NEPD Staff Writer: Mike Loyko
With the regular season winding down, NFL teams have begun to take an inventory of their players and what their needs will be in the off season. In the Patriots case, their needs are pretty apparent to anyone who has watched them closely this year.
We take a look at what those needs are and how they might be filled come April.
Regardless of how the 2011 season ends for the New England Patriots, I feel that this off season will be as important as any since Bill Belichick has been the coach/GM of this team. Entering next season Tom Brady will be 35 years old and while he is still playing at an all time high level, it’s indisputable that his window is closing on him. It will be critical that the Patriots fill their needs with the best possible players available in order to maintain legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
After the 2006 season, in which the Patriots lost a heart breaker to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game, Patriot fans saw Bill Belichick do something that was a little out of character for him; hit the free agent and trade market in a gung ho fashion.
Realizing that both the WR position and the defense needed to be upgraded, the Patriots went out and traded for Wes Welker and Randy Moss. The team also hit the free agent market hard signing the top available free agent available in OLB Adalius Thomas. The result was an undefeated regular season and seconds away from a Super Bowl victory.
The Patriots are on the verge of posting a 27-5 record over the past two regular season. An 81% winning percentage would be extraordinary for any franchise in any sport. However, when you have Bill Belichick as head coach and Tom Brady as your QB, any season in which you don’t win the Super Bowl is considered a failure. That’s not to say they won’t win the Super Bowl this year, they very well might, and if they do they will have done so with some glaring holes. This off season Bill Belichick must attack the draft and market with the same type of aggresiveness he did following the 2006 season.
Sergio Brown, Sterling Moore, Matthew Slater, James Ihedgibo, what do they all have in common? Answer: They have all started at safety for the Patriots this year and played it poorly for the most part.
If the Patriots defense is to improve at all next year, the revolving door at safety has to end. I would expect the Patriots to target the safety position heavily — early in the draft and also in free agency.
It’s my opinion that the Patriots don’t need just 1 quality safety added to the roster, they need 2. Besides Patrick Chung, who has fought through injury all year, I doubt any of the other safeties are on this roster next year.
Alabama safeties Mark Barron and Robert Lester are two players I would keep an eye on during the draft. Especially Lester, who has the ability to play both free and strong safety in certain schemes, something Bill Belichick requires from his safeties.
If the Patriots are going to draft a safety they will have to draft one early because there isn’t much depth at the position this year. If they go the free agent route LaRon Landry is likely to be the best UFA safety on the market, he is someone that would fit in perfectly, however I doubt Daniel Snyder lets him get away.
2) Outside Linebacker
Patriot fans say it every year prior to the draft, “this is the year Bill Belichick will finally address the pass rush early in the draft”. This year I really do feel like it will be the year.
Regardless if the Patriots are playing 4-3 or switch back to playing the 3-4 the Patriots needto get more physical and athletic on the edge of their defense.
I actually think it will be in the teams best interest to switch back to the 3-4 where they can play Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes at their natural positions. I feel like Mayo has been miscast as an OLB this year and has not played up to his potential. Rob Ninkovich is a nice, blue collar player, but he simply does not have the playmaking ability that this team needs on defense.
The name you will hear most often leading up the draft will be Alabama OLB Courtney Upshaw as he would be a perfect fit in this defense. We will get into some more specific players of interest next month.
People can complain all they want about the Patriots picking cornerbacks every year. But one thing is certain in the NFL in this day and age, you can NEVER have enough CBs.
Entering the 2012 season the Patriots will be 3 deep at CB with Devin McCourty (who must bounce back next year), Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling (whose injury might be the biggest loss the Patriots have suffered this year) on the roster.
Adding at least 1 impact CB will be imperative. The good news for the Patriots is that this is a very deep CB draft, especially in rounds 1-3. A name to keep a close eye on is North Alabama’s Janoris Jenkins, who is an Asante Samuel clone. He fits the mold for a Bill Belichick corner.
4) Wide Receiver
The only offensive position on this roster that needs to be targeted early in my opinion is WR. Deion Branch is a free agent and while I expect the Patriots to bring him back, they will still need to add at least 1 more WR to the roster that can make an immediate impact. Wes Welker is also a UFA but he will be back one way or another.
No position has given Bill Belichick more trouble in the draft than the WR position. Names like Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate and the recently released Taylor Price were all drafted in rounds 2-3 and made little to no impact on the team. A shift in organizational philosophy is clearly needed with how they evaluate and target the position in the draft.
It appears to me that Bill Belichick has given more weight to a WR that can double as a KR or PR than a player who maybe a better true WR that can’t return kicks. It’s talked about alot about how the Patriots need a WR that can take the top off the defense and I don’t agree with that. What they need is a WR who is faster, more athletic and can create seperation. Deion Branch especially has a lot of trouble creating seperation, except on a few routes, if he doesn’t get open on those then he can be contained easily.
A player like Kendall Wright who is smaller but faster than any WR on the roster could intrigue them. If they are looking for a bigger WR someone like Alshon Jeffery who I feel will slip down draft boards could fall into their lap.
5) Defensive End
Andre Carter and Mark Anderson have done a fantastic job this year coming in and providing a pass rush. As good as they have been I don’t look at either as a long term solution. Carter especially, with his age and now major injury, won’t be the answer.
The Patriots need to add a 3 down DE to this roster. Someone who can rush the passer but also someone who can stay in on running downs. Looking at the roster it is filled with DE/DT combos like Brandon Deaderick, Ron Brace, Mike Wright. A true DE will need to be added in order to improve this defense.
6) Inside Linebacker
The middle of the Patriots defense has been exploited all year for its inability to cover anybody. They can’t cover tight ends, they cant cover slot WRs and at times they struggle to cover RB out of the backfield.
With Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo the Patriots have two very good downhill MLBs. Mayo is servicable in pass coverage and can hold his own, but after that there is nobody. This team badly needs to add sub package linebackers who are athletic but who can also cover. Gary Guyton is a tremendous athlete but he can cover if his life depended on it. Shoring up the safety position and the middle linebacker position with coverage linebackers will instantly improve this defense.
The future of the Patriots offensive line is as bright as can be. Over the last few years they have completely rebuilt this line for the next decade, with a pair of potential all pros at tackle. Logan Mankins signed long term at LG and Marcus Cannon ultimately moving inside to RG. The only position on the line that needs any addressing at all is the center position.
Dan Koppen was lost for the year in game #1 this season. Since then Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Nick McDonald have all filled in to varying degrees of success. Adding a young stud a center would give the Patriots one of the best and youngest offensive lines in the league. Players to watch include Wisconsin’s Peter Konz, Michigan’s David Molk and Ohio St. Mike Brewster.
These positions are clearly the biggest areas of need on this roster and positions that I hope are clearly addressed this off season. Bill Belichicks philosophy since he has gotten he has been to draft the best player available and that is a strategy I agree with whole heartedly. This year I just hope they just draft the best player available at the position of need. This off season is going to be immensely important to the future of this organization and immensely fun for those who follow it.