New England Patriots: Ranking Remaining Offseason Priorities
With the 2014 NFL draft over, the New England Patriots have essentially finished the roster construction portion of the offseason. Though personnel alterations will still occur before the regular season, the fundamental framework is already in place.
Nevertheless, that does not mean the Patriots can rest on their laurels until training camp. While many fans see this time of the calendar as a dead period, New England will likely stay busy with free agents, salary cap management and, most importantly, developing the players already on the roster.
Many of the Pats' remaining offseason priorities are of the latter kind and will take place throughout training camp. But while the glamorous portion of the offseason is complete, the depth and development the Patriots foster over the next three months will set the tone for their season.
With that in mind, here are the most important tasks the Patriots must accomplish before they take the field in Miami on Sep. 7.
5. Identify Cap Casualties
Per Spotrac.com, the Patriots are currently more than $10 million under the cap, a mark that ranks 20th in the league. While that is a fair amount of space, shedding some poor-value veteran contracts could provide the Pats with breathing space for regular-season acquisitions and contract extensions for the likes of Devin McCourty and Nate Solder.
Starting linemen Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly look like the most obvious chopping block candidates. The Pats could save a shade under $6 million by cutting the pair, both of whom struggled in pass protection in 2013. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wendell's minus-14.0 pass-blocking grade was the worst among centers last year, while Connolly's minus-16.5 pass-blocking mark was fourth-worst among guards.
Apart from those two, however, there are not very many realistic targets. Stephen Gostkowski, Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater would net the biggest savings, but those are integral players who the Pats are likely attempting to extend to reduce their respective cap hits.
Tommy Kelly could be a cap casualty if his recovery from knee surgery does not go well, though he was a productive pass-rusher for the Patriots last season through the first five games. However, having drafted a similar 3-technique in Dominique Easley, Kelly will need to have a productive camp and preseason to convince the Pats not to pocket the extra $1.2 million.
4. Add Back Seven Depth
After a trenches-heavy draft, the Patriots appear well-stocked with a nice combination of pass-rushers and run-stuffers along the defensive line. With a stout starting back seven, the New England defense looks more formidable than it has since the Super Bowl years.
However, after neglecting to add linebacker or safety depth in the draft, the Patriots might want to look at a couple veteran insurance policies. As last season's defensive tackle debacle illustrated, being only two-deep at a position is a treacherous proposition.
Among the current linebacker crop, there are a few who could play roles in sub-packages. Ex-Bear James Anderson was dismal against the run, but his plus-8.5 pass-coverage grade was sixth best among 4-3 outside linebackers. Additionally, Stephen Nicholas could provide insurance at the "Sam" position behind Dont'a Hightower or Jamie Collins, as he manned that position in Atlanta for the past seven seasons.
At safety, the most logical solution would be re-signing Steve Gregory on a minimum salary deal. Gregory has not yet had any suitors, and the Patriots have mostly supplemented the depth behind starters Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon with special teams contributors such as Patrick Chung, Nate Ebner and Jeremy Deering.
Versatile sixth-round rookie Jemea Thomas could play a role, but if one of the starters went down, Thomas may not be ready to handle heavy snaps. Denver's Mike Adams looks like the best alternative beyond Gregory, though at 33 years old he might combat the Patriots mission to get younger and faster at the position.
3. Add a Receiving Tight End
If the Patriots possess versatility in the defensive back seven in the event of an injury, then tight end is an entirely different proposition. By not drafting a tight end, the Pats are essentially placing all their eggs in the Rob Gronkowski basket.
Before the draft, ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss reported that Gronkowski was "feeling better," though the tight end also noted that it was too early to determine if he would be ready for the regular season. Regardless of when Gronkowski returns, the formational and play-calling versatility he provides is irreplaceable, as his absence forced the Patriots to change the structure of their offense last year.
While no one can replace Gronk's multi-dimensional excellence, a receiving tight end is vital. Last season, the Pats received a grand total of 14 receptions, 152 yards and two touchdowns from non-Gronkowski tight ends. New England's passing game is much more effective when Tom Brady has a big seam target to work with, rather than needing to work extensively along the perimeter.
Ian Rapoport reported that ex-AFC East foe Dustin Keller visited the Patriots before the draft, noting that the physical on his knee went "very well." Keller could very well end up like Jake Ballard, whose physical limitations cost him a roster spot during training camp last year.
However, with 241 receptions over five seasons as a Jet, Keller provides more experience and production than anyone else, and he could be a worthy gamble if he proves healthy. Jermichael Finley is also on the market, though he comes with similar injury red flags.
Regardless, unless undrafted rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson vastly exceed expectations this summer, the Patriots should not leave themselves unprotected in the event of another Gronkowski injury.
2. Sort Out the Offensive Line Battles
As alluded to earlier, the interior offensive line was a significant weakness for the Patriots in 2013. New England subsequently reinforced the trenches during the draft by using three of their first four Day 3 picks on offensive linemen.
The rookie trio of Bryan Stork, Cameron Fleming and Jon Halapio are all massive players, even by linemen standards. After experiencing success as a power-oriented running team at the end of last year, it appears the Patriots are moving towards that philosophy, opting for heavier linemen rather than lighter types like the aforementioned Wendell and Connolly.
At the moment, the Patriots likely have six locks at the position—Nate Solder, Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer will all start, Marcus Cannon provides promising depth and Stork and Fleming should make it because of their draft pedigrees. As a sixth-rounder, Halapio is more vulnerable, though NEPatriotsDraft.com's Mike Loyko reported that New England had a much higher grade on the Florida product.
That would already make for seven offensive linemen, and the Patriots only kept eight on their active roster last year. Young players such as Josh Kline, Chris Barker, Braxton Cave and Jordan Devey have already had a year in the system, though new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo might revamp some of the personnel.
No matter how the personnel shakes out, the Patriots will likely have a bit of turnover. Considering how bankable the unit was under Dante Scarnecchia, choosing the right developmental prospects will be critical toward keeping the offense humming along at its customarily lofty levels.
1. Develop the Second-Year Receivers
While Tom Brady has always maximized his supporting cast, last year showed that even he has his limits. Brady's completion percentage, touchdowns and yards per attempt were all his lowest marks since the pre-2007 era, when the Pats morphed into the up-tempo spread machine that routinely broke records.
Consequently, some Pats fans viewed receiver as a pressing need. Rookies Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce were underwhelming for much of the season, and all three were injured by year's end. Considering the injury histories of veterans Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, many were worried about the current receiving corps' sustainability.
However, by not drafting a receiver, the Patriots have placed their faith in developing the second-year trio. Of the three, Dobson appears to possess the most promise, as he was among the team's most improved players from the first quarter to the second quarter of the year.
MassLive.com's Nick Underhill reported that Dobson will miss spring OTAs as he recovers from offseason foot surgery. Given that he was supposed to miss two to three months after surgery on Mar. 9, Dobson could be ready for minicamp, which begins on June 17.
Boyce and Thompkins come with more unknown variables and, subsequently, lower expectations. The former is a speed demon who could contribute on kickoff returns and in the slot, the latter is a less athletic but crafty route-runner who was a reliable possession receiver early in the year.
Even after re-signing Julian Edelman and adding Brandon LaFell, it's clear that the Patriots need at least one of the three to make a significant sophomore jump. None figure to ascend to primary target status, but if they can add a speed and/or outside-the-numbers aspect to the Patriots' short-to-intermediate bread and butter, it will infuse the passing game with invaluable versatility.
*All stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
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