Despite being tied for the most free agent signings this offseason with 18 moves, the New England Patriots still have some voids to fill on both sides of the ball. In addition to the notable and well-documented departures of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Vince Wilfork, and Shane Vereen is the looming threat of losing some productive role players such as resident doghouse back Stevan Ridley, who is just two seasons removed from a 1,000 yard/12 touchdown campaign, and versatile interior offensive lineman Dan Connolly.
Free Agency began with a flurry of “unofficial” moves before the league year began, followed by a consistent signing of role players. While the Patriots failed to make any enormous splashes while the market was robust, they did address some of their roster concerns. Jabaal Sheard was brought in to replace mid-season defensive end/outside linebacker signee Akeem Ayers. Sheard will provide depth as a 5-technique, adequately spelling Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, and will help to improve the Patriots below-average pass rush while still remaining solid against the run outside the tackles. They also retained Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch to fill the enormous hole left by Vince Wilfork on the interior of their defensive line.
New England combatted the loss of their two starting cornerbacks by adding depth players at the position in Chimdi Chekwa (Oakland Raiders), Bradley Fletcher (Philadelphia Eagles), and Robert McClain (Atlanta Falcons) to battle with Alfonzo Dennard and Malcolm Butler for the starting job. None of these players will even come close to matching the skill-set or shut-down capabilities of Revis and Browner, leaving the Patriots secondary still in need of some serious assistance. With the free agent market essentially bare at this point, the Patriots must now turn to the NFL Draft for their next move.
Due to an abundance of draft day trades and emphasized secrecy, determining what the Patriots will do on draft day has become a Herculean task for prognosticators, but at the very least we can still establish their needs. The most obvious and glaring weakness on this roster lies in their secondary.
The top of this year’s cornerback class is flush with decent size and length. The top two at the position, Trae Waynes and Kevin Johnson, will be long gone before the Patriots make their first selection at 32. The Patriots best option might take a little finagling to reach, Marcus Peters from Washington could still be available near the end of the first round. Peters is an early first round talent, with exceptional length and physicality, however he has some off the field issues which might scare teams off. Peters was kicked out of Washington’s program after clashes with the coaching staff, but Belichick has not been known to shy away from a troublemaker if they have the skill-set to help his team. A slight move up into the late-20’s might be necessary to nab Peters before Green Bay picks at 30.
If they decide to address the need with a later pick, Ronald Darby a standout from FSU, whose athleticism more than makes up for his short stature, could be an option at the end of the second round. Darby has enormous up side, and could be a great day-two pickup for New England. The Patriots could also take a mid round flyer on Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the Oregon standout who was injured before the College Football Playoff. If Ekpre-Olomu is able to regain his form, he would be a solid option to replace Kyle Arrington and take over the Nickel responsibilities in New England. Ekpre-Olomu should still be on the board in the third or fourth round due to his height and knee injury.
The potential departure of Dan Connolly creates a need for a starting talent-level guard in New England as well. The Patriots could end up with a FSU reunion on their hands if they can grab Tre’ Jackson at the end of the second round. Jackson is massive, and has the pure power to be a productive lineman, however he doesn’t possess excellent footwork or drive. Jackson and Stork could combine to solidify the New England line for years to come, but if Connolly should return the need for a guard would drop to the later rounds. A depth player such as the massive Adam Shead could be added with no risk in the seventh round.
Running Backs have become expendable in the new-era of the NFL, causing their draft stock to slip precipitously in recent years, but the Patriots still have a need at the position. The Patriots only have two bruisers on their roster in Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount, so a change of pace back should be a middle of the road priority. Mike Davis out of South Carolina could be that option with either of New England’s two third round picks. A capable pass catcher, Davis would not have to shoulder a large workload in the Patriots’ backfield, making New England an ideal fit for the undersized back.
With the NFL Draft still a few weeks away, the Patriots’ situation will continue to fluctuate. Quality players like DT C.J. Mosley and Hakeem Nicks still need to find homes, but for now New England must focus all of its energy on the draft in order to reload for another Super Bowl run, and build toward the future.