After a season of overachieving, Bill Belichick will go back to the drawing board for 2014.
As the light of the New England Patriots' Super Bowl chances faded into the murky peaks of the Rocky Mountains, fans in New England immediately wanted to know what decisions the Patriots will have to make this offseason.
What is broken? What doesn't need to be fixed?
Bill Belichick and his front office have a lot of tough decisions to make this offseason. Here are six of the toughest.
Note: Decisions are ranked based on the perceived difficulty of predicting future outcomes. Important—but easy—decisions such as if the Patriots should try to restructure Vince Wilfork's contract are not included.
The New England Patriots don't just collect talent, they build a team.
However, when a centerpiece of your team has proven—through no fault of his own—that he has trouble staying healthy, that certainly complicates things.
Rob Gronkowski is the biggest threat that the Patriots possess on offense, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would love to be able to build his offense around him. It certainly worked in 2011 where Gronkowski set multiple receiving records for tight ends.
However, the Patriots' passing offense sputtered with Gronkowski on the shelf for much of 2012 and 2013. When McDaniels and Bill Belichick assemble the 53-man roster this offseason, they need to do so with Gronkowski's injury history in mind. He can be added to any offensive scheme, but he is impossible to replace.
Verdict: Patriots should plan their offense with a Gronkowski injury-plan in place.
For the second time in as many years, the New England Patriots season ended with Aqib Talib spectating from the sideline. Christopher Price from WEEI.com had the word from Talib after the game:
Talib left the field, and then departed for the locker room. He came back out at the start of the second half, but was unable to go the rest of the way. Following the game, Talib said “if I could have been out there, I would have been out there.” The corner said he “[couldn't] remember how the play went,” but said that it was “very difficult” to sit and watch the rest of the game.
Despite Talib's injury history, he has earned a lucrative contract. However, the Patriots can't afford to give him too rich of a deal.
As the last two years have shown, the Patriots have struggled with Talib on the sideline. They need enough money to add additional pieces to the defensive line and backfield in order to prepare for a Talib absence.
Verdict: Talib warrants a long-term investment—perhaps a four-year deal with $18 million guaranteed—but the Patriots shouldn't break the bank.
Matt Cassell showed New England Patriots fans in 2008 just how important it is to have a quality backup quarterback. According to Gil Brandt of NFL.com, the Patriots might be in the market for one.
Despite my affinity for the likes of Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo, Georgia's Aaron Murray and LSU's Zach Mettenberger—all could be available after the first and perhaps second round—Bill Belichick would be wise to invest in a competent veteran quarterback to hold down the farm for a year.
Shaun Hill and Chad Henne are two players who could bridge the gap between Mallett and the next quarterback in line to be Tom Brady's heir.
Verdict: Patriots should trade Mallett, sign a veteran and draft a quarterback with upside.
It is safe to say that the New England Patriots were able to make due to without Wes Welker this year. Julian Edelman eclipsed both the 100-catch and 1,000-yard marks.
Whether to sign Edelman to a long-term deal—provided he doesn't give the Patriots a healthy hometown discount—is going to be a point of contention this offseason. Edelman has certainly earned his money with his play on the field, but the Patriots may choose not to match what a team like the Houston Texans might offer him.
Belichick and McDaniels have shown that they can make do with undrafted free agents and seventh-round afterthoughts. Who is to say they can't find the next one?
If the Patriots want to re-sign Edelman to a fair contract, they'll have to skimp elsewhere. Cutting Danny Amendola—who gutted it out with a detached groin all season—is clearly not the answer as it would actually add $2.1 million to his cap figure according to OverTheCap.com.
Verdict: Despite Edelman's fantastic play, the Patriots shouldn't commit too much money to the slot receiver position.
Aaron Dobson had an interesting start to the year. He caught a touchdown pass on his first snap, but then made a mess of his debut by dropping multiple balls thrown his way.
Eventually, Dobson settled in and was just starting to emerge as a trusted threat when he developed a stress fracture in his foot. He ended the season with 37 catches for 519 yards and four touchdowns, despite missing five full games and halves of two others.
The question facing the Patriots is whether Dobson can carry the load as a feature receiver. He certainly showed flashes of brilliance—totaling 190 yards and two touchdowns in back-to-back weeks against the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers—and you can't argue with his ability to get open down the field.
However, the injuries and inconsistency will give Belichick pause. If players like Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, Penn State's Allen Robinson or USC's Marqise Lee are available at a reasonable value, they may be hard to pass up. Emmanuel Sanders of the Pittsburgh Steelers will surely get looks again this year—he was signed to an offer sheet last offseason but was re-signed by Pittsburgh.
Verdict: Patriots shouldn't pass up on a game-changing receiver, but Dobson has shown a lot of promise.
In a league that sees spread-out offenses throwing the ball all over the field, speed on defense is a premium.
The linebacker group in New England wasn't known for their speed coming into this year. Despite their good play this year, Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes both look like defensive linemen on the field.
The starting linebackers might look quite different in 2014. Jerod Mayo should be back in the starting lineup, joining Hightower and rookie Jamie Collins, who came on strong down the stretch.
Partially on account of his mercurial attitude, Brandon Spikes is a free agent who has likely played his last game in New England.
If they wish to, the Patriots can add some speed to the linebacker corps through the draft. Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith is one player that will garner a lot of attention from New England scouts.
Verdict: Patriots should let Brandon Spikes walk and replace him with a smaller, faster linebacker.