Free Agents, Draft Picks That Could Fill Patriots' Biggest Needs

James ChristensenContributor IDecember 10, 2013

Free Agents, Draft Picks That Could Fill Patriots' Biggest Needs

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    Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

    The New England Patriots—a mish-mash of spare parts after a rash of injuries to star players—are somehow 10-3.

    Even though the incomparable duo of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have been able to pull out some games, Patriots fans can see that there are holes on this team.

    What will Belichick's shopping list look like this offseason? Let's take a look.

Tight Ends

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    Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports

    Even before Rob Gronkowski's devastating knee injury, the Patriots were bound to be in the market for a tight end due to Aaron Hernandez's arrest on murder charges. With Gronkowski's availability for the start of the 2014 season now in question, it wouldn't be surprising for New England to add a couple of versatile players.

    Tests confirmed this morning that #Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski has torn his ACL and MCL, per source. His season is over, long road ahead

    — Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) Dec. 9, 2013


    Free Agent to Look For

    Jake Ballard—currently on the Arizona Cardinals roster—was in New England for training camp, but just wasn't healthy enough to make an impact following an ACL injury. In 2014, he should be a relatively affordable option for a team needing a dependable tight end.

     

    Draft Prospects to Watch

    Eric Ebron (TE, North Carolina) has wowed onlookers with his play this season. Bucky Brooks from NFL.com related some feelings about Ebron emanating from NFL circles.

    The 6-foot-4, 245-pound junior is a long, rangy basketball-like athlete with size, speed and agility to overwhelm defenders on the second level. He is simply too fast and explosive for most linebackers to shadow down the seam, but is too big and physical for safeties and nickel corners to hold up in coverage. With such a decided advantage against defenders, Ebron offers offensive coordinators an intriguing option to use to create mismatches in space.

    Ebron would be a natural fit for the "Move" or "F" tight end position that was vacated by Hernandez. While not his forté, Ebron is an able and willing blocker.

    C.J. Fiedorowicz (TE, Iowa) is more of an inline or "Y" tight end—the position played by Rob Gronkowski. Fiedorowicz certainly doesn't have the athleticism and speed of Gronkowski, who is more of a guy who can run outs and curls, but his blocking is just as good. 

    At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Fiedorowicz is almost like having a third tackle on the field. 

    If the Patriots were somehow able to snag both of these prospects—Ebron is a likely first-rounder, while Fiedorowicz is more of a second-day prospect—they could withstand a prolonged Gronkowski absence while having a lethal group at tight end when he returns.

Defensive Tackles

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    Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

    The interior defensive line of the Patriots has been under siege after injuries decimated their ranks early in the season.

    The Patriots should have Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly back from injuries next year and Sealver Siliga has played well in limited action so far. Armond Armstead, who has missed this season due to illness, is another option that the Patriots could have in 2014.

    That said, look for them to add depth at the position this offseason.


    Free Agent to Look For

    Top defensive tackles don't often hit the open market, and when they do, they are often out of the Patriots' price range. Linval Joseph—currently with the Giants—is a player who might help New England without breaking the bank.

     

    Draft Prospects to Watch

    Ra'Shede Hageman (DL, Minnesota) is a versatile prospect who he can play either the one, 3- or 5-technique positions and reminds me of former Patriot Richard Seymour at times.

    Greg Gabriel from the National Football Post gives you his take on Hageman:

    He shows good initial quickness, and when he stays low, he can be explosive. He has good instincts and awareness on the field and finds the ball. He doesn’t have top hand use and can be slow to shed at times, but because of his strength, he can also be tough to move. His play is average when taking on double team blocks. It's frustrating watching him as there are plays when he gets off the ball, sheds a block quickly, and makes the play, but then, other plays, he is a non-factor. You don’t see down after down consistency.

    He flashes pursuit ability and takes good angles but, again, not on a consistent basis. As a pass rusher, he can be a very good bull rusher when he wants to. I have seen plays where he jolts his opponent with a hand punch and drives him back to the QB. He also flashes quick hands and counter moves. The problem is there are too many plays where he is stuck at the line of scrimmage.

    Hageman—a likely top-100 pick in the 2014 NFL draft—would be a replacement for athletic tackles like Kelly and Armstead. He doesn't have the build to take over for Wilfork.

    If you want to add depth to Wilfork's position, Ryan Carrethers  (DL, Arkansas State) deserves a look. At 6'2" and 330 pounds, he has the frame and strength to take on double-teams and keep blockers away from linebackers.  

    If the Patriots don't want to invest a high pick on a player like Notre Dame's Louis Nix III, Carrethers is a nice option who could be available on Day 3 of the draft.

Cornerbacks

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    Bill Belichick has an interesting decision to make concerning the makeup of his cornerbacks at the conclusion of this season, starting with his own star player.


    Free Agent to Look For

    Despite a tough game against Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns last Sunday, Aqib Talib has been the best cornerback on the Patriots roster this season. However, his injury history makes it difficult to trust him with a lucrative long-term deal.

    I anticipate Belichick either franchising Talib or allowing him to walk.

     

    Draft Prospects to Watch

    If you want to replace Talib, there are two college cornerbacks who have shown the requisite abilities to do the job at the NFL level.

    Darqueze Dennard (CB, Michigan State) and Bradley Roby (CB, Ohio State) were both on display during the Big Ten championship game.

    Dennard's physicality and athletic ability are widely known, but Rob Rang, from CBS Sports, illustrates Dennard's mental acumen:

    On a deep ball down the right seam late in the fourth quarter, Dennard initially appeared as if he was going to leap to compete with his Buckeye opponent for the pass, sliding ahead of the receiver to be in position to knock the ball away.

    Just as he was about to leap, however, Dennard realized that the pass was overthrown, rather than leap and potentially tip up the pass (potentially allowing his opponent to catch it on a deflection), Dennard instead kept his feet, spun around the Buckeyes' intended target and prepared to make the tackle should his opponent make the unbelievable play. Miller's pass was too long and the ball fell harmlessly to the ground but by being in position to make the tackle rather than go for the splashy interception, Dennard played the kind of smart "bend but don't break" defense that frustrated the Buckeyes all night long.

    Bradley Roby showcases the press-coverage ability that the Patriots have enjoyed with Talib, with the speed necessary to effectively cover from off-coverage as well. Bucky Brooks, of NFL.com, broke down Roby's traits very well:

    Roby is one of the few corners in college football with speed, athleticism and versatility to blanket receivers in press or "off" coverage. He is tough and tenacious at the line of scrimmage in bump-and-run coverage. He overwhelms receivers with stiff jams at the line, before falling into hip pocket position down the field. Roby does a solid job of funneling receivers to his help and his keen awareness of hash-split rules stands out when I watch him play.

    Both Dennard and Roby should be picked in the first round next May.

Playmakers

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    Julian Edelman will be a free agent again in 2014 and is bound to get more attention this time around. Meanwhile, despite having another year on his rookie contract, Stevan Ridley's future with the Patriots is also in doubt.

    Look for the Patriots to kick the tires on some playmakers this offseason, especially at wide receiver.


    Free Agent to Look For

    Emmanuel Sanders was signed to an offer sheet last offseason that was eventually matched by the Pittsburgh Steelers, so it isn't a stretch to imagine that the Patriots will pursue him once again.

    Sanders can contribute at all three levels of the passing game, a trait that will help endear him to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

     

    Draft Prospects to Watch

    Brandin Cooks (WR, Oregon State) is a similar prospect to Sanders. Darren Page, from DetroitLionsDraft.com, states the case for Cooks as a top prospect:

    NFL offenses are implementing increasingly variable playbooks that can make use of a receiver like Cooks, where they can get him the ball in space as an extension of their running game. The versatility of a guy like Brandin Cooks is what makes him such an intriguing receiver prospect. He has the acceleration and long speed to threaten defenses over the top. He’s a natural catcher of the football who can go up and get it at its highest point. With the ball in his hands, he has an electric quickness and burst to make defenses pay.

    On top of these baseline traits, Cooks is a highly develop receiver in the finer nuances of the position. His body control, ability to track the ball in the air, and pass catching technique are all positives to his scouting report. 

    If the Patriots are looking for a running back, Melvin Gordon (RB, Wisconsin) might be an option. He gets through the hole as fast as anyone and is decisive with the ball in his hands.

    Cooks and Gordon both project as top 100 picks next May.

Interior Offensive Line

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    According to NFL.com, the Patriots have given up 36 sacks in 2013, placing them 12th out of 32 NFL teams. The Patriots have to put an emphasis on protecting Tom Brady in the future.

    While the return of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer will help, center Ryan Wendell and guards Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins have had better years in the past.


    Free Agent to Look For

    I'm sure that there will be some veteran offensive linemen released in the coming months, but I couldn't find a good fit for the Patriots from the players scheduled to become free agents in 2014.

    That might be for the best, however, as Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has proven that he can do a lot with players coming out of college who don't have too many bad habits to break.

     

    Draft Prospects to Watch

    Xavier Su'a-Filo (OL, UCLA) is projected to be a guard in the NFL, but has seen some time at tackle as well. Rob Rang, from CBS Sports, mentioned a lot of positives when talking about the Bruins blocker:

    Sua-Filo is quick off the snap and shows an impressive initial pop to push the defender off the ball. Scouts will be watching to see if his ability to sustain blocks improves with more experience inside at guard, where his short, wide frame is best suited. His experience at tackle is clear when pass-blocking, as Su'a-Filo is patient and balanced, showing the ability to slide laterally, as well as absorb a strong bull-rush, when necessary.

    Cyril Richardson (OL, Baylor) is a different option if the Patriots want to look at more of a mauling guard. While I'm not buying the first-round hype, at 6'5" and 340 pounds, Richardson has a similar frame to Marcus Cannon coming out of Texas Christian.

    Both Richardson and Su'a-Filo are Day 2 draft prospects in my book.