For the New England Patriots, training camp is just around the corner, but that doesn't mean they're done bringing new faces into the fold. Most people think of camp as a time to whittle down the roster. While that's true, it can also presents a great opportunity to add veteran free agents who can bolster any remaining weaknesses.
The Patriots have fewer weaknesses than most teams, but they're far from perfect. With so much roster turnover—particularly on offense—they're far from being complete.
There are steals to be had, hidden gems to unearth, and role players to roll the dice on.
Here are five such veterans the Patriots may reap major rewards from by bringing them into camp.
Okay, so maybe that was actually a long time ago. Clark hasn’t made a Pro Bowl or started 16 games in a season since 2009, which may as well be another lifetime in the NFL.
He played in only six games in 2010 before his production took a nose dive during the Indianapolis Colts’ epic tank job of 2011.
Last season, however, Clark began to claw his way back into NFL relevance with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His 47 receptions, 435 yards and four touchdowns were all his highest totals since his 2009 All-Pro season.
New England represents Clark’s best opportunity to try and reclaim his place among the game’s best.
Not only have the Patriots parted ways with every wide receiver whose jersey began with No. 8, they also have an Aaron Hernandez-sized hole to fill at tight end.
That’s the best-case scenario.
If Rob Gronkowski isn’t 100 percent in time for the regular season, he could find himself on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list and be forced to sit out the first six games. The position could potentially collapse into a full-blown catastrophe.
The Patriots need a proven receiving threat like Clark to help stave off an offensive cataclysm. If he signs, it stands to reason Brady would look his way early and often, not just as the primary receiving tight end but as the most accomplished receiver on the entire active roster.
This one seems so obvious it almost feels like cheating.
Last season, the Patriots’ secondary was justifiably dragged through the mud after yielding the fourth-most passing yards of any team in the league.
A closer look, though, tells a different story than one might expect.
They finished with 20 interceptions, good for the fifth-highest total in the league, so they clearly have playmakers and capable coverage guys. They also finished in the middle of the pack in completion percentage allowed, which tells us they weren’t getting shredded as often as the detractors would have us believe.
A solid completion percentage against and high interception totals don’t quite jell with the idea of allowing that many yards, but the numbers tell us something valuable: Teams weren’t completing a high percentage of their passes, but when they did, they churned out good chunks of yardage.
In other words, teams were beating the Patriots deep.
You may be asking yourself, “What does that have to do with Abraham?” and that’s a fair question. While it’s ultimately the secondary’s job to shut down the passing game, everyone knows a cornerback’s best friend is an effective pass rush, which the Patriots did not have last season.
The word anemic comes to mind.
The Patriots’ sack leader last season was Rob Ninkovich with eight. Abraham has averaged more than that over his 13-year career.
While New England’s safeties and corners were trying to limit the damage, opposing quarterbacks were able to stand tall in the pocket and allow time for their receivers to work open downfield. Signing Abraham would help put a stop to that.
Sure, New England tried to address the issue by drafting linebacker Jamie Collins, but we can’t say for sure if the rookie will be ready to make an impact right away. We also can’t say for certain that second-year defensive end Chandler Jones will make the monumental leap many pundits expect.
The Patriots simply cannot endure another season with Ninkovich leading their pass rush. At the very least, Abraham would provide instant punch as part of a rotation at defensive end. He could yield similar production to that of Mark Anderson, who netted 10 sacks in 2011 and added another 2.5 during the playoffs to help guide the team to the Super Bowl.
He would need to turn some heads in training camp and the preseason to make the roster, but Hightower’s skill set is well-suited to the Patriots’ offense.
The former Arizona Cardinal excelled in a part-time role, displaying a formidable nose for the end zone with 23 rushing touchdowns in his first three seasons. He also flashed impressive receiving skills with 118 receptions during that time.
He was then dealt to the Redskins and named the starter before tearing his ACL in October of 2011.
Hightower hasn’t played since then, but with a clean bill of health he’s worth a speculative signing to compete for reps in camp with the likes of Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount.
If by some miracle he returns to form, he would make both of them expendable, and his well-rounded game would allow him to spell Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, keeping them both fresh during the course of a long season.
Given the turnover at the receiver and tight end positions, the Patriots will need to rely heavily on their running game in 2013.
The best way to complement a productive running game is with the threat of the deep pass. Not only does the specter of the deep ball keep defenses honest and stop them from keying in on the ground attack, but an effective rushing offense will inevitably afford opportunities to beat defenses downfield using play action.
To capitalize on those opportunities and help create space for Ridley, Vereen and Co., the Patriots need somebody who can stretch the field and make teams pay when they crowd the line.
Nobody currently on the roster is capable of doing that.
Second-round pick Aaron Dobson certainly has potential, but as any Patriots fan can attest, Bill Belichick doesn’t exactly have a sterling record of developing young receivers.
Robinson would re-insert that element into the offense. He probably isn’t suited to be an every-down player—although current projected starter Michael Jenkins isn’t much of a roadblock—but he’s shown the ability to provide explosive production in the past.
Robinson has spent most of his career playing in terrible offenses with terrible quarterback play. But the one season he found himself in a high-octane situation, he more than held his own, averaging an astounding 15.9 yards per catch with 11 touchdowns as a member of the Dallas Cowboys in 2011.
At age 28, Robinson is far from washed up. His downfield presence would be welcome in an offense that currently lacks one.
Just pure depth here.
Justice has years of starting experience with the Eagles and Colts, but for the Patriots he would simply provide insurance for Sebastian Vollmer.
A few months ago, I would have pegged Marcus Cannon for that role. But the team had him playing guard during OTAs, so depth could once again be a concern.
Injuries are impossible to predict, but Vollmer hasn’t exactly been a rock of late, missing 11 games over the past two seasons. Having another starting-caliber tackle ready to step in would go a long way toward keeping the offense afloat during what looks like a transitional season for the Patriots.
Justice would serve them well.