Just two weeks after the Super Bowl, the NFL offseason kicks into high gear this week. Teams can start placing the franchise tag on players Monday (a process that concludes March 5), and starting Thursday, the Patriots will join the rest of the league at the annual scouting combine in Indianapolis. The two events mark the start of the team-building process for the 2012 season.
With that in mind, we asked one opposing scout who has spent a lot of time watching New England the last few years for a to-do list for the Patriots this offseason. And while some of his points mirrored our own offseason list, there were some surprises. As we have done in the past, the scout’s notes are in italics, with our notes underneath:
“Find a vertical presence for the offense that opponents have to respect. The Patriots have become more college spread with horizontal passing games. The lack of elite vertical threat, combined with smaller outside wide receivers, places a lot of the burden on Tom Brady to be perfect too often. A consistent vertical threat will take the top off the defense and create more space underneath and better matchups for tight ends, because safeties now have to be over the top.”
If the Patriots are indeed in the market for a vertical presence, this is the offseason to land one. It would appear that there are going to be several options at wide receiver when free agency opens on March 13, including Brandon Lloyd, Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson, Marques Colston, Stevie Johnson and Dwayne Bowe. Not are all true vertical threats, and some of them will likely be hit with the franchise tag (and subsequently retained by their respective teams), but there will be options for New England.
In addition, there’s a better-than-average collection of receivers in this year’s draft. While the Patriots won’t get their hands on Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon (a likely Top 10 pick), there’s still Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd, Baylor’s Kendall Wright (two names linked to New England by ESPN analyst Todd McShay on a recent conference call), as well as South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery, Rutgers’ Mohamed Sanu and LSU’s Rueben Randle as possibilities over the first two rounds, when New England has four picks. (The Patriots pick at No. 27 and No. 31 overall in the first round, and No. 48 and No. 63 as part of the second round.)
“Find interior offensive linemen to create a firm pocket for Tom Brady. Logan Mankins looked human this year and had issues, while Brian Waters is getting up there. Matt Light is also beginning to show age as well, and struggled more with speed this year than in past. The Patriots also need these guys to be able to run more effectively on inside running game.”
This was a bit of a surprise, because aside from the loss in the Super Bowl, there have only been a handful of teams that have been able to get consistent pressure on Brady up the middle. It’s a safe bet that Mankins will be able to bounce back after a subpar year. One thing to remember is that Waters could still retire, which would leave a sizable hole at right guard. Meanwhile, the center position is a big question mark going forward, as veteran Dan Koppen (coming off a fractured ankle) and backup Dan Connolly are both free agents. The Patriots do have quality depth on the interior line, but it’s unlikely that Ryan Wendell and Nick McDonald are ready for full-time duty. While there will be some intriguing possibilities out there in free agency (including Carl Nicks), historically, the Patriots have welcomed the opportunity to develop offensive linemen from within. Bottom line? As was the case with the need for a wide receiver, don’t be surprised if New England utilized one of its first four picks on an interior lineman. (Wisconsin center Peter Konz at No. 31? Or maybe Georgia guard Cordy Glenn late in the first or early in the second?)
“They have to locate pressure players for defense off the edges. They are solid and firm up the middle, and are well coached on defense, but need a guy off the edge that teams have to worry about.”
While New England is stout up the middle at defensive line and linebacker, it’s the age-old question: How can the Patriots generate more pressure off the edge? (We kicked it around in the latest edition of the It Is What it Is Cast with former Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham.) While linebacker Rob Ninkovich remains a key part of what the Patriots’ defense does in several areas (including rushing the passer), it remains a question, especially if New England loses defensive ends Andre Carter and/or Mark Anderson in free agency, both of whom did well this season when it came to generating pressure.
Two ways to go here: One, there’s free agency, which holds the possibility of acquiring someone like Houston’s Mario Williams, Indy’s Robert Mathis, Atlanta’s John Abraham and Detroit’s Cliff Avril, all of who could be available if they aren’t hit with the franchise tag. Two, try and add a piece or two in the draft (McShay mentioned Syracuse’s Chandler Jones, Clemson’s Andre Branch and Oklahoma’s Ronnell Lewis as possibilities for New England), and stick with the players on the roster. While Anderson will likely try and cash in as a free agent and seek a big deal, Carter would likely return on a one-year deal. You could pair him with a group that includes Ninkovich, as well as Myron Pryor and Mike Wright, two versatile young pass rushers who were injured last season.
“They have to find a physical, playmaking corner. Too often in crunch times they ran out of guys to match up against three- and four-receiver sets. It’s miraculous how far they got with simply role players in the secondary.”
When it comes to the free-agent market for corners, there are a few interesting possibilities, including Atlanta’s Brent Grimes and Tennessee’s Cortland Finnegan. Both Grimes and Finnegan would fill the role of physical corner, and could provide an excellent complementary part for a secondary that had its’ issues many times this past season. As for the draft, there are some equally intriguing possibilities, including Dre Kirkpatrick, who is a no-brainer to be linked to the Patriots because he was coached in college by Nick Saban. (Kirkpatrick is projected to be a first-round selection.) McShay also said that Janoris Jenkins -- a corner who was kicked out of Florida because of pot and ended up at North Alabama -- is also a possibility.
“They need a playmaking safety. Pat Chung is a solid player, but not dynamic. They need a guy that can be physical in the run and cover man-to-man to give defense some more flexibility. They need someone to make plays on the ball.”
This could all be rendered moot if the Patriots decide to have Devin McCourty play more safety in 2012, but regardless, New England should look to build depth at the position. (He has some position versatility, but figure on Sterling Moore playing more corner than safety going forward.) San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson is likely the best option in free agency, while one of the most intriguing could be LaRon Landry. He was part of a Belichick-like system at LSU, and he may be a bargain, as he’s coming off a strained Achilles’ tendon injury. While it doesn’t appear to be a particularly deep drafted when it comes to safety, one name that does jump out at you is Alabama’s Mark Barron because of the Belichick-Saban connection.