Defensive End/Pass Rush
This is an area where I expect the Patriots to be extremely active. I was told emphatically that Michael Johnson of the Bengals was their number one target. Johnson got the Franchise Tag, taking the top pass rush target off the market. The Patriots are thrilled with Chandler Jones and want to find a complement to him for the long term. That long term guy might not be out there anymore, so they may reallocate their assets toward a CB or WR and go the veteran route at end.
Names that will be talked about:
Dwight Freeney – He would be able to move back to natural 4-3 DE position and do what he does best. His sack numbers have decline, but he won’t cost as much as the top tier guys. Plenty of interest awaits, will have plenty of suitors.
Osi Umenyiora – If they miss out on Freeney, Umenyiora would be the next on the list. His numbers have also declined, but the Patriots have shown interest in trade talks in past years.
James Harrison – Recently released, Harrison wouldn’t fit as perfectly as Freeney or Osi, but he would provide pass rush along with a toughness this team needs.
Michael Bennett – Bennett checks man of the same boxes that Michael Johnson would have. Their young, about the same size and poised to get paid.
There will be plenty of other names discussed, as the market is flooded with experienced veteran pass rushers. I don’t know who the Patriots will sign, but they will sign at least one.
A failure to address the position last year makes it a need again this year. They took a pro-active approach signing Armond Armstead out of the CFL, adding another young body to the mix. The Patriots still lack the big, versatile run stuffer who can play end or tackle depending on the front. This area will be addressed either in the draft or free agency. Three guys certain to draw interest are Desmond Bryant, Terrance Knighton and Alan Branch. While DT isn’t the #1 priority, it is still a need. Bill Belichick has a plan A, B, C, D. If they miss out on their top targets, they could choose to reallocate the money here instead of the edge.
The Patriots starting linebacker unit is intact, with a young talented trio. Rob Ninkovich can even play on his feet when the Patriots want to go to a 3-4 front, meaning they won’t be looking for starters on the FA market. What the Patriots do need is a coverage backer and some depth. There is an enormous drop off in talent from Mayo, Spikes and Hightower to the reserves. The reserves they do have can’t cover when in the game. Getting Dane Fletcher back will add another body, but he’s not a game changer. I’m not sure who the Patriots will target, but I have always been a fan of Jonathan Casillas. Bill Belichick has gotten a good look at him in joint practices with the Saints during the last couple summers and may have interest.
One way or another the CB position will look much different next year. Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington and Marquise Cole are free agents, making Alfonzo Dennard (who is facing jail time) the only CB in the top four slated to return next season. The Patriots want Talib back, but they won’t over pay. He’s a monumental risk to sign long term and even though he is talented he is replaceable. Kyle Arrington played well in the slot and thinks he’s worth way more than he is. If the Patriots want Arrington back, they will wait the market out and see if someone overpays him. They won’t set the market for him. Even if they all three corners come back, the Patriots need at least one more starting caliber cornerback. Without Talib and Arrington I could see the Patriots signing as many as three corners, two that can start.
It’s clear the Patriots want size at their number one corner spot. They drafted a big corner, in Ras-I Dowling two years ago (still on the roster) and traded for Talib, so they have some size at the position. If the Patriots stick to that blueprint two players who will be of great interest are Sean Smith and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Belichick and the Pats have played against Smith the last four years in the division and they had interest in DRC when he was drafted in 2008. Both guys are over 6’1″ giving the Patriots the needed size.
It’s not completely out of the question to land two top corners. Assuming they land one big physical corner, they will look to add another veteran, perhaps one who offers some versatility. Among the other corners who could attract interest are Mike Jenkins, Brice McCain, EJ Biggers, Keenan Lewis, Derek Cox, Chris Gamble and Nnamdi Asomugha (if he is released.)
Like wide receiver, the team will be active and aggressive at this position. Even if they sign a couple corners, I expect the Patriots to use one of their early draft picks at the position.
This is an area where the Patriots will add a veteran presence to the mix. Patrick Chung (good riddance) is moving on, which means the Patriots have three safeties on the roster capable of suiting up tomorrow in Devin McCourty, Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory. There are two different directions the Patriots can go here. They can opt to sign a free agent (Ed Reed) or use a draft pick on the position, in a deep safety draft. Reed will be the top target. I was told that Bill Belichick will definitely make a hard run at Reed and have a good shot to lure him from Baltimore if they offer him more money than Baltimore can match with. They may have to overpay to obtain Reed for a year or two, but if any player is deserving of an overpay it’s Reed.
The Patriots could use a physical presence at safety, which they have lacked for quite awhile. But they won’t spend heavily at the position outside of Ed Reed. Other names to watch if they miss out on #20 are Adrian Wilson, Dawan Landry and Yeremiah Bell.
No matter how free agency plays out the Patriots have positioned themselves as good as any team in the NFL with shrewd cap management. They have holes, but have the cap space to fill those holes. Limited draft picks in 2013 means most of the holes have to be filled in free agency. Cornerback, Wide Receiver and Defensive End are the positions I will be watching closely on Tuesday. I expect the Patriots to sign at least one “high quality” player at each position, it’s just a matter of who. Stay tuned. It’s going to be fun!