5 Available NFL Free Agents Who Can Still Help the New England Patriots

Sean Keane@@keanedawg86Correspondent ISeptember 19, 2013

5 Available NFL Free Agents Who Can Still Help the New England Patriots

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    The New England Patriots need help, and according to Gary Washburn of the Boston GlobeTerrell Owens wants to save the day.  Like anyone who watched the team's ugliest win in recent memory, Owens saw Tom Brady struggle against the New York Jets and apparently thought he could contribute on a team with serious question marks at the wide receiver position.

    So far it doesn't sound like the interest is mutual, and at age 39, Owens probably doesn't have much to offer these days.

    Still, his assessment of the Patriots was right on the money.  They need help.  They even reached out to their former wideout, Brandon Lloyd, about a possible return but were stonewalled, according to Pro Football Talk.

    Lloyd claims he isn't in the right physical or mental state to play in the NFL right now, and if that's true, it's a good thing the Patriots were unsuccessful in their courtship.  If he's not fit to play, he obviously can't help them.

    That doesn't mean there aren't other players who can, though.  

    New England needs help at more than just wide receiver.  Here are five players at various positions who could step in and make it a better team right away.

Willis McGahee, Running Back

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    Willis McGahee’s presence on this list could be moot by the time you read this.  As of this writing, he’s scheduled to take a physical with the Cleveland Browns and is expected to sign, according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport.

    However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned during my many years as a sports junkie and brief time as a columnist, it’s that you can’t safely assume any roster moves until they’re official.  So yes, while it’s unlikely McGahee remains available long enough to draw any interest from the Patriots, the fact remains that he’s still available now and hasn’t passed his physical with the Browns yet.

    If by chance he fails his exam or he and Cleveland can’t come to terms for whatever reason, the Patriots need to seriously consider bringing him in for a physical of their own.

    New England’s lead running back, Stevan Ridley, has struggled with ball security and general ineffectiveness through the first two games.  He was conspicuously benched in Week 1 following an egregious fumble and has yet to find the end zone after scoring 12 touchdowns a year ago.  Ridley managed to avoid any fumbles in Week 2 but had a close call on a bobbled catch in the flat.

    Better days are undoubtedly ahead for the talented tailback considering he only has 25 carries on the season, but right now the Patriots don’t have a viable alternative in case of an injury or continued struggles.

    Ridley’s backup, LeGarrette Blount, has shown absolutely nothing outside of one spectacular run in the preseason opener, and Brandon Bolden hasn’t even seen the field yet thanks to injuries.  The Patriots could sorely use a reliable, established rusher like McGahee to spell Ridley and help keep him fresh without necessarily sacrificing production.

Tim Hightower, Running Back

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    Tim Hightower plays the same position as the aforementioned McGahee, but he would fill a much different need for the Patriots.

    Much of New England’s offensive ineptitude, particularly in Week 2, stems from the absence of running back Shane Vereen.  Vereen was indisputably their most dynamic offensive weapon in Week 1, despite playing the entire game with a broken bone in his wrist

    Now on injured reserve, Vereen can return following the Patriots’ bye in Week 10, leaving them with a major void alongside Ridley in the backfield.  Hightower lacks Vereen’s explosive quickness and electrifying big play ability, but he’s a powerful runner with outstanding receiving skills.

    Right now the Patriots don’t have any semblance of a receiving threat out of the backfield.  Considering how accustomed Tom Brady is to having a reliable option like Vereen, Danny Woodhead or even Kevin Faulk in the flat or on screens, it’s not surprising to see him struggling to complete passes.

    Still only 27 years old, Hightower has battled a myriad of injuries in recent years, but when he’s on the field, he’s a rare breed of running back that can power his way for tough yards and still dramatically impact a game as a receiver.  The Patriots' two primary running backs, Ridley and Blount, have a combined 30 career receptions.  Hightower has twice eclipsed that total in a single season, most notably in 2009 when he hauled in 63 passes.

    He’s ideally suited for a part-time or change-of-pace role, which is precisely what he’d be in New England with Ridley locked in as the starter for better or worse. 

    Despite not playing in 2012 following a torn ACL during the 2011 season, Hightower offers a more diverse skill set than anyone currently in the Patriots’ backfield.  His versatility would go a long way toward relieving some of the pressure mounting on New England’s inexperienced and injury-riddled offense.

Laurent Robinson, Wide Receiver

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    Laurent Robinson comes with almost as many question marks as Hightower.

    He’s never reached 1,000 receiving yards in a season.  He’s never caught more than 54 passes in a season.  He’s never played a full 16-game season.

    He’s also recovering from ongoing concussion problems, dating back to last season with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Despite all of that, I profiled him as a worthwhile free-agent target before the season, and I haven’t seen anything since then to change my mind.  The Patriots still need an experience receiver, even more so now that Danny Amendola is predictably injured.

    Robinson’s career peaked in 2011 with the Dallas Cowboys when he scored 11 touchdowns and racked up 858 yards on just 54 catches.  He signed with the Jaguars last year, and his production plummeted in an offense short on talent and devoid of any discernible reasons for optimism.

    That year in Dallas was really the only time in Robinson’s career that he’s had the benefit of competent play at the quarterback position.  According to KFFL.com, he converted 67.5 percent of his targets into receptions and was a lethal deep threat, averaging 15.9 yards per catch.

    By comparison, the Patriots as a team have converted just 48 of 91 targets (52.7 percent) for receptions this season.  That includes the injured Danny Amendola, who caught 10 out of 14 targets in Week 1.

    Robinson was cleared by an Orlando-based concussion clinic this summer and is symptom free

    He carries tremendous risk, and the Patriots already elected not to sign him after working him out during training camp.  Still, given their issues in the passing game and the dearth of potential difference-makers available at the receiver position, it can’t hurt to take a flier on a lottery ticket like Robinson.

Kerry Rhodes, Safety

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    When the Patriots signed Adrian Wilson this offseason he was supposed to be the Patriots’ answer at safety, along with Devin McCourty.

    McCourty has held up his end so far, but Wilson landed on injured reserve amidst speculation that he might have been cut anyway.  So much for that.

    The “other” Wilson, Tavon, looked awful this preseason, and rookie Duron Harmon has shown nice instincts but doesn’t look quite ready for prime time just yet.  The Patriots have been forced to rely on Steve Gregory to man the fort.

    Gregory’s actually looked more than competent so far, and he has a wealth of starting experience to fall back on, so he’s not the worst option to start at safety, but Kerry Rhodes is simply better.  Just because Gregory is good enough doesn’t mean Bill Belichick can’t still find a way to improve at the position.

    To be fair, Rhodes isn’t the same player he was during his heyday with the Jets, but he still picked off four passes, defended 11 more and forced a pair of fumbles last season.

    Bringing him on board would allow the Patriots more flexibility in their defensive backfield, as he and Gregory could play in a variety of sub-packages.  It would also provide valuable depth considering New England is one injury away from forcing Harmon or Tavon Wilson into its starting lineup.

    Rhodes might not fill a clear need for the Patriots, but he still has some good football left in the tank.  In the NFL, there’s no such thing as too many good defensive backs.  In an absolute worst-case scenario, he would help ease the pain of losing special teams ace Matthew Slater to a broken wrist.

Todd Heap, Tight End

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    In case you haven’t been paying attention, the Patriots’ vaunted two-tight end attack from last season is a thing of the past.  Rob Gronkowski hasn’t played yet due to offseason back and arm surgeries, and Aaron Hernandez will probably never play another NFL snap.

    Preseason sensation Zach Sudfeld didn’t look very good in Week 1 and is dealing with hamstring issues of his own.

    The tight end position has grown so bleak in New England that Tom Brady didn’t even target a tight end in Week 2.  Not once.

    Gronk is getting closer to a return and hasn’t yet been ruled out for this week, so Heap may just be a short-term solution, but until the Patriots get Gronk and Sudfeld both healthy and back to full strength, they need somebody at tight end who can actually catch a pass.

    Heap is a shadow of his former self, but he can still catch.

    The Patriots’ wide receivers have had well-documented problems catching the football, and their jobs won’t get any easier when Darrelle Revis and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to town this week.  If Gronk is still sidelined, the Patriots need another option in their passing attack.

    Even if it’s just for one week, Heap is worth a look as a risk-free signing that could pay dividends in the short term.