BY DAN BEGNOCHE
A 10th straight year with double-digit wins and a fourth consecutive playoff berth again ended in disappointment for the New England Patriots. The league’s top offense put up nearly 35 points a game but often stumbled against decent defenses.
The defense was highly susceptible to big plays downfield, and New England was once again ousted by an eventual Super Bowl champ in the AFC finals at home.
Big front office/coaching moves: No big changes are slated for the Pats’ coaching staff this offseason, though Bill Belichick will certainly do plenty of personnel-driven, schematic exploration to try and get them over the now-annual hump.
Key free agents: CB Kyle Arrington, S Patrick Chung, WR Julian Edelman, CB Aqib Talib, RT Sebastian Volmer, WR Wes Welker, RB Danny Woodhead.
First-Round Draft Position: No. 29.
Number of picks per round: 1 (1), 2 (1), 3 (1), 7 (2).
THREE POINTS OF EMPHASIS:
- While boasting a juggernaut offense, the team lacked a true big, perimeter deep-threat option and relied heavily on Woodhead to fill in the gaps. Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski make their living in the middle of the field, and New England’s aging receiver corps could use a shot in the arm. Draft prospects Tavon Austin and Quinton Patton have been thrown out as potential fits, with Austin a more of a speed guy and Patton a matchup challenge due to his size. Draft decisions here will be dictated by free-agent moves, namely Welker.
- It’s no secret here that the team has struggled to find a sturdy anchor for the defensive backfield; as mentioned above, the defense bled big plays all season and lacked leadership and continuity. Now that Devin McCourty has worked his way into the lead safety role, at least there’s something to work around. Florida safety Matt Elam has made his way onto some mock drafts for the Pats in the first round, which would be good complement to McCourty and a vast improvement. Whether Arrington and/or Talib hang around could dictate how the team uses its other draft picks.
- Despite the play of guys like Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Vince Wilfork, the Pats’ defensive pressure wasn’t very ominous. A middle-of-the-road squad when it came to sacks, New England’s lack of presence in the offensive backfield certainly made things harder for its secondary. While Ninkovich and Jones were bright spots in combining for 14 sacks, a versatile addition could aid the middle of the line on third downs, so someone along the lines of Miami’s Randy Starks or even former Patriot Richard Seymour would be a good fit, given each can play outside or inside. That said, the Patriots may draft a defensive tackle early to work and learn alongside the veteran Wilfork.
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