With the season long gone, free agency in full swing, and the draft coming up quickly, it makes sense to examine the needs of the Patriots.
It's easy to forget that—statistically, at least—this unit was decent. It scored in the middle of the pack in terms of rushing, passing, and scoring defense. Indeed, the public perception of this defense as poor is probably a product of the offense's disappearance in certain games.
Still, this doesn't mean improvement is unnecessary—quite the opposite. Unless the offense regains its 2007 form—which is unlikely—it is the defense that must improve to make the Pats a contender once again.
The high point of the Patriots' offseason thus far has been the retention of nose tackle Vince Wilfork—and rightly so. Wilfork has unusual gifts and fills gaps in the line. He is probably the second-most irreplaceable man on the team—behind only Tom Brady.
To lose him would have been a disaster, as no free agent or draft pick would likely be able to do what he does.
Improvement is still necessary here, however. The Patriots pass rush was anemic, ending up with only 31 sacks last year—good for 23rd in the league. The team could only generate pressure when blitzing—and sometimes, not even then.
Recommendation: The Pats should use one of their high draft picks—a second, or even their first—to address the need at defensive end, especially with Julius Peppers off the table.
The Pats had another key retention here. Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, the one Patriot who could be credibly referred to as a pass-rushing threat, was re-signed, ensuring that the team at least has one less hole to fill.
Last year's AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, Jerod Mayo, had a decent sophomore campaign, hampered somewhat by a MCL injury.
For the umpteenth consecutive season, however, linebacker is a position of need for this team. As above, pass rushing is a concern, as well as speed in coverage. With Adalius Thomas having written his ticket out of town, someone must step in.
Recommendation: This is another position the Patriots must fill through the draft. Head coach Bill Belichick usually likes to acquire older players—like Junior Seau—who can grasp his system, but youth and speed are necessary here.
The re-signing of cornerback Leigh Bodden was on the team's "must-do" list going in to the offseason. Although that goal appeared in question at times, the steady veteran will remain a Patriot.
Last year's other big free-agent cornerback signing, Shawn Springs, had trouble staying on the field, but he was a clear improvement over the Patriots' other corners.
Safety Brandon Merriweather made the Pro Bowl last year, and he clearly has talent. However, he sometimes seems as apt to make a mistake as a big play.
Safety James Sanders lost his starting job at the beginning of last season, but he regained it during Week 14. The team said his promotion was to solve communication issues in the defensive backfield, and there was indeed some improvement in the Patriots' play.
Recommendation: Stand pat. The team stocked up on DBs in the past few drafts— Darius Butler, Patrick Chung, Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite—and it's time to see if they can play.
Actually, last year's defensive backfield was remarkably successful—especially when you consider how often they had to work without a meaningful pass rush. If the Patriots can find ways to pressure the quarterback this offseason, their secondary should look a lot better.