Reassessing Patriots' Offseason Plan and Breaking Down What's Left to Address
The New England Patriots have had an exciting start to their offseason, bringing back some homegrown impact players while also making a splash with some big-name free agents. There's never a dull moment in Patriots Nation, and that certainly has not changed in 2014's free-agency period.
Despite the significant number of moves, the Patriots still have some sizable holes in their depth in critical areas. As the free-agent market dries up, the Pats' options are slowly dwindling.
It's seeming more and more likely that the Pats will go into the draft needing players who could have a significant role in the fall—something that is rare for a Bill Belichick-built team.
Here's a big-picture recap of how the Pats have attacked the offseason thus far and what they still need to do in the next month.
Addressed: Defensive Tackle
In 2013, the Patriots were hammered with injuries in back-to-back weeks when they lost the two big anchors of their defense, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, to season-ending injuries. The Pats got by without their starting defensive tackles, but there was much uncertainty regarding whether Wilfork and Kelly would return to the team in 2014.
After a contentious start, the Pats were able to work out a new three-year deal with Vince Wilfork that is heavily incentive-laden. Wilfork's torn Achilles was the first major injury of his career, but no one knows for sure if he'll be the same dominant player he once was, so the deal makes sense.
Kelly reworked his deal and will also stick around, but he's coming off an ACL tear so he could be limited as well.
If Wilfork and Kelly are able to return to their pre-injury levels of dominance, the Pats will be sitting pretty at defensive tackle. They developed some quality young depth in Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga in 2013 and also have highly regarded Armond Armstead entering the fray after needing all of last season to recover from an infection.
Given the level of uncertainty around the top of the depth chart, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Pats add a defensive linemen in the draft, but for now things look fairly strong if Wilfork and Kelly are ready to go.
Addressed: Wide Receiver
After losing their leading receiver last offseason, the Patriots did not allow it to happen for the second year in a row. Julian Edelman tested the free-agent market but ultimately returned to New England on a four-year deal that will pay him $17 million.
The Patriots also brought in Brandon LaFell from the Carolina Panthers on a three-year, $9 million deal. LaFell is a big and versatile receiver who should compete with second-year player Aaron Dobson at the X-receiver spot.
Despite now having 10 receivers on the roster, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Pats take another one in the draft, especially if a talented player they liked fell. They have a number of rookies entering their second year who could make a jump, but all were inconsistent in 2013, and it's doubtful any of their roster spots, outside of Aaron Dobson's are assured.
Danny Amendola and Edelman should make for a lethal combination in the slot, but the Pats' lack of weapons in 2013 was often glaring, and they can't allow that to happen again.
The headlining offseason moves the Patriots have made so far have to be the additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. After Browner's four-game suspension is served, it seems like a lock that he and Revis will be the starting outside corners.
It's clear that Bill Belichick wants to stick with the heavy doses of press-man coverage he effectively employed in 2013 with Aqib Talib. Now with Revis and Browner, and solid experienced depth behind them in Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan, the Pats should be able to take their coverage to the next level.
There are some questions, though, at strong safety after the release of starter Steve Gregory. Duron Harmon is currently pencilled in at the top of the depth chart. The Pats could target an in-the-box safety in the draft.
Never before has the Patriots' cornerback position looked more exciting, and there's every reason to believe that with Devin McCourty in his second full season on the back end, the Pats' pass coverage should be stifling in 2014.
Add in a hard-hitting strong safety and the Pats secondary should be even more scary.
Need: Interior Offensive Line
The Patriots brought back starting center Ryan Wendell on a two-year, $8.15 million deal, and that was the kind of solid move that brought a level of insurance to the offensive line.
However, both Wendell and starting right guard Dan Connolly had their struggles in 2013, most noticeably in the AFC Championship, and both seem upgradeable. But the depth behind Wendell and Connolly is thin, and although swing tackle Marcus Cannon has played some guard, it's questionable if he's a long-term option there.
If the Pats have to roll into 2014 with the same starting offensive line, they'll be OK. Returning all five of your starters is never a bad problem to have, but with Logan Mankins in his 30s and accounting for a huge cap hit, per Spotrac, the Pats could look to address the interior offensive line in the draft, perhaps even in the first round.
As Tom Brady enters his twilight years, a premium must be put on keeping him protected. Their interior offensive line has been shaky, and there's no developmental prospects in the pipeline. With a draft class loaded with solid guards and centers, expect the Pats to make some noise early and often at these spots on draft weekend.
Need: Running Back
The Patriots lost LeGarrette Blount to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Knowshon Moreno to the Miami Dolphins after considering him in free agency. They were also said to be in the running for Maurice Jones-Drew before he signed with Oakland.
With Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen entering the last years of their deals, and both with issues that have kept them off the field, the Patriots will look to add at least one more running back to their stable.
The Pats brought in Michael Bush for a visit; he's a bigger back who fits the mold of what Blount brought to the backfield. Or perhaps the team could consider Chris Johnson, who was released by the Tennessee Titans on Friday.
The Pats double-dipped on Ridley and Vereen in the 2011 draft, and there's no reason to think they won't do it again; however, it is unlikely that they'd look to select a back before the late second round at the earliest.
With a veteran addition and a significant draft pick, the Pats should stabilize the running back position and be ready for anything that might unfold with Ridley and Vereen this season.
Need: Tight End
The Patriots re-signed Michael Hoomanwanui this offseason, the only tight end to make it through every game last season for them. But "Hooman" is far from the kind of player the Pats are used to having at the position.
No, the headline player at tight end is Rob Gronkowski, who is coming off yet another major injury. Gronkowski tore his ACL against the Cleveland Browns, and while there's a good chance he'll be back in the lineup sooner than later, the Pats still must make some additions at the position.
The good news is that the draft has some solid prospects at the Y-tight end spot. A solid young player like Austin Seferian-Jenkins, CJ Fiedorowicz or Troy Niklas could help fill the void until Gronk returns, and provide insurance should Gronk get hurt again.
With the departure of Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher, the Patriots lost their top two middle linebackers this offseason. Dont'a Hightower should project to slide to Spikes' spot as the starter at the "Mike," while second-year player Jamie Collins enters the starting lineup at strong-side linebacker.
Collins had a breakout performance in the playoffs and could develop into a star the Pats badly need in coverage next to Jerod Mayo. Mayo's return from a torn pectoral, that caused him to miss most of 2013, should be a boost, but behind the three starters, the depth is thin.
Second-year player Steve Beauharnais showed some promise in the 2013 preseason and could elevate to a game-day role, but the Pats must make more additions at linebacker. They had Wesley Woodyard in for a visit early in free agency, but he signed with the Titans.
All options remain on the table for the Patriots, but a physical run-stopping middle linebacker to back up Hightower might be the most needed ingredient. After a season without a true coverage linebacker, they could always be in the market for one of those as well.
Need: Defensive End
The most glaring remaining need for the Patriots is at defensive end. Yes, the Pats return their starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, who combined to play more snaps than any other NFL defensive ends, but they cannot be relied to do the same in 2014.
The Patriots ran Vince Wilfork into the ground from 2010-2012, and they paid a price for it in 2013 when Wilfork's Achilles gave out. They cannot do the same to Ninkovich and Jones. They must add a third defensive end who can rotate in for both and serve as a designated pass-rusher in sub-packages.
Their options in free agency are limited. They recently had Will Smith in for a visit, but he's coming off a torn ACL in 2013 after a down year in 2012.
Perhaps second-year player Michael Buchanan could make a big jump in his sophomore season, and right now it looks like that is what the Pats are counting on. He looked far more promising than their only other defensive end on the roster, third-year player Jake Bequette, who has played just 43 total snaps in his first two seasons.
The Pats will have to add to their defensive end depth, if for no other reason than training-camp depth. But can they still find a veteran free agent or rookie who can immediately come in and be a significant part of a rotation with Jones and Ninkovich? That might be a tall order, and this might just be the Achilles' heel of the Patriots' otherwise stellar-looking defense.