MINNEAPOLIS — There’s green — not red, white and silver — confetti on U.S. Bank Stadium Field. That means the New England Patriots and their fans are on to the offseason.
That segues nicely into the Patriots’ top 2018 NFL Draft needs. We’ll divide them up into unconditional needs and those contingent on free agency.
Let’s start with what the Patriots definitely need heading into the offseason:
The Patriots must groom someone behind 40-year-old Tom Brady after trading Jimmy Garoppolo. Brian Hoyer can serve as the backup for another year or two, but he’s not the Patriots’ future at the position. They should take a QB with one of their first picks.
After being benched in the Super Bowl, it seems incredibly unlikely Butler returns in 2018. The Patriots are left with Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones (coming off an ACL tear) and Jonathan Jones (coming off a recent suspected Achilles injury) from their active roster. They’ll also likely have Ryan Lewis and Jomal Wiltz from their practice squad. Lewis could provide some upside at the position.
Even if the Patriots sign a veteran cornerback, drafting a player at this position makes sense. They need bodies.
The Patriots are bringing back Nicholas Grigsby, David Harris, Dont’a Hightower, Harvey Langi, Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy at this position. Harris likely will be gone as the Patriots trim salary.
Only Marquis Flowers and James Harrison are free agents at linebacker. The Patriots simply need more talent. Hightower is a great player, but he’s injury prone. The Patriots need some juice here.
It seems very unlikely Alan Branch’s second-year option on his contract gets picked up after he was a healthy scratch in Super Bowl LII.
The Patriots would be left with Malcom Brown, Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy and Vincent Valentine at defensive tackle. Ricky Jean Francois is a free agent.
Valentine could still make an impact, but it’s concerning he was out all season. The Patriots need some dependable youth here.
The Patriots have Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Eric Lee, Derek Rivers and Keionta Davis coming back, plus they have Hightower, Van Noy, Langi and McClellin who can serve as hybrid edge rushers.
But it would be nice to have at least one more productive pass rusher on this team.
Now let’s get into needs contingent on free agency:
Starting left tackle Nate Solder and top backups LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming all are free agents. Starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is coming off an ankle injury that put him on injured reserve.
Antonio Garcia, a 2017 third-round pick, Cole Croston and Andrew Jelks, who spent the entire season on non-football injury, are left.
If the Patriots re-sign Solder, Waddle and Fleming, then they can tread water for another season until Garcia might be ready to be a starter. Garcia currently weighs 260 pounds, so it seems unreasonable to expect much out of him in seven months.
Croston and Jelks might have upside, but both were undrafted free agents. They’re tough to depend on.
If Solder doesn’t come back, the Patriots might need to use their first-round pick on an offensive tackle.
Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden are free agents. Mike Gillislee is under contract, but the Patriots might decide he’s not worth what they’re about to pay him ($2.2 million).
If the Patriots bring back Lewis, Burkhead and Bolden, then they’re fine. If they don’t, then it would make sense to spend a draft pick on a running back.