The New England Patriots have been active in the early going of free agency, adding big names like Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, along with bringing back leading receiver Julian Edelman and another outside pass-catcher in Brandon LaFell. There was little question that cornerback and receiver were two areas the Pats needed to address in free agency, and they solidified both positions.
However, for a team that relied almost exclusively on defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones in 2013 and are without a starting center, there are still big needs for Bill Belichick's team, and the market at those positions is quickly drying up.
This means the Pats will have to look to draft for help in these critical spots and perhaps reassess how they value certain positions that have evolved with the predominance of passing attacks in recent years.
The Patriots won three Super Bowls on the strength of their defensive front seven and solid protection for Tom Brady, with big-name cornerbacks and receivers being almost an afterthought.
Those teams proved that a strong front seven that can generate consistent pass rush can cover up just about any deficiency in the secondary, but at this point, it looks as though the Pats will put the reverse to the test.
This is a rare position for the Patriots. Usually they fill all their holes in free agency, with a priority on mid-range vets who can contribute right away. But today their depth at these critical positions is just as thin as it was the day the season ended.
Jones and Ninkovich are both solid, foundation players, but they cannot do it all alone like they were asked to in 2013. Second-year player Michael Buchanan showed some promise early in the season as a designated pass-rusher, but counting on him to make a leap and settle in as a rotational third defensive end might be too lofty an expectation.
And no one is counting on 2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette, who has played a grand total of 43 snaps in his two seasons (subscription required).
The Patriots over-relied on Vince Wilfork from 2010-2012 and were lucky to get three fully healthy seasons out of him. They might not be as lucky with Ninkovich and Jones if they continue to play nearly every snap.
Not to mention how much less effective their pass rush was when they left the field.
Pass rush is critical in the NFL. If you're not consistently disrupting the quarterback, it won't matter who's in your secondary. No one can cover forever.
The Patriots should look long and hard at two edge players who should be available in the late first round—Kony Ealy of Missouri and Dee Ford of Auburn, who has a workout scheduled with the Patriots. Both are raw players who will take time to develop a full array of pass-rush moves needed to be successful in the NFL, but the Pats' need for pass-rushers might motivate them to consider them.
In the past, players like Ealy and Ford wouldn't present enough value in the first round for Bill Belichick to select them. But now, with the Patriots in their sub defense the majority of the time, the value for pass-rush specialists has risen.
Other options could include Trent Murphy from Stanford and Kareem Martin of North Carolina.
As for the interior of the offensive line, the Patriots have a better history of drafting and starting rookies there. Logan Mankins is one example from 2004 who stepped right in.
If they can bring back Wendell, but take a high-round player to compete with him, the Pats could get the best of both worlds—stability, while also building for the future.
David Yankey of Stanford, Travis Swanson of Arkansas and Weston Richburg of Colorado State are all potential options in the early rounds.
For a team that has long prided themselves on winning the physical battles upfront on both sides of the ball, the Pats still have some critical needs. They certainly are not done with free agency yet, but to elevate their talent levels in the trenches, they'll have no choice but to address those areas in the draft with high-round picks.
Mike Dussault is a Patriots Featured Columnist and writes PatsPropaganda.com.