Offseason to-do list for the New England Patriots

The Patriots are tight for cap space, but boosting their offensive line is clearly the No. 1 priority this offseason.

| 1 year ago
(Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)

(Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)

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.

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • MattyD929

    I’d like it if the Patriots broke the bank for a high-end offensive lineman or WR, but that’s not like them to do that. Probably will shop for bargains and save the cap space for when they extend Hightower and/or Collins and Butler.

    • Stebo

      The Panthers have less talent at WR but their OL play is outstanding and not to mention Cam, who can throw and xscape traffic.

      • Corey Szczebak

        Yeah but Carolina’s WR are making big plays lately. They’ve stepped up especially Ted Ginn Jr

        • Jack Casey

          I think the notion that Carolina doesn’t have talent is a little crazy. I know that draf pedigree isn’t always correlated to how you are as a player later down the road, but they are littered with first rounders. Cam first overall. J Stewart first rounder. Greg Olsen first rounder. Ted Ginn (questionable hands but don’t say he’s not talented. That kid can FLY) D Funchess first rounder. Gonna get K Benjamin who’s a first rounder. Even got early picks in their OLine (Oher first Kalil 2nd T Turner 3rd) and their line has been outstanding.

    • Pottershop

      Patriots will NEVER break the bank for a player. That’s fundamental to why the Patriots have been consistently in the top of the league each season since Kraft bought the team and Belichek came on as coach/GM. Patriots don’t over pay for past performance, they set value based on future potential and they don’t let emotions get in the way of their valuation no matter how upset the fans get. Example, everyone was SCREAMING when they let Welker go, but nobody is screaming now are they. The Patriots staff knows far more about the game and talent evaluation than any of us posting comments. That has been proven time and again. Until such time that they fail to perform at a high level (and no that doesn’t mean making the Super Bowl EVERY year), I’m going to trust they know what they are doing.

      • KWS13

        They broke the bank for Revis, that worked out pretty dang well

      • Art Imhoff

        They did kinda break the bank for Revis.

  • Corey Szczebak

    I like the Rishard Matthews idea. He had a great little stretch in Miami last regular season when Landry was out and was their #2 WR most the year. He’s got good speed and much better hands than Lefell. I think Travis Benjamin would be a good fit. He’s a great deep threat and can play slot too.

  • Brian

    Signing Hayward or Boykin would elevate the pats to the best secondary group in the league???? Really???? Butler & ryan both played better than expected & analytically speaking were elite, however I would not call them elite in the eye test category. Too often they were beat. I remember many times they were beat badly but opposing qbs missed or simply didn’t see it. Then there’s mccourty at free safety. While he is typically one of the highest rated safeties on pff every year, I again think he fails the eye test. Not to the extent of butler and ryan, but he isn’t a game changing safety in the mold of thomas, berry, weddle, smith. I have no problem with mccourty, he’s a great player, but I do have a problem w ne paying him so much. It was a case of a player not being near worth his contract but ne had to give it to him or lose him. Then there’s Chung, yet another highly regarded pff player( notice a trend) who doesn’t quite pass the eye test. I have no problem w me going forward w their current secondary & adding a better slot corner, but I don’t think that puts their secondary in the top 5 of the leagues best let alone best. I think something that noone talks about is the lack of good qbs ne played this season. NE played big Ben the 1st game of the season without Bryant and bell. Ben still threw for a ton of yards and noone could stop brown. Aside from that the best qb ne played was eli & they couldn’t stop him for much of the game. Ne’s secondary spent too much time letting guys like tyrod taylor, Alex smith, fitzpatrick, osweiler throw all over them. NE didn’t have to play rodgers, brees, newton, luck, wilson, romo & any other elite qb I might have missed. Next year’s schedule won’t be as kind.

    • Knowledgegoat

      Chung and mccourty is ranked in the top 5 Chung was the best strong safety this year they played a lot of great tight ends and Chung shut them down you know nothing about football obviously and they did have to play luck Alex smith and manning and none of them had great success vs NE secondary dumbass

      • Brian

        I actually know quite a lot about football & have over 20 years experience playing and/or coaching it as well. From your statement u are obviously the one who is a dumb*ss. First of all, anyone who looks at analytics sites & thinks their top 5 or 10 or whatever are the best in the league bc that’s where they’re ranked is incredibly naive. To the point where I’m actually physically laughing. And your 2nd statement doesn’t even make sense in so many ways. The whole point was they didn’t play many elite qbs. Alex smith def is not. They were even missing Maclin. And kc had a decent amount of success passing despite a wr corps that is one of the worst in football. And I don’t know which manning u are talking about, but neither manning is what u call elite. Eli is better at this point & our secondary couldn’t stop him for much of the game. They did do a good job against peyton in the 2nd half, but if not for a missed throw by peyton, they’d have given up 3 passing tds to him. I watch every ne game and there were too many times are secondary was burnt to be anything close to league best. I’m not saying our secondary is bad but they are not am elite secondary.

        • Pottershop

          you loose points in not understanding that the Patriots Defense has always been more bend not break than shut down. The Patriots defense did what they needed to do to keep points off the board more times than not. Giving up yards is a poor indicator of a defense. Points allowed is what matters and the Patriots defense was top 10 in that category. The secondary was way better than anyone thought it would be. Still need more consistent pressure from the D-line and the secondary gets even better. Just because you say you have 20 years experience in football doesn’t mean jack. The numbers don’t lie. Your eye test needs new glasses.

          • Brian

            I’m assuming u meant lose not loose. U don’t need to have experience in football to understand that having a bend but don’t break defense does not make it ok to lose 1 in 1 battles more specifically in the secondary. Bend but don’t break is merely a philosophy. It does not mean dbs getting beat is ok or what they plan for all along especially when u are talking about intermediate to large gains. Bend but don’t break does not mean it is ok to let them cross midfield every possession then tighten things up. Bend but don’t break is merely a philosophy of defensive play calling. Varies from coach to coach, system to system, scheme to scheme. But it does not make it ok to be beat and that’s the problem with the cbs. And while agree points against is important, just like every other stat it’s not the only thing that is important as u have implied. Prime example is the 2 game stretch vs denver & Philly ne held 14 point leads only to lose. A more important stat is when u are giving up the points u do give up. 3rd down defense, red zone defense, turnovers forced, etc are all as important or more than points against. My point is not to say our secondary is bad I’m merely pointing out that they are not in converation for leagues best unit. It’s fair to say they played better than anyone thought they would & it’s also fair to say ne can win a super bowl with this secondary, but it’s not fair to say they’re elite or the best in the nfl. It’s also fair to say as I said before we benefited heavily from the lack of elite qbs we faced. Ben was the only elite qb we faced all season & was missing 2 of his top 3 weapons. I think our secondary will be ok but we shouldn’t count on the defense to hold elite offense at bay like they did denver.

    • Tim Edell

      If none of these players are passing your “eye” test maybe you need glasses Junior!!

      • Brian

        U are taking what I said out of context. None of them pass the eye test to quantify calling them the leagues best secondary or something close to that. Our secondary did ok, but I wouldn’t say belichick did everything he could to maximize it and I wouldn’t call it the leagues best by any stretch.

        • Pottershop

          statistics seem to disagree with you. You have to look at the entire body of work throughout the year and not just isolated games or mistakes, which everyone makes.

          • Brian

            I acknowledged that analytic sites like the ne secondary. And I realize every cb gets beat, but I think our cbs, not our safeties were beat too much. I’m also looking at plays they were beat, but the ball didn’t come to their man or it was inaccurate. And I think it’s even worse given the average and below average qbs ne played all season. I also don’t trust our dbs to continue to improve. Since josh boyer has been a secondary coach, we have had not had much luck with dbs. Many misses and many guys showing potential but then being coached up and ultimately never exceeded their original potential.

    • Jack Casey

      I agree with Brian on the CBs… They both played well, and better than I expected… But they were far from shutdown quality. I remember plenty of times seeing Butler get burned to see guys like Tyrod throw the ball to the sidelines.

      I love Chung. I always have. He always flashed in his first stint with NE but couldn’t put a full season together. I think he’s great vs the run and a lot better than people think in coverage. He’s better in coverage closer to the LOS though, he’s not a deep MOF safety.

      McCourty continues to be one of the better FS in football. And Harmon has been really solid. Definitely need at least on CB though.

  • Bill

    The Pats need to find a Wide out who has speed and good hands. They should call Megatron, they are talking like he is leaving Detroit. Ask him if he wants a Ring or two. Do a one year deal with him. He will draw double-teams and open up the middle like Moss did for Welker, except now they have Edlman AND Amendola in the slot, and let us not forget the Tight End, what’s-his-name :).

  • Jack Casey

    I know it’s never gonna happen because one the Pats wouldn’t pay him and two the Bears will at least tag him… But I’d love them to sign Alshon Jefferey. Brady has struggled with his down field accuracy, and AJs catch radius would help negate that. Pipe dream I know.

  • McGeorge

    Amendola better take a pay cut. No way he’s getting 5.467MM next year.
    Upgrade the Oline. Get at least 2 average NFL OLinemen, for average prices.

  • John

    I agree with this assessment. I would just change a few things:
    1. Sign Sean Smith and move Logan Ryan into the slot corner position. This would be a major upgrade for them and possible make them a top 5 defense.
    2.Instead of Donald Penn, I would go for Kelvin Beachum. He’ll probably be cheap coming off of injury. However, I think both players would be an improvement over Solder. Further, it makes sense to start preparing him to play RT as Vollmer has one year left with the team, if that.
    3. The Patriots have some tradable commodities that they should use for extra draft picks. First, trade Bryan Stork. He is injury prone and he was outplayed by David Andrews. You can probably get a 6th round pick for him.
    Dominique Easley will probably get a 3rd round pick. The Pats are deep at DT and this guy just hasn’t shown the upside that many people said he had.
    Chandler Jones- yes, I know people will disagree. However, I am of the opinion that Pats know that they will not re-sign him. That is why they took two DEs in last years draft (Grissom and Flowers). In all likelihood, Flowers will probably be on par with Jones in a few years and they have Sheard to take over full time at DE, if necessary. Jones would easily fetch a mid to late first round pick. Given how deep they are at DE and the fact that need money for Butler, Hightower and Collins, I think you gotta move Jones.