The New England Patriots are back on top of the football world, winning their fifth Super Bowl in franchise history and their second in the past three years. With Tom Brady at the helm and Bill Belichick as the head coach, the Patriots are always going to be in contention. That being said, they’re not a perfect team.
They have several key players set to hit free agency in the coming months, including Jabaal Sheard, Dont’a Hightower and Martellus Bennett. It’s conceivable the Patriots will need to replace at least one or two of those players, which will be the most pivotal decisions of their offseason.
Here are five moves the Patriots need to make to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Add another tight end
Bill Belichick loves tight ends, and there’s actually a decent need for one this offseason. Rob Gronkowski has struggled to remain healthy, and Bennett is set to be a free agent. After he put together a good 2016 season, another team is certain to overpay Bennett and chase him from New England.
Considering how often the Patriots use formations with two tight ends, it would behoove them to add another one this offseason. Gronkowski can’t be counted on to stay on the field, and Bennett has injury questions of his own if he does return.
It’s not a huge need, but Tom Brady utilizes tight ends and running backs in the middle of the field better than most quarterbacks. The Patriots covet tight ends, and this would be the year to add one in the draft – considering how deep the class is at that position.
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Find a rangy linebacker like Jamie Collins
It may sound contradictory, but the Patriots need to find a player who’s similar to the one they traded away in October. Jamie Collins could rush the passer, drop back in coverage or match up with opposing tight ends, emerging as a do-it-all linebacker. That’s what the Patriots need more of.
Adding one in the draft -- one like Haason Riddick, who blew up the Senior Bowl -- would go a long way for New England’s defense. He can cover tight ends, rush the quarterback and match up with running backs such as Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Bill Belichick loves versatility at all spots on defense, particularly at linebacker. Adding a rangy guy to complement Dont'a Hightower in the Patriots’ frequent three-linebacker sets could take the defense to another level. Kyle Van Noy is decent, but he’s not necessarily a three-down player.
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Sign or draft an explosive receiver
Brady has never been one to need blue-chip talents at wide receiver. The Patriots never dip into that position in the first round, and they’re not likely to do that this year, either. That doesn’t mean they can’t afford to get more explosive at the position, though. They can make that happen by adding a speedy, big-play receiver like DeSean Jackson or Kenny Stills.
I’m not comparing either of those players to Randy Moss because that would be outlandish, but Brady thrived when he had a guy who could blow the top off of the defense. Both Jackson and Stills have the ability to do that, and both are free agents. The Patriots are loaded with underneath receivers who can turn short throws into big gains, but Chris Hogan is their only true deep threat – and even that’s probably a stretch.
Adding a dynamic playmaker with elite speed could change the shape of New England’s offense by opening up underneath routes with the safeties deep down the field. It probably won’t cost the Patriots much to add a player of that caliber.
Address the defensive line
The Patriots’ pass rush was strong in Super Bowl LI, but it wasn’t an accurate representation of the way they played this season. They were 16th in sacks, and several key contributors are set to hit free agency. Sheard, Chris Long and Alan Branch have expiring contracts.
This leaves the Patriots with a few holes at both pass rusher and defensive tackle. And even if they can re-sign one or two of those players, the defensive line needs to be addressed. They miss a guy with the explosiveness of Chandler Jones – someone who can take over a game late in the fourth quarter.
Fortunately, the draft is littered with edge players and should allow the Patriots to find value at the end of the first round, and even beyond that. The 2017 class isn’t nearly as deep at defensive tackle, but there’s always free agency, where Belichick will add a no-name player and turn him into a star. They need a disruptive player to pair with Malcolm Brown, especially if Branch leaves.
Re-sign Dont'a Hightower
The Patriots traded away both Collins and Chandler Jones in the past year, and this is exactly why: to set up the re-signing of Dont'a Hightower. Collins and Jones were set to be free agents this offseason, just as Hightower is. With them out of the picture, the Patriots can now afford to re-sign their stud linebacker long-term, which is crucial.
He made a game-changing play in Super Bowl LI, when he forced a fumble on Matt Ryan, setting up the Patriots in good field position. He’s made plays like that all season and throughout his career, proving to be a valuable contributor on defense.
New England has several other free agents set to hit the open market, but Hightower is by far the biggest. He needs to be locked up for the foreseeable future, keeping the core of the defense intact.