The NFL lockout is nearing an end and for the first time in months fans can finally turn their attention to actual football. After the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is finalized, normal NFL activities and operations will commence. Training camp is just days away, and as of right now, there are a handful of players who are still without a team.
The NFL will soon experience a free agent frenzy, where teams will rush to negotiate with some of the top players in the league. As a Patriots fan it got me thinking, who will Bill Belichick target? While the Pats offense dominated opponents last year (resembling the 2007 squad) they still have some needs. Among them are a deep-threat receiver, who they pretty much did without after Randy Moss back to the Minnesota Vikings.
The Patriots also need to improve the offensive line with Matt Light hitting the market, Stephen Neal retiring, and Logan Mankins' likely hold-out (again). And finally, the New England could revamp its backfield considering they are ancient at the position, with three of running backs pushing 35-plus years in age. With that in mind, here is a list of 10 offensive free agents the New England Patriots should consider signing in 2011.
Plaxico Burress has not played a professional football game since Nov. 23, 2008, just five days before suffering an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound to his leg. As a result, he was convicted of criminal possession of a weapon and was sentenced to two years in prison. About a month-and-a-half ago, Burress was released from Oneida Correctional Facility and vowed that he would return to the football field once the NFL labor dispute was resolved.
Since the departure of Randy Moss midway through last season, the Patriots have lacked a consistent deep threat. The New England offense consisted mostly of short-yardage receivers such as Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Danny Woodhead, as well as rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Several teams may be wary to sign Plaxico Burress due to his off-field issues, but the Patriots may be willing to take the risk. Bill Belichick brought in distraught receiver Randy Moss in 2007, and the acquisition paid huge dividends (98 receptions, 1,493 receiving yards, 23 TDs). He has the speed to beat defensive backs in the open field, as well as the length to reach over smaller cornerbacks.
Although a deal that would bring the 33-year-old Burress to New England seems unlikely, it's hard to imagine the Patriots won't consider throwing their hat into the ring for his services.
Patriots left tackle Matt Light is a free agent, and his future with the club is uncertain due to the ongoing lockout. Realizing they were thin at the position the Patriots drafted Nate Solder out of Colorado. The expectation is that Solder will get playing time at left tackle with Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle.
In the case that Solder struggles his rookie year, it would be in New England's best interest to have some insurance. Jared Gaither is 6'9" and 340 pounds, and would be an ideal asset to the Patriots offensive line. If acquired, the Patriots would add depth to their offensive line and obtain some insurance in case Solder is not ready to be a starting left tackle at the pro level.
Last year, rumors swirled about the Patriots showing interest in Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson. At 6'5", 230 pounds Jackson has the size of a tight end, but the speed and agility of a slot receiver like Pittsburgh's Hines Ward.
He can add the missing piece to the Pats offense, becoming a reliable down-field threat, capable of taking the top off a defense, drawing the double-team and opening the field for receivers like Wes Welker and Deion Branch. In 2009 Jackson played in 15 games, racking up 1,167 yards and averaging 17.2 yards per reception.
Santana Moss is one of the more versatile wide receivers in the NFL. Although he lacks size at 5'10", 209 pounds, he can hold his own against bigger defenders. Although his speed has decreased with age (he's 32), he can still be a threat to catch the long-ball as well as work out of the slot.
In 2010, Moss caught 93 passes for 1,115 yards. He is also incredibly durable, having played in every game since 2008. Many have speculated that New England would be a tempting place for the unrestricted free agent to sign because of the fact that he has never won a Super Bowl.
Although a player like Moss will command a relatively hefty price tag, it's possible Bill Belichick will inquire as to what it will take to bring him to New England. Moss is also known as a leader in the locker room as well as on the field. With the influx of youth joining the Patriots over the last two years, it would be in the Patriots' best interest to restore the veteran presence that existed during the early 2000s dynasty by signing him.
Having dawned a Patriots uniform from 2005 to 2008, Heath Evans not only knows the New England offense, but flourished in it. Used primarily as a blocker and in goal-line situations, Evans performed well in his role during his three-and-a-half year stint with the Patriots.
According to WEEI.com's Christopher Price, Evans hinted that he would consider a return to New England. The only team on his list ahead of the Patriots is the team he most recently played for: the New Orleans Saints.
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports wrote in late June that San Diego's Malcolm Floyd would be a good fit in New England. I too believe the 29-year-old free agent would be a slam dunk signing by the Patriots. Malcolm only played in 11 games last year, recording just 37 receptions. However despite his limited play, he racked up 717 yards and averaged an eye-popping 19.4 yards per catch.
Malcolm Floyd is a deep-threat in the truest sense and would invigorate the Patriots, making their offensive attack more complete. Floyd is a big, athletic receiver who can read defenses and run routes effectively. He can also stretch the field opening up opportunities for the short-yardage receivers and tight ends. The only knock on Floyd would be the fact that he is prone to injury. In his six-year career, the wideout has played in all 16 games just once.
One of New England's glaring needs is improving the running back situation. Last year the Patriots used a rotating cast of Laurence Maroney, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor, with Kevin Faulk sustaining a torn ACL in Week 2 against the Jets.
After trading Laurence Maroney, BenJarvus Green-Ellis emerged as a reliable every-down back for the Patriots and was complemented by the likes of Woodhead and Morris. Despite having a relatively successful rushing attack last year (Green Ellis rushed for over 1,000 yards), the Patriots are getting old at the position. Faulk, Taylor and Morris are all over the age of 34, and the latter two are giving the Patriots minimal production.
Giants tailback Ahmad Bradshaw is currently a free agent and would be a great addition to the Patriots offense. As Brandon Jacobs' backup in New York, he rushed for 1,235 yards on 276 carries. If acquired, he and Green-Ellis (restricted free agent) could become a formidable duo, with Woodhead or Faulk as the specialty or third-down back.
However, the signing of Ahmad Bradshaw is doubtful; he recently stated that his first priority will be to return to the New York Giants.
An unrestricted free agent, Moore is another possibility to land in New England. Averaging 11.6 yards per reception in 2011, Moore is not known for his ability to catch the long-ball. Moore excels as an agile inside route-runner who can catch in traffic. Last year he recorded 66 catches for 763 yards and could be a standout in the Patriots passing game.
As of now the probability of incumbent left guard Logan Mankins returning to New England is slim. The Patriots used the non-exclusive franchise tag on him just before the lockout began, essentially making him a restricted free agent. Widely considered as the best guard in the game, Mankins held out until Week 7 before rejoining the Patriots last season.
Unhappy with his current contract situation, Mankins wants out of New England and will probably hold out again until the two sides reach an agreement. Assuming Mankins gets traded, the Patriots will have to fill the void at left guard.
One player who could make an instant impact on the offensive line is Robert Gallery, left guard for the the Oakland Raiders. After struggling as a left tackle at the beginning of his career, Gallery moved inside and became an effective guard. He recently cut ties with the Raiders, becoming an unrestricted free agent and will definitely be on Bill Belichick's radar.
In just five years, Sidney Rice has quickly become a premier wide receiver in the NFL. Like Santana Moss, Rice is a versatile receiver who can run deep routes while also operating out of the slot. He has a big frame, making him an effective perimeter blocker.
He only played in six games last year due to a hip injury, but had a breakout season the previous year. In 2009 he played in all 16 games, recording 83 receptions and 1,312 yards (15.8 average). Although Rice would be a nice addition to an already powerful Patriots offense, he will probably end up signing a multi-year deal to stay in Minnesota.