In 2010, the Patriots went 14-2 with the sixth youngest team in the NFL – they aren’t in desperate need for very much.
That said, for the second consecutive year the Patriots failed to even win one postseason game so it’s not like they have everything figured out.
With four of the top 60 picks in the NFL draft, it seems likely the Patriots will address most of their needs by trying to replicate their 2010 draft success. If they decide to trade their way down the draft board (as they’ve become famous for doing,) they could look to add a few key free agents to address their needs.
Outside Linebacker/Defensive End
Want to take a stab at guessing the Patriots’ top four pass rushers in 2010? Go ahead, take a guess. Did you say: Mike Wright (+10.7), Rob Ninkovich (+5.7), Kyle Love (+2.0), and Dane Fletcher (+1.7)? Did you even get one of them? Doubt it. After losing Mike Wright – PFF’s top interior lineman in terms of Pass Rushing Productivity – to a head injury in week 11, the Patriots were left without a player whose pass rush rating ranked higher than 15th.
The Patriots’ inability to get to the passer with any regularity was one of the major reasons they were among the bottom three teams in terms of passing yards allowed per game. In fact, if not for stellar play from rookie Devin McCourty (7th best CB coverage rating) the Patriots may have challenged the Texans for the dubious distinction of being the worst pass defense team in the league. The point is, if you don’t have a player able to pressure the quarterback without having to send the blitz, then you give the quarterback too much time to find an open receiver. Moreover, if you’re forced to blitz to generate pressure then you’re giving the quarterback an opportunity to burn you by finding the openings left by blitzing defenders.
In their three losses, the Patriots pass rush (QB sacks + QB hits + QB Pressures) averaged 9.33, or about half as effective as in their wins 16.5.
The Patriots could look to one of their two first round picks to address their pass rushing woes, or to a couple of free agents. The best two available free agents “fits” for the Patriots are Cullen Jenkins and Manny Lawson. Jenkins amassed the second most QB disruptions of all 3-4 defensive ends and the 3-4 OLB Lawson seemed to find his groove last year as he generated more QB pressure on a per play basis then guys like Clay Matthews, James Harrison and Cameron Wake.
With the retiring of Stephen Neal (+4.8) and potential losses of both Matt Light (+6.4) and Logan Mankins (+19.9), the offensive line could possibly wind up being the Patriots biggest need.
The biggest loss of the group would certainly be Mankins who – despite missing the first 8 games of the season holding out – finished as the third highest rated guard in the NFL. Though Dan Connolly filled in well during Mankins’ absence, the impact Mankins makes when he is on the field is undeniable. All year Mankins only allowed 2 sacks and 6 pressures; Connoly allowed 2 sacks, 6 hits, and 19 pressures.
At 33 years-old, Matt Light may have reached the end of the line with the Patriots. If Light is to leave in free agency then the Patriots would likely slide Sebastian Vollmer (+6.1) over to the left side and not lose anything at all. The candidates to fill in for Vollmer on the right side are not nearly as proven. Quinn Ojinnaka and Mark LeVoir are the only other players on the Patriots roster who played any snaps at tackle in 2010…a whopping combined 105 snaps between them.
If Light and/or Mankins can’t come to an agreement, offensive line will be a position the Patriots will need to immediately address with draft picks or free agency.
…Unless of course the Patriots are content with Tom Brady going down for another season and seeing if Brian Hoyer can fill in as admirably as Matt Cassel did.
Though running back and wide receiver are more commonly discussed needs, ranking 25th in total defense screams “NEED!” louder than ranking 1st in offense. Though some of the blame can be attributed to lack of pass rush, the Patriots’ safety play was downright awful in 2010.
Other than Patrick Chung (+1.1) who is developing into a good run-stopping strong safety, the free safeties were certainly a liability. Brandon Merriweather (-10.1) consistently took bad angles to the ball. James Sanders (-5.3) played better than Merriweather for the most part, but a memorable game-saving interception of Peyton Manning overshadows his poor play over the course of the year.
Want to know the worst stat of all? The opposing QB rating when throwing at the Patriots’ safeties in coverage…93.7! In other words, a rating that is just better than Joe Flacco’s 93.6 rating for seventh best in all of football.
In what is reportedly a weak draft class of safeties, the Patriots may consider looking to free agency to address this concern. Considering their play in 2010, Michael Huff and Eric Weddle would be considerable upgrades at free safety. However, with a plethora of safeties still under contract it seems most likely the Patriots will cross their fingers and hope for a bounce back year from Merriweather.