5 Free Agents Who Would Massively Improve the New England Patriots Defense
The Pats now have a chunk of money to play with in an intriguing free-agent class. There is plenty of talk about deep threats and right tackles, and whether Wes Welker will return to the team that he helped bring to the brink of two Super Bowl championships.
There's also the question of whether the Pats will retain Aqib Talib, or if they'll sign a big name like Ed Reed or cap-casualty Charles Woodson.
With a few notable exceptions, the Pats aren't typically a team that makes a big splash in free agency. But let's have some fun and think big for a little, by focusing on five free-agent defenders who would significantly improve the Pats defense.
Enough has been written about Woodson and Reed, so I'll skip them in this list.
DT Cullen Jenkins
Don't let the disappointing Philadelphia "Dream Team" dissuade you—Cullen Jenkins is still a playmaker.
The recently released Jenkins would be a massive improvement along the Patriots defensive line. New England needs a mauler on the front to pair with Vince Wilfork, and Jenkins could be the guy.
Wilfork is an excellent two-gap defensive lineman, but the Pats need another player to generate interior pass rush alongside him.
Jenkins is a three-technique, one-gap lineman who could provide an excellent pass rush for the Patriots. Though he's now 32, Jenkins hasn't yet slowed down, registering four sacks and grading out as the 11th best pass-rushing DT in the NFL per ProFootballFocus' evaluation metrics.
The Pats' maneuverability under the cap should allow them to be competitors for Jenkins, who signed a deal with the Eagles worth $5 million annually in 2011. If they land him, Jenkins could be the key to solving the issues with the Pats' interior pass rush.
OLB Dwight Freeney
It's time to bring Dwight Freeney, the New England native, home.
Even after 10 years in the league, Freeney is an excellent speed rusher. Freeney graded tenth in the NFL among 3-4 OLBs as a pass rusher, by ProFootballFocus.com metrics. He's not an every-down player anymore (he was in on just 12 tackles in 719 snaps—yikes), but the Pats have Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones to fill that role.
What they need is a hybrid who can come off the bench on passing downs and pressure the quarterback. Justin Francis, Jermaine Cunningham and Trevor Scott didn't provide enough of a situational pass rush for the Pats, leaving the rookie Jones as the only true threat to get to the quarterback when Wilfork was double-teamed.
Freeney has already gotten his payday in the form of a $72 million contract that ended this season, so he may be amenable to ring-chasing at this late point in his career. If signed, he would add veteran leadership and a pass-rushing boost off the bench to a team that sorely needs it.
At the very least, Freeney could serve as a mentor to second-year DE Chandler Jones. The Pats have already expressed interest—let's hope that interest manifests itself in the form of a deal.
CB Aqib Talib
There are plenty who disagree with me, but I believe Aqib Talib should be the top priority for the Pats this offseason.
Yes, there are very real questions about Talib's work ethic, and if those reports are true, then his effort is certainly something to consider when extending an offer to the cornerback.
But the bottom line is, the Pats defense was at its most effective last season with a pair of competent press corners in Talib and rookie Alfonzo Dennard. Talib was the only player on the Pats defense who could blanket a top receiver like Andre Johnson in man coverage.
His skills had a ripple effect on the defense, as Devin McCourty could support the slot corners in the middle of the field, and coach Bill Belichick was free to dial up blitz packages and disguised coverages with renewed trust in his cover corners.
It's simple logic—the Pats need a top corner. They had one on last year's roster, and they're best served to bring him back.
CB Brent Grimes
While the modern cornerback market is crazy (just ask Jason McCourty), the question marks surrounding Brent Grimes could depress his asking price and make the Falcons corner a high-value signing for New England.
The issue with Grimes is, of course, health. Grimes missed almost all of 2012 with an Achilles injury, and it remains to be seen whether he can mimic Leon Hall in returning as an effective corner following an Achilles issue.
Given Grimes' Pro Bowl resume—including a remarkable 37 passes defended in 28 games between 2010 and 2011—and his youth (29) make him a candidate for something more than a make-good one-year deal.
Still, if Grimes is healthy (and his progress is apparently excellent) he could fill the top corner role vacated by Aqib Talib, or serve as an excellent No. 2 corner if Alfonzo Dennard's sentencing goes ill for the Pats.
At 5'10", 181 pounds, Grimes is undersized and not ideally suited to a press scheme, but the Pats could look to shift to a ball-hawking zone coverage philosophy with Devin McCourty at corner opposite Grimes. If they can get Grimes on a reasonable contract, the Pats could then invest heavily in a top-end safety.
Given his injury history and the need to shift defensive schemes, Grimes would be a risky signing for the Pats. But his playmaking abilities could hugely improve the back end of the Pats D.
S Louis Delmas
Another injury-prone secondary player—just what the Pats need, right?
Unfortunately, the dollars tend to run high for players without question marks. So while other teams get in bidding wars over Glover Quin and Jairus Byrd, the Pats may be best served going after Delmas, who is unlikely to remain in Detroit.
Delmas, who battled a knee injury all year and wound up playing just half the season, has excellent range and coverage skills and can play in the box against the run. He's a tough player who fought through injuries in a contract year rather than sitting out to preserve his value.
He's also only 26.
Delmas has very real concerns about his knee, and that makes him a high-risk option. But the Pats also can't risk tying up their cap in one premiere free agent.
With Delmas, a best-case scenario secondary of Talib, Delmas, McCourty and Dennard would be formidable in a Cover-2 shell with man coverage on the outsides. The Pats would have two safeties that can display the range of a centerfielder and come up in the box to support the run.
With a secondary like that, not many Pats fans would miss the days of Sergio Brown or Josh Barrett.