With Tom Brady's new contract extension, it's clear that he will have five more shots at another Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. Some of the pieces are already in place, but with just Brandon Lloyd under contract at wide receiver (and his departure likely), the decisions and personnel moves the Patriots make this offseason will have a major impact on their passing attack for the final act of Brady's career.
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are both under contract as long as Brady is. They will be integral parts of the offense in Brady's final five seasons, and their talent and versatility will give the Patriots a great deal of flexibility as the centerpieces of the offense.
Wes Welker is likely to be back now as well, and while the Pats can't count on him to have the same explosive quickness for a full five years, his synergy with Brady will remain lethal in New England's high-powered offense. A re-signed Julian Edelman could also be a valuable complimentary piece to Welker, allowing the Patriots to lessen his burden and preserve him for the long haul.
But the biggest missing ingredient? The Patriots must find an X-receiver.
Some oversimplify this by saying they need a "deep threat," which is true, but only scratches the surface of what a true X-receiver could bring to the Patriots offense.
This would not only stretch defenses and give Tom Brady a target down the field that he has lacked since early 2010, but it would also open things up inside for Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez. It's simple geometry. The best offense is one that challenges a defense short, long and on the perimeter.
Since Randy Moss departed, the Patriots have tried to fill the X-receiver role with Chad Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, but neither added the element of explosiveness they were brought in for. Deion Branch did a suitable fill-in job in 2010 when the Pats implemented their "death by a thousand cuts" offense, but his decline exposed the cracks in the new attack.
The problem is that true X-receivers are nearly impossible to find for good value, unless you can find a malcontent at reduced price like New England did with Randy Moss and attempted to do with Johnson, and to an extent, Lloyd.
Either they're overpriced free agents, or you need to find an elite receiver at the top of the draft. It's well known Belichick will never break the bank on a wide receiver, nor have the Patriots ever had a high enough draft pick in recent seasons to target someone like Julio Jones or AJ Green.
The only option the Patriots are left with is to take a chance on a receiver in the draft this April.
There are a number of players who seem to fit the physical mold you'd look for in an X-receiver and should be available in the late first round and into the second round, such as Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers or Aaron Dobson. It might be risky because none are the slam dunk that Jones and Green were, but it's the only way they can get a potential X-receiver in the system without taking a huge financial risk on a veteran who may or may not work out.
Drafting a receiver is just the first step, but staying patient with him and giving him a chance to develop chemistry and confidence with Brady is paramount. They might not click immediately, but the Patriots have no choice now. They have no promising young receivers left on the roster.
Brady must be a part of the process, and he must understand what is at stake.
New England can get by with Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski no matter who is lining up with them in 2013, but if they want their passing attack to still be elite in Brady's twilight years, they must address the wide receiver position aggressively and with flexibility now.