There is no shortage of opinions on who should be the biggest priorities for the New England Patriots as they prepare for free agency and the draft in 2014. We all know who will be calling signals for the Patriots for yet another year, but there are some big question marks all over the roster. While there are some that are agreed upon by all who have watched the team struggle in recent years, some may come as a surprise.
Only Bill Belichick can truly appreciate the difficulty in assembling a roster, only to lose so many key cogs in that machine. And yet the Patriots managed to secure, not only the division title for the tenth time, but the second seed in the AFC playoffs.
We have already discussed the biggest question marks for 2014, now it's time to address the priorities for shoring up the most desperate positions on the team. These are just one man's prognostications for fixing what ails the Patriots.
1. Targets for Tom Brady...
Being one of the best in the game depends on a lot of factors, but reliable hands on the reciving end is a must. I'm going to reverse my position and place Danny Amendola at the top of that list. Health concerns aside, he has done nothing but fight through the injuries and produce at a high level. Amendola exceeded Julian Edelman by a yard and a half per reception despite his shortened season. He had fewer TDs but was not on the field as much. Amendola is also a huge hit against the cap and simply needs to be on the field to prove his worth.
Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins will also be improved in their second seasons, but also have to avoid the injury bug. While I want to see Edelman return as a Patriot, there is only so much money to go around. If he wants to be here, he will have to fit in under the cap. And there are other receiving options for New England...
They also have Austin Collie on the payroll who has shown capable hands and will be a cheap and reliable back-up. With Josh Boyce and Mark Harrison also available to vie for coveted WR spots, I like the possibilites.
2. Tight End carousel...
A lot of people seem to be hinting that Rob Gronkowski might not be worth the ongoing risk; I'm not one of them. He is the best TE in football and just needs to play smarter, not harder. That being said, I have argued for Garrett Graham from Houston as a cheap alternative to complement Gronk. I still think he is the best option to do that while draft picks are groomed. If the Pats can hit on a rookie like Jace Amaro they will be sitting pretty in the receiving department.
3. Shutdown corner...
Sign Aqib Talib. Alfonzo Dennard will hopefully return to his rookie level and Logan Ryan looks great, but there's nothing like a proven veteran to lock-up your opponent's best weapon. The passing defense is clearly better with Talib in there and there won't be as talented a replacement at any more of an affordable price. If they won't shell-out the bucks, they will lose their best bet and suffer another year of aerial agony.
4. Protect the franchise...
Brady got sacked a whopping 40 times in 2013 and that's not his preferred number this late in his career. They simply have to keep him standing to make this work. I have a lot of respect for the guys up front, but there is a weak link on the line and his name is Dan Connolly. A youth movement is in order and the right side is a good place to start. My other concern is Logan Mankins. After nine years and growing injury concerns, it may time to evaluate is worth this offseason.
5. And finally...
I'll be the first to say it: perhaps it is time for Vince Wilfork to make the transition from player to coach. Now hold the phone for a second! A lot depends on Belichick's opinion of his status after the injury and recovery. All I can say is: his very immense presence in the middle would be sorely missed. Personally, I don't want to see him retire... unless... he just can't hold his own on the line.
The Patriots do have some viable options, including second-year guys Armond Armstead, Joe Vellano, and Chris Jones. Sealver Siliga also showed promise and these guys are young and should have plenty of miles left on their tires.
I think the linebacking corps is better off than most admit, but another late-round pick could help to back-up this unit. Regardless of the decision on Brandon Spikes, I like what the Patriots can put on the field, especially new-guy Jamie Collins. Using Rob Ninkovich as a tweener will give Belichick more options for attacking opposing offenses.
Chandler Jones keeps getting better and Andre Carter still can contribute. It's time to dump Jake Bequette as a failed experiment and make a run for recently released Jared Allen. They also have Michael Buchanan who could be another tweener and also shows some promise.
Last but not least, LeGarrette Blount should stay. If anyone in the backfield is disposable, my vote is on Brandon Bolden. Unless Stevan Ridley starts dropping the ball again, the Patriots have a potent backfield... surely the envy of most other teams.
I don't see any reason, other than another catastrophic roster upheaval, for the Patriots to avoid the misfortune of 2013 and bring the Lombardi back to Foxboro.