By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots have been incredibly busy this off-season signing nine players from different teams as well as getting a couple of their own free agents.
Much to the chagrin of many in the fan base, the Patriots were quiet during the early days of free agency, but that has never been Bill Belichick’s way. While everyone quietly (and not so quietly) imagined the possibilities of Mario Williams on the Patriots defense, they money they would have had to spend would have made it impossible to do much else.
Instead, Belichick has done a really nice job of adding some quality veterans that will fill holes and create competition in training camp, something he loves to instill. Let’s take a look at the moves (so far) at what they’ve done:
• Tender DL Kyle Love – Love was a pleasant surprise and a big contributor on the Patriots DL last season. He and Vince Wilfork teamed up to create a nice tandem in the Patriots middle.
• Tender QB Brian Hoyer – Hoyer remains Brady’s backup, but that may change on draft day with team’s still looking for QB help.
• Re-Sign ST/WR Matthew Slater – Slater was a core special teams contributor and his remaining on the team shows the value that Belichick places on it.
• Re-sign ST/LB Niko Koutouvides – Koutouvides is another standout special teams player. He may even compete for a few snaps at linebacker this year
• Re-sign ST/LB Tracy White – White was an outstanding member of the Patriots coverage units last year. Struggled at times at LB, but worth keeping for his STs experience and value.
• Re-Sign OL Dan Connolly – Connolly is a super sub that can play anywhere along the line and last year ended up as the starting center, a position he will probably keep going into camp.
• Sign DL Jonathan Fanene – Fanene is a nice quality signing by Belichick. He wasn’t highly sought after, but will provide good, solid run support as either a 3-4 DE or at DT in a four man front. Can rush the passer a bit but is not a dominant one. He should immediately compete for starting snaps.
• Sign S Steve Gregory – Gregory’s signing is to me, a lukewarm one. Is a he a step up from the dreadful safety play of last season? Yes, but he is not the solution at starter across from Chung. What he does best is cover in the slot and that is where I hope he’ll be utilized. Can play corner in a pinch and is a very solid STs player. Versatility is the key and Belichick loves versatile players.
• Sign WR Anthony Gonzalez – Gonzalez is another bit of a head scratcher. The injury prone Gonzalez is best out of the slot and the Patriots have two slot receivers in Wes Welker and Julian Edelman. But his signing, a low-risk, high-reward type is a typical Patriots insurance policy.
• Sign OLB/DE Trevor Scott – Scott is a great signing. Scott played very well his first two seasons before being injured. Scott can rush the passer and is a nice depth signing who may push for quality reps if the team can’t bring back Mark Anderson. He’s another very good STs contributor.
• Sign WR Brandon Lloyd – The big piece of the offensive puzzle missing last year was a bigger, physical WR who can stretch the field horizontally as well as vertically. Lloyd knows the Patriots offense and should be a huge piece of the puzzle next year.
• Sign TE Daniel Fells – Is a big blocking TE that should relieve Nate Solder of those duties next season. He can on occasion catch the ball and may end up being a nice red-zone target due to Gronkowski being doubled.
• Sign WR Donte Stallworth – Stallworth is another big WR who has the speed to go deep and make those deep intermediate catches. He caught 46 passes in NE in 2007 and should compete hard for some quality reps. He and Lloyd will make the opponents attempts to cheat safeties into the box a dangerous affair.
• Sign OL Robert Gallery – Absolute steal for Bill Belichick, he loved Gallery when he came out in the draft, stating he would take Gallery first. Now with word that Logan Mankins played the Super Bowl with a torn ACL, it makes even more sense. Mankins won’t be pushed back too early and Gallery and Cannon still give the Patriots two good guards to choose from, especially if Brian Waters retires.
• Sign CB Marquice Cole – Cole is primarily a STs player who will provide depth at cornerback
Needs Filled – With these moves Bill Belichick has achieved a couple of needs at different positions that were glaring at times last year while adding to the overall depth of the roster. While these moves are a great start, free agency and the NFL Draft still await and the Patriots still need help at S, DL and RB and could use an influx of youth at WR to still name a few positions.
What’s Next? – With Wes Welker being franchised but not yet signed, expect the Patriots to draft a WR in April, their receiver core is all over 30 and could use (finally) a drafted WR who works his way into the offense.
There is still a need in the defensive line and I would expect veteran Gerard Warren to be invited back once again. Warren played some quality snaps down the stretch and into the playoffs. Warren provides, as always nice depth along the DL. Chargers free agent DL Luis Castillo was in for a visit this past weekend and he would an excellent pickup if they can agree on terms. Castillo played a different style of 3-4 defense in San Diego but I believe that he’d be a huge impact player in New England.
I think the Patriots will attempt to bring back either Mark Anderson or Andre Carter but doubt both return. Anderson is generating plenty of interest and it remains to be seen how Carter will heal up from his quad tear but they both provided a nice edge rush.
Deion Branch may still be brought back as veteran minimum and be allowed to compete for his job back but I doubt they’ll offer much more than that. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is exploring his options but the market for him seems limited and wouldn’t be surprised to see him return. At safety, James Ihedigbo is a good depth player and a solid special teams contributor but struggled in the starting lineup, it’s expected that he will return but they still need to address the position in either free agency or the draft.
So while the process continues, the Patriots, while not making the “big splash” type of signing have improved their team immeasurably and place them in prime position for the NFL Draft come April. With two picks in both the first and second round, they can be sellers or buyers depending upon who is available.