Even though the Patriots are lined up for seasons’ worth of success, they’ve got to hit it hard this offseason and really make sure they stay in position to be one of the Super Bowl favorites in 2011.
There aren’t as many pressing needs this offseason as there were last year, when the Patriots were in a bit of a transition period and had plenty of questions to answer. At that point, it was important to check off as many things on their to-do list as possible, with the realization that it couldn’t be perfect.
This offseason, though, is different because the Patriots really can try their shot at perfection. They’ve only got a handful of objectives that carry an extra load of significance, but the remaining ones can truly solidify their status as contenders next season.
1. Lock Up Logan Mankins
Here’s how strongly head coach Bill Belichick feels about Logan Mankins: After Mankins missed seven games, he practiced three times — just once in full pads — and started against the Browns, less than a week after reporting to the Patriots. He made the Pro Bowl and played like his old self at left guard, and the Patriots don’t need to mess around with their negotiations with the free agent. Lock him up and move on.
2. Kill It in the Draft
The Patriots are loaded at the top of the draft with picks 17, 28 and 33, but there’s expected to be a drop-off in talent in the bottom-third of the first round. The Pats don’t have a lot of serious needs, so it would be nice to see them get more aggressive in the first round. Now that there’s a rookie salary scale in place, it seems like a possibility Belichick could shake his distaste for trading up in the first round.
The Patriots’ biggest need might be at defensive end, and that position is stacked in the first round. New England has the resources to package a combination of its early picks to move into the top 10 and draft an elite defensive lineman, so why not?
3. Remain Dedicated to the Process
The biggest fear surrounding the 2011 Patriots would be that of a letdown, especially with a roster full of youth and inexperience. They don’t want to assume anything, and that mentality has to start immediately. Belichick and Tom Brady, among others, should be good enough to prevent any complacency. After all, it’s common for young teams in all sports to experience regular-season success, falter in the playoffs and then question the need to go all out in the regular season the next year.
4. Retain Matt Light
Unless the Patriots feel assured they can land a top-flight tackle in the draft, or if they want to make a big play for Steelers right tackle Willie Colon, it would just be in their best interest to re-sign left tackle Matt Light, who turns 33 in June. Providing Light isn’t trying to chase one final big-money contract, his return would help keep some cohesiveness on a line that played very well in 2010. It would also allow the Patriots to allocate their high draft selections for other positions.
5. Get Younger at Tackle
With that being said, the Patriots need to develop a younger tackle to work opposite Sebastian Vollmer for years to come. Mark LeVoir, who is 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds, is an intriguing prospect, but he struggled during his most extensive action last preseason. That also resulted in the acquisition of versatile offensive lineman Quinn Ojinnaka. The Patriots have some good youth at guard with Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell, but they’ve got to prepare for life after Light, which could begin at any time.
6. Extend Wes Welker
The timing of this might be a little awkward because Wes Welker was benched for a series Sunday against the Jets, but the Patriots should reward their Ed Block Courage Award winner with a sign of good faith. Welker’s contract expires after the 2011 season, and an extension would certainly be a gamble because of the high level of violent hits he takes. Yet, Welker has fought like heck for the Patriots for four seasons, and his value will increase in a year if he surpasses 110 catches for the fourth time in five seasons. Get an extension done now, and save the headache and speculation.
7. Retain Gerard Warren
Gerard Warren‘s consistency and reliability were two valuable traits for the Patriots this season, particularly on a defensive line that succumbed to so many injuries, and he wants to stick around longer. He is versatile enough to play all three spots in the 3-4, and he’d be an asset to the team as a starter or a backup.
8. Promote Bill O’Brien to Offensive Coordinator
First off, Belichick should remain as the Patriots’ de facto defensive coordinator, since New England’s defensive players responded so well to his added presence in meeting rooms. Aside from that, Bill O’Brien deserves the title after improving in 2010. That title won’t make O’Brien work any harder than he already does, and it won’t have any direct correlation to Brady’s touchdown passes, but O’Brien is deserving of a new name plate.
9. Work Hard on the Young Tight Ends
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez had really good rookie seasons, combining for 87 receptions, 1,109 yards and 16 touchdowns, and their integration into the offense gave Brady a dynamic that he’s basically never had in New England. However, there were clear occasions when Brady wasn’t on the same page as the pair of 21-year-olds, and he let those frustrations show on the field.
Gronkowski and Hernandez have the ability to be great, but they’ve got to keep studying. That’s why it’s important for Brady and the coaching staff to keep working with them this offseason. While their statistics were impressive, it’s a liability when Brady can’t be assured his targets will always be in the right place.
10. Kick the Tires on a Honolulu Reunion
Belichick and Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco have been linked since they formed a friendship at the Pro Bowl after the 2006 season, and Ochocinco’s days appear to be over in Cincinnati. The Patriots might be in the market to make an upgrade at one of their outside wide receiver spots, and if that’s the case, Ochocinco could be a good get — on very precise conditions.
(Before going any further, it’s worth noting there is some real first-round talent at wide receiver in the coming draft, but Brady has almost always done his best work with veteran wide receivers. While a first-round wideout would yield hope for the future, very few of them make a big impact in their rookie season.)
So, back to Ochocinco. Obviously, he’s got some character issues, but his respect for Belichick is apparent, so there is reason to believe it could work. If Ochocinco is fine with being the second or third option and he can fit into the Patriots’ post-Randy Moss, efficient passing game, he could be a tremendous fit.
However, there are a lot of ifs in this equation, and if Belichick has the slightest inkling it wouldn’t work out, he’d shake hands and respectfully part ways. The 10th objective on this list isn’t about acquiring Ochocinco — it’s about doing the homework to see if the marriage could work.
What should the Patriots’ top priorities be this offseason? Leave your thoughts below.