In rather surprising fashion, Bill Belichick and the Patriots have cannonballed directly into free agency and have made a handful of ‘wow’ worthy moves, despite winning the Super Bowl just weeks earlier. They traded for Brandin Cooks, re-signed Dont’a Hightower, signed Stephon Gilmore to one monster of a contract, you name it. The Patriots’ current roster could probably repeat as Super Bowl champs today, if they had the opportunity. What’s new, right?
They’ve managed to bolster their roster even more somehow, and they aren’t done yet. Though things are looking pretty, pretty good for the Patriots as it stands right now, per usual, there are still a few moves that need to be made to fill some necessary holes. New England is in a fantastic spot entering the draft. Before we’re on to 2017, let’s look at some positions that need to be filled to start the process of winning Super Bowl LII.
I feel that as it stands right now, the biggest need is a running back. The current running back depth for New England stands at Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead, DJ Foster and Tyler Gaffney, as Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount are still on the market. There are a lot of different routes that the Patriots could go down as it regards running backs. While Burkhead is a decent signing and provides help on special teams and gives you versatility, the Patriots still need more help in the backfield. Keep in mind, Lewis, White and Burkhead are unrestricted free agents after next season.
One thing the Patriots could choose to do is re-sign Blount and repeat the same thing they did last season, using Blount as that power-back, White as a pass catcher and Lewis to do whatever needs to be done to pick up yardage. Obviously, it worked, as Blount broke New England’s record for most touchdowns scored by a running back in a single season by a large margin and White emerged as an eventual Super Bowl hero. This, unfortunately, might not work out, as Blount is aging and just may not be worth starting running back money in Belichick’s eyes.
If the Patriots decide to move on from Blount Force Trauma, they could always sign a free agent back. Some possible options are Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles. The best possible replacement for Blount would be Peterson, to fill that force and power hole, but it seems like an unlikely fit. Peterson would cost much more than what it would to simply re-sign Blount, plus he is 32 and is coming off of a knee surgery. Though, you have to think that Peterson is eager to win a ring at last and wouldn’t have that much pressure on his shoulders to keep up. As it stands for Charles, he can’t keep his ACL intact and is 30 years old.
Lastly, the road that I think the Patriots will end up going down, deciding to go young at the position. This draft is pretty deep in every sense of the word, which is perfect, because New England currently doesn’t have a pick until the third round. Guys like D’Onta Foreman and Joe Mixon could still be on the board once the first two rounds are finished, and would be pretty decent fits here. Though, knowing Belichick, he’ll probably strike gold in the seventh round with some nobody from a place nobody’s ever heard of. At the end of the day, the Patriots need a guy to fill Blount’s physical role, and the most likely and logical option is to draft somebody, which Belichick is typically good at doing.
After running back, another position in which some help is critical is defensive end, especially edge rusher. Chris Long recently announced that he’s moving on from the Patriots and Jabaal Sheard has since signed with the Colts. To provide some help, the Patriots traded for Kony Ealy from Carolina, but that doesn’t quite fill the hole at DE. Ealy happens to be inconsistent in his play and will probably end up being a rotational pass rusher for the Pats. Along with Ealy, they have the emergence of Trey Flowers, an elder Rob Ninkovich and Geneo Grissom, who has played primarily on special teams and has been injured at times throughout his young career. At least one more player, preferably two, will be needed to help fill the hole here.
Similar to the running back position, New England may look to go young here, as well. Ninkovich and Ealy’s contracts are up after 2017 and Flowers hits the market in two years. This draft has a handful of possible options at this position, such as Carl Lawson, Carroll Phillips and Daeshon Hall. Though, it may be difficult to find a high-caliber player or two with New England’s late picks. We’d all like to see Trey Flowers stick around for the long haul, and bringing in some fellow young help for him isn’t such a bad idea.
The seemingly easiest route to go down here would be picking up someone on the market. Some guys available are Dwight Freeney, Connor Barwin, Jacquies Smith and Elvis Dumervil. Since saying bye-bye to Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones, the team has struggled to find a consistent pass rusher, and it became a problem in the second half of the season at times, especially in the first three quarters of the Super Bowl. Flowers is the future at this position, but he can’t do it all by himself and he is still very young.
Despite signing arguably the number one cornerback on the free agent market in Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots still need help and depth at CB. We’re not exactly sure just how well Gilmore will perform here in New England, showing struggles in his time with Buffalo. To add onto that, Malcolm Butler’s future with the team is up in the air and Logan Ryan recently signed with the Titans. What the Patriots had with primarily Butler, Ryan and Eric Rowe in the second half of last season was pretty great. Past Gilmore, the Patriots currently have Eric Rowe and Cyrus Jones, who are not necessarily fan-favorites amongst Patriots fans.
Having a secondary consisting of Gilmore, Rowe and C. Jones makes me feel uneasy. Rowe showed immense inconsistency after he was traded to New England from Philadelphia, and Jones was used as a corner minimally. They’ve also got Justin Coleman who, again, isn’t loved in New England, and then there’s Jonathan Jones, who was used almost only on special teams and excelled there, and will probably make a living in that phase of the game.
There’s always the draft, and this one is filled with CB talent, but by the time the third round comes up, there probably won’t be much too choose from, other than maybe an injured Sidney Jones, if they’re lucky. They’ll probably have to pick someone from the open market, which does consist of some decent players, like Alterraun Verner and Brandon Flowers. Even if Malcolm Butler does stay in New England for the upcoming season, you still need to replace Logan Ryan, who came up big and had a monster of a second half.
Another position that needs filling is inside linebacker. Despite re-signing Dont’a Hightower through the year 2020, off-the-line linebacker is still a need for the reigning Super Bowl champions. After Hightower, there’s Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy and Jonathan Freeny. Roberts had a fantastic rookie season and opened the eyes of many last season, finding success mainly against the run, but struggled on the blitz and in coverage. Van Noy was a decent pickup at the trade deadline and as was McClellin before the start of the season, but both also struggled in coverage and, similar to many on the team, didn’t do much when it came to rushing the passer. They desperately need someone who isn’t afraid to get to the quarterback along with Hightower.
As far as I know, there isn’t much going on in the draft as far as linebackers go, unfortunately. There are still a few names on the market here, such as Zach Brown, easily the best free agent out there at this position, who would be a great add-on to New England’s defense, giving them something against the run. They could also pick up a guy like Perry Riley for pocket change. At the end of the day, they need anything to give Hightower some help; a young guy or a veteran will do the trick here.
My final top need for the Patriots would have to be a kick and punt returner. As you probably remember, Cyrus Jones played primarily as a K/P returner and performed just about as bad as one could in his first pro season. I don’t want him returning a football for a long, long while. There’s so much work that needs to be done for him on return plays, and it isn’t a quick fix. He was primed to be the main, go-to return man before the debacle that was his first NFL season, but I can’t see him back there returning boots for quite some time.
Best-case scenario is staying pat with what they had last season and adding someone via free agency for depth purposes. Restructuring Danny Amendola or not is the first domino that needs to fall before the team goes any further in the process of finding a return man. Amendola was, and has been, old reliable in every sense of his game, and of course having Julian Edelman back there, too. Say Amendola is gone, though, and you’re left with an injury-prone Edelman and DJ Foster, who might not even make the final cut. Not an ideal situation. There isn’t much to work with in the draft, so the team will be forced to pick up a free agent one way or another. Guys like Jordan Norwood and Brandon Tate are out there for cheap. It doesn’t matter who they bring in, but they have to sign somebody, and will hopefully put it somewhere near the top of their to-do list.
While the Patriots have already done a lot at the start of free agency, there’s still more work to do, and a lot more time to get things done. Now that the majority of the big moves are out of the way, the small yet important moves need to be made, which are what make the Patriots the Patriots, above all. In the words of William Stephen Belichick: “No Days Off(™?)”.