Now that the NFL is open for business, a free agent frenzy the likes of which the league has never seen is going to kick off tomorrow, the first day that teams can start negotiating with free agents in this Indianapolis 500-pace offseason.
The Patriots tend to dip their toes into free agency delicately, but they might not have that luxury this time around. With approximately $7.5 million in cap space to play with, let's take a look at the top five free-agent needs in Fort Foxborough and some possible Patriots.
1. Outside linebacker/pass rush specialist -- The need at this spot was acute even before outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, the team's second-leading sacker from last season, underwent surgery for an abdominal injury that will keep him out for the next four or five weeks. One glaring stat from the Patriots' shocking playoff loss to the Jets is the number of sacks and quarterback hits the Patriots registered -- zero.
As Bill Belichick will tell you, it's not all about sacks, which the Patriots ranked tied for 14th in with 36. It's about being able to generate pressure consistently, something the Patriots struggled to do last season. That's a big part of the reason they were 30th in the league in pass defense and dead last in third-down defense. They need to add here if they're serious about returning to the Super Bowl.
Possibilities include Cleveland outside linebacker Matt Roth (the Patriots are tight with Roth's agent, Drew Rosenhaus), former BC star and Giants defensive end/outside linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, 49ers outside linebacker Manny Lawson, Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards and Chargers situational rusher Antwan Barnes.
Top target: Roth. Kiwanuka, who is returning from a neck injury, is a better pure pass-rusher. But Roth played for Belichick buddy Nick Saban in Miami and Eric Mangini in Cleveland in a similar system. He only had 3.5 sacks last year, but Pro Football Focus said that only six 3-4 OLBs provided more pressures.
2. Wide receiver -- The Patriots led the NFL in scoring last season (32.4 points per game) and tied their own record for most 30 point-games in a season with eight, but another weakness Rex Ryan's team revealed in January was the lack of a play-making third-receiver for the Patriots. Somebody wake me when Brandon Tate gets separation on a designed deep pass.
The Patriots need a receiver with a different skill set than pint-sized, possession pass-catchers Wes Welker and Deion Branch, both of whom have contracts that expire after 2011.
New England's history with veteran free agent wideouts is like the Red Sox's with free agent shortstops, but there are some interesting UFAs -- Santonio Holmes, Sidney Rice, Braylon Edwards, Malcom Floyd, Mike Sims-Walker and ...Randy Moss. Holmes and Rice are likely too pricey, and Moss wears out welcomes instead of defenses these days. Self-aggrandizing Cincinnati wideout Chad Ochocinco is not a UFA.
Top target: Edwards. He is physical and can stretch the field without busting the budget. Edwards had as many pass receptions of 25-plus yards last season as Dwayne Bowe (10), while averaging 17.1 yards per catch. He has averaged 15.8 per grab for his career.
3. Defensive line -- The team already made a free-agent signing here before the lockout, inking former Buffalo Bills lineman Marcus Stroud. Left defensive end Ty Warren is returning after missing all last season due to hip surgery, and Mike Wright, who led the team in sacks with 5.5 before concussion-related symptoms ended his season, is also back.
But the Patriots will probably go with a defensive line-by-committee approach again. They could make a play for Dallas defensive end Marcus Spears, a solid run-stuffer, or Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis, who would provide the team with more pass rush from the front three.
Top target: Ellis. The 34-year-old fits a need because he can rush the passer, and as a bonus you are stripping your archrival of one of their veteran leaders. The Jets will make a strong push to re-sign Ellis, but they have cap issues.
4. Offensive line -- Any discussion of the Patriots offensive line starts with left tackle Matt Light. If Light walks, then removing Nick Kaczur and his $4.3 million cap charge becomes harder. Remember Kaczur can not only play right tackle if Sebastian Vollmer slides over to replace Light, but Kaczur was slated to fill in for Logan Mankins at left guard last season before he was felled by a back injury.
The Patriots could add a depth player to compete with Dan Connolly at right guard and provide protection if Mankins holds out or gets hurt. Plus, center Dan Koppen is in the last year of his deal. We're talking about a veteran like 38-year-old center/guard Casey Wiegmann, a backup like Baltimore guard Chris Chester or bringing back a player like Quinn Ojinnaka. Don't expect big names here.
Top target: It has to be Light. If the Patriots can get him back they're just looking for depth.
5. Running back -- It seems a bit odd to list this as a need, considering the Patriots drafted a pair of running backs, Shane Vereen and Steven Ridley, in April and had a 1,000-yard rusher last season in BenJarvus Green-Ellis. But Green-Ellis is a restricted free agent with a second-round tender, and it's possible some team trying to get to the new salary cap-spending floor could over-pay for him. Plus, I'm not sold he is a feature back, and judging by the draft the Patriots aren't either.
Free agent Kevin Faulk, who suffered a torn ACL last season, is not a lock to make the team even if he returns (think Tedy Bruschi in '09 training camp). The Patriots could make a move for a Fred Taylor-type. Keep an eye on Dolphins free agent running backs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown.
Top target: Williams. He is a player Belichick has always respected, and even at 34 still has something left in the tank (4.2 yards per carry last season) because of his two hemp-induced hiatuses from football in 2004 and 2006.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.