Off-season Outlook: New England Patriots
Yes, Super Bowl 50 just ended, but the NFL never sleeps, so it's time to take a look at what every team must do for a better season next time around. Next up is the Patriots, the runner-up in the AFC, who need to make some improvements to their offensive line if they want to reach Super Bowl LI. We started from the top earlier this week with off-season previews for the Super Bowl champion Broncos and for the NFC champion Panthers.
Key free agents
C Ryan Wendell, DE Akiem Hicks, FS Tavon Wilson, RB LeGarrette Blount, RB Steven Jackson
Player(s) that must be re-signed
Wendell and Hicks. The good news for the Patriots is that most of their key players are locked up for the 2016 season. Hicks, acquired from the Saints for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui last September, turned into a real asset on New England’s defensive line, with three sacks, four hits, 11 hurries and 14 stops. He should be a relatively low-cost depth player on that line going forward, and he’s only 26. Wendell missed most of the 2015 season due to illness and injury, but given the depth concerns and inconsistencies along that offensive line last year, plus the fact that he had a pretty good 2014 season, bringing him back on a short-term deal would make sense.
Most important position to improve
Offensive line. Tom Brady was sacked 43 times last year, including the postseason, and a great deal of that had to do with a line that seemed to have a different cast of characters on every drive. Part of that had to do with the team’s theory that it could move its linemen around situationally to an extreme degree, and part of it was due to a ton of injuries. Line coach Dave DeGuglielmo was fired following a disastrous performance against the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. Now, the next man in charge must be given better assets.
The center combination of David Andrews and Bryan Stork allowed 35 total pressures; guards Shaq Mason, Tre Jackson and Josh Kline all allowed a ton of hits; and tackles Marcus Cannon, Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder and Cameron Fleming each had their own issues in pass protection—Fleming allowed four sacks on his own despite playing just 268 pass-blocking snaps. Right now, outside of Solder, there isn’t an obvious standout on this line, which is an unusual thing to say about a Bill Belichick-designed position group.
Other positions to improve
Running back, receiver, secondary. Blount led the team with 703 rushing yards, and he could be retained, but he’s a bit of a one-trick pony. James White is the pass-catching back a la Kevin Faulk, but the team really took a step back in this area when Dion Lewis was lost for the season with a torn ACL in November. More depth would be a good thing. Moreover, the Patriots haven’t had a dominant every-down back since Corey Dillon a decade ago.
The receiving corps was also left out to dry with injuries to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, but even with those guys in the lineup, it would help Brady a lot to have a bigger receiver who could go over the middle and make key gains after the catch. New England’s passing game has been far too reliant on Rob Gronkowski, and this is another area where depth is clearly an issue.
The secondary fared better than expected after the post-Super Bowl exodus, and last year’s hero Malcolm Butler proved that he was no flash in the pan. Logan Ryan is also an adept cornerback, though he’s perhaps better inside. Safety seems like a better lock: Patrick Chung excels when brought down around the linebackers, Devin McCourty is the deep guy, and Duron Harmon adds depth.
Overall priority this off-season
Build an offense that best fits Tom Brady now. Throughout his career, Tom Brady has been through a bevy of systems, whether it was the power-running attack of the early 2000s, the spread-offense point-a-minute squad of 2007, or the two-tight end dynamics of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez a few years back. In 2015, however, it seemed far too often that the offense was seeking its own identity, whether it was through line changes, dinky option routes, or trick plays. Brady’s arm isn’t what it used to be, and it would help him to get a more dynamic rushing attack behind him. Perhaps Dion Lewis is the man to do that. And maybe it will be relatively easy this off-season to get a big receiver and fix an obviously troubled offensive line, but Brady had to do too much by himself last season. It’s a mark of how great he is that the Patriots made it all the way to the conference championship game, but another Super Bowl run will require more help around him.