Might Emmanuel Sanders end up with the Pats after all?
As we approach midseason, the New England Patriots and their fans are understandably in tunnel-vision mode.
Yes, scouts and armchair GMs will constantly give thought to the Pats' future, but the true scouting and signing evaluation does not start for another five months.
Nevertheless, midseason also means we have a more definitive view of the Patriots' weaknesses. Some of these shortcomings were predictable, such as the perilously thin defensive tackle depth. Others have emerged in spite of preseason optimism—for instance, the right interior line has been a struggle all season long.
The Patriots' job is to win now, and Bill Belichick and Co. are only concerned with week-to-week results, as they should be. But as fans, sometimes it is useful to step back and re-evaluate the roster makeup, both to identify pressing weaknesses going forward, as well as potential long-term solutions.
It's hard to completely evaluate the Patriots' future free agent signing potential, especially considering the cap mess created after Aaron Hernandez's release. But taking an early look at the 2014 free-agent class, here are the five players who would best fit with the Patriots' needs and system.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required).
The Patriots will presumably have All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski back at some point, in which case this is not necessarily a position of need for New England.
However, even with the offense reshaping itself around multi-receiver sets, the Pats showed a willingness to invest in a receiving F-tight end by keeping Zach Sudfeld on the roster.
Sudfeld is gone now to the Jets, but there may be a potential cheap and effective veteran alternative on the market. At 6'5", 30-year-old Tony Scheffler has the type of size and receiving skills that could make him a nice complement to Gronk, as well as boost a Patriots' red-zone offense that has languished this year. Scheffler ranks in the top 20 among tight ends in touchdowns, receptions and receiving yards since 2006, per Pro-Football-Reference.
Scheffler has fallen behind Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria on the depth chart in Detroit, as the Lions have skewed younger at the position. However, as recently as 2011, Scheffler ranked eighth among tight ends in terms of yards per route run, a measure of both a receiver's target frequency and catch efficiency.
Scheffler does have a history of concussions with three in the last four seasons, making him a risky long-term bet. However, as someone unlikely to draw more than a incentive-laden one-year pact, Scheffler would provide insurance in the semi-likely event that Gronkowski misses time again.
For a Pats offense that has gotten virtually no receiving production from its tight ends without Gronk, Scheffler represents a low-risk opportunity to shore up a weakness.
At first blush, it seems odd to advertise someone on a Dolphins offensive line that has conceded the most sacks per game in the league. However, eight-year veteran guard Richie Incognito has actually graded out as one of the stoutest linemen in the league with a plus-7.0 overall rating that ranks ninth among guards.
Even more importantly, Incognito has particularly stood out in pass protection with a plus-4.1 grade. For reference, Pats guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly have graded out at plus-0.2 and minus-8.7 in pass protection, respectively, with Connolly's garish mark being the fifth-worst among all guards this season.
Not only has Connolly taken a big step back from a mostly average 2012 season, but his concussion history once again reared its head against the Saints. The Pats do have promising third-year player Marcus Cannon as a fill-in, but Cannon struggled on occasion Sunday, committing an especially egregious blown assignment that led to an easy Saints' sack of Tom Brady.
The Pats' interior pass protection has been shakier in general this season. Mankins, Connolly and center Ryan Wendell have combined to allow 30 hurries and six sacks so far after giving up just 46 hurries and nine sacks in 2012. Not all of that is their fault, as Brady has held onto the ball longer because of timing issues with his receivers, but there have been times against the Bengals and Jets where his interior line has looked overwhelmed.
Incognito seems like a fairly safe veteran option and someone whose potential acquisition would be reminiscent of Brian Waters' signing before the 2011 season. Moreover, he has the versatility to move to right guard with Mankins ensconced on the left side.
If Incognito does not get priced out of the Pats' comfort zone, he would shore up a surprisingly leaky interior.
The Dolphins' second lineman on this list may elicit yawns from fans who care little about the battles in the trenches. It should not, though, because New England's perilously thin depth at defensive tackle may prove fatal to an otherwise burgeoning young defense in 2012.
Paul Soliai has blossomed into one of the league's best defensive tackles with a plus-9.8 grade that ranks ninth among at the position this season. Weight problems plagued him earlier in his career, but Soliai has gotten in shape and is gradually increasing his snap count.
After not playing more than 40 percent of his team's defensive snaps for the first four years of his career, Paul Soliai played 54.7 percent of the snaps last year. He had played roughly 60 percent of the snaps this season before a knee injury sidelined him.
Before you scoff at that seemingly mediocre total, consider that Vince Wilfork hovered around the 60 percent range until 2010, when youth and a general lack of options turned him into one of the league's toughest workhorses.
Obviously, expecting Soliai to turn into Wilfork is setting expectations too high, but the Patriots do need an infusion of youth at the position with both starters there in their 30s and Wilfork coming off a devastating injury.
One consideration that may help the Pats is that both Soliai and fellow defensive tackle Randy Starks are impending free agents. Starks is actually just a smidgen ahead of Soliai with a plus-10.2 grade and will present the Dolphins with a quandary this offseason. Both are 29 years old, although Starks may be the first priority because of his role as an interior pass-rusher and longer track record of consistency.
If so, the Dolphins would be letting a very good defensive tackle in his prime leave in Soliai and those certainly do not grow on trees, as the Patriots have discovered this season. Soliai would be a significant upgrade over the replacement-level fill-ins the Pats are getting by with in 2013, giving New England some sorely needed depth and impact in the middle of its defensive line.
Emmanuel Sanders almost became a Patriot this year before the Steelers matched New England's offer to keep the restricted free agent in tow. Next offseason, however, Sanders will be an unrestricted free agent and the Patriots' interest is already well-known.
A renewal of that interest does come with a caveat, however. Without acquiring Sanders, the Pats have tried to fill the outside X-receiver role through a combination of Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson. Though the rookies have performed erratically, their unwavering reps suggests a long-term outlook and commitment to their development. If so, Sanders' arrival to Foxboro seems less likely.
However, if the Pats do decide to dip into the veteran receiver market, he is clearly the most obvious choice. When scouting Sanders this past offseason, Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe seemed to validate the Sanders-Deion Branch comparisons, even if he did not do so explicitly:
Basically, Sanders is a good, solid all-around receiver who is above average in most categories. He runs decent routes, has decent hands (had some key drops, and an open-field fumble vs. Ravens last year). Best receiving attribute is his ability to find soft spots in the zones.
Overall, while Sanders was an inside player for the Steelers, his skill set would indicate an outside "x" receiver role for the Patriots. He can do a lot of things Brandon Lloyd did, but better and faster.
This year, on a mostly moribund Steelers offense, Sanders has been a steady positive contributor with a plus-3.1 grade. If the rookies do not make enough progress for the Pats to employ a Super Bowl-caliber passing game, look for Sanders to reside near the top of the team's free-agent wish list.
Wesley Woodyard is a late-bloomer who may be one of the NFL's most underrated linebackers.
A smart, well-rounded veteran who has the versatility to line up at all three positions in a 4-3 base defense, Woodyard is one of the most valuable cogs in the Broncos defense, despite not having the name recognition of Von Miller or Champ Bailey.
Woodyard's stats are not particularly gaudy. The sixth-year linebacker has compiled just eight career sacks, though he did rack up 114 tackles last year. However, Woodyard is also one of the league's better coverage linebackers and would address one of two gaping holes in the Patriots defense.
Last year, Woodyard led all linebackers with a plus-9.9 pass coverage grade while adopting to a full-time defensive role for the first time in his career. Woodyard played 87.1 percent of the defensive snaps after never playing more than 60 percent through his first four years while converting from special teams ace to a borderline Pro Bowler. Woodyard was on pace to play over 90 percent of the defensive snaps this season before a neck injury against the Cowboys sidelined him this past week.
True three-down linebackers are difficult to find and often expensive, and the Pats do have an every-down player on their unit in Jerod Mayo. But with Brandon Spikes potentially leaving after this season, that would force more significant snaps onto rookie Jamie Collins. While Collins' athleticism is undeniable, he is also shockingly raw and routinely gets burned by savvier veterans.
If Woodyard ends up being a cap casualty, the Pats may be able to swipe a key player from one of their biggest rivals.