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Words With Frenz mailbag: Looking ahead at a busy Patriots offseason

Posted by Erik Frenz  January 23, 2014 09:35 PM

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The only constant is change.

The New England Patriots in 2013 had one of their most eventful offseasons in recent memory. This year could be no different — except, hopefully, without a murder trial. There are just as many big questions facing the Patriots this offseason as ever before, and once again, their top target from the year prior is set to become a free agent.

Fans will always want the team to go to whatever lengths are necessary to bring in the most talented players possible, but it's not always that easy.

Let's answer of the questions on the minds of the fans, as we look forward to the long offseason ahead.

Jordan, I think it's on the offensive line. The Patriots have a pair of starters with questionable long-term futures in New England.

Center Ryan Wendell is set to hit free agency, and right guard Dan Connolly is set to make $4.083 million in 2014, so the Patriots will have to decide whether to keep them or move on. They don't have a lot of depth at those positions, so they may look to restructure Connolly, but you can't rule out that they could look to upgrade the spot. Connolly was below average much of the year.

The offensive line is an immediate need, whereas the defensive line is a long-term/depth need. Defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich played more snaps than any other defensive ends in the NFL; the Patriots can't expect them to repeat that performance, so a rotational end would help. If Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly both come back at 100 percent in 2014, the Patriots' need at defensive tackle diminishes greatly. Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones would be much better suited for supplemental roles than they were as load-bearers on the inside. More depth would help, though, as Wilfork (32 years old) and Kelly (33) both get up there in age, and coming back from a torn Achilles is far from a sure thing. He's a 325-pound linemen, absorbing blocks from other 300-plus-pound linemen. He may still have some good football left in him, but the Patriots would be wise to be on the lookout for his eventual heir.

Jeremie, in my free agency preview on Bleacher Report, I looked at each of New England's upcoming free agents and assigned them a value grade. I gave LeGarrette Blount a B- for a few reasons.

Blount's lack of versatility was on display for the world to see in the AFC Championship game. Every time he was in the backfield, the Denver Broncos loaded up the box. He caught two passes in 2013, and played a total of 109 snaps on passing downs, by far the fewest of any Patriots' running back.

The Patriots have options with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. They haven't put any value on the running back position in free agency over the past few years, allowing both BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead to walk away.

There are simply too many other needs to justify spending big money on a running back, where they already have several options and could supplement the position through the draft. The money, in my opinion, would be better spent on a wide receiver.

This ties in perfectly with the previous question, because I think the money they save by not re-signing Blount would be well-spent to keep Julian Edelman.

My Friday column will go deeper on Edelman's value to the team, but in my opinion, there are no free-agents more valuable this offseason than Edelman. If we learned two things this year, it's that 1) Tom Brady isn't going to be an elite quarterback forever and 2) he needs to have weapons on the field that he trusts. Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and others are still working to develop that chemistry.

At minimum, the Patriots should re-sign Edelman; ideally, they should stay on the search for an X-receiver.

One of the big questions about this offseason will be what lengths the Patriots go to provide Brady a more complete arsenal of weapons. As a result of the resources they've invested at receiver lately, I'm thinking they wouldn't be in the market for a guy like Andre Johnson, who will likely command top dollar on the open market.

Several names have already been floated around: Broncos receiver Eric Decker (6-foot-3, 214 pounds) and Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks (6-foot-1, 208 pounds) fit the mold of a big-bodied boundary receiver that can run, jump and win one-on-one matchups. Both have problems with drops, though, and both have benefited from other talented receivers helping to keep the coverage away from them.

However, if the Patriots want to go into the market for a receiver that fits what they need, either of those two would be a good place to start looking.

This also ties in perfectly to the last question. It's like a string of questions that were meant to be asked one after another!

I have my doubts as to whether the Patriots will invest big in wide receivers this offseason. I know a lot of Patriots fans have their hopes for a 2007-style pillaging of the NFL's top receiver talent, but consider what they've invested in the position recently.

Last year, the Patriots gave a five-year, $28.5 million contract to Amendola, and used a second- and fourth-round pick on Dobson and Josh Boyce, respectively. Factor the impending free agency of Edelman, who I think should be their top priority, and that could potentially be a lot of money tied up in one position.

They could look for cheaper options, especially if there are questions or concerns about the development of the rookies — have they hit their ceiling, or can we expect further improvement out of them? Perhaps they go back to the draft if they have their doubts about Dobson, Thompkins and/or Boyce.

Bill Belichick is always trying to improve his team, and doesn't really care about parting ways with a recent free-agent signee or high draft pick, but Amendola remains uncuttable until 2015 at the earliest — it would cost more to release him ($6.8 million) than keep him ($4.7 million). Unless they can find someone willing to trade for him, which seems unlikely given his checkered injury history, the Patriots are better off hoping for a healthy season from Amendola.

Beyond all that, this goes back to what I mentioned earlier: the trust factor. Bringing in more receivers could not only stunt the growth of other receivers, but could also be a step in the wrong direction, if Brady has to go through the getting-to-know-you phase again with more receivers.

After all that talk about receivers, it looks to me like the Patriots have four primary needs (in order from highest to lowest priority): interior offensive line (center/guard), defensive tackle, tight end, wide receiver.

We've already touched on offensive and defensive line, so we'll jump to the other two spots.

The Patriots' backup plan at tight end went down the tubes the minute Aaron Hernandez allegedly pulled the trigger, and when Rob Gronkowski went down, third-string tight end Michael Hoomanawanui became the starter. They could look for a backup to Gronkowski, or an H-back/utility/"Joker"/"move" tight end like Hernandez that acts more as a receiver but can contribute in a small role as a blocker.

Receiver is a need, but with a caveat: as mentioned earlier, the Patriots spent a bit at the position lately, so their "need" needs to be solved from within. Part of that will come from players being healthy, but part of it also has to come from development.

I doubt they'd cut him. He has a cap hit of $10.5 million in 2014, but he's still one of the best guards in the league and it would cost more than $10.5 million to cut him.

I think about the possibility of them restructuring his deal, but it's never without remembering the long, drawn-out contract battle and the war of words in the media between Logan Mankins and Robert Kraft. That makes me a bit more skeptical that Mankins would be immediately receptive to restructuring.

This could be a slippery slope, and the Patriots may be better off swallowing the cap hit this year and approaching the subject after the 2014 season.




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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »

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