Friday, January 22, 2010

What Will the Offseason Hold for the New England Patriots?

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

New England Patriots fans were faced with a harsh reality at the hands of a crushing defeat to the Baltimore Ravens: their team just wasn’t good enough.

Sure they had their moments of brilliance during the season, but they also frequently looked far from the team that was a three-time Super Bowl champion this decade, or even the team that went 11-5 without Tom Brady playing an entire game.

And please, don’t even try to say that if Wes Welker played that last game he would’ve made a difference.

That’s why this offseason fans should expect a lot of changes in New England.

The glaring weaknesses the Patriots have are on defense. Watching Ray Rice shred through the Pats in the AFC Wild Card round should’ve made that fact evident.

The first thing the team needs to take care of his hiring a new defensive coordinator.

Dean Pees, who has held the position the past four years, is stepping down.

Bill Belichick has hired in-house for that position that past two times it was open, so it's possible that he would do so again. Defensive line coach Pepper Johnson, a ten-year member of Belichick's staff, would be the best option based on his unit’s play.

The Pats need to get more talented in the secondary.

Safety Brandon Meriweather was the unit's best player and should be fine, and Leigh Bodden had a few moments of brilliance, but it wasn't enough.

The team desperately needs help at the cornerback position, but the free agent pool is thin, and there isn't anyone that would significantly boost the team's performance, so expect to see a corner come out of the draft.

New England could go out and get a safety to complement Meriweather though, with names like Green Bay's Nick Collins, Indianapolis' Antoine Bethea, or New Orleans' Roman Harper available.

The linebacking core is getting old, save for Jerod Mayo, and obviously struggled.

Mayo will be around for a long time to come. Tully Banta-Cain had a breakout season, setting a career-high in sacks with 10, but can he sustain that type of production for another year? Junior Seau, who came out of retirement to help the Patriots, is retiring once more.

And what to do with Adalius Thomas? He has the talent, but was disciplined a few times and did discuss his frustrations with the media. He also just played his tenth season.

There are some good young linebackers available in free agency, but will the Patriots choose to turn to a familiar face and go after 35-year-old Mike Vrabel?

The defensive line was the best unit of the defense, but they too are not without question marks.

Last season the line featured four rookies: Ron Brace, Adrian Gandy, Myron Pryor, and Darryl Richard. Jarvis Green made some comments during training camp that this past season might be his last as a Patriot and he may be interested in signing with his hometown New Orleans Saints.

The biggest question mark though is Vince Wilfork.

Wilfork proved to be an elite nose tackle. However, there were times where he was removed from the game because of injury and did not play in the last three games of the regular season.

Good nose tackles are difficult to find, and with more teams switching to 3-4 base defenses Wilfork is sure to be offered a huge payday much like Albert Haynesworth was last season. The Patriots will most likely franchise him though in order to keep him on the team or command and king's ransom if another team desperately desires his services.

If they lose Green and/or Wilfork, the Patriots will definitely have to go out and sign at least one experienced defensive lineman, and probably should do so anyway just to add some depth to the squad.

There is work to be done on the offensive side of the ball too, just not as extensive.

New England needs to get a wide receiver to fill in for Wes Welker. Julian Edelman played admirably this season but is he a number two receiver?

Tom Brady likes him, so the Pats may be willing to promote him and see what he can do. That still means the Patriots need a productive slot receiver.

Arizona's Steve Breaston would be the ideal candidate. He is capable of being the second or slot receiver and is used to playing alongside elite receivers.

Still, Kansas City's Mark Bradley and the Giants' Domenik Hixon would be cheaper options to seriously consider.

The Patriots could also really use a good running back.

Kevin Faulk is turning 34 and will be a free agent. Sammy Morris continually has injury problems and just finished his tenth season. Fred Taylor just finished his 12th season and spent most of it injured. And Laurence Maroney, while productive at times, was also extremely costly fumbling three times in the red zone.

The Patriots have not had a go-to-back in years. The closest thing they had to one was Corey Dillon, who was past his prime by the time he got to the Patriots.

There are a few options here that could be very intriguing to Pats fans.

Miami's Ronnie Brown could be available. A back with a good combination of size and speed Brown had a 4.4 yards-per-carry average and eight touchdowns. However, he suffered a season-ending injury for the second time in three years. Still, when he plays he is a formidable back who can also run the Wildcat offense, which could be an added bonus. Plus it would take a talented player away from a divisional rival. With the emergence of Ricky Williams combined with Brown's injury history, he may just be expendable to the Dolphins.

Two more interesting options are the Jets' Leon Washington and Chargers' Darren Sproles. Both are lightning quick and seem at times to take on larger roles. Washington, like Brown, would also mean taking talent from a divisional rival. Washington is coming off a season-ending injury as well though.

Another thing to think about is that the Patriots need help in the return game. They weren't that good, and that was even with Wes Welker fielding some kick-offs and punts. That's why Sproles and Washington are very interesting, and why Hixon should be a guy on New England's radar.

This may all seem like a lot of changes, but then again the Patriots were embarrassed on their home field in the playoffs and the management and the city of Boston expect better out of this team.

Realistically the Patriots need to bring in new blood.

Part of the problem is that during the dynasty years they held onto some players for too long and did not do a good enough job of developing younger talent. Now they're left with holes in some areas (corner back and running back) and look old, slow, and tired on defense.

This season was a critical point for the Patriots. The future of the franchise now swings in the balance. This offseason will determine whether the Patriots improve and remain legitimate Super Bowl contenders or if the end of the dynasty has come and the team falls into mediocrity.

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