Losing a hard fought Super Bowl is never an easy pill to swallow, but for the New England Patriots, there may be a silver lining when looking toward the future. Since their near-perfect season in 2007, the roster has turned from veteran-laden and declining to youthful and promising. Of course there are a few constants in the mix, starting with quarterback Tom Brady and Head Coach Bill Belichick.
Belichick doubles as the general manager, and his focus has been on surrounding Brady with a good mix of young players to make one last push at the end of his Hall of Fame career. The result is a team that has gone 27-5 in the regular season the last two years and came within a few plays of a Super Bowl victory. In a league where players age seemingly overnight, the Patriots have youth and talent at key spots throughout the roster. Throw in four draft picks in the first two rounds of the draft (as usual) and New England appears in good shape to compete for the remainder of the Brady era.
Despite their youth and upside, the Patriots have holes to fill in free agency. They defied the odds by overcoming their defensive shortcomings to win the AFC Championship, and when they have wide receivers make more than cameos in the defensive backfield, it’s time to upgrade the talent. Let’s take a look at the Patriots’ top three offseason priorities.
Primary Need: Pass Rush
It’s not a true offseason without an outcry for an upgraded pass rush in New England. The Patriots were actually middle-of-the-pack at pressuring the quarterback, mostly on the strong play of free agent defensive ends Andre Carter (+22.4) and Mark Anderson (+16.7). With both players hitting the open market again, they must find replacements for their defensive end/rush linebacker position. There’s a good chance one or both return, though there are also rumblings that the Patriots will dabble in free agency with big names such as Mario Williams.
On the inside, it’s in the Patriots’ best interest to find an interior pass rusher to complement and/or spell defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (+11.9) who played a career-high 86.6% of the snaps. Wilfork is more run stuffer than pass rusher, and other than oft-injured Mike Wright’s flashes of brilliant play, the Patriots have lacked a consistent interior pass rusher since trading DT Richard Seymour before the 2009 season. Last year they started with over 20 defensive linemen in training camp before making cuts and they may go with a see-what-sticks approach again in 2012.
Secondary Need: Wide Receiver
The offseason starts with a decision on whether or not to franchise WR Wes Welker (+21.3) and then the focus will turn to finding a WR who can make plays outside the numbers. Welker has redefined the slot position in recent years and the franchise tag appears inevitable. The Patriots passing game attacks the middle of the field as that is where Welker and tight ends Rob Gronkowski (+34.6) and Aaron Hernandez (+18.4) do their best work. Brady does a masterful job of getting the ball to them in space and they represent three of the league leaders in Yard After Catch (YAC) among non-running backs.
Despite throwing for over 5,000 yards, there were teams who were able to take away some of Brady’s short options by crowding the middle of the field. WR Deion Branch (+0.9) is aging, and despite his craftiness, he no longer creates the separation he once did. Rumors are already in full force that the Patriots may part with one of their first round picks in order to grab our No. 2 free agent WR Mike Wallace. If they’re not willing to part with a valuable pick, it’s a good year to be looking for playmaking wide receivers and Vincent Jackson or Brandon Lloyd may be attractive targets.
Tertiary Need: Safety
Many teams have experienced a season where a position endures a large amount of attrition, but few teams find replacements for injured starters like the Patriots. After cutting safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders in the preseason, New England started the season with Josh Barrett and Patrick Chung. Barrett got injured and missed most of the season, while Chung missed half of the regular season as well, forcing an influx of journeyman safety replacements. Sergio Brown, James Ihedigbo, Nathan Jones, Ross Ventrone, Sterling Moore, and even special teams ace Matt Slater were the test cases in the Belichick experiment, none of whom inspired confidence while playing the position.
Moore became a late-season success at cornerback prompting the move of CB Devin McCourty to safety in nickel situations. It’s unclear whether McCourty will remain in the mix at safety or return to cornerback where he played like an All-Pro as a rookie in 2010. Regardless of McCourty’s status, expect the Patriots to look to both free agency and the draft to find players to fill one of the most important pieces of Belichick’s defensive system. In reality, a winning lottery ticket is easily attainable compared to predicting Belichick’s personnel decisions in the secondary, so we will all wait in anticipation to see how it plays out.