Offseason to-do list for the New England Patriots
In an alternative universe where players like Nate Solder, Dion Lewis, and Dominique Easley were healthy, the Patriots could be Super Bowl favorites right now against the Carolina Panthers. Instead, New England is one season closer to Tom Brady retiring, which means their window as a dynasty is closing quickly.
As long as Brady doesn’t retire now, regardless of how the rest of the offseason goes, chances are the Patriots will remain favorites for the AFC East and be in good position to make another run at an unprecedented fifth title in the Bill Belichick era.
Here are the moves the Patriots need to make in order to help their Super Bowl odds.
Clear salary cap space
Currently, New England doesn’t have much projected cap space heading into the offseason. One thing that helps, though, is the fact that there aren’t many Patriots hitting the free agency market that are worth re-signing. The only unrestricted free agents from the roster with more than 200 snaps in 2015 are defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (76.3 overall season grade) and halfback LeGarrette Blount (76.0); both are players the Patriots could live without.
The other good news is that the Patriots can clear up some cap room even though it will also result in some dead money. Linebacker Jerod Mayo (58.1) was once a value asset to the New England front-seven, but his productivity, as well as his playing time, have declined. Mayo is set to have the second-highest cap number on the team, so letting him go would free up $7 million.
Three players projected as backups who could also get released are offensive tackle Marcus Cannon (37.7), wide receiver Brandon LaFell (47.0), and tight end Scott Chandler (70.7). The offense would only miss these players if a starter gets hurt, and the trio would free up at least $2 million each.
The other way the Patriots could free up cap space is by re-signing two stud players to long-term deals. Edge rusher Chandler Jones (79.2) and linebacker Dont’a Hightower (88.6) were drafted together in the first round of the 2012 draft, and are in the fifth and final year of their rookie deals. New England should want both players in their long term plans, and re-signing them now would give some cap relief for 2016.
Fix the offensive line
If there is one reason the Patriots didn’t make Super Bowl 50, it was the play of the offensive line. If you’re being optimistic, then Sebastian Vollmer’s (49.8) problem was playing left tackle, and he can return to being one of the better right tackles in the league. Sticking with this premise, left tackle Nate Solder (50.0) can return from injury and be the player he was his first three years of his career. The Patriots have five young interior linemen, all of whom played at least 600 snaps this season, and all five ended with a below average grades. Ideally, at least a few of them show enough improvement to be starting caliber linemen.
Still, that’s a lot that needs to go right in order for the line to return to respectability. If the Patriots were to bring in an offensive linemen or two, that would lead to more competition among the returning players and could potentially result in a better line. When you take into account New England’s cap situation, as well as their window of opportunity with Brady, it might make the most sense to look at older free agents for short-term contracts.
At tackle, their best option would be Donald Penn (84.5). He graded better than any of the Patriots tackles in both run blocking and pass blocking. He would be a clear upgrade at left tackle, and allow Solder and Vollmer to compete for the right tackle job.
At guard, the two clear options are Richie Incognito (90.0) and Evan Mathis (89.6). They were PFF’s top two left guards of the 2015 season, but both will be 33 or older by the time the 2016 season hits. Both players allowed 19 pressures over the season, while each of the three Patriots guards allowed at least 24. Either player would fit at left guard, allowing for much more competition for the remaining interior linemen spots.
Move closer to being unstoppable
The Patriots have few weaknesses outside of the offensive line. Without a first-round pick and with a tight cap situation, it wouldn’t be surprising if the 2015 Patriots’ roster is remarkably similar to the 2016 roster. However, if they want to go all in to add another ring, there are a few areas the Patriots could still try to upgrade. The first is at wide receiver.
Both Julian Edelman (86.5) and Danny Amendola (80.6) should remain assets with the team, but they need a third player to help in three wide receiver sets. Brandon LaFell (47.0) was losing time to Keshawn Martin (57.2) by the AFC Championship game, so it is a position that can be upgraded. Someone the Patriots could add there is Rishard Matthews (79.4), who ran a similar route tree as LaFell, has fewer dropped passes in his career than LaFell had in 2015 alone, and the signing would be poaching from the division rival Dolphins.
The other position of need is slot cornerback. They tried Justin Coleman (66.7) and Leonard Johnson (44.7) there during the season, but the position was a clear weakness in an otherwise excellent position group. The clear top slot cornerbacks in free agency are Green Bay’s Casey Hayward (82.7) and Pittsburgh’s Brandon Boykin (76.9). Hayward had the second-most coverage stops for a cornerback at 22, while Boykin allowed a 69.1 NFL passer rating in the slot, sixth-best in the league for his position. Adding either player would arguably elevate the Patriots to the best secondary group in the NFL
Putting it all together
How the Patriots approach this offseason could be very interesting. If they believe their problem was just with injuries, we could barely hear New England’s name get muttered during the free agency frenzy. If they think they are just a few players away from adding another ring, the blueprint is in place for them to look even better on paper. Regardless of their approach, the New England Patriots fully expect to be a dominant football team in 2016.