WR2 & WR3: Wes Welker is a pending free agent and must be retained. All signs seem to point to the Patriots and Welker working out a long term deal or (in a worst case scenario) Welker getting Franchise tagged. However, the rest of the Patriots WR corps is a mess. Deion Branch is old, unsigned and in the twilight of his career. Chances are he will be re-signed to a 1 year, low cost deal as his rapport with Brady is very good. Unfortunately, he's not a #2 WR any longer and the Pats have to find someone to line up opposite of Welker. The Chad Ochocinco experiment didn't work out, and it remains to be seen whether he will get a chance to compete for a spot in camp. The other WR's on the roster: Tiquan Underwood (re-signed after the Super Bowl), Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater are not realistic options for a lot of playing time.
Coming off a 13-3 season and a Super Bowl loss, the AFC champion New England Patriots have a bevvy of early draft picks and an estimated $25-30M (after 2011 rollover) in cap room to play with. Their needs are mostly on the defensive side of the ball, no surprise given they were 2nd worst in yards allowed in 2011 and their porous secondary was to blame for the Giants late TD drive in Super Bowl 46. However, there are a few places on offense the Patriots must address:
The Pats figure to be in the market for both a veteran and a younger player at WR. They have been linked to Brandon Lloyd, who has said he wants to play under Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels. However, Lloyd is represented by agent Tom Condon, with whom the Patriots had a falling out in 2004. Condon represented then 1st round pick Ben Watson and the Patriots (essentially) forced Watson to dump Condon in order to get a deal done. In the 7+ years since, the Pats have not worked a single deal with Condon.
Other veteran options include Robert Meachem who has the field stretching ability the Pats covet, or Eddie Royal who McDaniels was fond of in Denver (he would be a #3 option if Branch is not brought back). The Pats have been rumored to be interested in Mike Wallace and/or DeSean Jackson but both seem to be unrealistic options.
In terms of draft picks, the Pats figure to be looking for either a taller down-field option like Rueben Randle or Juron Criner (if he runs well at the Combine) or a dynamic playmaker like Jarius Wright or Joe Adams.
Offensive Line depth: The Patriots only other pressing need is reinforcements along the line. 2011 draftee Marcus Cannon looked decent in his limited duty after recovering from cancer and he figures to be a key backup at RG/RT. Brian Waters was excellent in his first year with the Patriots but is old and has been considering retirement. If Waters does retire, Cannon will be asked to play RG and New England will need a new backup G. The Pats have a pair of unsigned centers in Dan Connolly and Dan Koppen, and figure to retain at least one. Ryan Wendell is capable of playing center if needed, though one would think Belichick will look to upgrade the spot if a good opportunity presents itself in the draft.
The rest of the Patriots offense is in good shape. They could look to add a third TE or a replacement for the unsigned BenJarvus Green-Ellis but those are fairly small holes to fill. On defense, however, it's a whole different story:
It remains to be seen whether or not the Pats go back to a 3-4 base after using a 4-3 for much of 2011. The base they use will most likely be dependent upon what talent they can find to bolster their starting unit. Here are their (many) needs on D:
DB: Despite having the 2nd worst pass defense (by yardage) in the league in 2011, the Pats CB's are somewhat set for 2012. Devin McCourty, a Pro Bowler in 2010, fell apart in the Patriots' new man-coverage heavy scheme in 2011. He's a much better zone defender. He ended up switching to free safety in sub packages (5+ DB's) at the end of the year and looked comfortable in that role. Patriots CB coach Josh Boyer said he expects McCourty to be at CB in 2012, not FS (though, who knows). Ras-I Dowling, a 2011 2nd rounder looked very good in camp and early in the season - winning an opening day starting spot - but hurt his hip and ended up on I.R. He figures to get another shot at starting. 2011 starter Kyle Arrington is an adequate #2 or a high quality slot CB. The Pats have some depth with late-season revelation Sterling Moore, former Texans' CB Antwaun Molden (unsigned) and possibly WR convert Julian Edelman.
It's a different story at Safety, where the Patriots need a lot of help. Pat Chung is a quality player but cannot stay healthy. James Ihedigbo (unsigned) wasn't a disaster but isn't a starting caliber player. At one point the Patriots tried Matthew Slater at FS with unsurprisingly poor results. McCourty is a good option at free safety if only because the pickings will be slim in the draft and free agency. Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown are special teams only guys who failed in their chances to win a spot. Ideally, the Patriots will find a safety with good coverage skills to pair with Chung (who is better in run support). They offered Dashon Goldson a contract last summer and could be interested in him if he hits the open market. A veteran like Mike Adams could help solidify the position as well. The Patriots figure to draft a safety early in 2012 if there is decent value to be had. Mark Barron seems to be a popular pick but might lack the coverage skills the Pats need. A guy like George Iloka could work or the Patriots could take a CB with some positional flexibility - Dre Kirkpatrick (with a trade up in round 1) or Jamell Fleming might interest Bill Belichick.
3-4 DE/ 4-3 DT: Regardless of scheme, Vince Wilfork is the only guy who figures to be a sure-thing starter. Brandon Deaderick has played well enough to be an incumbent starter at 5-technique if the Pats go to a 3-4. The rest of the line is a mess. Kyle Love, a former undrafted player, is still developing but was manhandled in the Super Bowl. The Pats will need a big body next to Wilfork. They have experimented with kicking Wilfork to 5-technique and using Love at nose tackle, so don't be surprised if they pull the trigger on a guy like Dontari Poe (Belichick loves huge, athletic guys) early in the draft. One would think that Belichick would covet Quinton Coples and/or Michael Brockers but those guys will be long gone by the time the Patriots pick. Late 1st round 5-technique possibilities include Fletcher Cox or Devon Still (if he slides).
3-4 OLB/4-3 DE: Andre Carter and Mark Anderson were big successes as 2011 newcomers but both are unsigned for 2012. The Patriots probably would like both back but Anderson might want a contract which the Patriots view as too pricey for a guy who was frequently subbed out due to his deficiencies in the run game. Carter was a team leader but is old and coming off a serious injury. He also struggles in the 3-4 and might not want to return as a situational player. Rob Ninkovich is a serviceable starter at OLB in either scheme but 2nd year man Jermaine Cunningham's season was a disappointment - he got injured early in camp and never managed to acclimate to the new 4-3 scheme before hitting IR with another injury. The Pats really need a guy who can bring pressure and can be a 3-down player.
Mario Williams might be on the Pats radar - the two biggest free agent splashes the Pats have made were Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas - both edge LB/DE types. More likely, the Pats will try to find someone in the draft like Andre Branch, Vinny Curry, Cam Johnson or Chandler Jones. They covet guys who have long arms and are 6'3+ 250+ (ideally 6'4 260).
ILB depth: Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes are quality players but the Pats need an upgrade at nickel (coverage) LB in their "light" sub packages. Tracy White supplanted Gary Guyton (unsigned and unlikely to return) but White needs to be upgraded. This figures to be a place where the Pats will find a veteran role player like Leroy Hill
Lastly, the Pats special teams are pretty set with quality coverage guys and a reliable kicker/punter. They do, however, need an upgrade at kick returner - neither Julian Edelman nor Danny Woodhead was successful in that role in 2011. Most likely any WR they draft will be a guy who can challenge for regular kick returning duty or perhaps 2011 2nd rounder Shane Vereen - who missed extensive time with a hamstring issue - can help out.
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