Complete 2014 New England Patriots Offseason Preview and Predictions

Sean KeaneCorrespondent IFebruary 6, 2014

Complete 2014 New England Patriots Offseason Preview and Predictions

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Another year, another playoff loss.  Life is tough for Patriots fans.

    They've gone almost an entire decade without winning the Super Bowl and haven't even won an AFC championship since 2011.

    I'm joking, of course.

    Most fans would kill to come as close as the Patriots do year after year, but when the annual goal is winning a title, anything else feels like a wasted season.

    So what can fans expect from New England this offseason as the team once again circles the wagons in hopes of finally capturing that elusive fourth Super Bowl?

    The draft is key every year, but even more so this time around.  After successfully reloading with young studs like Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, the Patriots can finally afford to focus their efforts on one or two difference-makers, rather than casting their typically wide net in Rounds 2 through 7.

    Free agency will play a key role, too.

    Bill Belichick almost never signs big-name free agents, but this year's crop features so many high-end talents, he may be hard pressed to pass them up.

    Or he could just trade away all his picks for future consideration and use free agency for no purpose other than to fill out the bottom of the Patriots' depth chart.  After all, he is Bill Belichick.

    Here's one man's best guess as to how the offseason will unfold.  Everything here makes perfect sense, which of course probably means none of it will ever happen.

Re-Signing Aqib Talib

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    A friend of mine joked that among all-time quarterbacks, Tom Brady ranks No. 1, followed by Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

    I feel the same way about where re-signing Aqib Talib ranks among New England’s offseason priorities. He’s the marquee cornerback on the free-agent market and even if Bill Belichick manages to unearth an All-Pro caliber corner in the draft, the odds of that player matching Talib’s potential impact as a rookie are one-in-Sherman.

    For the second year in a row, Talib succumbed to injury during the playoffs, and for the second year in a row the defense bordered on helpless without him.

    Obviously already missing Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly helped to magnify the issue, but there’s no denying New England’s defense is significantly better when he’s in the lineup.

    He was a legitimate All-Pro candidate in 2013, routinely matching up against some of the best receivers in the NFL and even held superhuman tight end Jimmy Graham without a single catch. He carries some risk given his off-the-field history and propensity for injuries—he’s never played a full season—but that risk is outweighed by the mathematical certainty of fielding a far more vulnerable secondary without him.

Re-Signing Julian Edelman

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    Patriots owner Robert Kraft has publicly stated his desire to re-sign Edelman.

    Somebody should ask Bill Belichick how much that will weigh into his decision making. It’s been at least two weeks since the Hoodie stared down a reporter like they deserve to be lobotomized, and Patriot Nation could use a good laugh right about now.

    Following Wes Welker’s departure it was Edelman, not the newly signed Danny Amendola, who stepped up in a big way—just in time to hit free agency.

    According to Spotrac.com, the Patriots would actually be over the salary cap if the season began today, so they’ll need to get creative if they hope to re-sign Edelman, or even Talib for that matter. But he brings so much to the table as a return man, in addition to leading the Patriots in every major receiving category in 2013, that New England will certainly explore any and all avenues that might lead Edelman back to Foxboro, Mass., next season.

Establishing Brandon Spikes' Value

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    Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    For a variety of reasons, Spikes doesn’t seem to get much respect from New England’s talking heads. He’s not a very good coverage linebacker, but there are very few middle linebackers in today’s NFL who consistently show his combination of instincts and tenacity when defending the run.

    Spikes ranked third on the team with 86 tackles in 2013 and played in all 16 regular-season games, despite nursing a knee injury that eventually forced him to injured reserve.

    Or did it?

    Spikes played through the injury all year and was a dominant force in the run game. Pro Football Focus rated him as the best run-defending middle linebacker in the entire NFL—for the second consecutive year.

    So he played hurt and was still the best at his position but still ended up on I.R. just in time for the Patriots’ playoff run. You’d think Bill Belichick would want his run-stuffing extraordinaire on the field every week, especially during the playoffs and especially given Spikes’ fiery nature and ability to generate excitement among the crowd and his teammates.

    Something doesn’t add up.

    So when ESPN reported that Belichick ended Spikes’ season and nearly released his defensive hammer because he was late to a team meeting, it all suddenly made sense—in a spiteful Belichickian sort of way. Spikes made a plea for help via Twitter when he was snowed in during New England’s playoff bye week, so his tardiness was never in question, but whether it played a role in his I.R. designation remains a mystery.

    Sources close to Spikes deny reports of his near release and contend that his late arrival had no impact on New England’s decision to place him on I.R.

    This is Belichick and the Patriots, so we will never know what really happened behind closed doors, but the fact that Spikes clearly could have played—and been effective—but was still left off the playoff roster certainly indicates that the Patriots are comfortable moving on without him.

    A free agent, Spikes will almost certainly ply his trade elsewhere in 2014, but it would be a mistake for Belichick to summarily dismiss the possibility of re-signing him.

    Yes, Spikes is limited and no, he can’t always be trusted on passing downs, but he’s a difference-maker when he’s on the field.

Kick the Tires on Larry Fitzgerald

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    If Larry Fitzgerald is available, the Patriots should do everything possible—and even a few things bordering on impossible—to go get him. Period. End of story.

    There’s been a lot of chatter in New England lately that the Patriots kicked the tires on him last season, according to Tom Curran of CSN New England, before ultimately going in a different direction. It’s time to give him another look.

    I’m sure Arizona’s asking price will be high. It should be. Fitzgerald remains one of the very best, most complete wide receivers in the NFL today. If not for the turnstile of atrocious quarterbacks spinning through the desert before and after Kurt Warner, he’d likely be considered among the best to ever play.

    He’ll be 31 next season, so the tread on his tires in thinner than it was a few years ago, but he’s still got plenty of miles left before he breaks down. The fact that burgeoning NFL studs annually train with him to take their game to the next level speaks volumes.

    Cleveland’s Josh Gordon made his first Pro Bowl this season, and to stay at the top of his game he’ll be training with—you guessed it—Fitzgerald.

    Per Cleveland.com, Gordon received an invite from Fitzgerald when the two met at the Pro Bowl. Still on his rookie contract, Gordon could set himself up for a massive payday with another outstanding season. Therefore it’s no surprise he plans to take Fitzgerald up on his offer, saying, “I’ve got to go. It’s going to be fun. It will be in the summer time and help get ready for training camp and hopefully tear it up this season.”

    That Fitzgerald’s peers hold him such high regard is a testament not only to his talents as a receiver, but his leadership and willingness to mentor younger receivers hoping to follow in his footsteps. These are the best players in the world, and they turn to Fitzgerald to help make them better.

    When all’s said and done Fitzgerald could easily rank among the top five all time in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He career mark of 72.9 yards per game already ranks 12th all-time.

    Perhaps even more impressively, Fitzgerald has missed a grand total of four games during his 10-year career.

    You think Tom Brady might enjoy having that kind of reliable, prolific receiver in the huddle next to—or in some weeks instead of—the oft-injured Danny Amendola? You think young receivers like Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce might benefit from seeing Fitzgerald’s work ethic and passion for the game firsthand?

    This isn’t a malcontent like Randy Moss or Terrell Owens, neither of whom were ever accused of being very good mentors. This is Larry Fitzgerald, perhaps the most universally respected player in the entire league and one of the great ambassadors of the game.

    He is a weapon on the field and in the locker room. If the Patriots have an opportunity to acquire him, they need to take it. If they truly had an opportunity last season and passed it up, shame on them.

Fast Tracking the Youth Movement

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Patriots have been among the NFL’s best teams ever since Tom Brady stepped onto the football field. With the two-time MVP entering his 15th season, it would be easy to think of the Patriots as an older team on a downward trend, with a widespread youth movement looming on the horizon.

    Easy, but wrong.

    The youth movement has already begun in New England. Most fans simply didn’t notice because the Patriots haven’t plummeted down the standings like most teams do while rebuilding.

    In 2013, 10 rookies or second-year players—Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Alfonzo Dennard and Jamie Collins—either started or played significant snaps for the Patriots.

    This isn’t the same squad that captured three Super Bowls in four seasons. This is in fact a young team in the midst of a cleverly disguised rebuilding effort. Other than Brady, name one other player who was even on the team the last time they won a title.

    Take your time, I’ll wait.

    Here’s a hint: There is only one other player on the roster with a Super Bowl ring—Vince Wilfork.

    The Patriots certainly have the up-and-coming talent to vie for a title in 2014, they just need to continue nurturing that talent so all those young bucks can grow into a cohesive unit and take the next step together.

    Chandler Jones and Hightower already made a substantial leap in Year 2. The challenge is finding ways to help the likes of Collins and Dobson make similar gains this offseason.

Supplementing Youth with Experience

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    The Pats could use a few more veterans alongside their young studs
    The Pats could use a few more veterans alongside their young studsCharles Krupa/Associated Press

    The best way to stimulate more growth from New England’s aforementioned young talent is to tip the chronological scales in the opposite direction and inject some good old-fashioned veteran know-how.

    The Patriots quietly began doing that last offseason when they brought in longtime Oakland Raider Tommy Kelly. He’s precisely the type of experienced, savvy, driven player New England needs to supplement its emerging young starters.

    During the height of New England’s dynasty, the Patriots loaded up on veteran leaders willing to contribute any way they could to a potential title run. Players like Rodney Harrison joined the Patriots in search of their first championship, and that drive to win at all costs manifested itself on the field.

    There’s something to be said for finding players who’ve already achieved individual success but still haven’t captured the NFL’s ultimate prize. Giving a player his first real opportunity to vie for a Super Bowl tends to bring out his very best.

    Harrison, Corey Dillon and Randy Moss all reached the pinnacle of their careers when they joined New England after toiling on mediocre teams where their efforts were all but wasted. This year’s crop of free agents offers quite a few outstanding veterans who are still productive and fit that profile perfectly, most notably defensive end Jared Allen.

    Youth is coveted in today’s NFL, but it’s important to strike a balance between youth and experience. Bringing in a few motivated elder-statesmen will help the Patriots perfect that balance and maintain a competitive edge.

Bolstering the Offensive Line

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Patriots’ biggest loss this offseason might not even be a player. Offensive Line coach Dante Scarnecchia announced his retirement last month after spending 30 seasons with the team.

    For as long as most fans can remember, it didn’t matter whom the Patriots threw into the mix along the offensive line, Scarnecchia had them ready to play at a high level.

    No-name players like Dan Koppen, Russ Hochstein, Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell developed into starters, and notable draft picks like Logan Mankins, Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer have played at All-Pro levels under Scarnecchia’s tutelage.

    Replacing him is no easy task and newly hired Dave DeGuglielmo has some Paul Bunyan-sized shoes to fill.

    More than that though, the Patriots need to address personnel issues along the offensive line. Scarnecchia won’t be around to work his magic anymore, and Connolly and Wendell both struggled in pass protection this season.

    Pro Football Focus rates Wendell as the worst center on the free-agent market, assigning him a putrid overall grade of minus-14.0. You read that right. Negative 14.

    Given his lackluster performance he seems unlikely to be re-signed.

    Connolly remains under contract through 2014, but one can’t help but wonder if his days as a starter are numbered. Swingman Marcus Cannon has filled in admirably at guard and tackle at various points during his career, and entering his age-32 season, Connolly isn’t exactly a building block for the future.

    Outside of Cleveland’s Alex Mack, there isn’t a whole lot available at either position via free agency, so look for the Patriots to beef up Brady’s protection through the draft.

Insurance Policies at Tight End

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    On paper the Patriots have the best tight end in football. The problem is getting him off the proverbial paper and onto the football field.

    Rob Gronkowski simply can’t be counted on to play a full season anymore. He just ended his second consecutive season on injured reserve, following yet another devastating injury. At this point it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever fully regain top form.

    So, while the optimist and unbridled fanatic in me would love to pencil Gronk in for a Welker-esque comeback from his torn ACL, the realist in me just can’t do it.

    The Patriots as an organization have no choice but to assume he’ll miss considerable time in 2014. They’re also best served by covering all their bases and operating under the premise that even when he’s on the field, Gronk won’t be effective as in years past.

    Sad though it may be, it’s time to find a potential replacement for Gronkowski.

    The Patriots don’t have a long-term solution on their roster, but luckily this is a strong year for tight ends in free agency.

    Dustin Keller is available, although he’s coming off a torn ACL of his own. Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew or Buffalo’s Scott Chandler would make sense, too.

    The real value at tight end, though, lies in the draft. Eric Ebron, Jace Amaro and Austin Seferian-Jenkins could all warrant consideration in the first two rounds, and Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz—one of my personal favorites—isn’t far behind.

    Gronkowski’s murky situation puts the Patriots in a bit of a bind, but they should have no trouble finding an excellent insurance policy for their oft-injured star.

Bill Belichick Will Draft Somebody You've Never Heard of

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    Last year it was Jamie Collins and Duron Harmon.

    The year before that it was Tavon Wilson. In 2010 he began his draft with a couple guys named McCourty and Gronkowski. And so on and so forth.

    Bill Belichick laughs at our feeble attempts to forecast his draft board.

    If you’ve already done a mock for the Patriots, go ahead and tear it up. Throw it away. Make origami. Use it as toilet paper. That’s all it’s good for right now.

    If you’ve included a player in a mock draft, it means you know whom they are. If you already know whom they are, it’s a virtual guarantee the Patriots won’t draft him, especially not where you think they will.

    Last year I was lucky enough to nail the Aaron Dobson pick in my final mock draft. I got one pick right, out of seven rounds across dozens of mock-drafts scenarios. That was a major achievement for me and one I don’t expect to repeat this time around.

    So while I could—and eventually will—flood this space with educated guesses about why players like Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro and Minnesota defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman make sense for New England, Belichick is as likely to wear a three-piece suit on the sidelines as he is to follow conventional wisdom.