Re-signing Wes Welker is one of New England's greatest needs this offseason
In New England, anything short of a Super Bowl victory is considered a failure.
That makes the Patriots' goal for this offseason obvious: build a team that can make it all the way.
The Patriots have clinched first-round byes in each of the last three seasons, but they have not won a Super Bowl in that time frame. They have had great teams each of those years, but they have had some deficiencies which have prevented them from surviving as the lone team alive at the end of the season.
The good news is, the Patriots are pretty darn close to being a complete team and a Super Bowl favorite. But they have to fill their holes if they want to take their team to the top level. Here are some of their most pressing needs to address this offseason.
In 2011, the Patriots allowed the second-most passing yards in NFL history (the 2011 Green Bay Packers hold the record for the most). They saw poor play from all their secondary positions, but especially at cornerback.
Before Week 11, New England made a change and brought in Aqib Talib to be their number one corner. What a difference it made.
At the end of the season, the Patriots ranked 14th in covering opposing number one receivers (by DVOA). Sure, that's middle of the pack, but it is a lot better than what they had in 2011, when they ranked dead last in that category.
Now, with Talib an unrestricted free agent, the Patriots face a potential regression to the days before they acquired him. While they do not necessarily need to re-sign Talib, acquiring a quality cornerback is a must; the team has concerns regarding Talib's work ethic, so they might look in another direction.
What position do the Patriots most need to address this offseason?
There are some quality cornerbacks available on the market. Former Eagles corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be available, and he could benefit from a change of scenery. Brent Grimes, formerly of the Falcons, is also available. He played in just one game in 2012, but was a Pro Bowler in 2010.
With question marks surrounding number two cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who faces legal issues, the Patriots might need to fill another cornerback position. Dennard was extremely effective in his first season. The Patriots were sixth best at covering opposing team's number two receivers, who were usually covered by Dennard.
Perhaps signing Talib and making a run at one of the other free agent corner backs is a good plan for the Patriots. They could also go after former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, whose stock might drop in the draft due to his dismissal from Division I due to substance abuse issues. The trouble with the draft approach, however, is that the Patriots have not been very successful at drafting defensive backs. Whatever they do, though, they must address this need.
The Patriots' troubles on the secondary extended beyond just cornerback.
Devin McCourty stepped up big time last season, especially after moving to safety. Last season, he had a 1.43 win probability added (WPA), which ranks seventh among cornerbacks, and sixth among safeties.
This year's draft is flush with talent at the safety position, so that seems to be a route the Patriots can take to solve their problem here.
One interesting name who could be available when the Patriots first pick comes around is Matt Elam from the Florida Gators. The Patriots have a history of drafting former Gators; they took Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes and Aaron Hernandez in the 2010 draft.
If the Patriots were to go another direction in the draft, there are plenty of options for safety in free agency. Former Bills safety Jairus Byrd is an interesting option for the Patriots to consider. Last season with Buffalo, he ranked third in the NFL in WPA among safeties, at 1.49.
Ed Reed is another interesting name to consider. The 34-year-old has received high praise from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, and would be a nice veteran to add to the defense. Despite his age, Reed is still a very effective option at safety. He had four interceptions for the Ravens last season, and ranked 13th among safeties in WPA.
The Patriots will also have Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson under contract for next season. These guys showed some flashes of effectiveness last season, and could provide nice depth for the team at safety. However, it would be a risky play to bring either in as a starting safety next season.
Though the Patriots had the most effective offense in the league last year (they averaged a league-best 34.8 points per game in 2012), there are some question marks on that side of the ball. The most glaring is at the wide receiver position.
Welker has caught 111 or more passes in five of his six seasons with the Patriots, including three seasons during which he led the entire league in caught passes. That kind of production and consistency is rare in the NFL. Welker is a guy that Brady trusts more than anyone, and having him in the offense is a huge reason why the Patriots are always so dominant on that side of the ball.
Even if the Patriots bring Welker back, they could use a deep threat on the outside to help out. With reports out there that the Patriots are considering cutting Brandon Lloyd, the team will need a replacement.
Dwayne Bowe, the former Kansas City Chiefs receiver, is a good option for this spot. Despite the horrible quarterback play of the Chiefs last season, and an injury that caused him to miss three games, Bowe compiled 801 yards on 59 catches. Before 2012, he had gained at least 995 yards in four of his first five seasons in the league. His best year came in 2010 when he caught a league-best 15 touchdown passes.
Former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace is another free agent who could fill that void for the Patriots. Wallace has proven to be a great deep threat in Pittsburgh. In 2009, his first season, he led the league with 19.4 yards per reception. The next season, he topped that and averaged 21.0 yards per reception. That would be a very nice player for the Patriots to have, and would give them the outside threat they've wanted since they dealt away Randy Moss.
There are some other options out there, such as building through the draft, but the Patriots have not had much success developing their home-grown receivers. It seems like this is a position which should be addressed through free agency.
A huge reason for the Patriots' prolonged success has been the consistency of their offensive line. And with Tom Brady signing a three-year contract extension, it is imperative that the line continues to protect him well so he can stay upright for that time.
Since 2004, New England's offensive line has been in the top eight in pass protection, based on adjusted sack rate, every year but 2008 (the season Brady missed). They have been just as effective with run-blocking, ranking in the top five in adjusted line yards every year since 2007.
A big part of their success is the excellent job done by offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, but the players deserve a lot of credit as well.
The one starter from last year's offensive line who is a free agent is right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Vollmer has been a key cog in the dominant line of the Patriots.
Since he became a regular starter in 2010, the Patriots' right tackles have ranked top in the league two times (2010 and 2011). When Vollmer was a rookie in 2009, seeing limited time at right tackle and still acclimating to the system, this ranking was just 22nd in the league.
Another thing that Vollmer can do is switch over to left tackle in case of an emergency. He played there at times in college, and filled in for Matt Light several times during his career. That is just the kind of versatility the Patriots love to have.
The question with Vollmer is his health. He missed a lot of 2011 with a back injury, and last season he battled through back and knee issues (though he missed just one game). He recently underwent knee surgery, which might make the Patriots more hesitant to sign him. But Vollmer has shown resiliency in his career, and he is so good that they need to get him back..
Unless the Patriots want to acclimate a new and inferior (almost by default) lineman into their system, they would be wise to sign Vollmer. Protecting Brady should be the team's top priority, and Vollmer does that as well as anyone.