Thankfully, baseball season is only in Spring Training. Otherwise, who could have time to follow the NFL free agency rumors flying around the net today? The New England Patriots are definitely a team with some holes to fill.
As you will see by reading the defensive edition of this article, the defensive side of the ball in New England has its own issues; with that said, the offense looks worse than Swiss Cheese. Yes I know, Tom Brady had his best statistical year other than the 2007 season, but let's look at some of the other offensive positions that might need to be updated this offseason.
The Offensive Line is definitely not getting any younger. Logan Mankins is the only starter that is under the age of 30 and both starting guards, Mankins and Stephen Neal, are free agents. Mankins has been tendered a contract, but there has not been much news on progress in talks about a new long-term deal. OL Sebastian Vollmer is showing a lot of promise as a 25-year-old rookie; he filled in at both right and left tackle when Nick Kaczur and Matt Light were injured.
Don't get me wrong, the O-line played tremendously last season, allowing an NFL record 18 sacks over 16 games, but how much longer can we expect that type of performance out of them? With three second-round draft picks and enough money to pay for a couple of players, the Patriots should be able to secure at least one young successor this offseason, especially if they lose one of their two starting guards to free agency.
Another glaring issue over the past few seasons is the Patriots' running game, or lack thereof. The Pats have RBs Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis under contract, while Kevin Faulk is an unrestricted free agent. It's good to have more than one running back in case one gets hurt, but we have seen in the last season or two that none of these guys are starting caliber.
Maroney has shown flashes of promise, but it has come mostly in the return game and a few long runs in his career, as he has continuously shown no ability to hit the holes that the O-line create, or create any on his own. Morris and Taylor have both had successful careers, but they are over the hill. Green-Ellis is too young and unproven to count on as an every day back, although it looks like he does have a tremendous upside. Hopefully the Patriots will realize how essential Kevin Faulk is and re-sign him.
Leon Washington is a restricted free agent, but it is highly unlikely that Bill Belichick would be willing to give up the 2nd-round pick necessary to sign Washington away from the rival New York Jets.
LenDale White (a RFA with a second-round tender from the Titans) is an interesting free agent name, along with names like Willie Parker (UFA) and Justin Fargas (UFA). The Patriots have not been rumored to be in talks with any of the free agent RBs out there, so Belichick may feel that the platoon on the roster now will suffice. Alternatively, he could use a second or fourth-round pick on an RB that he feels could be more talented or beneficial than any of the free-agent RBs out there.
Tight end is another position that is definitely in trouble. The Patriots have released Chris Baker while seemingly allowing Benjamin Watson to walk away via free agency. The other two TEs under contract were undrafted rookies last year that the Patriots signed as sort of contingency plans.
Rumor has it that the Chicago Bears are shopping TE Greg Olsen and the Patriots, with the three second-round picks, are the favorites to land him via a trade. He would fit perfectly with the Pats' pass happy, run occasionally philosophy. Even with the lack offense and quality receivers in Chicago, Olsen recorded 60 receptions last year (however none of those resulted in a touchdown).
Even with a quality tight end it is the wide receiver position that is the biggest question mark by far for the Pats' offense. Randy Moss seems to be getting frustrated with the lack of a championship, just like he did in Minnesota. He signed a fairly discounted three year deal worth $9 million per year to give the Pats more cap space to work towards a championship with but they really haven't used it well.
With Wes Welker's recovery time from off-season surgery on his ACL and MCL largely unknown, Julian Edelman will have to take some snaps at Welker's slot receiver spot. He did pretty well during the season while Welker was getting rest or recovering from an early injury, but no offense to Edelman, he is no Wes Welker. Nobody is.
Other than those three guys, the Pats have Brandon Tate and Sam Aiken from last year, along with a couple of practice-squad players. They also brought back David Patten, who was with the team from 2001-2003, but has been out of the league since the 2008 season.
Tate showed enormous potential at the University of North Carolina early in his career as a returner and came on as a good receiver in his junior and senior year. However, he has been unable to stay healthy; he injured his knee in his senior season and then again last November. Aiken stepped in at the third receiver spot, but had quite a few tough drops, and did not seem to be able to handle much time outside of special teams.
The Patriots have been rumored to have interest in Denver's Brandon Marshall, but the rumors are based on the fact that the Pats need a No. 2 receiver, not because they have had any discussions with him. Additionally, he was tendered an offer sheet and it would cost a first-round pick to sign him away from Denver.
Josh Reed (UFA) visited the Patriots on March 7th, and Chris Chambers (UFA) is another name to keep an eye on, but it all comes down to who Belichick thinks will bring the most to the team.
Again, the Patriots have plenty of draft picks to either select a WR in the second-round or later. If they feel there is a receiver with enough value early in the second-round or late in the first-round, they could also package a draft pick or two together to move up.
Place-kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Chris Hanson are both free agents as well. Gostkowski is a restricted free-agent, and the Patriots have tendered him and offer sheet, so he doesn't appear to be going anywhere. Hanson is an unrestricted free-agent and the Pats could either resign him or go in a new direction; with the musical chairs at the punter position in the last few years, whatever they choose won't make too much of an impact.
It will be interesting to see what happens this year. Unfortunately, it seems that the Patriots are content standing pat, no pun intended, while the Jets and Dolphins are making big moves to better their shot at a division title. It seems that the uncapped year, possibility of a lock-out, and the uncapped rookie salary have scared the Pats away from making any necessary splashes or trades.
If Belichick doesn't see any talent worthy of drafting in the first-round or even at some of their current second round picks, nobody should be surprised if the Pats trade back in the draft, or even trade for picks next year. Plenty of people will speculate, but their guess is a mere shot in the dark at what could happen in the ever-changing carousel of the Patriots' personnel decisions.