The NFL draft still looms over the Pats' roster plans, but, with many of the Pats' free agent questions answered, the starters have begun to solidify.
Let's take a look at a potential starting lineup for the Pats in 2012 assuming a two-WR, 12-personnel offense and a 4-3 base defense to start the season.
Barring a Bernard Pollard-level catastrophe, the Pats will emerge from the 2013 preseason with Tom Brady as their starter in a repeat of, well, every season since 2002.
Brady has shown no signs of slowing down posting the highest DVOA and DYAR—and the second-highest QBR—in the league per Football Outsiders.
Not much intrigue here—this is a position you can fill in with permanent marker.
In 2012, Stevan Ridley became the kind of feature back the Pats have been searching for since Corey Dillon retired.
Ridley managed a 4.4 YPC in 2012—tied for 10th in the NFL for players with over 200 carries. He totaled 1,263 yards and helped lead the Pats to the ninth overall rushing attack in the NFL.
Ridley's excellent sense of balance, low pad level and second-level burst are an asset to the Pats. He may not be fumble-proof, but Ridley adds another dynamic to New England's attack—one that helps take pressure off Tom Brady to carry the offense.
Nate Solder was thrust into the LT spotlight with the retirement of longtime Brady-blindside-protector Matt Light. A lot was expected of the young tackle in his second full year, and Solder delivered.
The 24-year-old product of the University of Colorado established himself as a potential franchise LT last year grading out as ProFootballFocus' 12th-best overall LT in the NFL.
Solder provides everything a GM hopes for from a premium position—high-level production at a low cost. Solder's effectiveness on a rookie contract allows the Pats to pursue stars at other positions.
Look for another step forward into the top-10 LTs this season from Solder.
The numbers on Logan Mankins' cap hit are brutal, but he's both uncuttable and a premium player, so, as it stands, the Pats ought to pencil him in for LG in 2013.
Mankins ranked as the eighth-best LG by ProFootballFocus' metrics despite recurring lower-body injuries.
If the 31-year-old can fully recover from those injuries and remain in top form for the duration of the 2013 season, he'll be worth the investment. The Pats have struggled to prevent an interior rush from elite defensive teams, including the New York Giants in the 2011 Super Bowl.
Still, contracts like Mankins' demonstrate why GM Bill Belichick is hesitant to pay a player based on past performance.
Ryan Wendell is a testament to the skill of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
With longtime center Dan Koppen departed for the Denver Broncos, the Pats were able to plug in Wendell without a hitch.
In fact, Wendell graded out as the fourth-best C in the NFL according to ProFootballFocus, and he had the best run-block grade of any center.
The Pats' ability to get above-average to elite production from their offensive line allows them to invest heavily in other areas of their team.
Scarnecchia, a longtime Pats coach with a reputation as one of the best skill coaches in the game, allows them to plug holes in the line regardless of who is starting.
Dan Connolly was the weak link along the Pats' line this season according to both ProFootballFocus' grading metrics (he's their lowest-ranked Pats lineman) and the insightful eye of Football Outsiders columnist and former All-PAC 10 lineman Ben Muth.
With Connolly's performance declining, and his age (30) advancing, this might be a spot the Pats invest heavily in through the draft. It's possible they'll even use a high-round pick on a player like Alabama's Barrett Jones, a Nick Saban player who can fill in at guard or center.
If they stand pat, they should be able to manage with Connolly along the interior next year. But look for the Pats to seek a long-term solution at both guard spots some time in the near future.
The Pats are starting to look prudent for not having used their franchise tag for the first time in years.
Of their "Big Three" FAs (WR Wes Welker, CB Aqib Talib, and Sebastian Vollmer), Welker and Talib have already signed for average annual values well under their tag number.
With the market set by Jake Long's four-year, $36 million deal with the St. Louis Rams, it's unlikely Vollmer will receive a deal that pays him anything close to the $9.8 million franchise tag for offensive linemen.
Talks are reportedly heating up between the Pats and Vollmer, and that's a good thing for those of us who want to see Brady stay upright next season.
Vollmer was one of the league's elite right tackles last year ranking No. 2 on Matt Miller's list of the Top 35 RTs.
Vollmer is approaching 30 and has a well-documented history of back problems, but he's still performing at an elite level. The Pats should move to retain the big Dusseldorf native on a short-term (say, two-year) deal, and count on him as next year's starter.
If Rob Gronkowski can simply avoid freak trauma injuries this year, he'll be the skill-position centerpiece of an offense that no longer features the fourth-most-targeted receiver in the NFL.
Bleacher Report's Erik Frenz provided us with some eye-opening stats that demonstrate the effectiveness of a fully-armed (pun intended) and operational Gronk:
Patriots QBs, when targeting Rob Gronkowski, since 2010: 209-of-284 (73.6%), 2,986 yards, 41 TD 4 INT, 140.9 passer rating.
— Erik Frenz (@ErikFrenz) March 21, 2013
Gronk has a whole offseason to recover from the broken arm he reinjured in the Divisional Round, and he should be ready to go. The Pats have to hope he stays healthy this year—his skillset as a mauling blocker and an elite pass-catcher is unrivaled in the NFL.
Aaron Hernandez wears more hats for the Pats than this guy—he's a "move" TE, a slot receiver, an H-back, even a RB in a pinch.
He's also a dangerous weapon for the Pats if he can avoid injuries like the one he suffered to his ankle when Julian Edelman rolled up on it in last year's Week 2 matchup against the Cardinals.
With Welker gone, Hernandez has to remain healthy and productive. He's now their primary option as a high-yield, efficient playmaker underneath.
It's a lot to ask of a 23 year old, but Hernandez is one of the league's toughest covers. He's up to the task.
If the Pats are comfortable without a deep threat receiver in the X position, expect them to bring back the productive Brandon Lloyd next season.
He doesn't stretch the field over the top so much as sideways. His balance and body control along the sidelines prevents cover corners from cheating toward the tackles to stop the run or shading towards the middle in zone.
Lloyd isn't, and won't ever be, Mike Wallace. But there are no Mike Wallaces in free agency, and few sure-thing WRs last until the end of the first round of the draft. So the Pats may opt for the safe route in resigning the recently released Lloyd, who they cut to avoid paying a $3 million option bonus.
If they want to go the dynamic, high-risk high-reward route, the Pats could pick up an X receiver in the draft. Players like Justin Hunter, Deandre Hopkins and Markus Wheaton could be fits for New England.
Danny Amendola signed a five-year, $31 million contract to replace the departed Wes Welker, and that's exactly what many fans will expect him to do.
There are plenty of similarities between Welker and Amendola, and, as long as the former Ram can avoid freak injuries like his dislocated elbow in 2011, he has the potential to be a younger, more dynamic Welker.
Still, it's tough to expect consistent 100-catch production from Amendola, especially as the third receiving option on a team with a strong running game. But if he manages to contribute to a highly efficient, effective Patriots offense in 2013, no one will care about his stat line.
If the Pats sign a veteran rusher like John Abraham, look for them to possibly move Chandler Jones across the line. That would take some pressure off the second-year player by allowing him to rush weaker pass-blocking RTs.
Jones enjoyed a fantastic start to his rookie campaign, starting at RE out of the gate and totaling six sacks in his first eight games. The second half of his year was marred by an ankle injury, but a healthy Jones should be able to take another step forward with a full offseason of conditioning and strength training.
Jones has a veteran's array of pass-rush moves that confounded top tackles like Tennessee's Michael Roos, and he would benefit from playing across from an expert pass rusher like Abraham. Look for a big year from the former Syracuse star if he can stay out of the trainer's room.
Vince Wilfork was the Patriots most consistently dominant defender last season, and he's played the most snaps of any defensive lineman in the last two years.
Hard to believe the big guy turns 32 in November.
Despite his advancing age, Wilfork is playing as well as he's played in his nine-year career. The Pats can count on him to anchor their line as a two-gapping nose tackle.
Wilfork is a run stuffer who can push the pocket in a pinch, and his leadership and defensive presence will be key factors if the Pats hope to improve their overall defensive ranking in 2013.
The Pats' biggest draft need, if they hope to remain in a 4-3 base defense, is another nose tackle to pair with Vince Wilfork. Kyle Love is stout, but doesn't generate enough upfield push to be a credible pass rusher in that scheme.
Look for the Pats to invest a first- or second-round pick at the position. I'll defer to more knowledgable draftniks on the specifics of who they might pick, though they should look at someone with one-gap pass-rushing ability like Purdue DT Kawann Short.
Of the available pass-rushers remaining in free agency (a list topped by John Abraham, Elvis Dumervil and Dwight Freeney) count me in for Abraham.
The 34-year-old defensive end has plenty left in the tank, if last year is any indication. He racked up 10 sacks in 2012 grading out as ProFootballFocus' fifth-best pass-rushing 4-3 DE.
Abraham has visited the Pats' and Broncos' facilities, reportedly leaving both places without a deal. Hopefully, the Pats can scoop up the former Gamecock who would serve as both a short-term answer to their pass-rushing woes and a mentor to Chandler Jones.
Dont'a Hightower occassionally battled hamstring injuries through parts of his rookie season, an injury that often speaks to preparation and conditioning. If he can stay loose next year, I think he'll be the best part of a menacing Pats LB corps.
Hightower is a run-stuffing elephant of a linebacker who demonstrated pass-rushing ability out of the gate (four sacks in 2013, third on the team). He seemed to struggle in coverage at times following the hamstring issues, but he's fast enough (4.62 second 40 time) to excel in that area.
Hightower is a smart player, but, at times, he seemed to over-think in his rookie season, hesitating down the line and failing to explode into a gap to meet the RB.
In that sense, he's the anti-Brandon Spikes, and that's not entirely a bad thing, but Hightower will be a better player once his mind settles and his instincts kick in.
I expect big things from Hightower in 2013. He has the potential to be an elite linebacker in the NFL.
What a fascinating player you are, Brandon Spikes.
Spikes got picked on in coverage in the playoffs, yielding a reception on every target (9 for 9). It may be time for the Pats to end his career as an every-down player, as he looks to be more of a run-stuffing specialist than a player with upside in pass coverage.
But as for the run-stuffing, it's something to behold.
Despite his flaws, Spikes is still a useful player, and he'll be on the field on first down when the Pats are in their base defense.
I've chronicled my thoughts on Spikes in a past article if you want more analysis of the charismatic LB.
Jerod Mayo is the centerpiece of the Pats second-level and one of the leaders of the Pats defense.
He had another quietly elite year in 2012, ranking second overall among 4-3 OLBs behind Von Miller per ProFootballFocus and top-10 in every category (pass rushing, coverage and run-stuffing).
Spikes' presence allows Mayo to move to the outside where he can be a bigger playmaker. He made the most of the opportunity finishing in fourth in the NFL with 147 tackles and adding three sacks.
Keeping him at OLB should be an easy decision for Belichick and the Pats.
Meet the new starting press-man cover corner, same as the old starting press-man cover corner.
In a market loaded with top CBs, the Pats decided to bring back Aqib Talib on a one-year, $5-million deal. That's a bargain for a player that solidified the back end of a passing defense that has struggled for several years.
Talib's return allows for consistency and coherence in the secondary.
When paired with Dennard, Talib allows the Pats to run a man-under defense with deep-shell coverage over the top from Devin McCourty. They can press, play physical, and cover effectively with that lineup on the field.
It's debatable whether Talib is a shutdown corner. It's absolutely debatable whether he can stay on the field after hip and hamstring injuries sidelined him last year.
But what isn't debatable is that the Pats defense is clearly better with Talib than without him.
Devin McCourty gains better depth and shows more range than any Pats safety in years. He takes good angles to the ball, has excellent instincts from a deep shell and puts himself in position to make plays on the pass.
With McCourty deep, the Pats corners are free to press receivers underneath with the knowledge that they have support over the top if their man gets by them. That's a huge help to Dennard and Talib who are both at their best when they can be physical with their cover.
Another year at the position could cement McCourty as one of the league's best safeties. He's become the most important part of a quietly improving secondary.
To that end, the Pats should probably think about moving him away from KR duties (thanks, Leon Washington).
The signing of Adrian Wilson somehow flew under the radar, but look for the long-time Arizona safety to have a big impact on the Pats defense.
At 34, he's no longer the player he once was. But Wilson's admittedly declining coverage skills are still strong enough that he be counted on to line up in man across from a big TE.
That's something no Pats safety—outside of perhaps rookie Tavon Wilson—could do reliably last year.
Adrian Wilson can still play the run, and, as such, he may be the perfect candidate to play a strong safety role up in the box. His skill set is nothing like McCourty's, and that's why they may complement each other well.
The success of the 2013 New England Patriots' defense depends on Alfonzo Dennard's April 11 sentencing hearing following a conviction for assaulting a police officer.
If Dennard doesn't miss significant time as a result of his sentence, he'll be counted on as Talib's counterpart along the outside.
Talib and Dennard's skill sets match up perfectly: they both love to engage their man at the line and prevent him from getting a clean release. That allows the Pats to play a coherent, predominately man coverage scheme that frees up the linebackers and safeties underneath.
The Pats' best hope for a defensive improvement comes from Dennard's ability to play next season.