Unless quarterback Tom Brady suddenly retires from football to become a horse-racing aficionado or bow-tie model, the New England Patriots will once again rank among the early favorites to win next year’s Super Bowl, but they still have a few holes to patch before sailing the good ship lollipop to a title.
Like any other collaborative project, piece of machinery or team sport, NFL teams need to find just the right pieces to round out their roster to promote a winning atmosphere, intense competition and above all on-field production.
Even the world’s finest watch won’t keep time without the right parts, and here are five missing pieces to help the Patriots wind up and run like clockwork in 2013.
New England returns all five starters from last year’s offensive line, so its need is small, although at 6’6”, 375 pounds, Leonard Davis fills it in a very big way.
The older Brady gets, the more critical protecting him becomes, and it’s rare even in video-game football to make it through a season with a healthy offensive line. With Donald Thomas leaving via free agency and the team releasing Brian Waters, Davis would provide excellent insurance for both guard spots.
He hasn’t started a game since 2010, but he saw action in all 16 games for the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers last season, and the three-time Pro Bowler has 155 career starts of experience to fall back on at both guard and tackle.
At his age—Davis turns 35 in September—it’s unlikely he can still play tackle at his size, but his mountainous frame and veteran know-how would prove quite valuable should any ill befall Logan Mankins or Dan Connolly.
With Rob Gronkowski’s early season in doubt thanks to his infected forearm and Aaron Hernandez recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, the Patriots need another big target for Tom Brady, especially in the red zone.
Even in a part-time role, Ramses Barden can help mitigate losing one or both tight ends should they miss any time early on.
At 6’6”, 224 pounds, Barden brings elite size to the table. His tremendous height alone makes him a mismatch against any cornerback, and while he’s not a burner by any means, he’s still fast enough to blow past linebackers.
Bringing Barden onto the field for 12 to 15 plays per game will give the offense loads of matchups to exploit on the outside and a towering target to open things up in the red zone.
Barden’s been mostly unproductive during his pro career, but during his time with the New York Giants, he sat behind Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. It’s hard to fault a player for being caught in a logjam like that.
He will likely never be an every-down player, but Barden offers tremendous value if he can carve out a niche for himself as a specialized contributor.
Sometimes football players hold grudges—see Faulk, Marshall—and flatly refuse to play for certain teams. If Charles Woodson is that type of player, then forget about seeing him in New England. He jarred the football from Tom Brady’s grasp during the infamous “tuck rule” play.
That rule, which has since been repealed, cost Woodson a chance at a Super Bowl, and I wouldn’t blame him one bit if he was a little bitter.
If not, the former Defensive Player of the Year would be a welcome addition to New England’s secondary. With a lecture hall’s worth of rookie defensive backs from Rutgers and second-year man Alfonzo Dennard all competing for significant playing time alongside Kyle Arrington, Aqib Talib and Ras-I Dowling, Woodson’s veteran leadership and football savvy can be the glue that holds the unit together.
All those young, talented cornerbacks will benefit from having a respected veteran to look up to and learn from as they adjust to life in the NFL. Woodson’s seen it all during his 15 years of NFL experience, so even if he isn’t the player he was two years ago—Green Bay moved him to safety because of his struggles last year—he can still be relied upon to make accurate reads and consistently position himself accordingly.
He’ll be worth bringing in just to help teach the Logan Ryans, Dowlings and Dennards of the world how to develop those same skills.
Heading into the 2013 NFL draft, the Patriots’ two biggest needs were an outside receiver and an impact pass-rusher.
They drafted two potential solutions in wide receiver Aaron Dobson and defensive end/outside linebacker Jamie Collins, “potential” being the operative word.
If Collins isn’t quite ready to play or simply isn’t very good, that will force the Patriots to once again rely heavily on Rob Ninkovich. He’s earned the right not to be called “Stinkovich” anymore, but Ninkovich doesn’t exactly strike fear into opposing quarterbacks.
Simply put, the Patriots need an established veteran who can generate pressure on the quarterback.
Enter Israel Idonije.
Idonije played more situationally in 2012 after starting for the Chicago bears in 2010 and 2011. Still, the 32-year-old Nigerian has totaled 20.5 sacks since 2010.
If Chandler Jones doesn’t take an expected step forward, Idonije could conceivably represent a better pass-rusher than any player currently on the roster, and at 6’7”, 290 pounds, he has the size to hold up in the trenches while Ninkovich and Collins rotate in behind him.
Dwight Freeney’s always been undersized at 6’1”, 268 pounds, and with Father Time catching up to him, the former All-Pro may need to move off the defensive line to avoid being swallowed up by bigger, younger, stronger players.
Luckily for Freeney, his game never revolved around being the biggest or strongest. His pure speed and agility should play well as a rush linebacker or as a situational rush specialist at defensive end.
As mentioned in the previous slide, creating more pressure on the quarterback remains an area of need for New England, especially if some of its younger players don’t progress to expectations.
Like Idonije, Freeney brings proven veteran production in an area of need and could even be the Patriots’ best pass-rusher in the right situation. With 107.5 sacks and 43 forced fumbles on his resume, Freeney clearly has a penchant for the kind of momentum-shifting plays the Patriots defense has lacked in recent years.
Freeney will be highly motivated, since another productive season or another Super Bowl title would do wonders for his Hall of Fame candidacy. He’s no guarantee given his advanced age (33 years old), but if he can adjust to a situational role, he could maximize his production and thrive as a specialist a la Antwan Barnes of the New York Jets.
The Patriots would be wise to bring Freeney in and find ways for him to do what he does best.