Grading Position Strength on New England's Roster Going into Free Agency
The 2012 season is in the books, and now all 32 teams are able to turn their focus to preparing for 2013.
For the New England Patriots, the goal is straightforward: finding the missing ingredient that, in the past few seasons, has been the difference between the Patriots being a Super Bowl favorite and a Super Bowl champion.
For the third straight year, the Patriots marched into January as a popular pick to end up with the Lombardi Trophy. For the third straight year, they fell short, and with each year that gets added onto Tom Brady's odometer, each unfulfilled finish becomes more and more frustrating.
Here's a piece-by-piece look at the roster as the offseason prepares to heat up.
The Patriots are in an excellent position here. Tom Brady is still playing at an elite level, and Ryan Mallett projects either as a quarterback of the future or as a valuable trade chip.
The Patriots don't have that signature back that the Vikings have in Adrian Peterson, the Ravens have in Ray Rice or the Texans have in Arian Foster, but what they do have is a stable of backs that can perform in a variety of roles.
Stevan Ridley blossomed as a No. 1 running back, rushing for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns. Shane Vereen showed playmaking skills on draws and catches out of the backfield, and Danny Woodhead is still reliable as a receiver and in blitz pickup.
Add in Brandon Bolden's strong start and the potential of Jeff Demps as a "home run hitter," and this is a position the Patriots don't need to tweak much.
Currently, this position is pretty bare. Wes Welker and Julian Edelman are headed for the free agent market, and while it's hard to imagine the team cutting ties with Edelman, whose role in the offense has grown, Welker's status is up for grabs.
He's been a production machine since joining New England in 2007, but the team could balk at offering him the money his 100-plus catch average would seem to merit. Owner Robert Kraft said he would want Welker back—as long as the agents involved would stay reasonable.
If that sounds like Kraft creating an out for himself and the team, that's because that's what it is.
If Welker leaves, New England will face a tall task replacing his production between the 20s. Edelman looked more comfortable at receiver last year than ever before, but the team may still find it wise to pursue a pass-catcher to join with Edelman and holdover Brandon Lloyd.
Health issues are a considerable matter with both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but no other team in the league is stronger at the position when those two players are healthy.
The Patriots offense has drawn criticism for failing to produce to its regular season standards in the postseason, but New England hasn't lost in the playoffs with a healthy Gronkowski and a healthy Hernandez since January of 2011—and even that was with Hernandez trying to shake off a nagging hip injury.
New England has a major question mark to deal with in this area, as Pro Bowl caliber right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is now a free agent.
Nate Solder is a keeper at left tackle, but New England will have to either commit big dollars to keep Vollmer or get to work finding his replacement. Whether the answer is through money or draft capital, it won't come cheap.
Marcus Cannon is an option, but he had a tough time at the tackle position last preseason, and it'd be a reach for the team just to slide him into Vollmer's big shoes.
Grade: A- (if Vollmer comes back), C+ (if he leaves)
This position is strong and stable. Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly formed a reliable unit inside last year, and all three will be back with the team. Having Marcus Cannon and Nick MacDonald on board means the team has depth as well, and if Donald Thomas is brought back in free agency, the position will be that much stronger.
Vince Wilfork is an elite player and a workhorse, as no defensive lineman has logged more snaps over the past two years than No. 75.
The Patriots are also deep at this position, with Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick and Myron Pryor also on the roster. If they're missing anything, it's another truly disruptive presence to put next to Wilfork in the middle, but this is still a solid group.
Chandler Jones is clearly the centerpiece at this position; when healthy, he's the purest pass-rushing force the Patriots have. With another year of development under his belt, he should be even better, and he'll hopefully be able to avoid the nagging injuries that hindered him in the second half of the season.
This is also a position of depth for New England. Justin Francis impressed late in the season, Jermaine Cunningham had a positive start to the season, and third-round pick Jake Bequette will look to crack the rotation as well.
The Patriots have several key players at the linebacker position, but an upgrade might be necessary. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes are sure tacklers and hitters who excel against the run, while Rob Ninkovich has shown a knack for making plays. Dont'a Hightower will likely be expected to contribute more in the pass rush.
The team also made a move by bringing back reserve Dane Fletcher on a one-year deal.
The linebacking corps is a steady group, but one that could use a boost in speed, especially in pass coverage. Teams had success attacking the Patriots with checkdowns due to the linebackers' inability to keep up with faster running backs, and New England also struggled defending tight ends over the middle.
If the Patriots look to address the position in the offseason, a faster player could make for a good target.
It's hard to imagine the Patriots going into this offseason without one of their top objectives being to fix the defensive backfield. The secondary got credit for improving once Aqib Talib came on board, but when he left midway through the AFC championship game, the unit fell apart again and couldn't cover any of Joe Flacco's targets.
Now, with Talib slated for the open market, the position is in flux. Alfonzo Dennard appears to be a keeper, but Kyle Arrington (if he returns) struggled mightily on the outside all year. Devin McCourty may be a safety for good, and Ras-I Dowling can't stay healthy.
Even if Talib (or someone else worthy of No. 1 corner designation) comes back, the Patriots are still in need of players to man the slot corner position, as well as depth to ensure that, in the event of another injury, the whole defense doesn't unravel again.
Like cornerback, this position demands the attention of the best and brightest at Foxboro. Devin McCourty looked good when he was moved back from corner mid-season, but with Patrick Chung a free agent and Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson showing flaws on the field, there is a clear need for a consistent starter opposite McCourty.
It's no secret that the Patriots have been tied to free agent Ed Reed, but Bill Belichick could also choose to find his solution in the draft. Whatever the case, the Patriots need an answer before September.
Zoltan Mesko is a top-caliber punter, and Matthew Slater is terrific in punt and kick coverage, but the Patriots are hardly perfect in this area. Stephen Gostkowski struggled with consistency throughout the season, and he'll have to snap back to his reputation as one of the league's most steady kickers.
The Patriots also need a boost in the return game. Julian Edelman (if he comes back) is a very good punt returner, but New England is missing someone who can rip off the long return on kickoffs. The answer may be in Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps, who played football in college at Florida and was hyped early before he wound up on injured reserve in the preseason.