It’s been two weeks since NFL free agency officially kicked off, and it’s safe to say that just about all of the major difference makers have already found new homes. The New England Patriots entered free agency with plenty of roster holes, and generally did a good job filling them. However, this is not a complete roster. With the NFL draft on the horizon, let’s take a look at the New England Patriots biggest needs after free agency.
Filling the New England Patriots Needs
After the Patriots lost left tackle Nate Solder to the New York Giants, tackle immediately became the biggest need on the roster. Re-signing tackle LaAdrian Waddle helped minimize this need, but Waddle’s presence is a short-term fix. The five-year veteran is only signed for the 2018 season, and there’s no guarantee the Patriots could get him back for 2019.
Waddle also isn’t the best tackle in the world, by any means. He’s a serviceable starter, but he’s not much better than replacement level. He shouldn’t be an outright disaster, but New England can certainly aim for better than him.
Additionally, both Waddle and right tackle Marcus Cannon have extensive injury histories. Waddle has never played more than 12 games in a season, while Cannon has only played a full 16-game season once in his seven-year career. Chances are, the Patriots will need to call upon their tackle depth at some point in the season.
With quarterback Tom Brady entering his age 41 season, keeping him upright has never been more important. It would come as a big surprise if New England didn’t invest in a tackle early on in the 2018 draft.
Edge Rusher/Outside Linebacker
The biggest weakness in the 2017 Patriots defense was their inability to set the edge. Outside of Trey Flowers, New England didn’t have an edge defender who could consistently get to the passer and play the run. This weakness showed itself on a weekly basis, especially when linebacker Kyle Van Noy was out of the lineup.
This issue should resolve itself to an extent. Dont’a Hightower, the teams best linebacker, will be back after spending the majority of 2017 on the injured reserve. Additionally, New England also re-signed Marquis Flowers to a one-year deal. Flowers came on strong by the end of the season, and should continue to develop into a solid pass rusher and coverage linebacker.
While Flowers and Hightower can play the edge as linebackers, New England also added defensive end Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn is a good, but not great, edge defender who should complement Trey Flowers on the defensive line.
However, these players alone won’t be enough. New England can’t plan on having Hightower for all 16 games plus the playoffs, and the depth behind Hightower, Flowers, and Van Noy is incredibly slim. Clayborn will help as a pass rusher, but isn’t known for his work in the run game.
The New England front seven should be set if they can acquire another good linebacker. Acquiring a middle linebacker allows Hightower and Van Noy to play on the edge, with Flowers coming on the field in passing downs. Should New England choose to get a hybrid edge linebacker, they could shift Hightower to play middle linebacker.
The Danny Shelton trade ensured New England’s rush defense up the middle will improve. Getting another edge player, or a linebacker that allows Hightower to shift to the edge, will make this front seven a true force to be reckoned with.
There’s some mystery to this position, as star tight end Rob Gronkowski still hasn’t said whether he will or will not retire this off-season. However, with or without Gronkowski, this team still needs another tight end.
Gronkowski means so much to what the Patriots do offensively. He’s an absolute freak of nature, and there’s only a handful of players in the league capable of taking over a game the way he can. However, he’s also very injury prone. Since entering the league in 2010, Gronkowski has only played a full 16-game season twice. Both occasions came in his first two years in the league, 2010 and 2011.
Obviously, it’s impossible to find a player that can do everything Gronkowski can. However, New England needs to find another starting-caliber tight end that can step up in case Gronkowski goes down. Dwayne Allen is a good blocking tight end, but he’s not what the Patriots need.
Former Patriot Martellus Bennett would have been the perfect fit, but he’s since retired. Most likely, New England will have to fill this need in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Tom Brady may be 41 next season, but he’s not slowing down. However, the laws of nature state that age will eventually catch up to the greatest quarterback of all time. The Patriots thought the end was near when they drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014, and now they need to start the process all over again.
It’s hard to imagine any of the top-tier quarterbacks falling to the Patriots, but there’s several other developmental quarterbacks that could grab New England’s attention. Grabbing an undeveloped quarterback prospect would be fine, as the Patriots certainly don’t need an immediate starter.
Whoever they end up selecting (if anyone) will obviously ride the bench for at least the next two seasons. Brady just won the MVP and has appeared in three of the previous four Super Bowls. In a perfect world, this quarterback will never see the field, but New England needs to draft an insurance policy for their 41-year old superstar.
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