This off-season will be a big one for the New England Patriots as the team tries to move forward from a very disappointing loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL playoffs. The playoff loss against the Ravens began an off-season that could see many changes for the Patriots roster as Belichick and company try to fill holes on both offense and defense.
On the offensive side of the ball, the only position that fans do not have to worry about is obviously QB. Every other position, including WR, has issues. The offensive line which has long been a strength of the Patriots had a great season protecting Tom Brady as they only gave up a franchise low of 18 sacks. However, there are uncertainties for the future of the offensive line. Matt Light, a stalwart tackle for many seasons, missed 5 games. His replacement, Sebastian Vollmer, played exceptionally well which could mean Matt Light and his large contract have seen their last days in a Patriots uniform. Stephen Neal started 12 games and had one of his healthier seasons to date, but is leaning towards retirement so a replacement guard will be needed to fill his spot. Logan Mankins made his second Pro Bowl team, but is a restricted free agent if the NFL has an uncapped 2010 season which means he will likely be back with the Patriots. Nick Kaczur, who started 13 games with the Patriots signed a 3 year extension, but he will have to battle to keep his starting spot. Dan Koppen once again had a great season starting all of the Patriots' games. Although the numbers looked good for the Patriots' offensive line, there were quite a few instances, especially against the Ravens, where the offensive line just failed to protect Brady at the wrong time in the game. The Patriots have pieces on the o-line to work with such as Koppen, Mankins and Vollmer, but could definitely look for an upgrade or two through free agency and the the NFL draft.
Besides QB, Patriots fans would believe that WR is a position that is not an issue. However, Wes Welker's injury in the last regular season game brought to light the lack of depth the Patriots have at the WR position. Both Moss and Welker are over the age of 30 and there is no guarantee that Welker will return to his pre-injury form. Other than Welker and Moss, the Patriots' best WR is Edelmen. Edelmen showed a lot of promise, but he is young and at this point, is at best, a decent slot receiver. The Patriots need another receiver to take the pressure off of Moss and Welker and give Brady another option when teams double Moss.
Running back has been an issue for the Patriots the last few seasons. Laurence Maroney was drafted to be the RB of the future, but he has been wildly inconsistent. There have been several flashes of great play from Maroney, but his injuries and fumbling issues have caused many to lose trust in him as a full-time running back. The Patriots do have Fredy Taylor, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk, but all three are old and have injury issues of their own. Adding a feature back to the mix on offense would take a great deal of pressure off the passing game for the Patriots and create more opportunities for Brady to go deep through more effective play-action and defenses respecting the running game.
Tight end was not a very problematic position for the Patriots as Ben Watson had great plays throughout the season and saved the game for Tom Brady and the Patriots on a few occasions, especially the first game against the Buffalo Bills. However, there are depth issues here as well with Chris Baker as the back-up tight end. If the Patriots are unable to add another receiver the help the passing game, adding a offensively inclined tight end would be a good secondary option.
On the defensive side of the ball, the only position that seems to not need change is the safety position where Brandon Merriweather made the Pro Bowl team and James Sanders had a good season. However, there are issues with the defensive line, linebackers and corners.
Beginning with the corners, Leigh Bodden had a great season, but is a free agent. If I were the Patriots, I would re-sign Bodden not only because he had a great season, but because he is a veteran that could help out the young corners on the team such as Darius Butler, Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley. Shawn Springs, another veteran CB, had a disappointing season. He was either injured or ineffective when healthy. The other corners who (D. Butler, J. Wilhite and T. Wheatley) have shown some promise, but are young and inexperienced.
One way to help any secondary, especially a young secondary is to have a great pass rush. This is an area in which the Patriots have struggled for the past few seasons. Right now, Tully Banta-Cain is the best pass rusher on the team. He is a solid player, but when Banta-Cain is your best pass rusher, the team has a problem. Derrick Burgess was brought in to be the big pass rusher for the team, but he had a disappointing season. In the defensive line, there really is no player who strikes you as a great pass rusher. Vince Wilfork is one of the top defensive lineman in the league and a top three nose tackle, but as a nose tackle, he will not be getting you a ton of sacks and he still needs to re-sign with the Patriots. Jarvis Green and Ty Warren are solid players, but neither strikes fear into opponents or opposing QBs as players who could potentially pressure the QB on every player. The Patriots need a pass rusher that can potentially get to the QB on every single play to help out their young secondary.
With the linebackers, it has been an issue of getting old and getting old quickly. The best linebackers that the Patriots had have either become too old and retired, become too old and ineffective or become too old and traded or let go. Jerod Mayo is a great, young LB, but he needs some help. Other than Mayo, there really is no young LB on the Patriots who can help replace the loss of the likes of Bruschi and Vrabel. Adalius Thomas has been solid, but still a disappointment because of the expectations fans and the team had with him coming on the Patriots. It was surprising that the Patriots did not draft a LB in the 2009 NFL draft so they should be targeting a LB pretty early in the draft this year.
This will be a big off-season for the Patriots, one that could see many changes and a lot of new faces on the team. Overall, the Patriots should look to target a linebacker and defensive end with their early picks and then use the rest of the draft and free agency to fill other holes.
What positions do you think the Patriots should address first and how?