The new league year has opened up rapidly in New England. The Patriots have made significant strides towards improving their team. Not often have we seen a team make so many transactions in the off-season just months after winning a Lombardi Trophy. Some of these additions include DE Kony Ealy, WR Brandin Cooks, CB Stephon Gilmore and more.
90 players are brought into training camp. Currently, they have roughly 25 open spots for new players to come in and try to earn a spot on the 53-man roster for the season. As of now, seven of those roster spots are slotted for the draft, where the Patriots have no picks in the first two rounds.
Now we all know New England never stays put in the draft. Year-in and year-out Bill Belichick moves all over the draft and focuses a lot of attention on undrafted free agents. There could always be some players added to the roster, as there are a fair amount of talented veterans still on the market. New England still has the capital to make more moves, as they have a little more than $25 million in cap room. With all that has been done in the first two weeks, where could the Patriots still need help?
With the re-signing of Dont’a Hightower, the LB position group looks a lot better than it did a few weeks ago. Behind Hightower, there are a lot of unknowns. Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, and Trevor Bates fill out the rest of the roster. No one knows what to expect from those guys. The group was good enough to win a Super Bowl last year and lose only one game down stretch (the first game after trading Jamie Collins).
It would behoove the team to sign another LB or look for another one in the draft. Zach Brown, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, is probably the best free agent LB left on the market. He could significantly impact this roster and vie for a spot as a starter.
Last year’s starting RB, LeGarrette Blount, is still unsigned. New England paid, former Bengals’ RB, Rex Burkhead (who has one career start) $3.15 million, the most money they have given a RB in one season since Corey Dillon. They will likely split carries in the Patriots’ backfield, but there is room for a feature back.
There are a couple different roads to go down for New England. They could keep these backs and split carries between Burkhead, James White, and Dion Lewis. All three have had some success carrying the ball, and they all can catch out of the backfield. Free agents could come in, but Belichick doesn’t typically spend money on the position. I don’t expect a huge name, however, it would be exciting to see someone like Adrian Peterson or Jamaal Charles in this offense.
The most likely scenario is finding a RB in the draft. Most draft-experts consider this draft to include a RB-heavy class. Whether it be grabbing someone like Texas’ D’Onta Freeman in an early round, or rolling the dice on a guy like Pitt RB James Conner, the Patriots will have another RB on the roster by the time the season rolls around.
At first glance, the DE spot looks solid with Kony Ealy, Lawrence Guy, Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, and Geneo Grissom filling out the depth chart. Ealy and Guy will be welcome additions to the defensive line to replace Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long. I think both are truly net-positive moves. Flowers had a coming out party last season, and if he continues to improve, he could be a staple on this defense for some time. Ninkovich, however, is clearly getting older and spent a lot of last season playing off-the-line.
Plenty of veterans are still left on the free agent market, and I think that is where they will probably look. A guy like Dion Jordan, who has been a career disappointment, would fit right in with Belichick’s “I can fix anything” plans. Also, keep an eye on older veterans who may be looking for a championship run like Mario Williams and Elvis Dumervil (I prefer the latter).
Although the offensive line looked better last season, there are issues that could quickly derail the unit. The lack of depth is a problem. David Andrews is really the only true center, with Chris Barker returning for another year on the practice squad. Behind Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney, the presumed starting guards, Tre Jackson is really the only backup. From the tackles, we have seen both Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon miss time, and I don’t feel all that comfortable with Ted Karras or L’Adrian Waddle in there. In my opinion, it’s time to look into drafting Solder’s replacement.
The draft is really the only place I see New England looking for offensive line help. They typically don’t bring in free agent OL that have success (see Jonathan Cooper). For guard/center help look in the late rounds, and because tackles are usually a top-round priority in drafts, they may have to wait another year.
(CB moves to the very top of the list if the Patriots move on from Malcolm Butler)