The New England Patriots didn't make a big splash in free agency. They made several small splashes.
It should come as no surprise that the Patriots' main focus so far this offseason has been to bolster the depth chart at multiple spots. After all, the Patriots have lost a number of high-profile players in defensive end Chandler Jones, wide receiver Brandon LaFell, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive tackles Sealver Siliga and Akiem Hicks.
Even with those losses, their biggest weaknesses aren't with the talent at the top of the roster as much as with the depth at the bottom of the roster. There's still work to be done, but the Patriots are not falling behind schedule. The early score shows that the Patriots have answered four of their departures with new acquisitions at each of those spots.
|DE||Chandler Jones||Chris Long|
|LB||Jerod Mayo||Shea McClellin|
|TE||Scott Chandler||Martellus Bennett|
|WR||Brandon LaFell||Chris Hogan|
Of course, one can't expect Chris Long to perform exactly like Chandler Jones did, or for Shea McClellin to be the second coming of Jerod Mayo, but at the very least, the Patriots are keeping up in the depth department.
It's not outrageous for the Patriots to hope that Long can be a formidable backup for a year while the Patriots search for a long-term answer at defensive end in the wake of the Chandler Jones trade. The top of the depth chart is set with Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich at the top; with Long in the fold, the Patriots have added a veteran presence to complement a deep group of young players that includes Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom, and Rufus Johnson.
It's also not outrageous to hope that McClellin can be a suitable replacement for Mayo's part-time production in 2015. He might not have the leadership of Mayo, but that role has been passed entirely to Dont'a Hightower at this point. McClellin can simply fill in the blanks for Hightower and Jamie Collins on the field without carrying the brunt of the burden.
The Patriots clearly hope that tight end Martellus Bennett can be what Scott Chandler was not: sure-handed, for one thing. Bennett dropped four out of 57 catchable passes (7 percent) in 2015, while Chandler dropped six out of 29 (20.7 percent), according to Pro Football Focus. Bennett ranked 18th out of 39 tight ends in drop rate; Chandler ranked 39th.
As for Chris Hogan, it's not a question of whether he can improve on Brandon LaFell's 2015 performance; it's whether he can improve on or match LaFell's 2014 performance. It's baffling how quickly Patriots fans have forgotten what a big impact LaFell had on the offense in 2014, with career highs in receptions (74), yards (953) and touchdowns (seven).
But it's worth noting that LaFell's numbers were often similar to the ones Hogan's been putting up over the past few years: before arriving in New England, LaFell averaged 42 receptions, 596 yards and three touchdowns per season; in the past two years, Hogan has averaged 38 receptions, 438 yards and three touchdowns per season.
Additionally, the Patriots have acquired players at positions that were needs headed into the offseason, even before accounting for potential departures.
Trading for Jonathan Cooper gives the Patriots an answer to their need for more depth at guard, where rookies Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason had flashes of brilliance but were inconsistent in 2015.
Cooper has starting experience at both left guard and right guard, so he could feasibly compete for the starting job at either spot. He has underachieved in his first three years in the NFL, but given a chance to learn under the tutelage of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, there's still time yet for Cooper to live up to his billing as a former first-round pick.
There's also the signing of running back Donald Brown, which is an answer to the potential (though not official) departure of LeGarrette Blount.
The Patriots suffered multiple injuries at the position last year, and were forced to sign running back Steven Jackson off the street in December. Clearly, they hope to avoid a similar situation—although with Dion Lewis, James White and Brandon Bolden, the Patriots certainly aren't absent of options in the backfield.
Make no mistake; these aren't all just throwaway depth signings and additions. In fact, according to Trey Wingo of ESPN, the Patriots have added a whole heap of talent in four former first-round picks: Chris Long, Donald Brown, Shea McClellin and Jonathan Cooper:
Interesting to note in the flurry of @Patriots moves recently: Acquired 4 former 1st round picks for a team that doesn't have one this year— trey wingo (@wingoz) March 17, 2016
The only area where the Patriots have not made a reasonable accommodation is at defensive tackle, where they lost both Akiem Hicks and Sealver Siliga this offseason. The Patriots have invested heavily in that position over the past few years, particularly in the draft, where they've added both Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown in the first round in 2014 and 2015, respectively, but right now, the depth there is a little light.
The Patriots should also be searching for more depth at offensive tackle, where Marcus Cannon remains the top option to step in if either Nate Solder or Sebastian Vollmer are injured. The Patriots could also stand to add some depth at wide receiver, where they still don't have a good answer if Julian Edelman is injured—and where Danny Amendola may be cut or traded, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.
On top of that, the Patriots still need a third cornerback to fill out their secondary with Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan entrenched as the starters. And even with the addition of Donald Brown, the Patriots could still use another running back—and perhaps Blount could still find his way back to the team.
It's clear that there's still work to be done, but that's where the draft comes in. For now, the Patriots are doing what they need to do in order to keep up with their depth problems across the roster.