FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When assessing the New England Patriots' biggest needs for 2016, one of the team’s former players, Rodney Harrison, highlighted a bruising running back as being at the top of the list.
I’m with Rodney.
Before breaking away for a week-long vacation, one of the things I wanted to do was put together a quick snapshot ranking of how I view the team’s need areas at this time. This type of list is fluid and can always change as pieces are added/subtracted, but here’s how I see it right now:
1. Running back: It doesn’t necessarily have to be a bruiser, because someone like free-agent-to-be Matt Forte could be a perfect fit with his dual skills as a runner/pass-catcher, but the lack of depth at this spot showed up in 2015 when Dion Lewis (torn ACL) and LeGarrette Blount (hip) were lost to season-ending injuries.
2. Wide receiver: Julian Edelman and Keshawn Martin should be in the mix, with Edelman still the team’s go-to option and Martin more of a depth-based consideration. Danny Amendola still fits, but likely not at his $5 million base salary, so there’s some uncertainty there. Brandon LaFell, meanwhile, dropped off the radar as the No. 4 option in the AFC title game.
3. Offensive tackle: Starting left tackle Nate Solder is signed through 2017, while starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and swing tackle Marcus Cannon each enter the final year of their deals. Bringing back restricted free agent LaAdrian Waddle could help add depth.
4. Cornerback: I'm curious to see what 2015 seventh-round draft choice Darryl Roberts might add after flashing in spring camps and the preseason opener before sustaining a season-ending wrist injury. Between him, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Justin Coleman, there’s a foundation of young, talented players, but this is the type of position where you can never have enough.
5. Defensive tackle: 2015 first-round pick Malcom Brown had a solid rookie season, with Alan Branch, Dominique Easley, Chris Jones and Ishmaa'ily Kitchen also under contract. Akiem Hicks and Sealver Siliga are free agents. Can Easley stay healthy?
6. Linebacker: Jerod Mayo won’t be back with an $11.4 million salary-cap charge, but there is still depth behind Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, both of whom have contracts that expire after 2016. So the position looks OK in the short term, but the longer-term need rises if Hightower and Collins aren’t locked up with extensions.
7. Tight end: I'm not expecting Scott Chandler to be back for the second year of his deal after he pretty much faded out of consideration by the end of 2015, which leaves Rob Gronkowski and Michael Williams atop the depth chart, with the possibility that 2015 sixth-round draft choice AJ Derby, who spent his rookie year on injured reserve, could be a factor.
8. Center/guard: There is plenty of youth in the mix with Josh Kline (fourth year), Bryan Stork (third year), Tre' Jackson (second year), Shaq Mason (second year) and David Andrews (second year) all under contract. Are they good enough, or is an infusion of talent needed? I lean toward the former, with the return of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia another key in bringing out the best in them.
10. Defensive end: This position looks strong in the short term with Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard all under contract for 2016, and Geneo Grissom (2015 third-rounder) and Trey Flowers (2015 fourth-rounder) coming up the ranks.
11. Safety: With the top three of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon all under contract, and with 2015 second-round pick Jordan Richards being groomed in the pipeline, the Patriots are well stocked here.