By: Steve Balestrieri
With the news that the New England Patriots have signed quarterback Tom Brady to a team and cap friendly extension that will free up a lot more cash, the Patriots will now have a lot of freedom to do more things during free agency and sign their draft picks.
The Patriots will have roughly $23 million in cap space to decide in what direction they want to go during what may prove to be a pretty volatile free agency period. The Brady extension has led many to assume that a Wes Welker signing is imminent. While that may indeed happen, I think the first priority should be in shoring up the defense.
Cornerback is a Concern: With Kyle Arrington and Aqib Talib free agents and Alfonzo Dennard possibly facing jail time and/or a suspension the Patriots top three cornerbacks could possibly be gone and for a team that struggled defensively stopping the pass in 2012, that is not good news.
If Dennard does make it to camp on time and is ready to go in Week 1 that would solve a big part of the problem. Once he was eased into a starting role, he played very well but what to do elsewhere?
Talib could be franchise tagged or hit with the transitional tag that would keep him around for at least another year and the word around the team is that the Patriots like him and want to keep him in the fold. But with a guy with injury and character flags, could the team be looking elsewhere? I do think that they’ll bring Talib back for just a one and prove it season and if they use the transitional tag, it will cost them around $9 million.
That means they still need to select a cornerback in the NFL Draft. Desmond Trufant and Tyrann Mathieu are names that have been linked to the Patriots. With Arrington wanting a starting cornerback’s money, look for the Patriots to draft a corner early and sign at least one FA.
Safety: Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe wrote that the Patriots are content with having Devin McCourty and Tavon Wilson as their starting safeties with Steve Gregory in reserve. Wilson they feel will be ready to make a big jump between years 1 and 2.
With the flux at cornerback, the team may indeed be forced to do just that although there have been the inevitable rumors surrounding greybeards Ed Reed and Charles Woodson who are set to hit the open market in less than two weeks.
If the Patriots were to dip into the free agency market, I’d much rather see them go for a younger player that will give 5-6 solid years rather than overspending on an aging veteran. The team kicked the tires and offered a contract to Dashon Goldson in the past and he’s now a free-agent. It is being reported that the 49ers will not franchise tag him. If the Patriots opt to draft a safety in April, one player I like and watched a lot of is South Carolina’s D.J. Swearinger.
Swearinger is a very physical, big hitter who is versatile and can play anywhere in the secondary. He even played at corner for a few games when the injury bug hit the Gamecocks. Swearinger could probably be had in the second round and would bring a nice level of nastiness in the back end.
Defensive Tackle: The Patriots definitely need someone who can push the pocket from the interior of the line and depth there is a big problem. The team is aware of it and has attempted to address this the past two off-seasons. First they brought in Albert Haynesworth who fizzled out quickly. Last year they tried to bring in the Seahawk’s Red Bryant before signing Jonathan Fanene who had underlying knee issues and never took the field.
The team did sign DT Armond Armstead from the CFL, the strong, athletic tackle was considered to be a 2nd round pick from USC before health issues derailed him from being drafted. He went to Canada and played very well, now the Patriots are hoping that he can do the same here. With a draft deep in DTs, the Patriots may look to add one in the early rounds or pick up another in free agency.
Defensive End: This is an area I feel the team doesn’t need help with although rumors (every big name FA is always rumored to be going to NE) have it that the Patriots are interested in FA DE/OLB Dwight Freeney from the Colts.
I can see where this would potentially interest the team, having bookend DEs who can bring pressure from Freeney and Chandler Jones who should be ready to make a big jump in Year 2. Freeney could be brought in with a ‘prove you still have it deal’ and be used on sub-packages and obvious passing downs.
That would give the team the opportunity to slide Rob Ninkovich back to OLB where his coverage skills are at least as good if not better than the LBs now, Jerod Mayo would move to MLB and Spikes would come out. Ninkovich could still provide blitz pressure off the edge.
But I’m against this for the same reason, I don’t want to see them spend the money on greybeards on the downside of their careers. Freeney, perhaps because he was playing out of position at OLB had only 5 sacks last season, less than Jones (6) who played hurt in the second half of the season or Ninkovich (8), but perhaps not. So would the Patriots really be upgrading the DE position when they already have Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis and Jake Bequette on the roster? I’d pass on that one.
Linebacker: Again, I don’t see the team making a big splash here, the most common thing we’ve heard is that the Patriots need a ‘coverage linebacker’ either in the draft or in free agency.
The Patriots, like many other teams have had issues covering the new breed of tight ends that are making their mark in the NFL as well as out of the backfield. If healthy, I think the team will stand pat with adding Dane Fletcher back into the mix during passing downs. Fletcher did a good job, especially on running backs in the passing game in the past and I think Dont’a Hightower will make a nice jump as well in Year 2.
So while the offense, especially the WR position needs to be addressed this off-season, the defense is what needs to be looked at first. The most common theme of the Patriots Super Bowl teams was a tough, physical defense….spend the money there.