With a few key moves in free agency, the New England Patriots could be the obvious favorites for a Super Bowl title in 2014.
The Patriots first need to decide which free agents they’re bringing back. Wide receiver Julian Edelman, running back LeGarrette Blount and cornerback Aqib Talib are clearly the best of the bunch. If Blount and Talib are signed, New England is set at those positions. The Patriots could probably use another wide receiver whether Edelman signs or not.
The Patriots also could use a couple of tight ends, interior offensive linemen, another pass rusher and a defensive tackle. Let’s go through the team’s needs to see which available free agents could fit the bill.
If the Denver Broncos let him walk, wide receiver Eric Decker would make a lot of sense in the Patriots’ offense. He can play the “X” or “Z” roles, and, if he can coexist with Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, he can likely earn Patriots quarterback Tom Brady‘s trust. Decker could cost a pretty penny, but it would be worth it to have a dependable wide receiver with some size playing with Danny Amendola and the rookies.
New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Jones also played well in more complex offenses. Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Emmanuel Sanders could be a good replacement if Edelman leaves in free agency. They have similar skill sets. San Francisco 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin is getting up there in age, but Brady could use a receiver he can chuck it up to Joe Flacco-style.
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is the biggest name available, but there’s almost no way he hits the open market. The Saints will likely franchise Graham and then work from there.
Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta is the next-best player in free agency. The Patriots will likely address this need through the draft, so I don’t see them paying top dollar for a player like Pitta.
Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler has had success in the past against the Patriots, and coach Bill Belichick typically seeks out those players. Chandler won’t shock anyone with his speed or athleticism, but at 6-foot-7, 260 pounds, he’s a force in the red zone, and the Patriots sorely lacked a player like that in 2013. Chandler also wouldn’t cost as much as a Graham or Pitta type.
The player whose skill set most matches what the Patriots need is Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett. Bennett could rotate with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich at defensive end, giving those players some much needed snaps off, and he could slide inside to play defensive tackle on third down to get some added pressure after the quarterback.
Bennett had 8.5 sacks in 2013 with 17 quarterback hits and 39 hurries. The Patriots have quality bookends in Jones and Ninkovich, but they must add another player, preferably with some versatility, into the mix.
The Patriots had interest in Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson last year before he was franchised. He could also play end or tackle depending on the down and distance. Johnson’s sacks decreased in 2013, so his price tag should be lower going into 2014.
The Carolina Panthers’ Greg Hardy, Oakland Raiders’ Lamarr Houston and Minnesota Vikings’ Jared Allen could be pricy, but they’d be worth the splash signings to improve the pass defense.
The Patriots are either loaded or vacant at defensive tackle, depending how the position is viewed.
Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Armond Armstead, Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, Isaac Sopoaga and Joe Vellano will all be returning in 2014. But Wilfork likely will need to restructure his contract. Kelly — given his age and 2013 knee injury — could be a cap casualty. Armstead missed all of 2013 after surgery to treat an unknown infection. Jones should improve in his second season, but he had some up-and-down moments as a starter as a rookie. Siliga should be back as Wilfork’s backup after having a fairly dominant end to the season. Sopoaga will likely be cut, and Vellano is no guarantee to make it out of training camp.
The Patriots could use another sure thing at the position, but given how many bodies they already have, it will likely be addressed either in the draft or in free agency. They won’t spend a high pick in the draft and pay top dollar on the open market.
If the Patriots go the free-agency route, they will want to acquire a player who can get after the passer, since Wilfork and Siliga are better run-stoppers. Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks and Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Jason Hatcher are both older, but they were highly productive at pressuring the quarterback in 2013.
Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton was having a down year in 2013 before he tore his ACL. He was one of the best interior rushers in the NFL before this season, however, and could be signed for a discount price because of the lost year.