Biggest Needs New England Patriots Have Yet to Address This Offseason

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2017

Biggest Needs New England Patriots Have Yet to Address This Offseason

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    The Patriots still have work to do this offseason.
    The Patriots still have work to do this offseason.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    The offseason game plan for the New England Patriots has unfolded almost as surprisingly as the second half of Super Bowl LI. When the new league year kicked off on March 9, few saw moves like the signing of Stephon Gilmore or the trade for Brandin Cooks coming.

    The moves the Patriots have made since the start of the offseason have not only been headline-grabbing, they've been sensible. Trading for Cooks gives the team a true deep threat on offense. Trading for defensive end Kony Ealy help to minimize the losses of Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard. Gilmore steps in for the departed Logan Ryan, and trading for Dwayne Allen helps replace the loss of Martellus Bennett.

    On top of everything, the Patriots managed to bring back star linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

    On paper, New England already appears to be a more dangerous team than it was a season ago. Yet, there is still plenty of offseason left—including the draft—that the team can use to get even better.

    While the Patriots might not have a slew of glaring needs left, there are areas of the roster the team can bolster before training camp. We're going to dig into them here.

Power Back

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    Should the Patriots simply bring back LeGarrette Blount?
    Should the Patriots simply bring back LeGarrette Blount?Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Based on the free-agent contract the Patriots gave to former Cincinnati Bengals running back Rex Burkhead this offseason—$3.1 million for one year—New England might have its lead back on board already. At the very least, the Patriots have a trio of versatile backfield pieces in Burkhead, James White and Dion Lewis.

    What the Patriots do not currently have is a true between-the-tackles power back like the one they had in LeGarrette Blount.

    New England doesn't necessarily need someone to rush for 1,000 yards the way the 250-pound Blount did last season, but they could certainly use a physical battering ram to get the tough yards and to crush the late-game hopes of opposing teams.

    Maybe Burkhead can be this guy—at 5'10" and 210 pounds, he's not exactly undersized—but there's not guarantee what kind of load he can handle. He logged just 87 carries in four years with the Bengals.

    Adrian Peterson could be an option if he's willing to work for cheap, but he's probably looking for a team that will grant him 20-plus carries per game. Marshawn Lynch could be an option if he ends his retirement and gets his release from the Seattle Seahawks. As of now, though, Lynch remains retires and the Seahawks hold his rights.

    If the Patriots are going to add a power back, they'll likely do it through the draft. They should be able to add a guy like Pittsburgh's James Conner (6'1", 233 lbs) or Wisconsin's Corey Clement (5'10", 220 lbs) in the middle rounds of the draft with the picks they already own.

    Then again, Blount remains unsigned, so maybe he becomes a late-offseason addition like he was a year ago.


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    New England should prepare for the possible departure of Malcolm Butler.
    New England should prepare for the possible departure of Malcolm Butler.Al Pereira/Getty Images

    The Patriots already added one standout cornerback in Gilmore, so why is the position one of need? Well, for starters, the team may have to go into the season without star defender Malcolm Butler. The team apparently ticked him off by inking Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal while not giving Butler an extension.

    According to Mike Giardi of CSN New England, Butler has been unhappy with his contract "dating back to last spring."

    Butler, who has been given a first-round tender as a restricted free agent, has had meetings with the New Orleans Saints. If he somehow forces a trade or gets signed to an offer sheet—and the Patriots don't match—Butler could be gone by camp.

    Plus, it's not like the Patriots would be in a bad spot with too many cornerbacks on the roster.

    Unfortunately, the Patriots probably aren't getting a top-notch corner in the draft without trading back into the first or second round. The may be able to snag a future starter in a guy like Michigan's Jourdan Lewis or West Virginia's Rasul Douglas with the picks they have. However, finding a true replacement for Butler would likely require a top draft pick.

    The good news is that if a team does ink Butler to an offer sheet and New England doesn't match, the Patriots will get that team's first-round pick. Therefore an elite prospect like Ohio State's Gareon Conley or LSU's Tre'Davious White could be within reach.

    It's pretty much slim pickings on the free-agent front, though former standouts like Darrelle Revis, Alterraun Verner and Leon Hall are available. The Patriots have a history of squeezing some quality remaining miles out of an aging player, so it wouldn't be surprising to see a player of this type brought in for depth.


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    Adding a pass-rusher like Alabama's Tim Williams could provide a huge boost for the New England defense.
    Adding a pass-rusher like Alabama's Tim Williams could provide a huge boost for the New England defense.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Pass-rusher is pretty much the one legitimate need the Patriots have this offseason. They survived without an elite sack artist last season, but getting to the quarterback was often a problem. Pro Football focus rated the Patriots just 24th in pass rushing for 2016.

    Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of viable options remaining in free agency, though there almost never are. Outside of Elvis Dumervil, who has 99 career sacks, the market is pretty bare.

    New England's quest for a premier sack artist is also hampered by the fact the team doesn't own a pick higher than the third round. This is why the Patriots may have to trade back into the second round to secure a quality prospect.

    Alabama's Tim Williams is a guy the team could target if it can make the move up—or if it gets extremely lucky. He carries off-field concerns, so his draft stock doesn't match his on-field potential. Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller currently has Williams rated 83rd on his draft board.

    A guy like Williams, though, could change how the Patriots are able to bring pressure.

    "He's like the Predator. When he's allowed to do just one thing—get the quarterback—he is really good at it," one NFL scout told NFL Media's Lance Zierlein.

    Last year, New England's edge pressure generally came from Trey Flowers on one side and a rotating cast of characters—and some creative play-calling—on the other. A prospect like Williams could give the Patriots a dedicated pass-rushing specialist to turn loose on passing downs.

    Other edge defenders the Patriots might be able to snag in the second or third round include Wisconsin's T.J. Watt, Illinois' Dwayne Smoot and Auburn's Carl Lawson.

    This might be the position the Patriots are most interested in trading up in the draft to fill.

Offensive Line Depth

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    Should the Patriots look for an upgrade over Joe Thuney at guard?
    Should the Patriots look for an upgrade over Joe Thuney at guard?Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Despite some injuries, the Patriots still fielded a strong offensive line in 2016. In fact, the unit was rated third in pass-blocking and 11th in run-blocking by Pro Football Focus for the season. Is offensive line a pressing need this season? No, it's not—especially given where the strengths in the draft class lie. 

    Yet, there are a few reasons the team should add some depth to the line before training camp.

    One obvious reason is that injuries are always present in the NFL and the Patriots recently parted ways with tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who was injured last season. Another reason is that left tackle Nate Solder, while quite efficient, does have an injury history and is entering the final year of his contract. Bryan Stork, who missed all of 2016 due to injuries, tweeted out his retirement on Wednesday (h/t Pro Football Talk).

    Finding tackle depth and preparing for the possible future departure of Solder should be priorities.

    New England could also look for an upgrade at guard over second-year man Joe Thuney—he was rated just 138th overall among guards by Pro Football Focus last season.

    Unfortunately, this year's draft isn't deep at the tackle position, so finding a successor for Solder seems unlikely. The team might, however, be able to add a swing tackle or some guard competition in the middle rounds of the draft.

    If looking to merely add depth, the Patriots could look to free-agent tackle options like King Dunlap, Mike Adams or Austin Pasztor.

Defensive Line Depth

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    Drafting a guy like Alabama's Dalvin Tomlinson could help improve the Patriots' defensive line depth.
    Drafting a guy like Alabama's Dalvin Tomlinson could help improve the Patriots' defensive line depth.Associated Press

    The Patriots had a pretty solid defensive line rotation in 2016, featuring guys like Flowers, Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch. The team also added Ealy and Lawrence Guy to the group this offseason.

    Yet, given New England's consistent use of a line rotation and multiple fronts, there is still room for some situational depth here.

    The Patriots already grabbed one of the better free-agent linemen in Guy, and there aren't a lot of options left.

    There are some interesting prospects the Patriots might be able to snag in the draft, however. If New England wants to use one of the team's third-round picks (72nd and 96th), there are a couple of quality prospects the team could consider early.

    Alabama's Dalvin Tomlinson, who is ranked 84th on Matt Miller's big board is one who stands out. He's a 6'3", 310-pounder who can occupy blocks and make plays with equal skill. Last season alone, he produced 62 tackles, four passes defended, 3.0 sacks and 5.5 tackles for a loss.

    Other defensive linemen the Patriots might be able to grab in the third round include Charlotte's Larry Ogunjobi, Washington's Elijah Qualls and Villanova's Tanoh Kpassagnon.

    This is admittedly a minor need, but the strategy here should be to provide situational depth for the defensive line.


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    Drafting a linebacker like Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham could help improve the Patriots defense.
    Drafting a linebacker like Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham could help improve the Patriots defense.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Patriots don't have a massive need for new linebackers, especially since Hightower has officially returned. However, it wouldn't hurt to add depth to the linebacker corps or even to try to land a premier talent to replace the departed Jamie Collins.

    Linebackers like Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy are solid, but they don't have the athletic upside of a talent like Collins.

    Landing such a player would likely require moving up in the draft. The Patriots don't own a selection earlier than the third round. Fortunately, the team does own potential trade chips like Butler and Jimmy Garoppolo. The team could also package a few late-round picks to move from the third round (72nd overall) back into the second round.

    A guy like Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham could be exactly the kind of athletic, high-motor player the Patriots could use to boost their defense. He's rated 53rd on Matt Miller's big board.

    "He needs to be uncovered so he can fly around and just go get the ball. He didn't have much help over there and he took it upon himself to make as many plays as possible. I love that mindset," one AFC scout said of Cunningham, per NFL Media's Lance Zierlein.

    On the free-agent front, the Patriots might want to consider guys like Paul Kruger or D'Qwell Jackson for depth. If the Patriots are simply going to bolster the unit with depth, though, they need to think versatility. The right situational players could be the key to fielding another strong defense.

    All draft prospect measurements via NFL.comAll contract information via