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Words With Frenz mailbag: Patriots biggest holes in the middle

Posted by Erik Frenz  March 21, 2014 07:00 AM

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In the past, the Patriots have built their defense from the inside out. Focusing on dominant trench play is a tenet that spans back to Bill Belichick's days working with Bill Parcells with the Giants. A decade ago, the Patriots drafted nose tackle Vince Wilfork in the first round to cap off a trio of first-rounders on the defensive line, along with Ty Warren and Richard Seymour.

Recent developments point to a change in that philosophy — or, at the very least, a golden opportunity to make the switch. Signing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner came as a shock to many, though in retrospect, such a move has been a long time in the making.

The change in mind set could date back to the 2009 season, when the Patriots first began aggressively seeking out talent at cornerback for their defense. By drafting Darius Butler in the second round (2009), Devin McCourty in the first round (2010), Ras-I Dowling in the second round (2011), signing free-agent cornerback Leigh Bodden (2009) and trading for Aqib Talib (2012), the Patriots proved they were devoted to finding talent at cornerback.

They also struggled at nearly every turn.

The Patriots took a similar aggressive approach in 2007 at wide receiver, making trades to land two key players (Randy Moss and Wes Welker) and signing two free agents (Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington), after several failed acquisitions (drafting Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, and P.K. Sam, trading for Doug Gabriel, signing Reche Caldwell) at the position.

Thus, it stands to reason that the Patriots would go big for a steady hand at cornerback, although their investments shouldn't be seen as long-term solutions. Browner will be 30 before he plays his first game for the Patriots, and that won't happen until at least Week 5, as Browner is suspended for the first four games due to violations of the league's substance abuse policy. Revis' contract is still essentially a one-year deal — although the Patriots hope to get something done long-term, according to Albert Breer of NFL Network.

The Patriots could have to start their search again very soon, but they'll enjoy what they have for now. Meanwhile, there are still holes to fill on the roster. Which ones are the biggest?

Let's get to the questions.

Might as well ask me to solve algebra in Chinese, Sidney.

No idea what they will address, but I can tell you what I think they should address.

Depth at defensive end remains an issue. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich played more snaps than any other defensive ends in football last year, and need someone to come in and give them a break. Michael Buchanan could be better with another year in the system, but maybe it's time the Patriots had a deep group of edge pass-rushers. It would be the first time in a long time.

The need for a defensive tackle gets a lot bigger if the Patriots can't find a way to keep Wilfork, but even if they do, they would be wise to start searching for his eventual heir now — unless they think that player is on the roster in the form of Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones or Joe Vellano.

The Patriots also need to start developing new interior offensive linemen. Right guard Dan Connolly is due a $4.083 million cap hit in 2014, making him the 19th most expensive guard in the NFL in 2014. He is set to become a free agent in 2015. Center Ryan Wendell is currently a free agent, and has still not been signed back.

Unless the Patriots feel comfortable with Michael Hoomanawanui as the No. 2 tight end behind Rob Gronkowski — which means potentially starting some early season games while Gronk continues to rehab his ACL — they'll need to add anotehr tight end as well.

Don't sleep on running back as a need, either. LeGarrette Blount remains in free agency limbo; Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley are both unrestricted free agents after next season; Brandon Bolden is a restricted free agent next year.

There are still plenty of needs the Patriots could address in the draft. Which needs they address, as usual, will depend on the best players available when they pick.

Well, Arjuna, the Patriots presently have a duo of starting defensive tackles on the roster in Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork. There are questions as to their relative health and their long-term futures on the team and in the NFL, but both are still signed through 2014. Siliga, Vellano and Chris Jones could all be valuable players on the line in situational roles.

There are more questions on the offensive line, though. They still don't have a starting center until they re-sign Wendell, and they don't have as much depth at guard and center as they've had in years past. The smart play would be to bring back Wendell on a one- or two-year deal and draft his competition and eventual replacement, but the Patriots could also choose to move Connolly back to center and draft a guard or sign a value free agent.

The changes in coverage scheme will be interesting to watch. I could talk about this for months, so you'll probably see more than a few posts on the topic here on the Going Deep blog between now and the start of the season.

In the past, the Patriots have run more of a zone scheme because they didn't have the talent in the secondary to match up with receivers in man coverage. The team took a dramatic turn toward man coverage after acquiring Aqib Talib in a 2012 midseason trade.

That's not going anywhere. Adding Revis and Browner is a pretty clear indication that the Patriots are hoping to continue building in that direction, but as mentioned in the intro, they won't have those guys around for long.

Alex, my initial thought was that the Patriots might be grateful to Wilfork for asking for his release. In a sense, it gave them an easy escape from $8 million of his $11.6 million cap hit. They could cut him without being the bad guy.

It's possible, however, that this could be a negotiating tactic by Wilfork. If the team thinks he would rather be cut than take a pay cut, they may become more amenable to meeting him somewhere in between.

The Patriots could still move his money around to reduce his cap hit for 2014, but unless he takes a straight-up pay cut, they can't reduce his cap hit without also giving him an extension. That's a risky proposition for a 32-year-old defensive tackle coming off a torn Achilles', but anything is possible at this stage.

Luke, if fans are down on Danny Amendola, it's probably because he lived up to the wrong narrative. On one hand, Amendola looked like a younger, more athletic version of former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker. On the other hand, his history of injuries were a major red flag for his long-term future.

How much did Amendola's Week 1 groin injury inhibit his production last season? There were conflicting reports as to whether he would need surgery. If Amendola needed surgery and didn't get it, that would certainly help explain his poor production in 2013.

He had 54 catches for 633 yards, impressive numbers for someone dealing with a groin injury. He could have put up better numbers if he'd been healthy, but who knows if he can stay healthy. There remains an element of untapped potential with Amendola, and fans may remain impatient until that potential is fully realized.

I'm guessing this has something to do with the Jets missing out on the run for top-flight cornerbacks, with former Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie signing with the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday. The Jets defense played well with substandard performances from their cornerbacks last year, though, so perhaps they will once again rely on the strength of their dominant front four. Besides, Dee Milliner played well in the final two games of the season.

As for the other free agency moves, it hasn't been so bad. They suffered a slight downgrade in losing right tackle Austin Howard and signing Breno Giacomini as his replacement, but retaining right guard Willie Colon was a great move, if only as a stop-gap.

The signing of wide receiver Eric Decker has been met with mixed reactions, mostly from those who doubt whether Decker is a No. 1 or 2, but it was a necessary signing for the Jets, who don't have a true No. 1 or 2. In Decker, the Jets have found a receiver with the versatility to play either the "X" or "Z" positions. Decker is closer to a "Z" because he lacks the dominant long speed of an "X", so find one more versatile receiver with more "X" than "Z" traits, and the Jets have themselves a nice one-two punch.

There have been some bright spots, but your pain is well-founded. Between tight end, wide receiver, third-down running back, safety, cornerback and outside linebacker, the Jets still have plenty of needs to fill.

They just want the legacy of Wes Welker to live on.

Actually, Mike, they tried bringing in former Eagles wide-out Jason Avant, who didn't drop a single pass in 2012. So your prayers could be answered if the Patriots bring him in.

I'm guessing you're talking about the Patriots signing Brandon LaFell, who dropped eight passes and had a drop rate of 14.04 last season. Just look at some of the other receivers who were ranked slightly behind LaFell in drop rate.

drop rate.png

(Photo: Pro Football Focus premium)

Clearly, dropping the football doesn't prevent a player from being productive.

Thanks for some good questions, everyone. Further questions can be directed to me at Twitter, or in the comments.



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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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