After a frenzied start to free agency, things have cooled around the NFL and now, all sights are set on the NFL draft. Come May 8th, every discerning eye will be transfixed on the Radio City Music Hall, where teams will be making selections that could greatly alter the landscape of the league. Here at Swing Sports, we'll be taking a look at the state of all 32 teams leading up to the draft.
New England Patriots
2013 Record - 12-4 (4-2 AFC East)
Key Additions: Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Brandon LaFell
Key Losses: Aqib Talib (signed Denver), Brandon Spikes (signed Buffalo), LeGarrette Blount (signed Pittsburgh), Dane Fletcher (signed Tampa Bay)
Re-signings: Julian Edelman, Ryan Wendell, Michael Hoomanawanui
# of Picks in the Draft: 8
Team Needs: DL, LB, TE
Off-Season Thus Far
Three things have been certain in the AFC East the past thirteen years: death, taxes and the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and company have taken that crown back to New England eleven times since 2001. While Regular Season accolades are nice, New England can't be satisfied that a Super Bowl Championship has evaded them since 2004. While the competition has stiffened in recent years, I feel that New England is making the right moves to sit atop that throne once more.
After being torched to the tune of 400 yards by Peyton Manning in an AFC Championship game loss to Denver, the Patriots made it a priority to shore up their defensive backfield, and boy did they ever. Head Coach Bill Belichick made perhaps the biggest splash in free agency by signing cornerback Darrelle Revis to a "one year," 12 million dollar deal and followed it up by signing another corner in Brandon Browner on a three year, 17 million dollar contract. I say one year, because Revis' contract includes a "poison pill" of sorts that would have the Pats paying him unsightly amounts of money in 2015. In reality, this season will be a "feeling out" period for the Pats and Revis' camp, with the two likely negotiating a long term extension should things work out on the field. In regards to Browner, the Patriots are taking a bit of a risk on a player who has been suspended on multiple occasions by the NFL. That said, if anyone can keep him straight it's Bill Belichick, and his talent is undeniable. Pairing these two with incumbents such as Logan Ryan, who Pro Football Focus ranked as a top 30 corner in just his rookie season, and All-Pro Devin McCourty, the Pats look absolutely stacked in the secondary.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Patriots went out and signed Brandon LaFell to a three year, 11 million dollar deal from the Panthers (poor Cam Newton). The fourth year wideout hasn't quite reached his potential, but he also hasn't had Tom Brady throwing him the football. In addition, NE retained wide receiver Julian Edelman, starting center Ryan Wendell and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. While not flashy, the Hoomanawanui re-signing is important to maintain some depth at the tight end position, as we all know the Pats love trotting out two tight end sets. Most importantly, New England will step into this season with a great deal of continuity. Giving Brady another year to work with young wide receivers, as well as an additional weapon, will make an offense that already ranked highly in passing yards (seventh) and rushing yards (third), even deadlier.
While Belichick and company have made a number of excellent moves to strengthen their squad, the upcoming draft is pertinent. The loss of Brandon Spikes to Buffalo and Dane Fletcher to Tampa Bay have left them dangerously thin at linebacker. While they do have standout backers Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo, as well as the underrated Jamie Collins, depth could prove an issue. I suspect that the Patriots will make it a priority to add at least one, maybe two, linebackers in the mid to later rounds.
Much to the relief of Patriots Nation, the team was able to restructure Vince Wilfork's contact, keeping him with the squad for at least few years. Along with Tommy Kelly, Rob Ninkovich and stud defensive end Chandler Jones, the Patriots are looking fairly strong along the line. Regardless, Wilfork, as well as Tommy Kelly, play a position that ages rapidly and Ninkovich is more of an effort player than a world beater, so look for defensive line to be a need.
With all of that in mind, I just cannot see Belichick making a selection at the Patriots current spot. With question marks abound about the top quarterback prospects in the draft, I would not be surprised to see one or more start to slide. This is where the Patriots come in. The Pats slot, at 29, might be the perfect position for a quarterback needy team like the Raiders, or even the Bucs, to sneak back into the first to get their guy. Belichick's penchant for trading back, as well as the supreme depth of this draft, makes a trade down at 29 seem like a no-brainer to me. Should New England end up standing pat, below are some guys I could see them picking.
Potential First Round Picks
Ra'Shede Hageman, DT - Golden Gopher Ra'Shede Hageman is a raw, but intriguing prospect. He is a converted tight end who is just now starting to get the nuances of his position, but his potential is downright terrifying. With Wilfork and Kelly aging, Hageman could be an excellent spell pass rush option on nickel downs. His athleticism would allow him to occasionally play QB spy, as well as track the quarterback in a moving pocket. While he certainly won't play every down to start his career, New England would be a perfect spot to let his maturation continue.
Dee Ford, DE - An Auburn prospect, Ford has seen his stock slip of late. Ford is still scheduled for a visit to New England and I think he can be an intriguing player in their scheme. Not your prototypical 4-3 defensive end, being a bit undersized, he could be flexed around a great deal in the Patriots defense. He has the athleticism to stand up and the sheer speed (4.54 40 yard dash at his Pro Day) to beat nearly anyone off the edge. I think the Patriots could use another solid edge defender, so Ford could be an interesting selection.
Jace Amaro, TE - I'll just say this now: I think the Patriots are more likely to snag Amaro after trading down then they are at 29. However, Amaro would be a perfect flex tight end in the Patriots offensive sets. He is tall (6'5") and thick (265 pounds), almost an exact physical replica of current Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. While not nearly as quick as former Pat Aaron Hernandez, Amaro and Gronkowski could create match-up nightmares for New England's opponents strictly because of their size. Amaro wouldn't be a bad pick at the end of the first round, but the presence of other strong tight end options such as Troy Niklas of Notre Dame and Austin Seferian-Jenkins of Washington could diminish his value.
- While Belichick has a tendency to trade down in the draft, I would not be entirely surprised if he moved up to select a player that the Patriots really like. Say someone like Aaron Donald, DT from Pittsburgh, started to slip ever so slightly, I think Belichick has to be calling around to see what the price would be.
- From the visits scheduled, it would seem that the Patriots see value in the running back and linebacker positions in the middle rounds. Take this with a grain of salt. The Patriots are notorious for being incredibly tight to the vest with their draft intentions.
- What is Brandon Spikes thinking? While I cannot speak to what went on behind closed doors, Spikes has to be stupid to draw the ire of the Patriots. I'm sure some of his new Bills teammates, members of a franchise who haven't won an AFC East title since 1995, cannot be pleased he's already running his mouth.
- My bold prediction of the off-season? The Patriots, with a revamped secondary which helps to bolster their pass rush, are crowned the AFC champions and play for the Super Bowl. Aqib Talib can't stay healthy, Ware continues to show signs of aging and Peyton Manning comes back down to Earth a bit, opening the door for the Patriots.