The New England Patriots have never been very active in free agency. They last truly big name they brought in was Adalius Thomas back in 2007, and that did not go very well. However, this free agency is heart wrenching so far for Patriots fans not only because of what they are not doing, but because the Denver Broncos are reloading in a big way.
So far in this free agency period the Broncos have signed former Cleveland Brown strong safety TJ Ward who had 110 tackles last season, former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, and are rumored to be interested in adding Jared Allen or Demarcus Ware to their defense. All of those players along with the return of Von Miller (2011 Defensive ROY, 2012 Defensive POY runner-up) will lead to a completely reloaded Denver defense. On offense it appears that they could lose Eric Decker, but they will retain Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, and Demaryius Thomas. Denver is doing this because they know Peyton Manning’s championship window is closing. The Patriots need to realize the same thing about Tom Brady.
Tom Brady will be 37 at the start of this coming season. His touchdown and yardage totals have gone down in three consecutive years. His best receiver over the past thirteen years left to play with Manning last year, and the Patriots chose to replace him with an injury prone Danny Amendola. He caught 54 balls this season for 633 yards. Those are about half of Welkers 118 receptions and 1,354 yards in his last year as a Patriot. You could argue that his stats may have been filtered to Julian Edelman, who caught 105 balls for 1,056 yards. However, the Patriots allows Edelman to walk into free agency where he is free to sign with any other team. Behind him on the depth chart remains only Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins. Rob Gronkowski is coming off yet another surgery, this one on his knee, and they still need a viable replacement at center for the upcoming season. That does not even begin to point out the problems on defense for this team.
The rumor is the Patriots are going to move to a 3-4 scheme this season. This poses a few problems. First is that they need another starting caliber middle linebacker to play along Jerod Mayo. The word is that they have brought in former Denver middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard to fill the hole left by Brandon Spikes. If they sign Woodyard they still have decisions to make along the defensive line and the secondary. First off, they need to decide what to do with Vince Wilfork. They may cut him, as he is due 8 million dollars this year and is coming off a torn achilles at 32 years of age. If the do, they need to try to resign him at a more team friendly deal. If not they need a nose tackle to go along with another 3-4 defensive end. Although Rob Ninkovich is a fan favorite he does not have the size to play in this scheme, but he could still be used as a situational pass rusher from both the outside linebacker or defensive end position. After that they need to address the secondary.
Now that Talib has signed with Denver the Patriots were supposed to make a move on the next best corner available. Unfortunately the market is pretty dry on top end corners. Brent Grimes resigned with Miami for four years and 32 million dollars. Sam Shields then resigned with Green Bay for four years and 39 million dollars. Vontae Davis resigned with the Colts for four years and 39 million. Finally, the top corner on the free agent market Alterraun Verner signed a relatively modest deal with Tampa Bay for four years and 26.5 million dollars. Now the best corner on the market may be Darrelle Revis, who commands 16 million dollars per year, and has stated that if he is traded he will not renegotiate his contract. That is pretty pricey for any team, nevermind the often frugal Patriots. Along with being out on the top corners, the Patriots cut strong safety Steve Gregory, opening a large hole at that position as well. The top two strong safeties, TJ Ward and Donte Whitner, have both signed new deals with Denver and Cleveland respectively. Thats not to say that the Pats can’t make any impact moves in free agency, but that they have missed out on known entities and may be looking at second tier free agents.
All of this leaves the Patriots with the draft. They have the 29th pick, but have traded out of the first round many times before and could again. If they keep their pick they could look at Jace Amaro tight end from Texas Tech, or one of the two Notre Dame defensive line prospects Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III. Nix will only be needed if they cannot retain Vince Wilfork, whereas Tuitt could be a great fit at the left 3-4 defensive end. What I would like them to do is move up and go after one of the better corners in the draft, such as Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert or Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard. Either of those picks would be great fits in the Patriots’ system. However, the draft alone cannot fill all the holes on this team.
The Patriots are a proud franchise. They have been dominant over the last thirteen years, and I have no doubt they will continue to be one of the best teams in football. The problem is players make plays not coaches, so as good of a coach as Belichick is, he cannot do much without quality players on the field. Teams such as the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, and Indianapolis Colts are all aiming to be the new dynasty in the NFL. If the Patriots do not start making moves soon they will have wasted the last few years of Tom Brady and will have to start anew.
By Zach Besaw All signings accurate as of 1:30 AM EST 3/12/14