NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
NFL free agency has left the New England Patriots roster loaded at some positions and less secure at others. Certain old faces have departed, just like certain new faces have arrived.
It’s a business. It’s a process of upkeep and turnover. It’s a battle to keep talent at equilibrium.
And the next stage in the offseason is most critical to making that happen. The NFL draft will be where Bill Belichick and Co. re-stock the depth chart with players yet to reach their ceiling.
But with only five — or potentially four — Patriots selections currently on tap, which areas of the roster are the top priorities? New England is not known to draft based on need; instead Belichick, Nick Caserio and Ernie Adams place their focus on value.
If the Patriots play it right, however, the team will fulfill both need and value with one stone. So with April 25 just around the corner, here’s a look at New England’s “hierarchy of needs.” (counting down)
6. Defensive Tackle
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is a menacing two-gapper, but the Patriots’ interior pressure has still been inconsistent at best. Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick split starting time next to Wilfork in New England’s 4-3 front last season. Yet Love is more of a run-stuffer, and Deaderick is more of a rotational 3-4 end with flexibility.
Looking to bolster this spot, the Patriots inked deals with Armond Armstead and Tommy Kelly. Armstead, a former USC Trojan, ventured up to the Canadian Football League after a heart attack put his career on hold. Only 22 years old, Armstead could be a dark horse to nab the starting gig. Kelly, a former Oakland Raider, has totaled 16 sacks since 2010. At 32 years old, he’s on the back end of his career but should provide New England with some savvy and pass rush.
Between Love, Deaderick, Armstead and Kelly, the Patriots will have plenty of options to choose from. All of whom are candidates to start, but it’s just a matter of how effective they will be. Drafting a prospect that can push the pocket shouldn’t be ruled out. LSU’s Bennie Logan and Penn State’s Jordan Hill are two mid-rounders to keep an eye on if the personnel members concur on the need and value.
New England’s linebacker corps is in good standing. Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower are young, aggressive tacklers. The issue here is that they’re young, aggressive downhill tacklers. This unit would greatly benefit from a change-of-pace linebacker who can come in and cover tight ends and halfbacks on passing downs.
Dane Fletcher, who missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL, is the Patriots’ best cover linebacker. He has helped keep offenses honest against what’s otherwise a “thumper” group of Patriot linebackers.
While linebacker is not glaring void, it’s an area that could be taken care of on Day 2 or Day 3 of the draft. The seam and the flats have been exploited, so if a sideline-to-sideline linebacker is available, it would leave Belichick and staff with an interesting proposition. Rutgers’ Khaseem Greene, Florida’s Jelani Jenkins and Iowa State’s Jake Knott are three men who fit the bill at different points in the draft.
4. Defensive End
New England’s starting pass rush is in good hands with Chandler Jones as the right end and Rob Ninkovich as the left end. The rookie and the journeyman combined for 14 sacks and eight forced fumbles in 2012. The biggest concern with this group is that no one has emerged as a surefire situational pass-rusher who can come in and ruffle feathers.
Behind Jones and Ninkovich is last year’s undrafted pick-up Justin Francis and 2010 second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham. The two netted a total of 5.5 sacks last season and figure to have a serviceable role in the rotation moving forward. After Francis and Cunningham, there’s Jake Bequette, whose tires haven’t really been kicked since he was drafted in the third round last April.
The depth is there, but it’s relatively unproven. Veteran free agents John Abraham and Dwight Freeney have made pit stops in Foxboro, but their landing spots remain up in the air. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Patriots stockpile this group even more once the draft arrives. Edge-setting prospects like Western Kentucky’s Quanterus Smith, Illinois’ Michael Buchanan and Georgia’s Cornelius Washington are three who come to mind if the Patriots can somehow swindle an early Day 3 pick.
Starting left cornerback Aqib Talib, nickelback Kyle Arrington and dimeback Marquice Cole have all re-signed with the Patriots. Nonetheless, three variables are at the forefront of the cornerback concern.
Will Alfonzo Dennard be suspended by Commissioner Roger Goodell for his pre-draft arrest? Will 2011 second-rounder Ras-I Dowling — whose injury history has limited him to nine games in two years — stay healthy? And will Talib be around Foxboro beyond his one-year contract? There’s no debate about the level of talent in New England’s secondary, but these questions need some answers. Selecting a cornerback would help fend off attrition and whatever else enables passing yardage.
This draft class is loaded with instant-impact corners. From the end of Round 1 through the end of Round 3, the options are promising. Washington’s Desmond Trufant, Boise State’s Jamar Taylor and Oregon State’s Jordan Poyer are just three possible fits out of a laundry list of names. The top three corner spots on New England’s depth chart are penciled in, it’s just a matter of if the front office wants to throw more names into the mix.
2. Offensive Guard
The interior of New England’s line looks solid on paper, but there’s reason to believe it should be topped off via the draft. All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins is tough as nails, except his injuries have caught up with him of late. He has missed 14 games since 2010. Meanwhile, starting right guard Dan Connolly is a respectable starter, yet he too has been hobbled by injuries recently. He has missed seven games since 2010.
With both men sidelined, Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald saw an uptick in playing time last year. Both backups filled in admirably — Thomas may have performed too admirably, actually. He’s now in position to start for the Indianapolis Colts. His exit means the Patriots must find another interior blocker, perhaps one who could eventually take over a starting job. Could former fifth-rounder Marcus Cannon be the answer? Or will he continue to provide depth at right tackle? It may be too soon to tell.
Pick 29 of Round 1 and pick 59 of Round 2 present two excellent spots for the Patriots to find a guard. It’s unlikely that North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper is still waiting, so Alabama’s D.J. Fluker and Syracuse’s Justin Pugh are two transitioning offensive tackles to jot down. If the team opts to go guard late, UCLA’s Jeff Baca is a quick and aggressive run-blocker worth a look.
1. Wide Receiver
Wide receiver is New England’s No. 1 scarcity heading into the draft. As we all know, 100-catch machine Wes Welker was signed by the Denver Broncos and ‘X’ receiver Brandon Lloyd was released.
Stitching up of the deficit, the Patriots added slot receiver Danny Amendola from the St. Louis Rams. The team also agreed to terms with ‘X’ types such as Donald Jones from the Buffalo Bills and Michael Jenkins from the Minnesota Vikings. And just this week, restricted Pittsburgh Steelers’ free agent Emmanuel Sanders signed a third-round tender with the Patriots while Julian Edelman re-signed — both one-year deals. The question now is: Are the Patriots finished adding? The split end position still may be without its eventual starter.
At this point it looks like the Pats will turn to the draft to find another field-stretcher. Fortunately for Belichick and staff, this year’s receiving pool is not on the shallow end when it comes to talent. At the end of Round 1, Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins would be an ideal fit. If the Patriots wait until Day 2 to pick a wideout, then Tennessee Tech’s Da’Rick Rogers, Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton and West Virginia’s Stedman Bailey all have the makings to thrive in the spread.