New England Patriots: Pinpointing the Biggest Issue the Team Failed to Address

Kevin O'Connor@Kevin__OConnorContributor IApril 3, 2013

Bill Belichick always has a plan.
Bill Belichick always has a plan.Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots have had one of the more interesting free-agent periods in the National Football League, and fans of the team have had different opinions on how the team has done so far this offseason.

Let’s go through each area of concern for the team, before arriving at what is still the biggest issue that the franchise has failed to address.

Is the Secondary Good Enough?

New England was able to resign corners Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington, along with bringing in veteran safety Adrian Wilson. While Adrian Wilson isn’t the cover safety that he once was, he is still a force in the secondary.

Last season the Patriots had a top-10 run defense, allowing the sixth-most yards per carry (3.9) and the ninth-most yards per game (101.9). The front-seven was fine, led by future Patriots Hall of Famer Vince Wilfork. But what would happen when running backs would get to the second level?

Well, they would get loose. The same would happen on short passes over the middle, and I feel that is where Adrian Wilson helps the most. The prime example was in a game versus Buffalo, when Donald Jones caught a short pass and took it 68 yards for a touchdown.

Check out the video and look at the angle Patrick Chung took to attempt the tackle. Terrible.

Devin McCourty was the Patriots' best tackling safety, but he was unable to do it all himself. Tavon Wilson is still too raw, and Steve Gregory is better suited to a nickel/dime role.

So what did the Patriots do? They brought in Adrian Wilson, still one of the better tackling safeties in football. He shores up a problem that has been very underrated this offseason—run defense at the second level.

Wilson also brings the hard-hitting presence that the secondary has lacked since Rodney Harrison retired. He brings leadership, and I predict he and McCourty will be able to orchestrate what goes on in the secondary, much like Jerod Mayo does for the linebackers.

A lot of fans called for the team to bring in Ed Reed, but Devin McCourty was actually very good at safety last year. It wasn't just the addition of Talib that made the difference last season; it was the move McCourty made to safety.

McCourty and Adrian Wilson should be a good tandem at safety, with solid depth in Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson. The addition of Adrian Wilson provides time for Tavon Wilson to be groomed as a player.

The team still may look to draft a corner who can play the slot along with Kyle Arrington, but what they have done so far in free agency is very impressive. I don't think New England will look for a cornerback in the first round, considering they have two young players in Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling, but if they do, Blidi Wreh-Wilson is a name that comes to mind.

It's more likely that they look for a player in the middle rounds with high upside and flexibility, like Tyrann Mathieu. He would make a lot of sense, because of his strength in the Patriots' zone-cover scheme and his ability to play special teams.

Is This 2006 All Over Again for Wide Receivers?

Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd are gone, but it's not the end of the world.

I read this tweet a couple of days ago that claims this year’s offseason is comparable to the Patriots’ offseason in 2006, when they signed Doug Gabriel and Reche Caldwell and then went on to draft Chad Jackson. A lot of fans seem to agree.

Sure, Donald Jones and Michael Jenkins aren’t household names, but they have shown the ability to be effective in the NFL. Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel did absolutely nothing before being brought to New England. Michael Jenkins has averaged 538 yards and three touchdowns each of the past eight seasons.

Is that anything spectacular? No, but he has proven to be a serviceable player with both Minnesota and Atlanta. Donald Jones had success last season with Ryan Fitzpatrick as his quarterback, totaling 443 yards and four touchdowns in 11 games.

Do Patriots fans really want to see Deion Branch and Donte Stallworth back on the team? I understand wallowing in nostalgia for the past success, but both Jones and Jenkins have more upside than them. It's time to move on and bring in some new bodies.

Back in 2007, New England was criticized for trading a second-round draft pick to the rival Miami Dolphins for an unproven and undersized slot-receiver in Wes Welker. Not only did they trade a high draft pick for him, but they signed him to a lucrative five-year deal.

But does that make Danny Amendola a bad player just because he is "replacing" him? No, not at all.

Danny Amendola is basically a larger and faster version of Wes Welker. He has had injuries in the past but was an incredible player with Sam Bradford as his quarterback. Just like Welker had success with the likes of Joey Harrington and Cleo Lemon, Amendola has had success with subpar quarterbacks. Pair him with Tom Brady and it will work itself out just fine.

There was no reason to overspend on a guy like Mike Wallace or Greg Jennings, when they were able to sign Amendola to a reasonable contract and bring in Jenkins and Jones on bargain deals. They can look to draft a true split-end wide receiver. 

A few names that come to mind in the first round are DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen and Justin Hunter. In the late second round a player like Stedman Bailey could make sense for the team.

Even if the Patriots don’t draft a receiver, they are fine with what they have at receiver. And guess who the team’s quarterback is? Tom Brady. 

The Pass Rush is Still the Biggest Issue

Last season, head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia tried out various pass-rushing packages that were similar to the New York Giants' “NASCAR” package.

On passing downs, they would substitute Jermaine Cunningham in for Kyle Love, and sometimes go all out with four defensive ends, bringing in Trevor Scott for Vince Wilfork. Chandler Jones or Rob Ninkovich would move to defensive tackle alongside Jermaine Cunningham.

The point was to have loads of speed on the field and create an interior pass rush that would get right in the quarterback’s face.

One problem: It didn’t work. 

Despite a strong training camp, Jermaine Cunningham’s role on the defense quickly diminished due to his inefficiency on the field. He was unable to generate a pass rush and was soon playing only on special teams.

Trevor Scott proved to be totally washed-up, and it wasn’t long before the Patriots went back to just rotating between defensive tackles Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick to keep both players fresh.

It’s extremely concerning that the Patriots have only brought in two unproven defensive linemen that are both from the Canadian Football League. Armond Armstead and Jason Vega were both signed back in February, and it’s questionable if they will even make the team.

Armstead could carve out a role in the defensive line rotation, considering he has the ability to play both defensive tackle and defensive end. Belichick appreciates a player with flexibility, but there are no guarantees he will work out.

New England’s pass rush was better than it had been in the past, in large part due to the addition of Chandler Jones, but it still wasn’t nearly as effective as it had to be on all downs.

So what does Bill Belichick have to do to solve the problem?

John Abraham and Dwight Freeney were both brought in for visits, but both remain unsigned. Neither of them would be expected to be every-down players, but that is the point of signing them. Rob Ninkovich is a great run-defender, but his sacks came either in blowouts or against teams with weaker right tackles.

If Abraham or Freeney were signed, it’d allow the Patriots to have another effective pass-rusher on the team and therefore more fresh bodies on the field at all times. When bringing either of them in, you could rest either Chandler Jones or Rob Ninkovich and still have a strong presence on the field.

Or the team could go back to what it tried last year with the NASCAR package, moving Chandler Jones to the inside. Ninkovich, Jones, Wilfork and Abraham would be quite a difficult pass rush for opposing offensive lines to contain.

The Patriots don't blitz a lot, but bringing Adrian Wilson in should allow them to blitz more. Wilson is big enough that he could play in the dime-package linebacker role. This means that Adrian Wilson would shift to play alongside Jerod Mayo, and a safety would come in to take Wilson's spot (Steve Gregory or Tavon Wilson). Meanwhile, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower would be substituted out.

With 25.5 career sacks, Adrian Wilson has shown the ability to get to the quarterback, and it's possible the Patriots could look at that as a way to improve their pass-rush woes in certain situations.

New England could always turn to the draft. There are plenty of pass-rushers who will be available when the Patriots are due to pick at No. 29 in the first round. A few possibilities include Datone Jones, Bjoern Werner and Margus Hunt. They could also opt for a defensive tackle with potential as an interior pass-rusher such as Jesse Willams.

I don't expect New England to trade up this year, like they did last year for both Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower; it's more likely that they trade down and accumulate draft picks.

Margus Hunt is a boom-or-bust prospect at whom the Patriots could take a look if they sign a veteran pass-rusher like John Abraham. Hunt wouldn't be forced into a significant role right away, unless he proved to be an impact player, like Chandler Jones last season.

Bottom Line: Don't Panic

Trust in Bill Belichick. Right now the pass rush is still a huge concern, but there is time for moves to be made. In the past two seasons, New England was able to reach the Super Bowl and the AFC Championship game with a lackluster pass rush. Every team has weaknesses, including the Patriots.

But it sure would be nice to finally see this team get some game-changing sacks in the playoffs, wouldn't it?


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