The New England Patriots’ offense could get a new look for the second straight year.
In 2013, receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch departed, and tight end Aaron Hernandez sat in Bristol County Jail for the entire season. The Patriots probably won’t have as many high-profile departures in 2014, but wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back LeGarrette Blount are free agents.
The Patriots currently have around $3.8 million in cap room. That would increase by $7.5 million if they can somehow erase Aaron Hernandez’s cap figure. There are plenty of players the Patriots can either cut or restructure to get extra cap flexibility. We’ll go over those players below in the offensive blueprint and on Wednesday in the defensive blueprint.
Obviously, Tom Brady will be with the Patriots for the long haul. He’s signed through 2017, and if he keeps having seasons like 2013, he’ll be in New England until that time.
Ryan Mallett, on the other hand, could be traded this offseason. It makes sense for the Patriots to get what they can for the former third-round pick. Mallett’s contract runs out after this season, and if he wants a starting job, he obviously won’t stick around with the Patriots with Brady’s extended contract. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend trading Mallett for less than face value, but if the Patriots can get a third-round pick back for him, it might not be a bad idea. The Patriots likely wouldn’t get a third-round compensation pick for Mallett if he departs in free agency in 2014.
Mallett hasn’t impressed much at training camp or in preseason games. With Brady signed for four more years, Mallett would be 29 by the time he would have a shot at starting in New England.
The Patriots should think about taking a quarterback in the 2014 draft, or, at the very least, signing an undrafted free agent. AJ McCarron, given his Alabama pedigree, would make a lot of sense for New England. Bill Belichick is close with Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, so the Patriots would know what kind of player they’re getting.
What the Patriots decide to do with LeGarrette Blount depends entirely on how much money he commands in free agency. Belichick has never been willing to overspend for a running back, and that’s wise. The Patriots already have Stevan Ridley — who carried the team to an AFC Championship Game appearance in 2012 — as well as third-down back Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden, who makes an OK backup with big-play ability.
If Blount stays, the Patriots likely would let Bolden and Jonas Gray, who’s signed to a futures contract, compete for the No. 4 role. If Blount walks, it makes sense for New England to draft a running back in the mid-to-late rounds or wait around to see who’s left for cheap on the scraps of free agency. The Patriots previously showed interest in Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer.
Julian Edelman and Austin Collie are free agents. Signing Edelman should be a priority, since he shouldn’t break the bank and he’s the lone receiver Brady trusted at the end of the season. Collie could be brought back as a camp body, but he would just as easily be kept in the Rolodex as insurance in case anyone gets injured next season. He proved able to learn the Patriots’ offense quickly.
The Patriots could get by, even if Edelman walks, with Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, Matthew Slater and either Mark Harrison or T.J. Moe at receiver in 2014. It certainly wouldn’t be ideal, but if there are high hopes for the rookies — including Harrison and Moe — it’s possible.
If Edelman walks, it makes sense to sign a free agent receiver to replace him, though. Ideally, that free agent would be a bigger receiver, like Eric Decker — who likely will command too much money — or Hakeem Nicks or Anquan Boldin. I don’t see any logic in spending a high draft pick on a receiver unless Belichick and Josh McDaniels have no hope for Dobson, Thompkins and Boyce — and they definitely showed glimmers of hope in 2013.
I also don’t see a lot of sense in signing Emmanuel Sanders. He adds some vertical ability over Edelman, but he won’t come with a much cheaper contract, and he obviously doesn’t know the Patriots’ complex offensive system. At this point in Brady’s career, the Patriots should probably appease him as much as possible.
I don’t think Edelman can logically replicate his 105-catch, 1,056-yard performance of 2013, but Sanders likely will never put up numbers like that — in the Patriots’ system or otherwise.
The Patriots need another overhaul at tight end. At the very least, they need insurance for Rob Gronkowski. He’ll be mended by training camp, but given his injury history, a full 16-game season will forever be in doubt.
It makes sense to sign a tight end (possibly the Buffalo Bills’ Scott Chandler) and draft one. If the Patriots draft a tight end in the first round, Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro or Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins could be available. If they draft one later, Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz is a fit. Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas is another possibility, especially since Belichick and Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly are buds.
Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan are free agents. I could see the team bringing back one of them, but probably not both. New England’s tight end situation can’t get as dire as it did in 2013.
The Patriots have opportunities to create some cap room on the offensive line. Logan Mankins has a $10.5 million cap figure in 2014. Despite his standing as a team captain, All-Pro and Pro Bowler, that’s a bit steep. In a perfect world, the Patriots would restructure that to push $2 million in bonus money down into 2016, the last year of his deal, which would make the last three years of his contract guaranteed. The Patriots also could extend him, but his play has seemed to drop off the last two years. Extending the deal is a scary proposition.
The Patriots also could free up $2.505 million by cutting right guard Dan Connolly. He’s on the books for $4 million next season, which is high.
Center Ryan Wendell is a free agent, and the Patriots likely won’t want to go into 2014 with new starters at right guard and center as well as a new offensive line coach, since Dante Scarnecchia retired and Dave DeGuglielmo was hired.
I expect either Wendell or Connolly to be back, but probably not both. If Connolly comes back, he could move to center, and Marcus Cannon can start at right guard.
Given Sebastian Vollmer’s injury history, the Patriots need either a solid backup guard or tackle. Cannon has been valuable as essentially a sixth starter, but if Wendell or Connolly are gone, the Patriots will need another player in that role.
I don’t expect free agent tackle Will Svitek to be back, since he didn’t even play when Nate Solder went down with a concussion. Seahawks tackle Breno Giacomini has ties to Massachusetts and likely won’t be back with Seattle in 2014. He’s started at right tackle.
Watch out for the defensive blueprint, coming Wednesday.