The Pats had some holes this season — some large and some small — and their flaws came to light in their first-round exit from the playoffs.
If the Patriots want to return to the NFL's elite, they've got to get busy this offseason. Here's a look at where they should start.
Develop a pass rush
This has been the defense's most glaring problem for two seasons. They can't get a consistent level of pressure on the quarterback, and it's had a negative effect on the secondary. Asking your cornerbacks to stay in coverage for about five seconds is too much of a burden, especially if the quarterback is camping out in the pocket like he's at Club Med.
Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain had a career season with 9.5 sacks, but he was the Patriots' only real threat to get to the quarterback. It would be nice if the Patriots could add one pass rusher, but they really need at least two — in addition to re-signing Banta-Cain. Guys like Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers and San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman come to mind, and each player will likely be attainable. Either way, the Pats need someone with a motor at defensive end and outside linebacker to bring the ferocity back to their defense.
What do this weekend's conference championship contestants have in common? Other than the Jets, who get pressure from multiple angles, each of the remaining playoff teams has a player who finished in the top seven in regular-season sacks.
And finally, the Patriots have one first-round draft pick (No. 22) and three second-round picks, so they can essentially trade up to get as high as they want in the first round — maybe twice. Since this year's draft class is getting high marks, the Patriots should try to put themselves in position to land some defensive playmakers.
Find receiving help
It's easy to fall in love with Denver wideout Brandon Marshall, who could get traded this offseason after clashing too many times with head coach Josh McDaniels. But Marshall, a hulking presence who has the physical tools to be great on a weekly basis, might not help the locker room leadership problems.
The real target should be Deion Branch, who is done in Seattle and thrived with Tom Brady and the Patriots. While Branch and the New England front office had an ugly divorce in 2006, Brady might be inclined to double as a marriage counselor this offseason. Brady and Branch were the best of friends, and their chemistry showed on the field, particularly in the postseason. While the Patriots struggled to get any production out of their third receiver in 2009, they'll likely need a No. 2 to emerge in 2010 while Wes Welker recovers from his knee injury. Branch would succeed in each role.
Branch never got it going in Seattle, so it's unlikely he'll be in high demand on the free-agent market. By this logic, he could be a real steal for the Patriots.
Bring in some leaders
It's tough to tell who will be available in this category, as aging veterans tend to be late cuts. They don't necessarily need to make a magnanimous difference on the field, but coach Bill Belichick needs veterans who will buy into his system.
Prior to the 2001 season, Belichick added some amazing character to the locker room with guys like Bryan Cox, Roman Phifer, Anthony Pleasant and David Patten, among others. There were too many times in 2009 when the Patriots said they struggled to find leadership, so Belichick's initial strategy with this organization needs to be revisited. Would it be completely out there to reach out to Willie McGinest?
Hire two coordinators
Belichick might be able to look in-house to find Pees' replacement, and it's believed he's got a pair of good candidates in linebacker coach Matt Patricia and defensive line coach Pepper Johnson. If those are indeed the two leading candidates, it might be an especially difficult decision for Belichick. He loves Johnson, who really connects with the players because he has played in this defensive system, but Belichick has passed Johnson over in the past and one more time could potentially cause Johnson to look elsewhere for jobs. Patricia is believed to be the latest up-and-comer in Belichick's system, so this might be his time.
Offensively, the Patriots lacked rhythm for much of the 2009 season, and the play-calling was under scrutiny on many occasions. Quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien was the primary play-caller, but reports indicated that director of player personnel Nick Caserio also shared some responsibility. And, as one player said this season, Belichick is "always involved" with those decisions. With so many voices, Brady had trouble getting to the line on time and either got called for delay of game or simply didn't have enough time to make his pre-snap reads.
The Patriots need one voice, and they need someone who can make better adjustments, which was another glaring issue. They've got to stop relying on the big-play offense that made them so successful in 2007. Once the Patriots prove they can effectively employ a more efficient offense, then they can look to bigger things. Rely on the running game and screen passes. It worked wonders early in the decade, and there wasn't enough of that in 2009.
Keep the guys they've got
There's been plenty of focus on defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, left guard Logan Mankins, cornerback Leigh Bodden and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Their contracts are all up, and it's in the Patriots' best interest to keep each of them in town. Mankins and Gostkowski are restricted free agents, so they'll be easy to re-sign. Bodden had a good year and desperately wants to play for a winning team, so the Patriots might get him at a discounted rate. Either way, he's going to gain plenty of interest from the rest of the league after his very solid season.
That likely means the Patriots will use the franchise tag on Wilfork. While a long-term contract would make Wilfork a happier man, it's going to be tough for this financially conscious franchise to pass up Wilfork's estimated $7 million franchise tag. But if Wilfork threatens to leave town in 2011 if they tag him, the Pats should work hard to find some middle ground with a longer contract.
And finally, the Patriots need to extend Brady's contract, which expires after 2010. If this doesn't happen, he'll get hounded with questions every single week next season, and that's not a burden the organization should force him to bear.
Scout out a returner
The Pats never really injected any excitement into their kickoff returns, but three of their 2009 draft picks might be good candidates for the job next year. Wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate showed glimpses of return prowess, but injuries limited their chances to get extended looks in the role. And cornerback Darius Butler seems to have that skill — he returned kicks it in college, and he looked great while returning an interception 91 yards for a touchdown in Week 17 against the Texans — but for whatever reason, he only returned five kicks in 2009.
An explosive, game-changing kick returner has immense value, and if the Patriots can pinpoint one in the draft, they should take a flier on him.
Or, they need to keep an eye on Josh Cribbs, whose situation is deteriorating with the Browns. If those two sides part ways, the Patriots should make a hard run at the NFL's all-time record holder with eight kickoff returns for touchdowns.