LB Paul Kruger, Ravens
Signing Kruger would likely necessitate a transition back to a 3-4 base defense, which doesn’t appear to be in Bill Belichick’s plans. However, Kruger blossomed into a very effective pass rusher this season as a replacement for Jarret Johnson; his snap count increased from 373 plays in 2011 to 1,045 this season, recording nine sacks during the regular season and adding another two and a half against Indianapolis in the wild card round.
Kruger is still young (he turns 27 in two weeks) and at 6’4” and 270 pounds, he has the size Belichick covets in 3-4 outside linebackers. Kruger’s experience with former Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees this season adds to his value. Re-signing Kruger should be a priority for the Ravens this offseason; however, if he hits the open market New England would be wise to inquire about his asking price, as signing Kruger would strengthen New England’s pass rush while weakening Baltimore’s. The ultimate value of Kruger’s contract will be especially interesting to review considering he has been a starter for just one season.
LB Anthony Spencer, Cowboys
After a season in which Spencer added eleven sacks to his excellent run defense, he likely priced himself out of New England, but he represents one of the most attractive free agent options should Bill Belichick opt to indulge in the market. At 29, Spencer could very well earn a lucrative four-year contract, especially because of his versatility: he functioned as Dallas’ left (strongside) linebacker in their 3-4 defense, but could also potentially play either left end or strongside linebacker in 4-3 defenses as well.
Spencer’s versatility, size, and ability to take on blockers could lure Belichick into the mix; his recent experience under Rob Ryan, New England’s linebackers coach from 2000-20003, may increase Belichick’s level of comfort in Spencer’s ability to fit into the Patriots’ defense.
Signing Spencer is probably an unrealistic expectation, but the Patriots have exhibited a willingness to invest in pass rushers under Belichick, including linebackers Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas.
CB Antoine Cason, Chargers
Cason entered the league as a first-round pick back in 2008, working primarily in the slot, where he struggled to begin his career. Still working primarily from the slot in 2009, he was even less productive, allowing five touchdown passes as well as completions on 70.7% of his targets. However, despite his high touchdown totals, Cason afterwards settled into San Diego’s right cornerback role, where he has played better.
Although he would likely not offer New England the same type of production that they have received from Aqib Talib, he is a young player with experience both as a right cornerback and as a slot cornerback in zone coverage; his versatility may appeal to Bill Belichick on a discounted deal. If Cason is willing to sign a two or three-year pact with New England, he may be a player they could fit under their limited salary cap in 2013.
CB Tracy Porter, Broncos
A free agent last year, Porter was eventually forced to sign a one-year contract with the Broncos after a suitable long-term deal failed to materialize. Unfortunately, he was unable to stay on the field during his time in Denver, suffering a seizure in August and missing nine consecutive games from week six to fifteen. Upon returning in week sixteen, Porter suffered a season-ending concussion after just three defensive snaps. Porter is probably unlikely to return to the Broncos next season and will likely have to settle for another one-year deal, meaning that he may represent an attractive low-cost risk for New England.
The Patriots began to move towards more man-coverage looks last season after acquiring Aqib Talib via trade; Talib stabilized the secondary by allowing Devin McCouty to move to safety, but the former is set to become a free agent and could leave town. Porter, who has played on the left, on the right, and in the slot, represents a cheaper investment than Talib and could be an option if the Patriots are forced to cut costs.
CB Alphonso Smith, Lions
When Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was in charge of personnel for the Denver Broncos, he thought so highly of 2009 NFL Draft prospect Alphonso Smith that he traded a 2010 first-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks for the thirty-seventh overall pick, which he used on Smith. The cornerback played sparingly in 2009, then stepped into a larger role at right cornerback, allowing roughly ten yards per attempt on the season but intercepting five passes. In 2011, Smith’s most impressive season, he allowed 25/44 passing for 327 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions before playing sparingly in 2012.
Most Patriots fans know Smith as the cornerback who was victimized on three Patriots touchdown passes on Thanksgiving 2010, but aside from that dismal performance, Smith has played relatively well and may be worth signing to a non-guaranteed one-year contract based on McDaniels’ evaluation.
FS Jim Leonhard, Broncos
Leonhard may be somewhat of an unrealistic option considering that he was available last season, ultimately playing out the year as a reserve in Denver for just $825,000, but adding the defender, who has traditionally been polished in deep zone coverage, would be a smart investment for New England as a depth option. Leonhard additionally contributes on special teams as a punt returner, which could increase his value to the Patriots, as both Julian Edelman and Wes Welker are free agents.
Leonhard is undersized and not much of a factor in run support, but would provide quality depth for starting free safety Devin McCourty and could function as a spot starter in the even that McCourty was forced to play cornerback by other injuries. At 30 years old and having appeared for just 288 snaps last season, Leonhard may be ready to accept a reserve role.
FS Ed Reed, Ravens
Ed Reed is probably the most realistic option for the Patriots should they opt to make a splash in free agency; head coach Bill Belichick’s admiration for Reed has been well-established elsewhere, including by Peter King. The 34 year-old Reed may not have many seasons left, but could dramatically improve New England’s secondary for a year or two. He has shown some signs of decline this season, having allowed three touchdown passes and 61.1% of targets to be completed, compared to one touchdown and 51.4% of passes last season, meaning that he may not be quite the bulletproof investment some people are expecting.
Additionally, Reed’s health is a concern; he has suffered a number of concussions over the course of his career and has dealt with a nerve impingement in his neck recently as well. Still, if the Patriots are serious about adding playmakers this offseason, they would be wise to consider Reed, who possesses outstanding ball skills and has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most instinctive players in the league.
SS Abram Elam, Chiefs
Many NFL Draft analysts have been linking New England to Florida strong safety Matt Elam this season; another possibility (and not necessarily a mutually exclusive one) would be pursuing his older brother, Abram Elam, who spent last season playing rotationally in Romeo Crennel’s Kansas City Chiefs defense.
Elam’s connections to Bill Belichick’s coaching circle have been well-established over the course of his career: he spent training camp in Miami with Nick Saban in 2005, was signed by Bill Parcells in Dallas the following season, and played under Eric Mangini with both the New York Jets and the Cleveland Browns. In 2011, he played for former Patriots linebackers coach Rob Ryan in Dallas, who was serving as the team’s defensive coordinator. Elam has experience at both safety spots and is considered a strong run supporter.
SS William Moore, Falcons
New England’s inability to consistently develop defensive backs in recent years has become painfully evident, as high draft picks such as Patrick Chung, Darius Butler, Terrence Wheatley, and Brandon Meriweather failed to pan out. If the Patriots opt to add an established safety this offseason, one possible option is Falcons strong safety William Moore, who has started for three seasons and displayed a knack for turnovers, intercepting eleven passes and forcing five fumbles over that span.
Moore’s size (6’0”, 220 pounds), quality run support, and adequate coverage could earn him a four or five-year contract on the open market; re-signing with Atlanta is another strong possibility. Making a run at Ed Reed is probably the most likely option for New England if the Patriots wish to upgrade at safety, but if they are dead-set on making improvements, Moore could offer a backup option.