What are the biggest position needs for the New England Patriots this offseason in both NFL free agency and the 2017 NFL Draft?
The New England Patriots are in a great position this offseason. As the defending Super Bowl champions, they are obviously already loaded with talent on their roster. However, they have an opportunity to get even better.
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Despite holding the Lombardi Trophy, the Patriots have a lot of decisions to make this offseason. They have a lot of their own free agents to worry about, including many impact players like linebacker Dont’a Hightower and tight end Martellus Bennett. However, with those free agents, the Patriots have a lot of room under the cap to work with.
They also have arguably the best trade chip on the market in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. If the Pats decide to move Garoppolo, they are likely to get a huge haul. Whether they trade Garoppolo or not, they are set up to have success in the 2017 NFL Draft. Simply put, the New England Patriots are in a great position to add to an already loaded roster this off season.
That being said, all teams have needs. The Patriots are more well-rounded than any team in the NFL, but they still have weaknesses on their roster. They can go in many different directions this off season, but the Patriots must make sure to take care of these weaknesses.
Here are the five biggest positional needs for the New England Patriots this offseason.
Dec 18, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; New England Patriots center David Andrews (60) and offensive guard Shaq Mason (69) and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon (61) in the third quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
5. Offensive Line
The offensive line was a major part of the New England Patriots’ success in 2016. They did a great job of opening up holes in the run game and protected Tom Brady well all season long. Legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia came back to the team in 2016 and was able to get the unit back on track.
That being said, there is always room for improvement. Solder is aging and is probably an average option at left tackle at best at this point in his career. Cannon had an incredible 2016 season, but this was the first year that he has been dependable. He was consistently bad in the five seasons prior. Subsequently, can the Patriots count on that to continue?
The interior trio of Thuney, Andrews and Mason has a lot of potential. Thuney in particular will likely be a staple at left guard for many years. However, Andrews’ upside is limited and Mason has serious pass protection issues. I do not think the Patriots need any immediate upgrades on the interior, but finding some depth on the inside would be nice. I would not call offensive line a huge need, but the Patriots would be wise to find some young depth up front this offseason.
Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower (54) reacts after a tackle in the third quarter during Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports
I think most would consider the linebacker position to be a larger need for the Patriots. It is certainly important, but honestly it all comes down to one player. Dont’a Hightower is the leader of the New England Patriots defense and the team simply must do what it takes to get him back.
Hightower is an elite run defender from the inside linebacker position. He shows incredible natural instincts against the run, is strong in pass coverage and is an extremely smart player who is always in position. On top of that, Hightower has become an impact pass rusher from the edge. Look no further than the incredible Super Bowl victory against the Atlanta Falcons. Hightower’s incredible sack and forced fumble of Matt Ryan was arguably the biggest play in a game full of them.
Make no mistake about it, getting Hightower back is a high priority. However, I simply do not see Bill Belichick letting him go. The Patriots know how valuable Hightower is and they will pay him accordingly. He is still in the prime of his career and will be valuable for years to come.
With other linebackers like Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin and Elandon Roberts on the roster, the Patriots have quality depth. All they need to do is make sure that they keep their playmaking leader. If Hightower returns like I expect, the linebacker position is not an issue.
Oct 23, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) runs after a catch against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. New England won 27-16. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
3. Tight End
Similarly to linebacker, the Patriots’ need at the tight end position comes down to one player. The Pats brought Martellus Bennett in to be one-half of a dynamic duo at the tight end position. Bennett was solid for New England last season, but he was primarily a solo act.
Bennett really ended up being security for Rob Gronkowski, who suffered another major injury this season. Gronkowski is an incredible play-maker at the tight end position, but his injuries are clearly a major concern. Bennett is a free agent this offseason, and if the Patriots re-sign him, tight end is not an issue. However, if they cannot get him back, they must find some more security for Gronkowski.
Re-signing Bennett is the preferred option. He is an established tight end who has great receiving skills and dominates as a run blocker. However, getting him back will not be cheap. If the Patriots do not pay up for Bennett, he will likely find someone who is willing to.
If the Patriots lose out on Bennett, I could see them aggressively attacking the position in the draft. Someone like the ridiculously athletic David Njoku would make a ton of sense for the team. Njoku would provide similar Gronkowski security at the position at Bennett did.
Regardless who it is, the Patriots simply must add at least one impact tight end this offseason. Gronkowski is great, but they cannot count on him staying healthy. As important as the position is in their offense, not having a strong option behind him would be a massive mistake.
November 20, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Cyrus Jones (24) before the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium. The Patriots defeated the 49ers 30-17. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots have two major free agents at the cornerback position this offseason. Logan Ryan is an unrestricted free agent who will probably not be back. Ryan was great for the Patriots last season, but his inconsistent play over the years should not be forgotten. Ryan is a solid slot cornerback, but he is not worth the money he is about to get on the open market.
Malcolm Butler is also a free agent, but he is of the restricted variety. Butler is a lockdown corner in the making and I would be shocked to see the Patriots let him go. Locking Butler up is likely one of the top priorities this of season.
Even if they do sign Butler to a long-term deal, cornerback could be an issue for the team in 2017. I am not a huge Ryan fan, but losing him could really hurt the team. Eric Rowe is a big cornerback who has success when put in favorable situations. However, he is not going to be able to defend the slot.
As far as the guys on the roster, Cyrus Jones will be expected to be the Patriots’ replacement of Ryan. Jones was the Patriots’ second-round selection last year, but he had nothing but issues in 2016. The Patriots cannot be confident that Jones will be ready to take on a larger role in 2017. He was awful as a rookie. Aside from Butler, there are a lot of question marks at cornerback. The New England Patriots must address the position in free agency, the draft or perhaps both.
Jan 14, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Alan Branch (97) and teammates on the field against the Houston Texans in the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
1. Defensive Line
Honestly, the biggest need for the Patriots this offseason is pretty easy. They have a lot of players about to hit free agency on the defensive line both on the edge and on the interior. Alan Branch, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long are all hitting the open market at the same time. On top of that, the Patriots already lack depth up front.
Branch has been an absolute star for the Patriots the past two seasons. He is an elite run defender in the middle who can single-handily plug up the run game. Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine are strong options in the middle, but neither have the same impact as Branch. If they lose him, it will undoubtedly hurt.
On the edge, Trey Flowers is a star defensive end in the making. He is a relentless pass rusher who also shows strong run defense instincts. However, if the Patriots lose both Long and Sheard, their depth is gone. Rob Ninkovich is still around, but he is not the same player who he used to be.
The New England Patriots already have a shallow mix of players up front. They were able to get away with it last season, but they may lose some key players via free agency. The Patriots either need to sign their key defensive line free agents or replace them. Simply ignoring the position is not even remotely an option. The depth just is not there.