With the passing of the 2014 NFL draft, Here's my early take on the 2014 New England Patriots:
I. Free Agency:
1.) The Good: Though the Pats lost star CB Aqib Talib, they at the very least adequately replaced him with Derrelle Revis. Resigning Julian Edelman returns Tom Brady's favorite receiver to him. Notwithstanding the fact that he's under suspension for the first four games, adding a tall, press cover CB like Brandon Browner should help. Though annexing a tall, physical WR in Brandon LaFell shouldn't hurt, he appears to be nothing more than insurance in the event that Aaron Dobson's foot injury remains an issue. Veteran DE Will Smith might be of some use if healthy. But, word is that he's still rehabbing his injured knee;
2.) The Bad: Allowing RB LeGarrette Blount to walk merely because the Pats didn't want to give him a two year deal seems foolish. Blount reminded us of the Corey Dillon days, as he gave the Patriots their first true weapon at RB in years. Because the Pats lost Blount, they likely felt compelled to use the 130th overall pick on Wisconsin RB James White...who appears to be another role player. Releasing the ineffective Steve Gregory and replacing him with the previously ineffective Patrick Chung still leaves the Pats with a gaping hole at SS. The loss of free spirited ILB Brandon Spikes and solid reserve ILB Brandon Fletcher leaves the Pats thin at that position;
3.) The Ugly: For the second straight season, Patriot fans had to cringe as they watched one of their favorite players leave to join the chief competition, the hated Denver Horse-faces. No doubt that adding Talib will make Denver tougher to beat. But, if the Broncos hadn't signed him, they likely would have signed Revis;
II. Draft: Though the Pats had strengthened themselves through free agency at CB and somewhat at WR, they failed to adequately address their multiple needs, at LB, SS, and on both the DL (specially for a pass-rusher) and OL, heading into the 2014 draft. Did the Pats draft fill any or all of those needs?:
1.) Dominique Easley, Florida (29th overall): Picking at #29, and apparently failing to find an adequate trade-down, BB reached for a guy who, "if healthy", could provide the team with someone who could serve as an interior pass-rusher on the DL. But, Easley tore up his left knee in 2011, and his right knee last season (ACL/MCL). For this reason, he dropped on most boards, from a top 20 pick, to a late second to mid-third rounder. As we speak, he is still rehabbing his right knee, and likely will miss at least the complete preseason. As a means of defending this pick, it was rumored that Seattle wanted him at #32. Even if true, the champion Seahawks already have a great defense, and could afford to redshirt a talent like Easley. But, the Patriots do not have a great defense, and needed immediate help. One wonders whether BB learned anything from the Ras-I Dowling experience?;
2.) Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois (62nd overall): Could be that, despite his gaudy college stats (53 TDs and just 9 picks last season) and lightning quick release, Garoppolo was undervalued due to the quality of competition he played against. Though not quite as tall as one would like (6'2"), and with smaller hands than preferred (which could lead to fumbles and turnovers, especially in inclement weather), this guy appears to have the leadership qualities and work ethic necessary to develop into a starting NFL QB. Folks, whether we like it or not, Tom Brady is 37 years old...and his skills may be starting to erode. A replacement must be found. If Garoppolo shows progress and promise, 2014 may be the final year of the Brady era in New England;
3.) OC Brian Stork, Florida State (105th overall): After a good 2012 season as a starting center, Ryan Wendell was terrible last year. His poor play was highlighted in the AFC title game, when he was dominated by DT Terrence Knighton. Though Wendell was by no means singularly responsible, poor OL play resulted in the Patriots being unable to run the ball in that game, leading to a crushing defeat. Perhaps Stork, the recipient of the Remington Trophy as the best center in college football, can be an upgrade?;
4.) RB James White, Wisconsin (#130th overall): A pick that was seemingly necessitated to replace the departed LeGarrette Blount. Could serve as a Kevin Faulk type...as he has good hands, and is an effective part-time runner. But, the wiser course appears to have been to give Blount his modest two year deal, rather than have to spend a late 4th round pick on an unproven commodity;
5.) OT Cameron Fleming, Stanford (#140 overall): Not a bad spot to add depth on the OL, or even a potential starter at RT. With Sebastien Vollmer's chronic back problems, and the ineffectiveness of RG Dan Connelly, this addition may allow BB to move RT Marcus Cannon inside to replace Connelly, while Fleming holds the fort at RT;
6.) OG Jon Halapio, Florida (179th overall): Could also be the answer as an upgrade at RG over Connelly...or...practice squad material;
7.) DE Zach Moore, Concordia (198th overall): Pass rushing project who could oust the disappointing Jake Bequette, or fellow project Michael Buchanan. Moore has the prototype size and speed on a 4-3 NFL DE. Had 33 sacks in three years for his Division II school. A good gamble at this point in the draft;
8.) DB Jemea Thomas, Georgia Tech (206th overall): An undersized (5'9") safety/CB, who notched 88 tackles last season for the Yellow-jackets. Could be the addition that signals the end for the disappointing Tavon Wilson in New England;
9.) WR Jeremy Gallon, Michigan (244th overall): Isn't this the typical guy that the Pats seemingly grab every year, either late in the draft (Jeremy Ebert), or as an undrafted free agent (T.J. Moe)? Kudos to BB for not making nice with the media or Roger Goodell, by drafting Michael Sam. Let the Rams deal with that major league distraction.
SUMMARY: How Easley and Garoppolo fare will determine the success or failure of this draft. If they both pan out, this will be an "A+" draft, no matter how the other picks fare. If just one of the two pan out, it will be a "B" draft...increasing to a "B+", or even an "A-", if Garoppolo turns out to be a quality NFL QB. But, it appears that these selections, aside from the OL selections, will strengthen the team in 2014. The reason why the Pats went in this direction goes back to a statement that Robert Kraft made after he hired BB. It went something like, "The mission statement of this team is to be like the old Tom Landry Dallas Cowboys of the 70s and 80s...to compete every year for a championship". In other words, the Pats aren't going to go "all in" on any one season, regardless of how many years that Tom Brady has left. Credit BB for making efforts to try to overtake the Broncos, by strengthening the OL, and rolling dice on Easley, who could be that pass-rusher that we all have craved to see in a Patriots' uniform. But, Easley's injury history makes him a huge gamble. Garoppolo provides QB insurance, and has the tools to become a good starting NFL QB.
If not for the Blount move, I would have really liked what the Pats did in the offseason. I also question why the Pats spent so much money on WR LaFell. It makes me think that BB has doubts about the health of Aaron Dobson. As for the draft, time will tell whether BB the GM hit a homerun, or took the Golden Sombrero. Holes seemingly remain at SS, at DL depth, and at LB depth. Look for major changes in 2015, if the Pats fail to make it to the SB in 2014.