The New England Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions, but they are not the same team that they were when they won the Lombardi Trophy roughly three months ago.
Free agency has come and gone, bringing some new arrivals and signaling some veteran departures. A tight salary cap situation forced the Patriots to say goodbye to key starters (Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Vince Wilfork) but did not prevent them from bringing in a few players who could round out the roster (cornerback Robert McClain and outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard).
But now that all the dust has settled, the Patriots are still left with a handful of needs — some more pressing than others.
Close your eyes and think back to the month of September 2014. Now think back to the months of January and February 2015. If the offensive line that we saw in the first four games of the season had not been sorted out, we would never have seen what happened in the final three games of the year.
Dan Connolly played a giant hand in holding the interior of the offensive line together, when he and Ryan Wendell were plugged in as the guards and Bryan Stork was given the starting nod at center. With Connolly gone, though, the Patriots have no starting left guard.
On the list of “sexy” picks, guard would be pretty close to the bottom of the list, but when you’re picking at the bottom of the first round, there’s less room for sexy than smart.
Potential targets: Laken Tomlinson (Duke), Tre’ Jackson (Florida State), A.J. Cann (South Carolina), Ali Marpet (Hobart)
Right now, the cornerback spot comprises 10 percent of the maximum roster size. The Patriots have nine cornerbacks on the roster. They will probably carry five into the regular season. That means four will be cut. Do the Patriots really need to add another cornerback and increase that number to five?
The answer is yes.
Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard and Malcolm Butler all have starting experience in the Patriots’ defense, and the Patriots also added veterans Chimdi Chekwa, Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain. The Patriots have found replacements, but they have not necessarily replaced the departed players.
No rookie cornerback is going to come in and immediately replace Darrelle Revis, but no rookie is a rookie forever.
Potential targets: Byron Jones (Connecticut), Kevin Johnson (Wake Forest), Eric Rowe (Utah), Marcus Peters (Washington)
3. Defensive Tackle
The defensive tackle spot is tricky. Losing Vince Wilfork was a big blow, but the Patriots have spent two years developing Sealver Siliga for that role. Siliga is more athletic than Wilfork, and is just as good in run-stuffing responsibilities (two-gap technique). The Patriots also just drafted Dominique Easley in the first round, and his explosiveness off the line of scrimmage is a perfect complement for Siliga. Alan Branch and Chris Jones are solid depth behind those two.
The Patriots have a lot of names at defensive tackle, but Bill Belichick has gone to great lengths to ensure his defense can shift freely between a 3-4 and a 4-3. One more talented defensive tackle would give the Patriots the ability to do just that. Whether it’s at the top or the bottom of the depth chart, the Patriots roster at defensive tackle should grow by at least one name over the course of the next three days.
Potential targets: Jordan Phillips (Oklahoma), Eddie Goldman (Florida State), Carl Davis (Iowa)
The linebacker position appears loaded, but it’s not always the top-of-the-line starting positions that need to be addressed. Behind Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo, the depth is shaky at best. Darius Fleming and Deontae Skinner played well in small roles last year, but the Patriots should be looking to create more competition for snaps.
Besides, linebacker could be a bigger need than it currently is in a short time.
Mayo restructured his contract to stay with the Patriots and provide his team $4.1 million in salary cap relief, according to ESPN’s Field Yates; the Patriots have team options in 2016 and 2017 that would allow them to move on with no penalty. Mayo could realistically be on his way out any time in the next three years without a minute’s notice.
Potential targets: Shaq Thompson (Washington), Benardrick McKinney (Mississippi State), Ramik Wilson (Georgia)
5. Wide Receiver
The wide receiver position is not a glaring need on the Patriots roster by any stretch. Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are a formidable trio of pass-catchers, but one injury could send the depth chart into panic mode. Aaron Dobson is coming off an injury-plagued season, but he is still worth a shot in 2015.
Tom Brady loves throwing to his slot receivers, but barring big steps forward from Dobson, the Patriots are in greater need on the boundary. A big-bodied receiver with some long speed could help round out the Patriots offense with a downfield threat to help open things up underneath.
Potential targets: Jaelen Strong (Arizona State), Sammie Coates (Auburn), Nelson Agholor (USC), Chris Conley (Georgia)