Despite Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich returning next year, the Patriots should add another pass rusher in the offseason. (USA TODAY Images)
While New England is still celebrating the 28-24 Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks, the Patriots are onto the offseason.
Teams around the league are gearing up for the NFL Combine in Indianapolis and the time is rapidly approaching for free agency. The Pats have some big decisions to make on their own free agents,¬†but it’s time to start thinking how the team can improve for next season.
Here are some positions of need the team should evaluate as the offseason begins. —
*Quick note: No specific order
Interior Offensive Line: The Patriots drafted Bryan Stork in the fourth-round of the 2014 draft. With hindsight being 20/20, from this viewpoint he was far-and-away the best draft selection last year as of now.
New England needs to upgrade on the interior. Adding more youth, size, power and toughness to the offensive front. When Stork or Dan Connolly — who’s a free agent and will be 33 when next season begins — were injured last season, the line struggled.
Ryan Wendell and Connolly are decent options, but it’s time for the team to start looking forward. A prospect in rounds one-three should be used targeting the guard position.
Edge Rusher: Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have been the starters, but a rotation of pass rushers can benefit any team. In a league that hinges on an effective passing game, the Patriots should target a third and fourth option on the edge.
Akeem Ayers did a solid job after a mid-season trade brought him to the team, but now he’s a free agent. If he can be re-signed at a good value, that helps with depth, but¬†would anyone protest adding another player who can attack the opposing quarterback?
Jones has only played one full season since being drafted in the first round, and while he’s been effective when healthy, he has not quite reached the level many expected. Adding another rusher, either through the draft or free agency, would take more pressure off Jones and Ninkovich while allowing players to be more fresh in obvious passing situations.
As much as the Patriots defense improved in 2014, there were many situations opposing signal-callers had too much time in the pocket.
Interior Defensive Line: The Patriots defense struggled at times against the run last season. While the team used a rotation of players last year, questions surround nearly every one of them.
Vince Wilfork isn’t getting any younger and the team may need to trim his salary yet again. Dominque Easley had¬†a disappointing rookie year, but expectations will be high next season. Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones have played well at times, but neither seem to be starting caliber players, but instead rotational pieces for a defense. Alan Branch is a free agent, but could return if the money is reasonable.
The Pats may look for a younger player in the draft or a veteran option in free agency as a way to upgrade. Even if the team decides to keep the majority of their defensive line together for next year, it might be time to groom younger players down the line.
Cornerback: Darrelle Revis’ contract situation is at the top of New England’s offseason list, but let’s assume he is on the roster for next year. Going into the 2014 season, there was a lot of talk about how much depth the Patriots had in the secondary. But was that the case?
Alfonzo Dennard was placed on injured-reserve and it’s hard to determine if he was injured or had fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. Logan Ryan had an up-and-down second season, but does not seem like the ascending talent he was thought to be at this time last year.
Kyle Arrington played well for the majority of the season, but is his roughly four million salary figure too high? Brandon Browner will be 31 at the start of next season. And while Malcom Butler made one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history a few weeks ago, the question remains if will he be able to grow and improve into his second season.
So, while there are questions about each of the these players and it’s always smart to develop secondary prospects in today’s NFL, should the team draft or add a veteran to the mix? Seems like a strong possibility, even if Revis returns.
Running back: The Patriots have leaned towards a running back-by-committee approach under Bill Belichick, and that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere for the near future. LeGarrette Blount took the lions share of the carries down the stretch, but Shane Vereen was a heavy part of the offense as well.
With Vereen a free agent, along with Stevan Ridley who is also coming off a season-ending knee injury, the team might move on. Jonas Gray flashed when given the opportunity, but was not a big part of the rotation. Brandon Bolden was given an extension, but is primarily a special teams player.
So will the team be able to retain Vereen or turn the job over to James White? White only received 14 touches (9 carries, 5 receptions) in his rookie season. It depends how the coaching staff views White. If the team doesn’t make any significant roster moves, they could be looking at White as a key contributor.
If they choose to draft a prospect or add one in free agency, that could be your answer. But regardless, this position has a lot more questions than answers.
Safety: Devin McCourty is another big priority for the Patriots this offseason. He’s a leader in the locker room and loved by the coaching staff, so it’s hard to see him going elsewhere.
Aside from McCourty, the team could look to upgrade over Patrick Chung or their depth overall. Chung played much better than expected in his second stint with the team, but was exposed in pass coverage at times. Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson have mainly filled reserve and special team’s roles.
If McCourty re-signs, which seems likely, there are still a lot of questions surrounding the other players at the position. It won’t be a shock if another safety or two is added before next season.
Wide receiver: Brandon LaFell joined the team last season and came on strong during the year. With he and Julain Edelman under contract, the focus shifts to the other players at the position.
Aaron Dobson was an afterthought in his second year, and while he shouldn’t be counted out completely, it’s hard to have strong expectations he’ll be an impact player with what we have seen so far. Training camp will be big for him.
Danny Amendola was brought up as a possible cut in lat year’s offseason, but his contract kept him around. He contributed throughout the year, but was a big factor in the post-season. Will the team ask him to restructure? If he declines he could be on the way out.
The Patriots could look to develop a young receiver in a prospect-heavy draft class, but their track record isn’t great. Adding another veteran to compete for a spot as a third or fourth option seems like a strong possibility.
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