5 Positions the New England Patriots Must Address This Offseason

Alexander PernaContributor IJanuary 23, 2011

5 Positions the New England Patriots Must Address This Offseason

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    Regardless of how the New England Patriots' season ended in 2010, the team still reached a high level of success. In a rebuilding year, the Patriots went 14-2, beating the Bears, Colts, Jets, Packers, Ravens and Steelers (four of these teams made it to their conference championships). The team also accomplished winning the AFC East for the second consecutive year, had the league's best record on the season and set the record for the least turnovers in the NFL history with only 10.

    Not only was the 2010 season a success, the New England Patriots had their best draft in the past decade. Their first round selection, cornerback Devin McCourty, had an elite year with seven interceptions and was selected to the Pro Bowl. McCourty is making a strong run for the Rookie of the Year award.

    In the second and fourth round, the Patriots stole tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Both tight ends had at least six touchdown receptions and have promising careers ahead of them in the New England organization.

    Now that the Patriots' season has ended a little bit earlier than they hoped, it's time to take a look at some of the position's the Patriots must address before the 2011 season starts.

    The Patriots stocked up on draft picks in the 2011 NFL Draft, having two first-round selections, two second-round selections and two third-round selections. Bill Belichick and the front office will have to use them wisely on these five positions if they want to return to the postseason in 2011 and bring home a Lombardi Trophy.

Offensive Line

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    During the 2010 regular season, Tom Brady was only sacked 25 times. The offensive line had a positive year considering their circumstances. Before the season even started, the Patriots lost starting right tackle Nick Kaczur to injured reserve.

    Starting left guard Logan Mankins missed the team's first seven games because of a contract dispute. Mankins returned to the team and was impressively selected to the Pro Bowl, despite missing seven games. During the season, the Patriots lost starting right guard Stephen Neal to injured reserve. Neal played in the Patriots' first eight games and wasn't able to recover from a shoulder injury.

    This position is a need for the New England Patriots this offseason. Their offensive line isn't getting any younger. Defenses are getting faster and bigger lineman and linebackers that easily get past the Patriots offensive line. In the Patriots' past three playoff loses, the defenses the Patriots faced applied pressure to Brady that stalled the potent offense. Brady was sacked five teams in the team's postseason loss against the Jets. For majority of the game, the Jets rushed three defensive lineman.

    Take a look at the Patriots starting five offensive lineman:

    Position Player Age Contract Status
    Left Tackle Matt Light 32 Free Agent
    Left Guard Logan Mankins 28 Free Agent
    Center Dan Koppen 31 Signed
    Right Guard Stephen Neal 34 Signed
    Right Tackle Sebastian Vollmer 26 Signed

    Light has already mentioned he wants to stay with the Patriots, the team he's been with for 10 seasons. His age and physical condition may not give him the ability to protect Brady's blind side much longer. Mankins had issues with his contract during the 2010 season and sat out seven games to show the Patriots how serious he was about it.

    There is speculation the 34-year-old Neal will retire. This leaves the Patriots with only two offensive lineman if they don't address this position. It's a need for an offense that loves to throw the football.

Defensive Line

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    The defensive line had a solid year stopping the run for the New England Patriots, despite their injuries.

    Before the season, there were high hopes that the defensive line would regain the power and strength it had in the early years of this decade. Nose tackle and team leader Vince Wilfork had just been given a long-term contract. Like the offensive line, the defensive line took heavy blows the entire season.

    Before the season even started, the team lost starting left end Ty Warren to the injured reserve. Warren had 46 tackles and one sack in 2009. After the loss, the Patriots signed veteran Gerard Warren, who had a decent year for the team with 3.5 sacks and 28 tackles.

    During the season, the Patriots lost more fire power in tackle/ends Mike Wright and Myron Pryor. Wright is an underrated player for the team. In his first 10 games, he had 14 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Wright suffered a serious concussion in Week 10 and was not able to return to action for the Patriots.

    Pryor had high hopes for the 2010 season and the Patriots were hoping he could fill in on the right end of the defensive line. Pryor only played in nine games this season, missing the last eight with a back injury. He finished the season with 12 tackles and .5 sacks.

    With all of the injuries on the defensive line, the Patriots were forced to use news players, such as Brandon Deaderick and Eric Moore. Both are nice fill-in players. The defensive line combined finished with less than 20 sacks on the season.

    The Patriots need a defensive end that can stay healthy and rush the quarterback. The Patriots defense used to be very successful when they could stop the run and put pressure on the offense to make plays. The Patriots rely too much on the bend, don't break mentality. The team hasn't had a threatening line since 2008, where the Patriots started Warren, Wilfork and Richard Seymour.

    The position is also a must for the Patriots in the 2011 NFL Draft.

Outside Linebacker

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    If you look at the remaining four teams in the playoffs, they all have one thing in common.

    All four teams in the Bears, Jets, Packers and Steelers can all rush the passer. They can get to the quarterback and force him to make poor decisions. They have key players that can find holes and force offensive lineman out of their way to get to the quarterback.

    Who are these players? James Harrison, Lance Briggs,Clay Matthews and Calvin Pace. The Patriots do not have anyone like these playmakers. This has been a self-destruction absence for the Patriots for the last few seasons.

    The Patriots started the season with Tully Banta-Cain as their main pass rusher. He was their go-to outside linebacker. He finished the season with 45 tackles and five sacks. Over the season, Rob Ninkovich became a very important player to their linebacker core. He finished the season with 62 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions.

    That just isn't strong enough for the Patriots defense right now. The team needs someone who can find ways to get to the quarterback in a small amount of time. The 2010 Patriots defense was known for giving the quarterback multiple seconds to get comfortable in the pocket and find an open receiver. This was clear in the Patriots' postseason loss. Mark Sanchez outplayed Tom Brady because he had so much time to throw the football.

    A player that can have upside at the position is Jermaine Cunningham, a rookie out of Florida. Cunningham had some solid moments in his rookie year, making 34 tackles and forcing two fumbles. Cunningham looked over-matched when trying to rush the passer this season, but has upside because he is only 22 years old.

    The Patriots need to draft or acquire a pass rusher or this defense will continue to struggle. The team needs a playmaker that can put fear into the quarterback's mind and have them always wondering where they are at all times. The Patriots just do not have this playmaker right now and desperately need one.

Running Back

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    The running back situation for the Patriots during the 2010 NFL season was like trying to keep up with who Kim Kardashian was dating.

    The team started the season with Laurence Maroney as their starting back and were expecting big things after a rough couple of seasons with New England. Maroney just proved to everyone what most already knew, he didn't belong in New England. Maroney was traded to the Denver Broncos for a fourth round draft choice.

    Maroney's back up was Fred Taylor. A once great running back trying to bring his leadership and experience to a young team. That was all Taylor could contribute, as he was inactive for most of the season. He didn't even rush for 175 yards. Veteran Kevin Faulk started to get carries, but was put on injured reserve soon after.

    Then it got interesting.

    The Patriots were desperate for a back and decided to hand it off to undrafted free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The letters in his name were longer than the yards he rushed for during his past few seasons with New England.

    Green-Ellis became a solid back for the Patriots and began to help spread the offense out so they were not so one dimensional. Green-Ellis powered his way to 1,000 yards on the season, the Patriots' first 1,000 yard rusher since Corey Dillon. Green-Ellis also punched in 13 touchdowns and never fumbled. Green-Ellis is a free agent after this season.

    After Faulk was put on injured reserve, the Patriots needed a third down specialist. Again, desperate for a back, the Patriots signed an undrafted free agent back.

    His name was Danny Woodhead and he was 5'8". The interesting part was New England signed him off the New York Jets practice squad. Woodhead had an immediate impact for the Patriots. He could run and receive, becoming a lethal duel threat. Woodhead racked up 926 all purpose yards and scored six touchdowns for New England during the season. His performance got him a two year extension with the Patriots.

    The question is can these two perform at the top levels that they performed this season, again? Both are undrafted free agents and had the best years of their careers. Green-Ellis and Woodhead are both 25 years old. They could have promising careers ahead of them.

    A big difference in next year will be that top defenses will know who these backs are next season and how to defend them. The Patriots wouldn't be sorry in drafting or acquiring a running back that have proven themselves to be a good running back in the professional or college level. They haven't had a workhorse who could carry the ball week in and week out since Dillon. Maroney was the definition of a bust.

    If the Patriots draft a running back, they could have a solid 1-2-3 punch with Green-Ellis and Woodhead being secondary and specialist backs.

Wide Receiver

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    Bill Belichick has a way of outsmarting people. Some of the things he does makes him look like the best coach that has ever coached the game of football, but sometimes he does things that make you question his intelligence.

    Trading Randy Moss? One of the best receivers to ever lace up the cleats on a Sunday? When Belichick traded Moss away, at the time, it was questionable. Moss brought the Patriots a lot of their success in 2007 and caught a lot of touchdowns from Brady and Matt Cassel.

    Now, Moss is one step away from being the NFL's Allen Iverson.

    Belichick traded Moss away and got a lousy third round pick. He traded Maroney away and got a fourth round pick that was sent to Seattle for former Patriot legend Deion Branch. Bringing Branch back to New England and restructuring his contract was genius. Branch caught 61 passes for 818 yards, with six touchdowns. During the regular season, Branch was everything the Patriots needed him to be.

    Wes Welker fought the odds of not coming back for an entire year. He suited up for Week 1 of the regular season and played. Welker put his heart and soul into the season like he always does, but his production was somewhat down, which was expected. He still had 86 receptions for 848 yards, with seven touchdowns.

    Second-year receiver Brandon Tate was said to be the go-to guy when Moss was traded. At 6'1", he was the Patriots tallest and fastest receiver this season. Tate struggled this season, only catching 24 passes.

    In the playoff loss to the Jets, the Patriots needed a wideout. A true wideout. Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie held Welker and Branch to zero touchdowns. Their production was slim in the the playoff loss. The Patriots have some of the best slot receivers in the game with Welker and Branch, but do not have a deep threat that can spread the corner backs down the field. The Patriots limited themselves to majority short passes when Moss left.

    If the Patriots had a wideout that could draw coverages down the field like Moss did and have Branch and Welker on the field, they would be extremely tough to stop in the passing game. There are a few receivers that will be available in free agency, including Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards. Both have character issues, but would fit nicely in the Patriots system.

    Chad Ochocino's production went down last season and, with Carson Palmer asking for a trade, Ochocinco could be looking for a way out too. The Patriots need a wide receiver that can make plays like Moss did. They need a selfless playmaker that can make a difference against defensive backs like Revis and Cromartie.