Your guess as to what the Patriots are going to do in this year’s NFL Draft, which begins tomorrow at 8 p.m., is as good as anyone’s.
What they should do is far more clear.
Forget all the talk about finding a potential successor for Tom Brady or adding to his arsenal of weapons. The Pats need to focus on their core first and foremost and that means adding to and replenishing their offensive and defensive lines.
While it’s never the best idea to try to glean too much from one game, we can learn quite a bit from the Pats’ AFC Championship Game loss to the Denver Broncos. On that afternoon, while Brady indeed could have used a wider array of targets in the passing game, what stood out more glaringly than anything was how badly the Broncos outplayed the Pats at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Defensively, a familiar problem plagued the Pats, as they couldn’t get off the field following a Denver punt on the first drive of the game. The Broncos scored each of the next six times they had the ball and that was in no small part because the Pats literally didn’t lay a finger on quarterback Peyton Manning. No sacks, no QB hits, no pressure, no chance. That starts up front.
And on offense, while the numbers don’t necessarily add up to anything as egregious as Manning not breaking a sweat or having to get a single grass stain washed out of his uniform, there were enough breakdowns up front to cause alarm. What had been a highly productive running game for weeks leading up to the trip to Denver was smothered, especially between the tackles, where bull backs LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley combined to gain a paltry 23 yards on 10 attempts. And while Brady was only sacked twice, both were killers, the first coming at the end of a solid drive late in the second quarter on a 3rd-and-8 from the Denver 18 with the Pats down 10-0, and the second coming on a fourth down attempt deep in Denver territory in the third quarter with the Pats trailing 20-3 and in desperation mode. It should also be noted that both of those crucial sacks came up the middle as well.
See where we’re going here? While the interior of the Pats O-line is still anchored by the excellent Logan Mankins at left guard, he’s not getting any younger and has shown the occasional sign of slipping over the past year/year and a half. Center Ryan Wendell, who signed a two-year contract extension in March, is solid if unspectacular. And one might argue that the right guard spot, where Dan Connolly has toiled in serviceable fashion, could use an upgrade as well, especially given Connolly’s injury history. The team reportedly hosted former Tampa Bay Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph, who would provide some much needed depth if signed and healthy. Potential draftee names being bandied about at this spot include Xavier Su’a-Filo of UCLA, Weston Richburg of Colorado St., and Trai Turner of LSU.
On the other side of the line, the Pats will welcome back a healthy Vince Wilfork, armed with both a new contract and perhaps a chip on his shoulder given some of the noise that accompanied the negotiations on that extension. But is that, along with the return of Tommy Kelly, another vet who suffered a serious, season-ending injury last year, enough? Wilfork is a year older, coming off of a major injury and as great as he’s been as a disruptive presence in the middle of the Pats defensive line, it’s not out of the question that he will have lost a step.
Defensive line depth must be addressed in this draft. The signing of former New Orleans pass rushing terror Will Smith was a good step, but no one knows how much Smith, who didn’t play last year due to a torn ACL and signed for relative peanuts, has left in the tank. Ideally, a defensive tackle who can bring pressure up the middle seems like it should be at the top of the board, but guys like that don’t grow on trees. Names such as Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt, Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman, and maybe Florida’s Dominique Easley (who may be great or may be the next Jermaine Cunningham, depending on which way the wind is blowing tomorrow) seem to fit that bill.
For now, we’ll avoid delving too deeply into the idea of the Pats going after a pass rushing demon defensive end for the simple reason that with the exception of Chandler Jones, they just never, ever prioritize such players. Maybe Smith will be just what they need in that regard. Maybe he won’t even make the team out of training camp. Regardless, the Pats defense’s biggest weakness for years and years now has been its inability to consistently pressure opposing QBs and any move to address that need has to be considered a plus.
As all Pats fans know, quarterback is the most vital position in football. But the best teams are built from the inside out. The Pats won three Super Bowls with outstanding offensive and defensive lines. If they want to win another, they must strive to ensure excellence in those areas again.