New England Patriots' Biggest Needs After 1st Wave of Free Agency
The first wave of free agency is in the books, and as usual, the New England Patriots have had their hands deep in the bargain bin and have stayed away from the top-shelf talent.
But contrary to popular belief, that doesn't mean they've completely failed this offseason. In fact, the Patriots have methodically checked off several boxes on their offseason priority list by stocking up on depth at multiple positions. They've also addressed several of their departures and releases by making additions at those positions as well.
Of course, not all of the work has been done in free agency specifically, as the Patriots have been active on the trade market with a pair of moves to add depth with guard Jonathan Cooper and tight end Martellus Bennett.
But the work is far from done. There are still at least a handful of positions where the Patriots could justifiably add someone to the mix. Here are some of those positions.
After setting Brandon LaFell loose, the Patriots responded with the signing of Chris Hogan. But the Patriots may not be done trimming incumbents from the lineup, as reports swirl about the possibility that slot receiver Danny Amendola could be a salary-cap casualty, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.
If the Patriots let Amendola go, they'll need someone to play the slot. That could be Chris Harper, Keshawn Martin or someone else on the roster. Regardless, the Patriots' work wouldn't be done. In seven games without Julian Edelman, the Patriots offense went into the tank. They tried to manufacture his production, but they simply didn't have the manpower.
More depth is necessary.
If the Patriots want a pure slot receiver, former New York Jets wide receiver Jeremy Kerley could be a target. He played almost exclusively in the slot, with 74.9 percent of his routes out of the slot in 2015 and 78.2 percent in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus. For reference, Amendola was in the slot 83.6 percent of the time in 2015 and 79.9 percent of the time in 2014.
But we all know Bill Belichick's affinity for receivers who run a fast three-cone drill, and Ohio State's Braxton Miller might just be the right mix of size and athleticism. His 6.65-second three-cone drill was the third-fastest among wide receivers at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine, and at 6'1" and 201 pounds, he would bring some welcome size to the table.
Miracle of miracles, the Patriots secondary was not the Achilles' heel that everyone thought it would be. Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan transitioned almost seamlessly from their roles as backups to starters, and although they weren't perfect, both young cornerbacks showed signs of potential and made marked improvements over the course of the year.
But what about the slot cornerback spot? It was a revolving door that was manned by the likes of Justin Coleman, Leonard Johnson and even safety Patrick Chung. Johnson is no longer with the team, and although veteran Tarell Brown will be returning from injury in 2016, the Patriots should still be looking to keep the secondary stocked deep.
They don't just need any corner, though. They need someone who is flexible enough to line up both outside and inside.
Right now, the free agent who best fits that mold is former San Diego Chargers cornerback Patrick Robinson. He has lined up at all three cornerback spots throughout his career: left, right and slot, but he has spent most of his time in the latter (202 out of 436 snaps from the slot, per Pro Football Focus).
There's also Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones, another three-cone wonder with a 6.71-second finish that put him at No. 2 among cornerbacks at the scouting combine. Certainly, Bill Belichick can get a good read on Jones' NFL readiness from Alabama head coach Nick Saban.
The Patriots already made a move to add depth to the offensive line at the guard spot. Now, it's time to add some depth at offensive tackle. That's the group where the Patriots suffered the highest volume of injuries this season, and no one will forget Cameron Fleming and Bryan Stork as the Patriots two starting tackles against the New York Giants.
But this isn't a matter of worrying about fourth and fifth tackles who may never be called to action. This is a matter of the third tackle, who is one injury away from once again being heavily exposed.
Marcus Cannon has struggled throughout his career and has not shown many signs of improvement. In 2015, he allowed 22 hurries, nine hits and two sacks, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranked 52nd out of 75 offensive tackles.
Maybe Dante Scarnecchia can still squeeze something out of him, but is that a chance the Patriots want to take?
Pinning down a good backup tackle to sign is hard. After all, the good tackles aren't backups. With that said, there's something to be said for experience on the bench. Perhaps former Rams tackle Jake Long would be a good fit. The former No. 1 overall pick has been bothered by injuries throughout his career, but maybe he would stay healthy coming off the bench and in a swing tackle role.
It would be wiser, though, for the Patriots to draft someone they might be able to develop. Indiana tackle Jason Spriggs was a workout warrior at the scouting combine, with top-five finishes in the 40-yard dash, bench press, broad jump and 20-yard shuttle. Give Scarnecchia an athlete like that to work with, and the Patriots might have a starter on their hands in a year or two.
With Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown at the top of the depth chart, the Patriots don't have a pressing need for starting talent at defensive tackle. Like most other positions on the roster, their needs lie deeper on the bench.
Up until this point, the Patriots have done a good job of keeping up with the departures from their team by adding new players at those positions. With the departures of both Akiem Hicks (signed with the Chicago Bears) and Sealver Siliga (signed with the Seattle Seahawks) earlier this month, the Patriots are two bodies behind on the depth chart from where they were last season.
The need at defensive tackle is even less grave, thanks to the presence of veterans Alan Branch, Chris Jones and Frank Kearse. With that said, any of those three defensive tackles would be a big step down from Easley and Brown, who were first-round picks.
There are plenty of linemen the Patriots could still sign. Washington Redskins defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is still without work, and although he didn't fit at nose tackle as well as the Redskins hoped he might, he has still shown throughout his career that he can dominate at the line of scrimmage—particularly in the running game.
As always, there are seemingly endless options at defensive tackle in the draft. According to NFL.com, there are 10 defensive tackles with a grade of six or higher, more than any other position.
One of those defensive tackles is Vernon Butler, a 6'4", 323-pound behemoth from Louisiana Tech. There will be aspects of his game he must improve, but he has the athleticism and the length to dominate the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots have kept pace with most of their free-agent departures by signing new players at those positions, but one place they've stayed ahead of the curve is at running back. Former San Diego Chargers running back Donald Brown will join the Patriots for the 2016 season, but the arrival of the former UConn Husky does not ensure stability in the backfield.
LeGarrette Blount remains an unsigned free agent, and in addition to Brown, the Patriots backfield consists of Dion Lewis, James White and Brandon Bolden. It's far from a skeleton crew, but the group lacks a standout between-the-tackles ball-carrier.
Right now, their best bet on the open market may very well be to re-sign Blount. There just aren't any other available running backs who could be relied on as a between-the-tackles short-yardage ball-carrier. That's what the Patriots need most right now, and that's what Blount has been for them over the years.
Their best bet in the draft might be Notre Dame running back C.J. Prosise. The 6'0", 220-pounder only became a full-time running back a year ago, so he still has much to learn, but Belichick can also tap into his pipeline with Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly to learn more about Prosise. He has the frame and the mentality for the position, though, and should be on the Patriots' draft board.
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