the coaching pyramid, and Josh McDaniels should have the offense firing on all cylinders once again. Dante Scarnecchia has been a fixture as the team’s offensive line/assistant head coach, so he’s safe as well.
In fact, I would leave the entire offensive staff untouched.
The defensive coaching staff, however, harbors some serious question marks.
Cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer stands out as somebody worth scrutinizing.
I’m sure he works exceptionally hard—and I hate to advocate anyone losing their job—but prior to Aqib Talib’s midseason arrival, Boyer’s group simply couldn’t get it done. Boyer also served as the team’s defensive backs coach from 2009-2011.
In short, every player under Boyer’s tutelage has woefully underperformed.
He isn’t solely to blame, of course. The players are ultimately responsible for their own performance, but given the sheer number of high draft picks used on defensive backs during Boyer’s tenure, one has to expect more than three consecutive bottom-five rankings in pass defense.
It may simply be time to move on.
On a side note, I’d be thrilled to see Romeo Crennel back on the sideline next season.
Re-Establish a Physical Running Game
The Patriots haven't had a punishing ground game since Corey Dillon.
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In 2012 the Patriots featured a more balanced offensive attack than they have in years. Their 2,184 rushing yards were the third highest team total since 1985, and their 25 rushing touchdowns were a franchise record.
Stevan Ridley proved to be a capable feature back, while Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen handled the change-of-pace role admirably.
Despite the significant strides made on the ground, the Patriots still lack the proverbial hammer: a hard-nosed bruiser capable of absorbing contact and dishing out punishment to make opposing defenders think twice about tackling him.
A more physical ground game would go a long way toward instilling the aggressive mentality I alluded to earlier in the slideshow.
Ideally, I’d like to see Peyton Hillis fill the role. Physical, downhill running is his trademark, but with his receiving skills out of the backfield he can be used in any situation, not just obvious running downs.
Trade for Darrelle Revis
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I can almost hear the collective gnashing of teeth.
I confess this is something of a pipe dream, so before you elevate your blood pressure to unhealthy levels, barking about how unlikely the New York Jets are to trade Revis within the division, please understand I agree.
If I were the Jets, I wouldn’t allow the Patriots to get their paws on Revis even if New England offered to pay my team’s entire salary. But lately the Jets seem to prefer doing the exact opposite of what a sane, rational person would do.
So if—and that’s a Rex Ryan-sized if—New York is willing to entertain the notion of Revis wearing red, white and navy, the Patriots should make acquiring him their highest priority.
As long as Brady isn’t part of the deal, I would be comfortable trading literally anyone.
If the Jets want every pick of the Patriots’ 2013 draft?
If they want multiple picks in Round 1?
If they want Massachusetts to elect Mark Sanchez as its governor?
To consummate the deal, the state could rename Nantucket “Revis Island,” so Belichick can vacation there on his boat, "V Rings."
Address the Slot Receiver Position
Unless you’ve been living under a rock—and a big one at that—you know Wes Welker is a free agent this offseason.
That New England would like to re-sign him goes without saying. He’s been the team’s most productive, reliable and healthiest offensive weapon for the better part of six seasons.
Whether or not the two sides can agree on a new contract remains to be seen.
Slapping him with the franchise tag again is unlikely for salary cap reasons, so we’re looking at a new deal or no deal.
I have no idea what sort of monetary figure accurately reflects his value in the Patriots’ eyes or his own. By extension I’m equally clueless as to whether or not the two parties can actually come to terms.
I’m sure we’ll learn more once negotiations begin in earnest, but for now your guess is as good as mine.
What I do know is that if Welker chooses to play elsewhere in 2013, the Patriots do have other options available, namely Danny Amendola of the St. Louis Rams.
Amendola profiles very nicely as a bigger, younger and cheaper, albeit less productive—at least so far—version of Welker. The two even played at the same college, Texas Tech.
With a skill set similar to Welker’s, Amendola could replace 85 percent of his production at potentially 50 percent of his cost. It seems like good economics and an option the Patriots will likely consider if Welker’s asking price is too high.
Given the crucial role of the slot receiver in New England’s offensive scheme, the team should make certain one of these two is playing in Foxboro in 2013 and beyond.
Open Up the Vertical Passing Game
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As successful as the Patriots have been throwing the ball in recent years, they still haven’t had a true downfield attack since parting ways with Randy Moss in 2010.
They need to add size and speed on the outside. Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker are excellent possession receivers, and Aaron Hernandez is undersized for a tight end at 6’1”.
Rob Gronkowski is the only player who can consistently open up a defense and use his size and athleticism to go up for the ball at its highest point.
New England needs to look long and hard at free-agent wide receiver Ramses Barden of the New York Giants.
I’ve brought up Barden’s name in previous articles and will likely do so again in the future. With his elite size, the 6’6” wideout towers over opposing defensive backs and would offer Brady a massive target downfield and along the sideline.
Barden is far from a finished project with just 29 receptions and zero touchdowns in four seasons, but he never really got a chance behind Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Steve Smith in New York.
Don’t expect to see him starting, but even in a limited role his presence would help clear things out underneath, open up the field for those timing patterns the Patriots use so well and create mismatches in the red zone.
Beef Up in the Trenches
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In stark contrast to most Bill Belichick teams, the Patriots enter this offseason remarkably thin on the offensive line.
Between all five starting linemen, the group missed a total of nine games: six from Logan Mankins, two from Dan Connolly and one from Sebastian Vollmer. Backups Marcus Cannon and impending free-agent Donald Thomas filled in admirably when needed.
They also represent the only reserve linemen with any significant NFL experience.
When you consider the current starting five of Mankins, Vollmer, Connolly, Nate Solder and Ryan Wendell have missed 28 games due to injury (not including Mankins’ holdout) since 2010, it makes depth paramount for Brady’s protective unit.
Although depth isn’t yet an issue along the defensive line, it will be very soon. The forward-thinking Patriots of course realize that Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick and Jermaine Cunningham are slated for unrestricted free agency after next season.
Ditto for Wendell on offense with Connolly to follow after the 2014 season.
Unless the Patriots want to overpay for free agents next offseason or rely heavily on rookies in key spots in 2014, the time is now to find the next group of young linemen on both sides of the ball to groom into eventual starters.
Signing Armond Armstead was a good start. Now they need to continue the process going forward.
Sign Brandon Spikes Long Term
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Spikes will also become an unrestricted free agent after next season.
He’s shown steady improvement in each of his three seasons with the Patriots, combining with Jerod Mayo to form one of the better inside linebacker duos in football. His salary cap figure for next season projects to a meager $823,120, making him one of the better bargains across the league at his position.
The Patriots could let him play out the final year of his rookie contract then re-sign him, but it’s risky. If Spikes continues on his current track, he should earn league-wide recognition as a premium defender in the running game.
Given his youth, nasty on-field demeanor and room for continued growth, he’s exactly the type of player New England should be looking to lock up long term. Those same factors will likely make him, along with Dallas’ Sean Lee and Denver’s D.J. Williams, very expensive as the premier inside linebackers available on the free-agent market in 2014.
If the Patriots want to keep Spikes around for the long haul on a team-friendly contract, this might be their only chance to do it.
Exploring the Free-Agent Market
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Ed Reed has stated his preference to stay in Baltimore, but with Anquan Boldin reportedly on the chopping block to make room for Joe Flacco’s impending contract, I have a hard time imagining the Ravens can afford the future Hall of Famer.
The whole “Reed to New England” angle has been speculated upon ad nauseam, and Bleacher Report's Erik Frenz did an outstanding job analyzing his potential impact on the team, so I won’t delve into signing Reed other than to say I like it, at least in the short term.
If Baltimore does indeed release Boldin, the Patriots should give him a serious look. He may be the toughest wide receiver in the entire NFL, which is exactly the type of player they need to help Gronkowski set the tone against the league’s more physical defenses.
I touched on free-agent players like Jairus Byrd, Peyton Hillis, Richard Seymour and Glen Dorsey in a recent article, so give that a look for more details on why they’d be good fits.
Additionally, cornerbacks Marcus Trufant, Quentin Jammer and Chris Houston would all be welcome additions to the Patriots’ porous secondary. Belichick may also look at safeties Nate Clements and Louis Delmas.
Exploring Free-Agent Options, Continued
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New England’s most pressing free-agent concerns are their own in-house players.
Re-signing Aqib Talib would add a touch of nastiness and much needed continuity to a secondary that was markedly better once he joined the team midseason via trade.
In my mind, retaining one of the league’s most talented cover corners takes precedence over re-signing Welker.
In a similar vein, Kyle Arrington is overmatched as a starting cornerback but holds tremendous value as the team’s nickel corner. I’d like to see the Patriots bring him back as well, provided it isn’t at the expense of signing Talib or a comparable cornerback.
I think Sebastian Vollmer is the most imperative signing of anyone currently on the roster. The 28-year-old has steadily improved to the point where he’s now among the league’s elite offensive tackles, as ProFootballFocus alludes to here, particularly as a mauling run blocker on the right side of the line.
Paving the way for Ridley in the ground game and keeping Brady upright are paramount to the team’s success, and Vollmer excels at both.
Given the outstanding job he did filling in for Mankins, I think they’ll re-sign Donald Thomas as well to bolster the offensive line.
The final player the team needs to re-sign is Julian Edelman.
Depending on what happens with Welker or a free agent like Amendola, Edelman may be their best option to man the slot position. Even if the team does sign one of the other two wideouts, Edelman has significant value on special teams as an excellent return man. He and Jeff Demps would give the Patriots a lethal tandem in the return game.
Fan favorite Danny Woodhead is on the bubble. His value is undeniable, but with Shane Vereen developing nicely and Demps returning, he may be expendable. Joe Soriano of Musketfire.com does a great job of breaking down the pros and cons of re-signing Woodhead.
Bringing Woodhead back would be a nice luxury but isn’t a priority right now.
Filling Needs in the Draft
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Predicting what the Patriots will do on draft day is like trying to tackle Adrian Peterson in the open field. Try as you might, chances are you’ll just come up empty. With so few picks in this year’s draft, it’s a good bet Belichick will be picking somewhere other than where he’s currently slated.
So, rather than focusing on specific spots, let’s highlight individual players who fill various needs.
From a personnel standpoint the Patriots’ biggest needs are edge-rushers and defensive backs.
UCLA’s Datone Jones (Senior Bowl review and scouting report), SMU’s Margus Hunt (scouting report) and BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah (scouting report) all figure to garner New England’s interest as potentially dominant defensive linemen at the next level.
Jones is the most polished of the three and played in a similar defensive philosophy at UCLA to the hybrid 3-4 scheme the Patriots employ. Weighing in at 280 lbs, he may be a little small to hold the point of attack against larger NFL offensive lineman, but he played all over the defensive line at UCLA and Belichick prizes versatility.
Ansah and Hunt are both raw talents with very little competitive experience. Never having played football before 2010, Ansah repeatedly draws comparisons to the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul. He’s raw but super-talented and can play with a hand down as a 4-3 defensive end or standing up as an edge-rushing 3-4 linebacker.
Depending how he performs at the NFL combine, he could push himself even further up the draft board, likely out of New England’s reach.
Similarly inexperienced, Hunt began playing football in 2009. As one might expect, he has struggled with consistency during his college career.
Standing at 6’8” the Estonian track and field standout has sky-high potential. Given his propensity for blocking field goals, he could be a stellar special teams contributor right away as he learns the finer points of NFL football under Belichick’s watchful eye.
Ansah and Jones will likely land somewhere in Round 1, while Hunt could fall into Round 2.
Filling More Needs in the Draft
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With Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard showing flashes as rookies and Ras-I Dowling returning, I have a hard time seeing the Patriots investing their first pick in a defensive back unless they completely miss out on the free-agent market or somebody like Washington’s Desmond Trufant falls to them.
There are, however, several promising safeties and corners they might look at in Rounds 2 and 3.
Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu is appealing due to his physical style of play and knack for the ball in coverage. His well-documented off-the-field issues may scare some teams away, but in the right situation they could serve to humble him and motivate the former LSU Tiger make better decisions in the future.
Given the Patriots' uncertain future along the defensive line, Purdue’s DT Kawann Short would make sense as well.
In the later rounds, I’d love to see them take a chance on former Michigan QB Denard Robinson.
He’s entering the draft as a wide receiver, but with his suspect hands he may need to shift to cornerback. With proper coaching and ample time to adapt, his electrifying speed would play well in any secondary. As a late pick, he’s a gamble well worth taking.
With his size he could have an impact as a role player or red-zone target.
Beyond that, I expect the Patriots to use the draft to add depth to their offensive and defensive lines.