After missing out on the postseason in 2008, the Patriots returned to the playoffs last year with Tom Brady back at the helm, only to be blown out by the Ravens in a first-round game at home. There’s much retooling to be done on both sides of the ball, and a surprising amount of talent’s needed for a team that finished with a 10-6 record.
Luckily, New England’s stockpiled draft picks for the second-straight offseason and is poised to add an influx of youth. The Pats current have 12 selections, holding picks No. 22, 44, 47, 53, 119, 190, 205, 229, 231, 247, 248 and 250.
In the past, New England prided itself on a relentless defensive unit that gave quarterbacks a cold sweat on the nights leading up to game day. The Pats defense was one of the top-five statistical units at getting to the quarterback in 2006 and 2007, but over the past two seasons, their level of effectiveness has slipped, ranking 14th in sacks in 2008 before falling to 23rd last year.
The Patriots top need should be getting a hybrid outside linebacker who can pressure the quarterback from the edge of their 3-4 scheme. Tully Banta-Cain was re-signed after leading the team with 10 sacks a season ago, but he’s far from a player opponents need to game plan for. Adalius Thomas will be 33 in August and had his least productive season since coming to New England from Baltimore, aside from the fact he clashed with coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots recently hosted TCU defensive end Jerry Hughes, one player who fits the hybrid mold well.
The linebacking corps could also use another interior presence to play alongside Jerod Mayo. Tedy Brushci’s retirement was one of the factors that made it difficult for the Pats to stop the run at times. Gary Guyton had a solid season, but can certainly be upgraded.
In front of the linebackers, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren anchor a solid front. No one can argue the value New England got out of trading 30-year-old Richard Seymour to Oakland for their first-round pick in 2011, but Seymour’s presence against the run was sorely missed last year. The unit was gashed by Baltimore’s rushing attack in the playoffs. Jarvis Green is gone and Mike Wright is a solid player, but is probably a better fit playing a reserve role. New England’s going to have to find a suitable replacement for Seymour on the right side.
In the secondary, the strategy last season was to put a lot of veteran bodies at cornerback. Leigh Bodden’s a decent player who was re-signed to a long-term deal, while Shawn Springs is also slated to return. Rookie Darius Butler showed flashes of greatness and needs to take the next step in his sophomore campaign. With the league having gone pass-happy, New England could definitely use some more youth and talent at the position, but chances are they won’t address it until late in the draft.
On the offensive side of the ball, additions are needed at every skill position. Tight end’s a glaring need after Ben Watson and Chris Baker left as unrestricted free agents. Alge Crumpler was signed, but the big tight end’s become more of a blocker since his Atlanta days. That leaves Robbie Agnone and Rob Myers as the only other tight ends on the roster, neither of whom has seen game action.
Wide receiver’s another concern. Randy Moss had another great season, but is 33 years old and will be a free agent after next season. Julian Edelman was a pleasant surprise and filled in nicely when Wes Welker missed time with injuries. Welker tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in the regular-season finale loss to the Texans. At least part of his 2010 season is in serious jeopardy. This leaves the Patriots with a lack of depth at the position. Brandon Tate was drafted a year ago, but he began the season on the PUP list and played in just two games before another knee injury ended his year. Dez Bryant of Oklahoma State, the top wide receiver prospect in the draft, recently visited the Pats at their facilities.
Last, but certainly not least, is running back. The Patriots elected to use a committee of ball carriers and the team fared well, ranking 13th in the league in rushing. However, Laurence Maroney, the closest thing to a feature back, continued his mediocre play with a 3.9 yard per carry average. Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are all currently on the roster, but a dynamic runner is a desperate need.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: DT Vince Wilfork (franchised at $7.003 million, re-signed for five years at $40 million)
TRANSITION PLAYER: None
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: DT Vince Wilfork (franchised), LB Tully Banta-Cain (re-signed for three years at 13.5 million), LB Derrick Burgess, P Chris Hansen, CB Leigh Bodden (re-signed for four years at $22 million), RB Kevin Faulk, (re-signed for one year at $2 million), G Stephen Neal (re-signed for two years), TE Ben Watson (signed with Cleveland), DE Jarvis Green (signed with Denver), TE Chris Baker (signed with Seattle)
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: G Logan Mankins (received first and third-round tender at $3.268 million), K Stephen Gostkowski (received second-round tender at $1.759 million), LB Pierre Woods (received right of first refusal tender at $1.176 million), RB Chris Taylor (was not tendered)
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: LB Gary Guyton (received one-year tender at $470,000), DB Bret Lockett (received one-year tender at $395,000)
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: LB Tully Banta-Cain, CB Leigh Bodden, RB Kevin Faulk, G Stephen Neal
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: TE Alge Crumpler, WR David Patten, LB Marques Murrell, DT Damione Lewis (one year at $1.15 million)
PLAYERS LOST: LB Junior Seau (retired), TE Chris Baker, DE Jarvis Green, TE Benjamin Watson, LB Derrick Burgess, P Chris Hansen, RB Chris Taylor
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER — The Pats notched just 31 sacks last season and must get more pressure from their outside linebackers. Tully Banta-Cain is back, but isn’t stellar by any means, and Adalius Thomas logged his third-straight disappointing season.
TIGHT END — Alge Crumpler, Robbie Agnone and Rob Myers are the only current tight ends on the roster. Not a strong group to say the least. Bill Belichick previously invested first-round picks in Daniel Graham and Ben Watson, so it wouldn’t be a shock if New England spent a high pick on a new tight end. Brady needs more pass catchers who can work the middle of the field with the uncertainty regarding Welker’s return.
WIDE RECEIVER — Losing Tom Brady’s favorite target in Wes Welker hurts. Randy Moss is still effective, but is 33 years old and will be a free agent after next season. Julian Edelman’s a good young player, but the Pats must start reloading Brady’s weapons.
DEFENSIVE END — Trading Richard Seymour was definitely the right move long-term, but it hurt in the short-term. The big defensive end was a force against the run and anchored New England’s front for years. They’ll need to find a strong replacement to secure the right side again, which will also help free up the rushing linebackers.
RUNNING BACK — Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are currently on the roster. Taylor and Faulk are both 34, and Morris is 33. Maroney’s never developed into a quality runner, and Green-Ellis has averaged 3.9 yards per carry on 100 carries in his short career. The backfield’s in dire need of youth and big-play ability. The team reportedly hosted Tennessee tailback Montario Hardesty for a recent visit.
INSIDE LINEBACKER — Tedy Bruschi was missed in the middle this past season. Gary Guyton was decent in his first season as a starter, but New England needs a tougher interior presence next to Jerod Mayo. An upgrade could do wonders for the run defense.