This offseason for the Patriots is more about looking at long-term issues than short-term ones.
The New England Patriots had another good season, making it to their fifth straight AFC championship game. They came very close to going back to the Super Bowl for the second straight season, but fell just short, losing to the Denver Broncos 20-18. There are a multitude of things they need to accomplish this offseason to put themselves in position to win their fifth Super Bowl next season, yet undoubtedly, the Patriots will want to continue improving by means of the “Patriot Way,” which emphasizes long-term success over short term success. This leads us to the most important tasks the Patriots need to accomplish this offseason.
Sign key defensive players to contract extensions
This offseason, the Patriots don’t have any significant free agents that they must re-sign. But in the next offseason, their seven best players on defense are all free agents. This list includes CB Malcolm Butler, CB Logan Ryan, DE Rob Ninkovich, DE Chandler Jones, DE Jabaal Sheard, LB Dont’a Hightower, and LB Jamie Collins. With all these players going into contract years in 2016, it is important that the Patriots don’t overspend to keep cap space available for key players, so they don’t test the free agent market. With the Patriots’ history of not overpaying for players, letting all of these guys test free agency dramatically increases the chances of losing them to a team that will overpay.
Signing most of these players to contract extensions is the perfect way to execute a long-term approach. In past years, most long-term transactions were either to trade or let players walk away in free agency. For example, last year the Patriots let Darrelle Revis, one of the best corners in the NFL, walk in free agency. The huge contract he signed with the Jets brings him into his mid-30’s. As it turns out, letting him walk was the right move, as the Patriots found a solid replacement in Malcolm Butler and now have the cap flexibility to sign their young and talented defensive players. Revis is the latest example, joining Willie McGinest, Wes Welker, and Logan Mankins in the ranks of accomplished players who were let go by the Patriots to ensure long-term flexibility.
Address problems on the offensive line
The Patriots’ inability to protect Tom Brady was the main reason that they lost the AFC Championship game in Denver. Brady got sacked four times and was hit another 17 times. Left tackle Sebastian Vollmer and right tackle Marcus Cannon were the main problems on the line, both in this game and during the regular season. However, with starting left tackle Nate Solder coming back from injury, Vollmer will slot back in his usual position of right tackle and Cannon will move to a back-up role. Marcus Cannon was terrible in a starting role — according to Pro Football Focus, Cannon was ranked 61st out 77 qualifying tackles and had an abysmal grade of 37.4 out of 100. The Patriots should use their second round pick on a tackle in the draft, so they have a competent backup behind Vollmer and can replace Vollmer when he becomes a free agent next offseason.
Add depth to the cornerback position
Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan both had great seasons, ranked 22nd and 24th among corners respectively by PFF. Those two playing at a high level and, more importantly, staying healthy for all 18 games (including playoffs) established a rock-solid secondary after Revis departed. Unfortunately, there were serious issues with the corners behind Butler and Ryan. Nobodies like Justin Coleman and Leonard Johnson were playing as the third and forth corners. Football Outsiders ranked the Patriots secondary 28th in the league in defensive DVOA against third-string or lower wide receivers. The Patriots were extremely lucky that Butler and Ryan stayed healthy the whole year, because if Coleman or Johnson had to play more often, the secondary would have faltered. To address this need, the Patriots should look into bringing back Brandon Browner. Based on this tweet, it looks like Browner is going to be released by the Saints.
U got to take the good with the bad, sometimes treat the wins like loses. Next Chapter every good book has up and downs #farewellneworleans— Brandon Browner (@bbrowner27) February 5, 2016
Browner had a brutal season with the Saints, but the year before he was a key contributor as the second corner on a Super Bowl-winning Patriots team. In addition to Browner, the Patriots should consider other cheap options at corner such as Sterling Moore, Charles Tillman, Tracy Porter, or Brandon Boykin.
Other very minor needs are running back and outside wide receiver. The Patriots lost both Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount to injuries during the year and having both of those guys back, combined with an improved offensive line, should make their running game respectable. Brandon Lafell’s lack of success in 2015-16 (37 receptions/515 yards/0 Touchdowns) made the outside receiver position seem like a need, but with him on a cheap contract, it would be smart to rely on Lafell regressing towards his 2014 numbers (74 reception/953 yards/7 Touchdowns). A healthy Lafll can save the Patriots a lot of money.
If New England makes these offseason moves, they will not only be in contention for Super Bowl 51, but they will be in contention for many Super Bowls to follow.
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