Rank 'Em: Patriots offseason priorities
The Patriots' season came to an abrupt end in the AFC title game, and the focus now shifts to preparing for their 2013 campaign. With free agency and the draft quickly approaching, here are some of the Patriots' top priorities as they build for 2013. Rank them below in order of importance:
Patriots offseason priorities
The first player in NFL history to record five 100-catch seasons, Welker has been named to the previous five Pro Bowls and could be one of the best players available on the free-agent market this season. The Patriots will have to decide whether to assign Welker the franchise tag for a second consecutive season, at the steep cost of $11.4 million, or allow him to test the open market.
Vertical passing game help
A prevailing narrative entering the 2012 offseason was the Patriots' need to find a perimeter or vertical passing threat to take the top off of a defense. The hole was believed to be filled, at least in part, by Brandon Lloyd. While Lloyd had a fine season, he is more of a possession/work the intermediate perimeter passing game receiver than he is a deep threat. His longest reception of the season was just 53 yards, and while the Patriots' offense was once again among the best in football, it struggled vs. the Ravens. A vertical presence who can strike quickly for an offense, similar to what Torrey Smith gives the Ravens, could go a long way.
LBs in pass coverage
The Patriots rounded out their starting trio of linebackers by adding Dont'a Hightower to Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes in the 2012 draft. The All-SEC group was stout versus the run this season, but pass coverage by linebackers proved to be an area where the Patriots' defense struggled. Both Spikes and Hightower have just average speed, and the Patriots were susceptible to backs out of the backfield as receivers. Whether it's by scheme or personnel, the Patriots' coverage on the second level has room for improvement.
Lock-down CB (Talib?)
The loss of cornerback Aqib Talib hurt in the AFC title game, and the Patriots will now have to decide whether they want to re-invest in him as he enters free agency this offseason.
Defensive back depth
Talib's injury highlighted the lack of depth in the Patriots' defensive backfield. The injury forced Marquis Cole and Kyle Arrington on to the field more and they were exposed. The Patriots need to add some quality defensive backs.
Another defensive tackle
Vince Wilfork anchored the Patriots' defense in 2012, and his spot on the defensive line is anchored down for the foreseeable future. But the Patriots could stand to add another big body in the middle of their defense, as they were down to just two active defensive tackles early in the AFC Championship Game after Kyle Love went out with a knee injury. The team parted ways with Jonathan Fanene before training camp concluded, and it's possible they'll explore another versatile lineman like Fanene this offseason. A running mate for Wilfork would help to improve the pass rush and run defense.
Enforcer at safety
When former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison assesses areas in which the team needs help, he highlighted his former position. Rodney Harrison says the Patriots need an "enforcer" at safety. Where should that fall on the team's list of offseason priorities? "I think they need an enforcer at the safety position,‚¨? Harrison said on Tuesday‚¨"s edition of PFT Live. ‚¨SThe tight ends and wide receivers running across the middle, they‚¨"re not afraid of getting hit. They need someone like a [Bernard] Pollard to really make a statement, set the tone, and really make them fear coming across the middle. They don‚¨"t have that."
The Patriots lacked a dynamic kickoff returner, and although McCourty did return one kickoff for a score this season, the team needs an upgrade. That could come from rookie Jeff Demps, an Olympic medalist who missed the season on injured reserve. As Trindon Holliday showed for the Broncos, there's room for a player who brings value to a roster only as a returner, and while we know very little about what Demps brings to the table, his speed is unquestionable. That could translate to him absorbing the returner role in 2013.
While he appeared ready to take a step forward at times this season, second-year running back Shane Vereen still has yet to emerge in the Patriots offense, so the 28-year-old Woodhead remained a significant piece in the backfield. Woodhead provided a spark when the Patriots needed one, without the ball-security questions of his younger teammates, Vereen and Stevan Ridley.
The 28-year-old right tackle had his best season in 2012, and the Patriots will likely move quickly to lock him up. There is risk in a long-term deal for Vollmer, however. He has dealt with back problems the previous two seasons, and so the Patriots may opt for a shorter-term deal and turn to the draft for insurance.
Rob Ninkovich has improved in each of his four seasons in New England, with his versatility an important asset for the team.