The Patriots defense is a much different story from their offense. The needs of the team are so pronounced, I’d expect that the majority of their resources (draft picks and money) are used to fortify their shaky defense.
If you look at the defense as a whole, it’s young and still developing. They played better down the stretch, but were just to big a liability throughout the season. They left Tom Brady and the offense with very little margin for error, and that pressure to be perfect really hurt the team in the playoffs. Each unit of the defense can use upgrades and I expect the team thinks the same thing.
The first order of business for the DL is figuring out if they are going to be playing a 3-4 or 4-3 and what to do with Andre Carter and Mark Anderson.
If there is one name to go hard after for me it would be Arizona FA Calais Campbell. Campbell is one of the best young 3-4 DE in the league. He can rush the passer, hold up against the run and block kicks. He will likely be expensive but the Patriots have been unable to replace Richard Seymour since he left, which was a big reason for switching to the 4-3. Getting Campbell would be a huge upgrade to the front four.
If they look to go cheaper guys like Kendall Langford, Cory Redding and Red Bryant are all names to watch. They all can play 3-4 DE and all can move inside. None of them are very good pass rushers but they can hold up against the run. Out of those three Bryant will be the most expensive, but is someone to watch this off season.
The Patriots seem to have three of the starting LB positions filled with Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich. However they need to find some depth linebackers and linebackers who can add some more pass rush. Coverage among the linebacker unit was a huge weakness on this team and is a priority this off season.
Two names that really stand out to me are San Francisco’s Ahmad Brooks and Baltimore’s Jarret Johnson. Both players come from the 3-4 defense and would step in and solidify the LB corps.
Dallas’ Anthony Spencer is likely to be another name that is brought up. He can rush the passer, but has been underwhelming thoughout his career. I could also see the Patriots going after a 4-3 weakside linebacker and using them as a nickel linebacker to help in pass coverage. Names that come to mind are Minnesota’s Erin Henderson, Seattle’s Leroy Hill and Denver’s Wesley Woodyard-all of whom graded out as some of the better coverage linebackers in football last season.
Signing a CB is never inexpensive, especially a young talented one. The Patriots desperately need at least one more reliable, high quality CB, preferably one who can play man to man coverage. The two names that immediately come to mind are Atlanta’s Brent Grimes and Tennessee’s Cortland Finnegan.
Grimes was rated the #2 CB in football last year by Pro Football Focus and Finnegan was #3. Both are likely to cost big money, but like we saw in Houston this year, a #1 CB can go a long way to shoring up a secondary. The good news for the Patriots is that it is an extremely deep free agent class.
Corners who are a tier below Grimes and Finnegan but would be an improvement on what we have are Tracy Porter, Terrell Thomas, Aaron Ross and William Gay. All four of those players bring different styles, but any would go a long way to help this secondary. Thomas is coming off and ACL injury and missed the whole season and Porter had a down here, but shows up in big games. Some under the radar CBs who might interest the Pats are Cleveland’s Dimitri Patterson, Jacksonville’s William Middleton and Detroit’s Eric Wright.
If there is one position where I expect the Patriots to be aggresive this offseason it’s the safety position. The draft has only a handful of decent safety prospects and only one who is expected to go anywhere near the first round. So, if they Patriots want to upgrade the position it’s likely going to come through free agency. The two biggest names available are LaRon Landry and Michael Griffin. Landry especially would be great. He is young, can play the run, and holds up decently in coverage. Landry has had a tough time staying healthy and giving him a big contract could be worrisome.
Griffin is going to leave Tennessee so, he will definitley be available. He is more of a coverage safety and doesn’t like to play in run support as much. Griffin, like Landry, will cost some money. San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson is another name to watch. He was in New England last summer and was apparently pretty close to signing in New England before opting to return to San Francisco. Some underrated guys to watch are Mike Adams, Craig Steltz and Dwight Lowery.
As free agency draws closer I will touch on some sleepers who may interest the Patriots. For now, we can all hope that some of the names discussed here end up in the Blue and Silver. This team is really close and adding a couple explosive players will likely be enough to put it over the top. As always free agency is just one way to improve the team. The Patriots have four picks in the first two rounds and will likely be active on the trade front. Either way you look at it, some new exciting players will be part of the franchise when training camp opens up in August.