The New England Patriots enjoyed another strong campaign in 2012, winning their division and earning the No. 2 seed in the AFC. A disappointing loss to the Ravens in the Conference Championship Game, though, means the Patriots’ offseason is already underway.
The good news is they have a young and talented team with few glaring personnel needs. The team’s much-maligned defense is the youngest Bill Belichick has had during his tenure in Foxborough, and the unit improved significantly over the course of the season.
New England’s approach in free agency will be largely determined by the decisions they make with their own players. The team’s outlook could change drastically if they are unable to re-sign pending free agents such as wide receiver Wes Welker, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and cornerback Aqib Talib.
As of right now, the Patriots’ most pressing needs are as follows.
The play of New England’s secondary noticeably improved after the midseason acquisition of Talib. Rookie Alfonzo Dennard started at the other cornerback position, and Kyle Arrington played in the slot. With Devin McCourty (+20.3) seeming to be a lock at the deep safety position, the team could really use an enforcer at the strong safety spot, something they have sorely lacked since Rodney Harrison’s retirement.
Assuming the Patriots re-sign Talib, a punishing safety appears to be the biggest need for the team. New England has used high draft picks to try to plug the hole, but Brandon Meriweather was cut before the 2011 season and Patrick Chung seems to have fallen out of favor after playing just three total snaps in the two postseason games of 2012. Chung’s contract is set to expire, and he is unlikely to return next season. This year, the hope was Steve Gregory would be the guy to step up, but when the moment came for him to make plays, he was found lacking.
Free Agent Fix: William Moore
You can be sure the Falcons are going to do everything they can to keep a hold of Moore, whose knack for big hits and key plays as defined his time in Atlanta. There are some miscues in coverage, and he will miss tackles, but with four picks, a couple of big pass deflections and 21 defensive stops, he’s exactly the type of player New England is missing in their secondary. It’s a big investment, but if the Pats want to make a splash, then why not?
This is another area the team has unsuccessfully tried to address over the past couple of seasons. New England traded for Albert Haynesworth at the beginning of 2011, but released him at the season’s halfway mark. This season, free agent signing Jonathan Fanene was cut before the end of training camp, and former second-round pick Ron Brace was released late in the year.
Vince Wilfork is their most important player on the defensive side of the ball, but the team gets minimal contributions from the rest of their DT’s, and interior line depth is almost non-existent. What’s more, while Wilfork is something of an immovable object he doesn’t get much push up the middle. In fact, no Patriot defender has, which led to them trying to coax some pressure from Jermaine Cunningham at a defensive tackle spot in their sub-package defense.
Free Agent Fix: Desmond Bryant
Bryant is an ideal complement to Wilfork, especially on passing downs. His 7.8 Pass Rush Productivity was fourth-best among qualifying defensive tackles, and he graded positively as a pass rusher in every single game after becoming a starter at the season’s halfway mark. The Raider also has the size and skill set to move to 3-4 defensive end at times, making him a solid fit in New England’s hybrid defensive front. Despite his impressive play, Bryant is not a household name and is unlikely to command top dollar on the open market. The Patriots should be able to offer him a cap-friendly deal that is also competitive as the Raiders struggle to manage their cap.
Of the four wide receivers that saw significant snaps for New England this season, only Brandon Lloyd is currently under contract. With the contracts of Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Deion Branch set to expire, this is clearly a position the Patriots need to fortify. Of the four, only Edelman is younger than 30, meaning that the team will likely look to invest in the position during the draft.
Given the team’s preference for using two tight end packages, and its stable of talented running backs, it seems unlikely it will be able to carry more than four wide receivers on its roster, with Matthew Slater retaining his special teams role. Welker and Lloyd were highly productive in 2012, but their smaller stature makes the pair prone to being bullied at the line of scrimmage by physical secondaries. The Patriots would benefit from adding both size and speed to their receiving corps, as the unit also lacks a deep threat.
The Free Agent Fix: Wes Welker and Julian Edelman
Given that the rest of the free agent class at receiver is either too expensive for the Patriots to afford (Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe) or thoroughly underwhelming, the best course of action is for the team to retain Welker and Edelman and use the draft to add size and speed to its arsenal.
Welker was outstanding this year, and Edelman was carving out a role for himself as an outside receiver opposite Lloyd before multiple injuries cut his season short. Welker and the Patriots were unable to come to an agreement last offseason, and he played out the season under the franchise tag. Whether the two sides are able to agree on an extension in the coming months is a story to monitor, as Welker’s salary under the franchise tag in 2013 would increase dramatically.