The Biggest Questions for Patriots Heading into the 2013 NFL Draft
This offseason, the New England Patriots have chosen to focus primarily on their own internal free agents thus far.
Despite swapping Danny Amendola for Wes Welker and signing veteran safety Adrian Wilson, their biggest moves have been bringing back Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington and Sebastian Vollmer, who all project to be returning starters and ensure a level of continuity from 2012.
While the Pats were able to solve one of their biggest personnel voids at cornerback with these moves, their needs at defensive tackle, defensive end and wide receiver remain as large, if not larger, than they were at the start of free agency.
While they have added depth players such as Donald Jones and Michael Jenkins at the receiver position, the departure of Welker and release of Brandon Lloyd has left the Pats with no returning starters, not to mention a true outside threat that the team badly needs.
The Patriots always like to have their needs filled by the draft, but with limited cap space left and a shrinking free-agency market, it appears they'll still have some left by the the time the first name is called at Radio City Music Hall.
Here are the biggest questions the Pats will have to answer in New York City.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
Where's the Versatile Defensive End Value?
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Early in free agency, the Pats kicked the tires on both Dwight Freeney and John Abraham, though both still remain on the market, likely waiting for injury-replacement opportunities or better money to appear.
It's become a Pats tradition over the past few seasons to sign a veteran defensive end to work in as a pass-rusher. In 2011, they brought in Andre Carter and Mark Anderson. In 2012, it was Trevor Scott, but this offseason, the void remains. They have two solid starting defensive ends in Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, both of whom are three-down players.
While the Pats had their highest third-down sack total of the last decade in 2012, the need for depth and options for the sub-packages remains. And really, can you ever have enough pass-rushers?
2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette fits the mold of what the Patriots would need from a designated pass-rusher, but he did nothing in his rookie season to say he'll suddenly elevate into the five-to-seven sack guy they need.
If they've lost faith in Bequette, they could look to the draft for a versatile end who could compete with him to immediately contribute in the sub-defense, while also developing as a backup to Jones and Ninkovich.
Scott still remains on the market and was at least a serviceable option. He could be brought back if Freeney and Abraham land elsewhere.
Is Brady's Long-Term Replacement in the Late Rounds?
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With Tom Brady set for five more Super Bowl runs—at most—with the Patriots, could the time be right to pluck a late-round quarterback to develop as his heir-apparent?
While Ryan Mallet has been the rumored (h/t Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer) target of the Cleveland Browns this offseason. At this point, Mallet remains in New England, and it's unlikely, given Mallet's uneven performances in the preseason games, that he's done enough to earn the first- or second-round pick the Pats covet for him.
There's no question, Mallet has a big arm, but it's unlikely he'll dethrone Brady any time soon.
Developing quarterbacks is always good business, regardless of trying to develop one as a long-term replacement for Brady. It's the most important position on the field.
Tyler Brady of Tennessee will likely be taken too high to represent good draft value for a team like the Pats who have so few picks this season, but he fits the mold of the traditional pocket passers the Pats have continued their preference of.
A low-round option like Utah's Brad Sorensen could fit the bill on Day 3.
Are Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly Long-Term Solutions?
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Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly both had solid seasons in 2012, but it remains unclear just how high the ceiling is with either of them.
Wendell is entering the last year of his deal, and he had the better season of the two, playing more snaps than any other player in the NFL. Wendell also scored an impressive 27.0 in run blocking in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus, numbers that suggest that he just might be the center Brady will end his career with.
Connolly has two years remaining on his deal, with cap hits of $3.33 million in 2013 and $4.08 million in 2014. He had just an average year in 2012 by Pro Football Focus' metrics, scoring an overall .2 for the season.
His salary and performance don't necessarily make him a safe bet for the roster, so look for the Patriots to take their usual low-round flyers on some offensive linemen. No one is better at developing lineman than Patriots coach Dante Scarnecchia, and he can always use fresh talent to work with.
How Important Is a Base-Down Coverage Linebacker?
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The Patriots defense has been eaten alive in the middle of the field over the last two seasons, struggling whenever their linebackers end up in coverage. While you won't find a better threesome against the run than Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower, they all have their issues in the passing game.
The Patriots' dynasty defense featured a diverse assortment of linebackers that their current crop lacks. Up to 2004, the Pats were able to switch out run-stopping middle linebacker Ted Johnson, for coverage specialist Roman Phifer, but they had no such option for Brandon Spikes the last two seasons.
Dane Fletcher, who flashed potential at middle linebacker, notably with his spy coverage of Ray Rice in 2011 and 2010, could push Spikes for playtime against pass-happy teams in 2013.
Or the Pats could look to the draft to find another tool for their linebacker toolbox.
Traditional outside linebackers like Zaviar Gooden, Jelani Jenkins and Trevardo Williams who can all run, might be just what the linebacking corps needs. Or a high-round selection like Alec Ogletree would be a bold move to instantly change the complexion of the defense.
How Important Is Dennard/Talib Insurance?
Though it appears on paper that the Patriots will return their starting secondary from 2012, there is still some uncertainty.
Alfonzo Dennard was found guilty of assaulting a police officer earlier this offseason and will face sentencing on April 11. He could get up to five years in prison, though it's still unclear if prosecutors will push for jail time. Luckily, the sentencing will happen before the draft, and the Pats will know if they have their best cornerback of 2012 returning for 2013.
Aqib Talib re-signed with the Pats on a one-year deal that should have him ready to prove himself this season to win a more lucrative, long-term contract next offseason. Even if Talib plays at a Pro Bowl-level, it's likely he could be out of New England after one season.
Kyle Arrington is back on a four-year deal, bringing the only level of stability at the position, and his ability to play in the slot or on the outside certainly makes him valuable.
The long-term need at corner looks like it remains high, and given the injury history at the position, especially for Talib and Ras-I Dowling, it seems clear the Pats will need to add a corner in the draft. And who knows what a jail sentence could do to Dennard's development.
Arrington should be the primary "star," or slot corner, and he's signed long-term, so the need is primarily for an outside corner, though they could always use another slot corner to compete against Marquice Cole.
Is It Time to Evolve the Defensive Tackle Next to Wilfork?
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One area we've focused on extensively this offseason is the Patriots' struggles defending the pass in their base defense, and the easiest way to improve that would be to shift away from a second defensive tackle like Kyle Love and move more toward a traditional 4-3 up-field-type, even at the expense of some run-stopping.
While CFL free-agent addition Armond Armstead could help in this capacity, the Patriots still need to upgrade the interior of their line. Vince Wilfork will be 32 years old this November, he can't continue to play more snaps than any other defensive lineman, like he has over the last two seasons.
Both Brandon Deaderick and Love are entering the final years of their deals, and while both are adequate, neither make big enough an impact in the passing game. That's where the Pats have struggled most.
Like the receiver position, this year's defensive tackle class offers a number of versatile options. Should they want to find a traditional 4-3 tackle, they could look at players such as Sheldon Richardson, Sylvester Williams or Kawann Short.
If they wanted to continue with the "double-nose" base defensive scheme, they could look at players like Johnathan Hankins, Jesse Williams or John Jenkins.
More than anything, the Patriots need to add young talent at defensive tackle. Once they know the direction they want to take their defense, they should have a number of options, especially at the end of the first round and into the second.
Can They Find an X-Receiver Who Can Click with Tom Brady?
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The Patriots offense has gone through multiple evolutions over the course of Tom Brady's career. At the start, it was built on the backs of a physical run game and Brady's clutch play with receivers anyone would consider elite.
Then came the spread offense of 2007, built around Randy Moss and Wes Welker, that then evolved to the "death by a thousand cuts" short-passing offense centered around Welker and a quickly fading Deion Branch.
It's clear now, the offense will revolve around Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but outside of those two, much of the Patriots' passing offense is still in question as we sit in early-April.
The Pats have signed Danny Amendola, who could be a excellent addition, while also kicking the tires on restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders, who would cost a third-round draft pick.
Given who is left on the free-agent market, it seems likely that, for the first time since 2007, the Pats will enter a season without a truly proven weapon at wide receiver.
Really, they have no one to blame but themselves. Their misses in free agency and the draft outside of Branch, Moss and Welker are finally coming back to haunt them.
This leaves the Patriots with no choice but to take a chance on at least one high-round receiver. The good news is that this year's draft is flush with all kinds of pass-catchers. The ideal complement for Amendola would be a potential X-receiver, with the ability to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally.
Just some of the prospects that fit that mold are Justin Hunter, Keenan Allen and Aaron Dobson.
The Pats' poor history of drafting receivers certainly will make it interesting. Finding one who can click with Brady by reading the defense at the line of scrimmage then running the right route is paramount, even more so than finding someone truly in the X-receiver mold.
The Patriots will have a number of options at the position when they draft, but this is a pick they must make and one they cannot afford to get wrong again.