With the signing that sent shockwaves through the AFC now over a week in the rearview mirror, it's time to start looking ahead.
What do the Patriots have to do to successfully bring closure to the whole situation?
Here's my five-point plan.
1. Find an X-receiver
Rated No. 1 on my list of post-free-agency needs, a tall, speedy perimeter threat would go a long way to making people forget about the short, quick slot receiver.
Former Bills wide receiver Donald Jones isn't a size threat, either, at 6'0" and 214 pounds. Is he more physical and of a bigger build than what the Patriots have on the roster? Yes. Does he answer their need for an X-receiver? Not if he's the same player he was in Buffalo.
The free agent well is drying up, but there are plenty of players the Patriots could target in the draft to fill this need. Terrance Williams (Baylor), Justin Hunter (Tennessee), Da'Rick Rogers (Tennessee Tech), DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson) and Mark Harrison (Rutgers) all come to mind as possible solutions from a size and skill set standpoint.
One of the reasons moving on from Welker makes sense is because of the two tight ends, who both do a majority of their work over the middle. The Patriots need to get better on the perimeter of the field.
2. Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski must stay healthy
Much of the attention regarding injury-proneness has been centered around newly added receiver Danny Amendola. Truth be told, the Patriots will probably be just fine if Amendola gets injured and misses time.
They can't, however, afford more absences from their two tight ends.
The two missed a combined 11 regular season games in 2012, and Hernandez has missed at least two games in each of his three seasons in the league.
These are the projected stat lines for each, if they would have been healthy for a full 16 games:
- Gronkowski: 80 receptions, 1149 yards, 16 touchdowns
- Hernandez: 82 receptions, 773 yards, 8 touchdowns
Gronkowski's numbers would have been 10 receptions, 178 yards and one touchdown short of his numbers from his record-setting 2011 season. Hernandez would have fallen short of his 2011 yardage total, but oddly enough, would have had two more receptions and one more touchdown than in the 2011 season.
3. Tom Brady must spread the ball around more
Welker was Brady's favorite target every season the two played together. Welker was targeted 926 times in six years with the Patriots, and over 100 times each season.
That should be totally acceptable, assuming a healthy core of skill position players.
Brady missed open targets in the passing game, but not in the way you think.
The players were open. He just didn't see them. Was he too busy staring down Wes Welker? We'll never really know unless we're to do a film review of his eyes in every game over the past six years.
Against the Jaguars, though, one play in particular stood out. The Patriots were ahead, 16-13. They faced 3rd-and-10 from the Jaguars' 49-yard line.
Welker ran a route that would have gotten him past the first-down marker. The Jaguars sent a four-man rush out of Cover 1, with Daryl Smith the blitzing linebacker.
Brady stood in the pocket for a few moments, and tried to look the linebacker out of his spot slightly, but Brady seemingly never took his eye off the same spot in the defense.
He waited for Welker to get to that spot, and threw the ball into double-coverage with Smith bringing the pressure.
The pressure was coming, but if Brady had looked to his right a split second later instead of staring in the same spot, he would have seen Branch come open on a curl route past the first-down marker.
Plays like the one above are an anomaly. Brady shouldn't feel it necessary to get the ball out in less than two seconds every time he drops back. He faced pressure on just 25 percent of his drop-backs in 2012, the second-lowest average in the league. The Patriots field one of the best offensive lines in the league, a comfort which should allow Brady to hang in the pocket and wait for receivers to come open.
4. Rework the chemistry in the no-huddle offense
According to Christopher Price of WEEI.com, the Patriots came out of a no-huddle set for 294 of their 1,191 total plays in 2012 regular season (24.7 percent).
Considering Welker was on the field for 1,089 offensive snaps in 2012, it's fair to say he was a major part of the no-huddle offense.
Brady had a great deal of experience with Welker and Deion Branch when they were running the no-huddle at a rate of 25.1 percent in 2011. Branch played a much smaller role in 2012, and in 2013, Brady will have to get on the same page with a new set of wide receivers in 2013.
Make no mistake; it will help to have familiar targets in Hernandez and Gronkowski. Part of the beauty of the no-huddle was how quickly it moved and how easily it was communicated (in case you've been living under a rock, go check out colleague Greg Bedard's award-winning column on the subject).
If the one-word play calls are simple, direct and easy to understand, perhaps a new receiver can get up to speed more quickly than they could in the past. That being said, it will be important for the receivers in this offense to quickly process information, know the route, the play and everything in between.
5. Fix the defense
A person close to Brady said to Yahoo's Mike Silver after the Welker fiasco, "If the offense doesn't perform at a high level, they're screwed." Whoever this person is, that's the general feeling around the Patriots.
The Patriots have already taken a couple of measures in this regard.
Bringing back cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington should help the continued improvement of the secondary by allowing the unit to grow together. The Patriots have been remarkably inconsistent with their personnel in the secondary, but that could change this year. Fellow Bleacher Report Patriots writer Mike Dussault points out they have the potential to start the same secondary in Week 1 which started Week 17 of the previous season for the first time since 2007.
The defense allowed quarterbacks to collect a 97.3 passer rating in the first nine games of the season, but once the players had settled into their spots, they held passers to a 73.8 rating.
A few more improvements are needed.
The team could benefit from a backup defensive tackle with the ability to contribute as a pass-rusher. CFL defensive linemen Armond Armstead gives the Patriots one possible answer, but another move would help create a competition for the spot in training camp.
A situational defensive end who can get after the quarterback would also be of help. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich ranked 25th and 31st respectively in pass-rushing productivity, according to Pro Football Focus (measures pressure created on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks).
They could also use a linebacker who can cover tight ends over the middle of the field. They've struggled in that area for years and ranked 29th against tight ends in 2012 according to Football Outsiders.
Much like Christopher Walken's fever, the only prescription for Welker fever is more Lombardi Trophy.
The Patriots teams that won Super Bowls in the early part of the decade could hang their hat on an elite defense. The sooner the Patriots improve on that side of the ball, the sooner they'll regain some of that glory.
On a positive note, as of right now, the Patriots have won as many Super Bowls in the post-Welker era as they did in the Welker era.
Screen shots courtesy NFL Game Rewind.
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