Picking One Free Agent to Fill Each of the New England Patriots' Holes
The NFL's free-agency period begins on March 12, with a frenzied feed of big-ticket signings sure to follow.
While the New England Patriots don't typically overspend in free agency, the market suits their needs this year. They may well decide that it's time to supplement their young roster (they opened last season as the eighth-youngest team in the NFL) with veteran talent.
Though it's unlikely the Pats will fill all their roster holes through free agency (and it's a near certainty they won't be able to acquire all these players), let's take a look at some free agents that could suit each of the team's needs as they head into the 2013-14 season.
Cover Corner with Press Skills: Sean Smith
Last week I suggested the Pats pursue Greg Toler as an affordable, high-upside option at cornerback. I stand by that suggestion if the Pats don't want to break the bank at the position.
But recent reports have indicated the Pats are willing to invest heavily to lock down the position, and if that's the case, then there are surer bets on the market than Toler. As Jeff Howe of NESN.com reports:
The Patriots are hot on cornerbacks. Been told they've inquired about Derek Cox and Chris Gamble.
— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) March 9, 2013
Gamble and Cox are marquee free-agent corners, and either one would likely require a significant investment. Both would be good pickups for the Pats secondary, but I'm going to go ahead and suggest a better one: Sean Smith.
While Gamble and Cox have both battled injuries in recent years, Smith has been remarkably durable—he's missed just one game in his career.
Smith, who is just 25, has the size (6'3", 214 pounds), and press-coverage skills to be a lockdown corner for the Pats. He gets lost in zone, but he'd fit in perfectly across from second-year Pats corner Alfonzo Dennard, whose skills are also tailored to man coverage.
Though Smith is looking to get paid, he's the kind of player the Patriots should pony up for. With Smith and Dennard at the corners, the Pats can stick to a man-free, Cover 1 scheme with Devin McCourty playing center field and Tavon Wilson lining up against tight ends.
This acquisition doesn't appear to be a pipe dream, as Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports claims the Pats are among the leaders in the Smith sweepstakes:
Explosive Kick Returner: Josh Cribbs
One weakness of the 2012-13 Patriots that went largely unmentioned was their lack of explosiveness at kick returner. Beyond Devin McCourty's 104-yard kickoff return against the New York Jets in Week 7, the Pats didn't get much from their return game.
In fact, New England was just 25th in the NFL in kick return average at just 21.2 yards per attempt.
That's with their starting safety returning most of their kicks—something the Pats likely want to avoid in the future.
That's why Josh Cribbs fits in nicely.
Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the Pats are one of the teams interested in Cribbs:
— Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) March 9, 2013
Cribbs, who was the fourth-ranked kick returner and sixth-ranked punt returner by yards per attempt, could solve New England's return issues and prevent them from having to risk a starter's health on special teams.
High-Efficiency Slot Receiver: Wes Welker
There are a lot of people clamoring for an "X" receiver on the Pats, a deep threat who can stretch the field, take the top off the defense, or whatever platitude you think best describes Randy Moss in his prime.
But guys like that lead to boom-or-bust drives. In order to maintain the high level of efficiency that has characterized the Patriots offense in the Tom Brady era, the first priority needs to be a high-yield receiver.
And the most efficient receiver available was on the team last year—Wes Welker.
Welker is on the wrong side of 30 and has taken some brutal hits in his career, but he's not a prototypical, Calvin Johnson-style receiver, and that depresses his value to other teams.
But for the Pats? His route running, shiftiness and durability are key to the continued success of their historically efficient offense.
Welker will likely want at least a three-year deal with $20 million guaranteed and a $10 million average annual value. The Patriots will want to minimize the guaranteed money on the deal and keep it around $10 million.
Looks like it may be time to meet in the middle—say, three years at $8 million annual value and $15 million guaranteed.
X Receiver/Deep Threat: Mike Wallace
This one seems to be the least likely of these potential acquisitions, but it's not baseless—Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald reported that the Pats are at least somewhat interested in the Steelers' free-agent burner (via Pro Football Talk):
Report:Patriots have "some interest" in WR Mike Wallace wp.me/p14QSB-7Aqz
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) March 9, 2013
Wallace has averaged 17.2 yards per reception in the past four years, and he's one of the league's true elite burners.
Like an NBA big who can stretch the floor, Wallace's presence would massively improve the way in which the Patriots manipulate defensive spacing. Opposing linebackers could no longer count on bracket support, and secondaries that got caught peeking against play-action could get burned deep.
In other words, everyone on the Pats offense would benefit from Wallace's presence.
Wallace is the best deep threat available, and he'll cost a ton. The Patriots almost certainly can't afford both Welker and Wallace, so they have some major choices to make this offseason with respect to the direction of their offense.
It may be a pipe dream, but it's a fun one to think about.
Right Tackle: Sebastian Vollmer
Once again, the best free-agent solution to the Patriots' need comes from in-house. Vollmer is injury-prone, soon to enter his 30s, and he'll want significant money.
But his recent knee procedure might give other teams pause in a crowded tackle market, and that may be enough to bring him back to the Pats at a reasonable rate.
Vollmer is as good as they come at right tackle, and he had another excellent season this year. He ranked in the top 10 right tackles in run, pass and screen blocking, per ProFootballFocus' grading metrics. His ability to play left tackle in a pinch also provides the Pats with security should Nate Solder go down with an injury.
Ultimately, the Pats may opt for a more affordable solution at right tackle like prospect Marcus Cannon or a 2013 draft pick.
But if they decide to invest heavily in the position, Vollmer's skill set—along with the added benefit of offensive line continuity that retaining him would provide—makes him the best option to fill the right tackle hole.
Veteran Pass-Rushing 4-3 Defensive Lineman: Israel Idonije
The Pats' recent history of signings along the defensive line trends toward veterans like Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter.
They should continue that trend by signing 32-year-old defensive end Israel Idonije away from the Chicago Bears.
Idonije is a Chicago lifer and has stated his intentions to retire as a Bear, but Chicago's limited cap space may be a little too restrictive for the Bears to bring him back.
If the Pats can lure Idonije away, they'll be happy they did. Idonije registered 7.5 sacks and graded out as the 12th-best pass-rushing and 13th-best run-stuffing 4-3 defensive end according to ProFootballFocus.
His presence could allow the Pats to move Rob Ninkovich back into the second level. Idonije's veteran presence could also have a positive effect on second-year defensive end Chandler Jones.