A brief break in AFC East names and notes to bring you an interesting nugget from Broncos general manager John Elway.
The Hall of Fame quarterback was asked at the combine whether the Broncos want to be stronger in the middle of their defense, and he offered an answer that I think can serve as a short lesson in team-building:
"You want to be strong everywhere. There is always a philosophy — some people say you build from the inside-out and others say you build from the outside-in. ...The thing is you have to make a decision one way or the other. It's hard to get everyone and that's why we have to be good in the draft."
Free agency is not the only time to build a team, and unlike in other sports, it's not even the most important time. Successful teams rarely rely on free agency to build their roster. Still, finding good fits in free agency can help a team get over the hump. The Seahawks had a strong foundation in place, but adding defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril gave their defense a big boost.
What are some of the signings the Patriots could make to help them get back to the Super Bowl? Precluding any re-signings, here's a dream scenario for the Patriots in free agency.
A lot of folks are pushing for the Patriots to find more weapons for Tom Brady — preferably of the big-bodied, physical X receiver variety. They can't afford a top-dollar signing at the position after ponying up big money for Danny Amendola last year, and potentially more money going to Julian Edelman this year.
Enter Hakeem Nicks, who should be relatively cheap after a down year in which he didn't have a single touchdown catch. He also missed a game with an abdominal injury, and dealt with nagging abdominal and groin injuries in the final six weeks of the season.
If the Patriots want to take out an insurance policy on the development of Aaron Dobson, or simply to add another weapon to their offensive arsenal, Nicks would be a good direction to look.
There are questions about his remaining talent level and his effort, but no questions about his potential. We've seen it on the field, and if Nicks can get back to that level with Brady throwing him the ball, he could be a great value addition for the Patriots. Eric Decker could be another option if the Patriots don't mind ponying up a little extra cash for their guy.
Tight end Garrett Graham
Ideally, the Patriots can find a Gronkowski backup on the cheap in free agency or through the draft. One position they still need to fill, however, is the versatile H-back role left vacant by Aaron Hernandez.
Graham is not as athletic as Hernandez, but his role is similar. He is not well-suited for a big role as an in-line blocker, but he can be moved all over the field and maximized for his abilities in the receiving game. He finished the 2013 season with 49 receptions for 545 yards and five touchdowns. The Texans scored just 19 touchdowns through the air, so Graham accounted for over 25 percent of their scoring production in the passing game.
He hasn't come on strong, but has developed steadily, and he may be a smart economy addition to the offense. If the Patriots want to sign a true Gronkowski backup that can serve as a two-way tight end, the Bills' Scott Chandler would be worth a look.
The Patriots need to make serious considerations about life after Vince Wilfork, and signing Randy Starks would be a step in that direction.
Starks is not a true nose tackle, like Wilfork, but the Patriots don't run a traditional 3-4 anymore. In many ways, he is exactly what they are building toward — a defensive line that can hold its own against the run when in the sub package. Although Starks isn't a stout gap-plugging presence like Wilfork, he can hold his own and occasionally get into the backfield and can make some tackles for loss.
He would also provide an instant boost to the Patriots' interior pass-rush, where their 3-technique defensive tackles (outside shade vs. guard) have struggled to get pressure. He tied with Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus as the 10th-most most productive pass-rushing defensive tackle in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
His abilities in that role may drive his price tag up a bit, but at 30 years old, he may not get the big-money, long-term contract he's hoping for. He could earn a contract between $7 to $7.5 million per year, putting him right outside the top five highest-paid defensive tackles in the league. That may be outside the Patriots' price range, especially if they're unable to restructure Wilfork's deal.
Red Bryant may be the more logical signing, but in a perfect world, the Patriots could find a way to nab Starks.
Safety T.J. Ward
The Patriots have been searching for the solution at strong safety for years, trying their luck on free agents and draft picks, but no one has stepped forward to claim the job.
T.J. Ward is known for big hits, but he is one of the rare safeties that can hold his own in deep coverage, come down in the box against the run and even play man coverage on occasion. At 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, he has both the size and speed to carry out any role.
Ward is likely to get one of the bigger contracts of any safety this year, in the neighborhood of $7.5 million or more to make him one of the top five highest-paid safeties in the NFL. If the Patriots don't mind an investment, they could solve one of their biggest roster dilemmas over the past three years.
Defensive end Robert Ayers
The Patriots need to come out of free agency with someone that can rotate with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, who played the highest percentage of their team's snaps of any defensive lineman in 2013. Ayers isn't a sack master (career-high 5.5 sacks in 2013), but at 6-foot-3 and 274 pounds, with 32.5-inch long arms, he has the size the Patriots typically like out of their defensive ends.
He was primarily used as a rotational pass-rusher in 2013, but has always been a two-down player. He has played anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of the Broncos' defensive snaps in a season throughout his career. Over the years, the Broncos have switched from 3-4 to 4-3 and back and forth; Ayers has been through it all, and as a result, he has gained scheme versatility to fill roles in both fronts.
Ayers' lack of production could make him cheap, but he has a ton of athletic potential, and could be valuable in a rotational role.
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