With the 2012/13 season now a “crash landing” it’s time to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to get this team over the hump next season. First, let’s look at who may be on the way out. The unrestricted Free Agents currently on the Patriots roster who are set to hit the open market are:
Will Allen, DB
Kyle Arrington, CB
Josh Barrett, S
Deion Branch, WR
Patrick Chung, S
Marquice Cole, CB/ST
Julian Edelman, WR/KR
Niko Koutouvides, LB
Derrick Martin, DB/ST
Jamey Richard, C/G
Trevor Scott, DE
Donte' Stallworth, WR
Aqib Talib, CB
Donald Thomas, G
Sebastian Vollmer, RT
Wes Welker, WR
Tracy White, LB/ST
Danny Woodhead, RB
The first thing that you’ll notice is that the WR group is all going to hit the open market. Welker, Edelman, Stallworth and Branch are set to hit the open market. This leaves Brandon Lloyd, special teams captain/pro bowler Matthew Slater and Kamar Aiken (Do you know he is? Because I don’t) expected to return. Stallworth and Branch are both past prime and were not significant contributors this season. It might be time for Branch to retire, I think the only reason he’s still playing is his on field rapport with Tom Brady. Edelman saw plenty of snaps early in the season before getting hurt and eventually placed on IR. I can’t imagine it will cost much to bring him back or that any other teams will be falling all over themselves to pick up Edelman and he’ll be back next season. Wes Welker is going to be a big story as long as his contract status is up in the air. He seems a likely target for another franchise tag as he was last offseason. I can sort of understand both sides of the argument about Welker. Welker/Brady has become one of the most prolific QB/WR pairings in NFL history. He took a “leap of faith” and signed his franchise tender in the hopes that it would loosen up the negotiation process last offseason, but as of yet, no long term deal has been agreed upon. His production has been consistent throughout his time in New England and doesn’t seem to be dropping off because of his age. He’s earned a nice payday and he should get one. On the Patriots side of the coin, Tom Brady already seems to have a number of great targets with Gronk, Hernandez, Lloyd and Edelman; maybe as a cap conscious team that money should be spent elsewhere than an aging wide receiver who takes some serious hits every season.
The CB position will also be largely up in the air in terms of roster spots with only 7 th round selection, rookie Alfonzo Dennard being the only CB on the depth chart not to hit the market. Aqib Talib will be the other big free agent story coming from the Patriots this offseason. After Talib hit the field the difference in the secondary was noticeable. Devin McCourty moved to a Safety position where he appears to be far more effective than he was at Corner. Prior to his arrival teams seemed to be moving the ball in the air at will against the Patriots, after he hit the field the 49ers were the only team to really tear up the Patriots secondary. Talib has already stated that he has enjoyed his time playing for New England and did not seem opposed to the idea of returning for another season. It’s also possible that he may still be a cost effective solution for New England as his history of character issues/PED Suspension may scare off potential suitors. Another season or two of shutting up and doing his job on the field might be just what his career needs to get back on track. I would REALLY like for the Patriots to find a better corner
than Kyle Arrington. It seems like every game he’s getting beat downfield or flagged for huge pass interference penalties. He had a decent season a few years ago where he made a lot of picks, but for the past two seasons he’s been a real problem.
It would be nice to bring Danny Woodhead back. He fills a role and I can’t imagine his price tag being that high. Sebastian Vollmer has been solid in his career with the Patriots, I have no idea what sort of figures he might be looking for/would be a good value for his contribution. It’s always tough to evaluate the effectiveness of offensive linemen, they really only get noticed if they get into the Pro Bowl or they screw something up by getting beat or flagged for holding. He’s had some back injury problems in the past, but I don’t think that will hurt him too much. Patrick Chung is another guy I would not mind keeping around. He’s made some big plays over the past few seasons, but he’s also had injuries and fallen short of the expectations one might have for a high second round draft pick. I could see myself saying the same about Ras-I Dowling if he doesn’t perform next year/spends another season on IR.
Everybody else on that list I’m ambivalent about/don’t know who they are. The questions about this team going forward is where and how to make improvements. During the season the most glaring need was in the secondary. The addition of Talib and moving McCourty seemed to solidify this unit, but they could still hardly be considered elite and their lack of depth in the secondary was shown when Talib was hurt during the AFC Championship game. With so much turnover happening at this position Cornerback seems to be a prime position of need going into the offseason. Darelle Revis is reportedly being shopped around by the Jets, but I doubt that the Jets would be willing to send him to a division rival unless the Patriots grossly overpaid to acquire him. It’s much harder to find places to improve on offense. There is certainly room to get younger by letting receivers like Branch, Welker and Stallworth go, but it can be difficult to find receivers who are capable of being successful in the Patriots system. Sometimes receivers can never get on the same page with Tom Brady like Chad Ochocinco in the 2011 season. Former Patriot safety Rodney Harrison has stated that he thinks the Patriots need an “enforcer” at safety. I suppose his comments need to be taken with a grain of salt being a former hard hitting “enforcer” at safety himself. Brandon Meriweather fit the bill as a safety that made hard hits on receivers, but I wouldn’t want him back. I’m sure a bunch of names will come up with possible fits for various positions for the Patriots, but one that stands out to me as a good match would be to bring in Tim Tebow. Let me explain why.
1) Bill Belichick scouted Tebow coming out of college and was reportedly interested once the Broncos put him on the trade block. Patriots OC Josh McDaniels actually did draft Tim Tebow.
2) The Patriots love versatility, this is exactly what Tim Tebow brings to the table. His athleticism leads me to believe he could be converted to perform a number of different roles. Perhaps a wide receiver in the Julian Edelman/Wes Welker mold. Maybe a slippery running back in a wildcat setup? How about a kick returner?
3) The Patriots are the right organizational fit for Tebow. The Jets were an awful fit for Tim Tebow. Mark Sanchez was not secure in his position as the starting quarterback. The moment the Jets picked up Tebow I knew that as soon as Sanchez had a bad game the New York fans would be screaming for Tebow and the QB controversy would be underway. In New England, it’s very unlikely that a serious percentage of the fanbase will be clamoring for Tebow to replace Brady even if he does have a few bad games. I believe the Patriots also have enough star power that Tim Tebow would not be the dominant story in the media for the whole season if his on field performance doesn’t warrant discussion.
4) The price may finally be right for Tebow. His stock was too high in the draft and he was already gone at 25th overall, 2 picks before the Patriots took Devin McCourty. Trading multiple picks, even late round picks, and eating part of Tim Tebow’s salary was a dumb price to pay for a quarterback the Jets had no intention of using. After a season of little on field production the Patriots should be able to pick him up for very little in return.
In any event, it should be interesting to see how this offseason plays out for the Patriots. There seemed to be a sense of urgency last season when the Patriots used both of their natural and acquired first round selections in last year’s draft to acquire Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones. Was this indicative of the careers of Brady or Belichick nearing a close? Was it just a lack of trading partner for Bill’s usual deal (Current first rounder in exchange for current second rounder and next year’s first rounder)? Did he consider Jones/ Hightower too good to pass up? Whether he chooses to stockpile for the future or cash in his chips in the draft may be indicative of how much time we have left in the Brady/Belichick era.