2014 Team Needs: New England Patriots
The New England Patriots endured an injury-riddled 2013 season, seemingly losing star players each week. The team made the most of their available talent, advancing to the AFC Championship before falling to Denver.
The team will now aim to retain its own key free agents, while continuing to build team depth. Overthecap.com estimates that the Patriots have $12.2m in cap room, giving them enough space to add reinforcements on reasonable contracts. The team’s offseason priorities will likely be determined by the status of free agent Aqib Talib.
Talib is viewed as an elite cornerback, and the precedent set by the Brent Grimes contract could make Talib unaffordable to New England. Talib’s importance to the Patriots’ pass defense is best illustrated by the noticeable drop off in the consecutive AFC Championships that he has been forced to leave due to injuries. If Talib signs elsewhere, the need for a top cornerback will become one of the team’s top priorities for 2014.
Potential Cap Casualties
– Guard Dan Connolly struggled in 2013 after a mediocre year (+0.2) in 2012. Connolly was average as a run blocker last season (+0.4), but his pass protection grade of -14.5 was among the worst at the position. Only 3 guards allowed more pressures than Connolly’s 42. Though he offers positional versatility with his ability to play both guard and center, Connolly’s poor work in pass protection, advancing age and $4.1m cap number makes him a likely candidate to be released.
– Defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga was a disappointment after being acquired from Philadelphia at the trade deadline. New England brought in Sopoaga to shore up its run defense, but the Hawaii product played poorly, earning a -4.9 grade against the run in just 120 snaps. Sopoaga did not see the field after week 15. His $3.5m cap number and poor play makes him likely to be cut, though he will cost the team $1m in dead money if he is.
– Safety Adrian Wilson was on the roster bubble before being placed on injured reserve near the end of training camp last year. Depending on his health, Wilson’s $1.8m cap hit this season may lead to his release.
– Vince Wilfork is the veteran leader of the Patriots’ defense, but the combination of his $11.6m cap number for this season (the final year of his deal) and his serious Achilles injury that ended his season last year complicates his standing on the roster. Assuming that his recovery is successful, the Patriots will want him to return, and will likely look to extend his contract to spread out the cap hit over future seasons.
– Safety Devin McCourty is also in the last year of his contract, and carries a $5.1m cap hit for 2014. McCourty led all safeties with a +18.7 grade last year, and the Patriots will want to keep him around as he enters his prime. Extending McCourty’s contract a year early could also have the benefit of adding salary cap flexibility for 2014.
Patriot starters at defensive end, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, were iron men last season as each played more than 1100 snaps. Each player was highly effective in the run game, but the high snap count likely contributed to their negative grades as pass rushers (-8.0 for Jones, -5.4 for Ninkovich). There is little quality depth behind those two players, with Andre Carter (-5.5 pass rushing grade) and Michael Buchanan (-5.9 pass rushing grade) ineffective in the third defensive end role. New England had the second worst team pass rushing grade in 2013, making this a top priority for the team this offseason.
Free Agent Fix: The ideal profile is a veteran pass rusher with a proven resume as a pass rusher, who is more interested in a chance at a title than getting a large contract. Jones and Ninkovich will likely remain the starters in 2014, but adding a third defensive end would give those two more rest while also boosting the pass rush on third downs. Jared Allen and Justin Tuck are both veterans that have already earned big contracts during their careers, so they may be more interested in winning than getting paid at this point. Tuck finished ninth among 4-3 ends in Pass Rushing Productivity (10.4), and totaled 68 pressures in 2013. Tuck has also moved inside to defensive tackle on passing downs during his career, and that versatility will be attractive to Bill Belichick. Allen was less efficient than Tuck last year (8.0 PRP), but still totaled 65 pressures including 13 sacks.
Interior Offensive Line
The Patriots’ offensive line is strong at tackle and left guard, but the center and right guard positions were weak spots in 2013. Connolly’s struggles at right guard have already been documented, and it seems unlikely that he will be on the roster come September. Center Ryan Wendell was a phenomenal run blocker in 2012, leading all centers with a +27.5 grade in that area. We chose Wendell as New England’s secret superstar after that season, and noted that he could be a star if he improved his pass blocking. Unfortunately, Wendell regressed last year (-14.0 overall grade, third worst among centers), grading negatively as a run blocker as his struggles in pass protection continued. With Wendell now a free agent, the team would be well served to upgrade the center position.
Free Agent Fix: Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith finished with the fourth-best pass protection grade of all centers in 2013 (+6.7), and his 8 green games against just 2 red ones illustrates his consistency. If Dietrich-Smith returns to Green Bay, Saints center Brian De La Puente could also be an option for New England. De La Puente earned a respectable +6.1 overall grade last season, and had the sixth-best Pass Blocking Efficiency among centers.
As unlikely as it would have seemed a year ago, tight end is one of the Patriots’ top offseason priorities. Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in football when he is healthy, but he has missed time due to injury in each of the past three seasons, and the team’s options behind him were ineffective last season. Gronkowski’s +12.4 overall grade last year was the second best grade among tight ends, and he earned it in just seven games. Each of the team’s other options at tight end finished the year with a negative grade. New England must improve their depth at the tight end position while Gronkowski recovers from a knee injury.
Free Agent Fix: Now that Jimmy Graham has been franchise tagged by the Saints, the current group of free agent tight ends is less than inspiring. Former Bill Scott Chandler is 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, giving him similar measurables to Gronkowski. Chandler earned a -3.6 grade last year, and the game by game graph of his grades shows that he is an inconsistent player. He would certainly be an upgrade over incumbent Michael Hoomanawanui though, and seems like a low-cost backup to Gronkowski at the Y tight end position.
Dustin Keller and Jermichael Finley are both returning from injuries, and could serve as low-cost, high-reward type candidates for the team to bring into camp. Each of these players is athletic enough to line up at the F tight end spot, and could nicely complement Gronkowski when he returns. Given the low talent level of the tight end pool of free agents though, New England will likely look to the draft to improve that area of their roster.