New England Patriots 2013 Offseason Preview
SI.com is laying out offseason road maps for all 32 teams as they start their journey for the Lombardi Trophy -- two teams per day, from the teams that need the most work to contend in 2013 to the ones that are in pretty good shape. See them all.
2012 Record: 12-4, lost to Ravens in AFC Championship Game
Key Pending Free Agents: Wes Welker, WR; Aqib Talib, CB; Danny Woodhead, RB; Sebastian Vollmer, OT; Kyle Arrington, CB; Julian Edelman, WR; Patrick Chung, S; Donald Thomas, G.
List of Draft Picks (pending compensatory picks): 1 (29), 2 (59), 3 (91), 7 (210), 7 (219).
Available Cap Space: About $25 million
GM/Coaching Moves: Former Browns, Dolphins and Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was hired as an offensive assistant.
At times it feels as if football season in New England has turned into Groundhog Day: The same things keep happening over and over, producing the same results. The Patriots win the AFC East comfortably (four in a row and 10 titles in the past 12 years), earn one of the AFC's top two seeds (three years running and four out of six), and lose in the postseason (an 8-7 record in the playoffs since winning that third Super Bowl ring after the 2004 season). The first four years of New England's glory era produced three Lombardi trophies; the past eight, none.
The Patriots offense was again the impetus for success on Bill Belichick's 12-4 club, hurrying its way to a whopping 557 points, third-best all-time behind the 2011 Packers (560) and the 2007 Patriots of 16-0 fame (589). New England topped the 500-point plateau for a third year in a row, a feat matched only by the 1999-2001 St. Louis Rams, who at least won one Super Bowl ring for all their offensive fireworks. No such luck in Foxboro, which lost in the divisional round (2010 to the Jets), the AFC Championship (2012 to the Ravens) and the Super Bowl (2011 to the Giants) in that span.
New England actually started off the 2012 season slowly, going 1-2 and being upset at home by Arizona in September, and sitting just 3-3 after its opening six games. But then the same Patriots who have dominated the past three regular seasons (a league-best 39-9 record) showed up, going 9-1 in their final 10 games to cruise to another division title.
But the playoffs were again a different story. No. 2-seeded New England beat Houston at home in the divisional round, before losing its AFC title-game rematch with visiting Baltimore 28-13, the franchise's first failure at home in a conference championship after four victories. The Patriots became the only team in six decades to lose a Super Bowl or conference/league title-game rematch after winning the previous year, having edged the Ravens 23-20 in the 2011 AFC Championship.
444. The Patriots fast-break offense set an NFL record for first downs in a season, obliterating the mark of 416 held ever so briefly by the 2011 New Orleans Saints.
Why on earth would the Patriots even consider life without Wes Welker? He's not only the finest, most productive slot receiver in football, but also he moves the chains like nobody's business. Welker caught 118 passes last season, producing a first down on 72 of them (a whopping 61 percent). Welker has caught 111 or more passes in five of his six seasons in New England, and his 1,354 yards receiving last year were the second-most of his career. Sure, he drops a pass or two. His 15 drops tied for most in the NFL last season according to Pro Football Focus. But he was also targeted 166 times, so his reliability factor is still more than solid.
11.4. The percent of passing attempts aimed at Welker that went at least 20 yards, 10th lowest of the 82 receivers targeted at least 50 times.
The Patriots just don't have the vertical passing threat they need to keep defenses honest, which is why Tom Brady winds up over-relying on Welker and his underneath routes, which always seem to be there for the taking. New England has never really replaced the effective deep receiver that Randy Moss was from 2007 to 2009, and that has to be one of their offseason priorities. The hope last year was that free-agent signee Brandon Lloyd would add another element to the receiving depth chart, but he wasn't a game-changer, and recent reports indicate the Patriots have tired of his inconsistent locker room and practice-field behavior, deciding to not pick up his $3 million option for 2013. That's wise, because they need to use that money to find someone to stretch the field and put the bomb back into the New England attack.
1. Pay the (little) man. It's pretty clear that quarterback Tom Brady's new cap-friendly contract extension (which freed up about $8 million worth of room) was designed in part to keep Welker off the free-agent market, and all signs point to New England finally striking a long-term deal with its top receiver. No more franchise tag gamesmanship with Welker, or stints in Bill Belichick's doghouse. He's about to get rewarded for his ridiculously high-octane production, and as well he should. Brady didn't play ball with the Patriots on the contract front to lose his security blanket receiver.
2. Cover themselves with their top cover man. Besides Welker, cornerback Aqib Talib is the next most important pending free agent on the roster. The Patriots want him back and should now be in position to afford him. But they have to structure a deal that gives them some level of protection, given his off-field substance abuse issues and injury concerns in Tampa Bay. With New England prepared to lose nickel cornerback Kyle Arrington in free agency and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard facing legal trouble, re-signing Talib, who was acquired in exchange for a fourth-round pick last October, becomes that much more vital. There's talk the Patriots might even slap a transition tag on Talib to have a right of first refusal on any offer he receives in free agency.
3. Keep upgrading the pass rush. The always outside-the-box-thinking Patriots made a bit of news by signing a pair of CFL defensive linemen last month -- Armond Armstead and Jason Vega -- but they're not likely to stop there. New England is expected to go after ex-Colts sack specialist Dwight Freeney in free agency, the type of veteran signing Belichick was once known for (see Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau). Atlanta is thought to be the front-runner for Freeney, but the lure of playing for the arch-rival Patriots might still carry the day.
4. Dangle Ryan Mallett on the market. The thought makes all kind of sense if the value is there. With the draft being light on starting quarterback options, and Brady being locked up contractually until he turns 40, why not see what you can get out of the 2011 third-round pick, who has barely stepped on the field once the preseason concludes? Some QB desperate team might overpay, and trading Mallett for either a player or picks would be one way to get innovative on the personnel acquisition front. Especially given that New England has just five selections in this year's draft, having traded away its fourth-, fifth- and sixth-rounders in exchange for Talib, Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco.
Please don't waste anyone's time talking about the demise of the Patriots' "dynasty.'' That ended a while back, given that New England has gone eight years now without having a parade to plan. But Belichick's club is still one of the elite teams in the league, year in and year out, and it will be again in 2013. With Brady helping the cause with a contract that keeps the Super Bowl window open for at least the next two years, and Welker and Aqib both likely to re-sign, the Patriots will be able to focus on the upgrades they need to compete with the likes of Baltimore, Denver and Houston in AFC.
They could use a defensive tackle with some pass rush skills and the ability to penetrate the backfield, and this looks like a pretty deep draft to meet that need. Identifying that deep threat in the receiving game, and trying again to find reliable help in the secondary (maybe a free agent push for Baltimore's Ed Reed?) are other obvious areas to give attention to. If the Pats can draft a talented interior defensive lineman in the first or second round, and add a veteran pass rusher like Freeney in free agency, the defensive front seven should take another step forward this season.
Though they've not been able to match their playoff success of 2001-2004, the Patriots still have most of the pieces needed in their Super Bowl puzzle. Miami, Buffalo and the Jets don't want to hear it, but New England will again be the class of the AFC East, and on the short list of conference Super Bowl favorites. With 10 consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins or more -- second only to San Francisco's NFL record of 16 from 1983 to 1998 -- and a roster that has no grievous weakness, the Patriots will remain formidable.