New England Patriots' 5 Biggest Needs Entering 2016 Offseason
The New England Patriots finished better than 28 other teams in 2015, but now that their season is over, they are behind those same teams when it comes to the NFL offseason.
Now comes the difficult part of the season, when the Patriots must begin to evaluate their own roster and make difficult decisions on their own key players. They must also decide which positions need the biggest overhauls.
The Patriots showed a few weaknesses in 2015, and some of those weaknesses manifested themselves on Sunday in the 20-18 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, but it's important not to look at this team solely in the context of that game. The Patriots played 17 other games this season, and each of those games contributes a role in what this team must improve.
Between Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, the Patriots have two very good linebackers. Elsewhere on that depth chart, there are question marks.
Lifelong Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a shoulder injury, marking the third straight season in which an injury has brought his season to an end. Mayo is due $11.4 million against the salary cap in 2016, according to OverTheCap.com, and could either be asked to restructure his deal for a second straight year or be released.
Veteran backup Dane Fletcher is also a free agent in 2016. The six-year veteran did not play in 2015 and was never activated off the physically unable to perform list. As of right now, the Patriots top backups are Mayo, Jonathan Freeny and Jon Bostic.
Depending on the scheme the Patriots plan to run in 2016, it could be more or less imperative for them to add talent and depth at linebacker, but the position will definitely be on the checklist somewhere for the Patriots this offseason.
The Patriots' struggles on the offensive line were hardly anything new to people who have watched the team all season long, but the men up front found themselves under a microscope Sunday against the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady saw pressure 30 times on 61 dropbacks, and he also faced pressure on 41.6 percent of his dropbacks from Weeks 11-17, fourth-highest in the NFL.
Oh, and there was also the whole issue of having virtually no running game whatsoever. Part of the problem was a lack of talent at running back after injuries to Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, but the offensive line didn't do the backs any favors by failing to open any holes on the way to an average of just 3.7 yards per carry and 87.8 rushing yards per game.
Rookie guards Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason each has his strengths—Jackson in the passing game, Mason in the running game—but both men showed they still have a long way to go before they can be considered viable starting options at guard. Josh Kline played well for the most part this season, particularly in the running game, but he also showed areas he needs to improve and was thoroughly overwhelmed against Denver (eight hurries, four hits allowed).
The Patriots should look to create some competition for the starting spots at guard headed into 2016.
As mentioned in the previous slide, the Patriots' lack of a running game was a huge factor in the loss to the Broncos. If they had been able to capitalize by running the ball against light fronts, they might be on their way to Santa Clara, California.
Part of their problem was injuries (any time you're relying on Steven Jackson to come in off the street and be a productive back, you're in trouble). But headed into next year, there will be some concerns at the position. At present, only Dion Lewis, James White and Brandon Bolden are under contract. Those are three talented backs, but are they enough?
Lewis showed so much potential in his first seven games in a Patriots uniform, posting 622 yards from scrimmage (234 rushing, 388 receiving) and four touchdowns (two rushing, two receiving). But will he be the same player who he was before he tore his ACL when he makes his return? It's hard to imagine his skills will completely go away, but it's difficult to say for certain.
On the other hand, there's veteran running back LeGarrette Blount, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent once again in 2016. The Patriots have been in this situation with Blount before and chose to let him walk before he was cut by the team that signed him, which paved the way for a midseason return.
The Patriots were hoping that Scott Chandler could give them a unique two-tight end look with a pair of big bodies who could hand-fight with linebackers in the running game and outmuscle defensive backs in the receiving game.
Chandler hardly saw the field enough to give them any of those things. This season, according to Pro Football Focus, he was on the field on 33 percent of the offensive snaps, including just nine snaps in the AFC Championship Game. He caught just 23 passes for 259 yards and four touchdowns, including no catches in the playoffs.
Former offensive tackle-turned-tight end Michael Williams even took more snaps this season than Chandler, at 39.3 percent.
With a $3.05 million cap hit, according to OverTheCap.com, the Patriots could save $2.05 million by cutting Chandler. Even looking beyond Chandler on the depth chart, though, the Patriots might need to create some more competition for playing time.
Reports of the demise of the Patriots secondary were premature, to say the least. If you had asked in the preseason, most folks would have guessed that the secondary would be the weak link that cost the Patriots their playoff lives. As it turned out, that couldn't have been further from the truth.
Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan played outstanding in 2015, with both men allowing less than 60 percent completions on the season, according to Pro Football Focus. The trouble, however, is the lack of depth.
Justin Coleman, Leonard Johnson, Tarell Brown, Bradley Fletcher and Rashaan Melvin all got chances to play for the Patriots in 2015, but the Patriots should add to the depth chart to force some competition for those third and fourth roster spots at cornerback. Most of those players flashed potential at some point in the season, but the Patriots could afford to stabilize this group a little better with more depth.
The Patriots are already set at safety, with three talented players on the back end. Another ball-hawking cornerback would help complete the Patriots secondary.