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Offseason review: New England Patriots
OLB, OT, RB, G, DE, WR
Round 1: Nate Solder, OT
Round 2: Ras-I Dowling, CB
Round 2: Shane Vereen, RB
Round 3: Stevan Ridley, RB
Round 3: Ryan Mallett, QB
Round 5: Marcus Cannon, G/OT
Round 5: Lee Smith, TE
Round 6: Markell Carter, OLB
Round 7: Malcolm Williams, CB
Potential free agents of note
OLB, OT (depth), G, DE (depth), WR
After the Patriots lost at home in the playoffs for the second straight season, it became abundantly clear that this team would go only as far as the defensive would take it. Yep, I said it. No longer could the Patriots rely on quarterback Tom Brady to carry them.
For years, Brady was the chief reason the Patriots were so successful. But in a season in which Brady threw for 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions, you would think his brilliance would catapult the team deep into the playoffs. However, he can only do so much.
The bottom line is Brady’s talent has been negated by a very average defense. During the past two playoff games, New England’s defense has posted only one takeaway and zero sacks. Long gone are such key pieces to the defense as Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, Jarvis Green and other savvy veterans. The Patriots, although still clearly one of the NFL’s top franchises, have not adequately replaced those players. But it’s not just about those players; it’s about their ability execute the plays and to fit in with head coach Bill Belichick’s defensive scheme.
Many team observers thought the team would address the inconsistent pass rush in the draft, but that didn’t happen until the sixth round with small-school outside linebacker Markell Carter. Veteran defensive lineman Mike Wright, who missed six games during the regular season, led the Patriots in sacks with 5 1/2. It’s hard to see how the Patriots will be able to muster up a much better pass rush this season.
Belichick actually used cornerback Kyle Arrington at defensive end a little bit last season in order to create some confusion for the opposing offenses. Jermaine Cunningham, who was selected in the second round in last year’s NFL Draft, posted only one sack despite playing in 554 snaps on defense. He’ll be counted on to make a huge improvement in year two. The Patriots, however, still will have free agency in order to address the pass-rushing need.
Belichick passed on pass rushers such as Akeem Ayers and Brooks Reed in the second round and instead chose cornerback Ras-I Dowling. Although the Patriots now have what appears to be a strong group of cornerbacks, that won’t matter unless the pass rush improves.
On offense, it appears left tackle Matt Light, whose contract expired after last season, won’t be back for his 11th season with the team after the Patriots selected left tackle Nate Solder in the first round. However, depth could be a problem at tackle if the team decides to release veteran Nick Kaczur, who is due $3.4 million in base salary this season.
The future of the guard position, once again, is an issue because the team placed their franchise tag on starter Logan Mankins. If franchise tags are not included in the new free-agency rules, the team could lose the interior lineman, and it’s uncertain where New England would turn for his potential replacement.
The selection of running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley should help solve the depth issue at running back. Adding them to a group that already includes Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis gives the Patriots great depth and versatility at the position. Green-Ellis’ contract expired after last season, but he’ll likely be a restricted free agent once free agency begins.