As coach Bill Belichick noted in the days following the Patriots' 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game, there is no soft landing. Everything just comes crashing down around you.
The Patriots are once again forced to pick up the pieces and begin the long process of evaluating what went wrong this season and how best to go about mending a roster that was on the doorstep of the Super Bowl.
Here, we lay out the process the Patriots will face, address the team's needs, provide a few unwanted tips, and ask you, the reader, to chime in.
So, what's next? Next
The first step for the Patriots will be to review the season, which is already underway.
The Patriots coaching staff hands off a list of items for players to correct and work on in their offseason. Call it homework.
Belichick will handle his own homework. Surely when he looks at the film, he'll see a team that both drastically improved over the course of the season in core areas (offensive line) and floundered in others (secondary). The Patriots saw an uptick in quality of play on both sides of the ball, but will also see the same enduring issues that have plagued the team pop up on film: Communication in the secondary, lack of a pass rush, and an unwillingness to stick with the running game.
Upon further review, they'll see an inability to stretch the field at wide receiver and susceptibility to big plays in man-to-man coverage at linebacker and cornerback. Next
After reviewing the season, the Patriots will turn to assessing needs for the draft and free agency. They already have made two moves in this direction, signing Canadian Football League stars Armond Armstead and Jason Vega, both defensive linemen.
Health and depth will be viewed as cures for the Patriots’ woes, but playmakers that can have an instant impact in the secondary and defensive line are more important. That's why the team opted to sign Southern Cal product Armstead (pictured, left), who has the talent of a high draft pick, after teams were scared off by a heart attack he suffered in college.
And equally important, the Patriots will take the next couple of months to evaluate which of their 18 free agents they should re-sign and who they can replace going forward. Next
Determining points of emphasis
During the evaluation process, Belichick and his staff will also be looking at the big picture, everything from coaching decisions, the makeup of the roster, and the points of emphasis going into the 2013 season.
This is the time when the coaching staff will determine whether they did a good enough job sticking with the running game and whether it was a good idea to favor Julian Edelman over Wes Welker so much in the beginning of the season. And for that matter, what to do with both of them. They're free agents.
A clear game plan for how the team operates on offense and defense in 2013 will be determined. Don't expect any drastic changes in philosophy. This is a Tom Brady, sub-package-heavy team. Next
The NFL combine
The combine will take place Feb. 20-26. The Patriots will join the rest of the NFL community to gauge the talent of the top players coming out of the college ranks.
But the Patriots will do their due diligence outside of the event. At pro days around the country and in private visits, the team will strategically send staff to examine players that could prove to be steals both in the draft and in the days afterward. It's a lengthy process that encompasses much of the latter portion of February and extends through April. Next
Free agency will open March 12. The Patriots have 18 free agents they need to address, including starters Welker, Sebastian Vollmer, and Aqib Talib.
The team will also have to address key contributors in Danny Woodhead, Michael Hoomanawanui, Patrick Chung, Donald Thomas, and Edelman.
Others, such as wide receiver Deion Branch, are not expected to return. Next
The draft will begin Thursday, April 25 and conclude Saturday, April 27. The Patriots have five picks, Nos. 29 (first round), 59 (second round), 91 (third round), and two in the seventh round.
The Patriots traded their fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-round picks.
In the days after the draft, the team will put the final touches on its 90-man roster for training camp by signing undrafted rookies and veteran free agents. Next
Following the draft, the Patriots will finally get their fresh start. The team will hold a minicamp in June before training camp opens in late July.
At that time, we'll get an opportunity to evaluate the direction of the team and get an up-close look at the draft picks and free agent signees.
The Patriots will continue to tweak the roster through training camp all the way up until the season opener in September. Next
Tips for the Patriots
When you have the 29th-ranked passing defense and are continually befuddled by bigger wide receivers and dynamic tight ends, your first priority needs to be addressing the elephant in the broom closet. But it's not as simple as getting a better cornerback, which the Patriots did when they traded for Talib. It means the team needs to address its third-down defensive depth with a speedy linebacker, muck like Gary Guyton was, to handle the Dennis Pittas of the world and, God forbid, the next Rob Gronkowski.
It's clear that Brandon Spikes could not handle that role. According to ProFootballFocus.com, quarterbacks had a 116.1 rating when throwing passes in Spikes’s direction. The same can be said for Jerod Mayo (98.9 rating, 82.7 completion percentage). Finding a linebacker who can cover in sub packages would take a huge burden off the safeties, who should focus more on helping the cornerbacks.
It wouldn't hurt to re-sign Talib, either. Next
What should be the Patriots’ priority?
It's your choice now. What should be the point of emphasis for the Patriots during the offseason? Whether that means finding another cornerback, re-signing a key player, or having a terrific draft, make your voice heard.
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