Once upon a time a Super Bowl winning team would look very similar in the year to follow, but not in these times. It’s just over one week since the Super Bowl LIII victory parade was celebrated by over 1.5 million people throughout the streets of Boston. However, the 2019 free agency period begins in the middle of next month. March 13th to be exact and with over 30 percent of the Patriots championship roster eligible for free agency, Bill Belichick and company will be busy. Very busy.
They don’t give you much time to celebrate these days and with 16 free agents and 12 draft picks in the upcoming NFL Draft there’s lots of work to be done. As the time to look ahead has been forced upon us let’s take a look at the positional needs for next season, starting with the defense.
Coming off of their finest performance in Super Bowl LIII, you would think the state of the defense would be set. Think again. Nine of the Patriots 16 free agents play on the defensive side of the ball, including rising star, Trey Flowers. Flowers has been a revelation rushing the passer on a team that has been desperate for that specific skill set since Chandler Jones was jettisoned in March 2016. He’s also homegrown and entering his prime at 26 years old. This is a big hole to fill, one preferably filled by Flowers himself if they can retain him.
Flowers impressively bookends a defensive line that features three more free agents, Danny Shelton and Malcolm Brown on the interior and occasional playmaking defensive end John Simon on the other side. For this reason, what was a clear position of strength for the New England Patriots becomes fragile quite suddenly and will need to be addressed this offseason. Shelton and Brown offer run-stopping continuity which has been a staple of this Patriots dynasty and thus, is a position that cannot be overlooked. Prioritizing the defensive line is a clear area of focus from this vantage point. The good news is that the 2019 draft class is rich with defensive linemen. Keep an eye on Boston College Eagle Zach Allen as a versatile, playmaking option after some of the bigger names come off the board. Long story short, the draft can help serve this need.
The Patriots core of linebackers won’t fall victim to the upcoming free agency period for the most part, but could definitely use an infusion of talent. Dont’a Hightower was his typical game wrecking self when it mattered most throughout the playoffs, but is entering his eighth year of a career riddled with injuries. A succession plan for his instinctive and playmaking role on the defense is needed.
Kyle Van Noy has steadily increased his impact and value to the team but reinforcements here are necessary. 2018 rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley flashed in pre-season but was lost to injury before we could get a legitimate look. I’m encouraged by what I saw in Bentley last August, but any hope surrounding his successful return does not mitigate the real need to strengthen this group.
For the defense, it doesn’t end there. The defensive backfield, particularly at safety could potentially look a little thin if Devin McCourty decides to retire. For nine years the two-time Pro Bowler has anchored the Patriots secondary and talk of his potential retirement has been batted around in recent weeks. Same goes for his brother, cornerback Jason McCourty. Add in the Super Bowl injury to safety Patrick Chung and suddenly what was the absolute strength of the 2018 Patriots defense is looking a little vulnerable. The secondary does feature All-Pro Stephon Gilmore and solid young talent like J.C. Jackson, but at the safety position specifically, they need to add some youth for depth purposes at a minimum.
To the offense.
The good news here is the Patriots biggest free agent comes from their strongest offensive position, the offensive line. That free agent is also their biggest player, left tackle, Trent Brown. I’m of the opinion that he is this off-season’s greatest priority. Brown did an exemplary job protecting Brady and that’s not something I would mess with. Last year's first-round draft pick Isaiah Wynn certainly offers some cushion and versatility here, but his pre-season Achilles injury was no joke and I wouldn’t pass the keys to the Cadillac to him just yet if there is a decent chance to resign Brown.
Putting the decision on Brown aside for a moment, there may not be bigger fish to fry per se, but there are certainly multiple areas of need to address on the offense.
Not so long ago, every offseason I used to joke with friends that the Patriots needed a quarterback and a tight end while the Patriots have been clearly stacked there for years. Well, the time has come.
Beyond the Brown decision, the biggest offensive priority spotlights right on tight end. Rob Gronkowski is the greatest tight end I’ve ever seen and it’s not close. Shoot, I’ve said hundreds of times that if I was hosting a pickup football game at the park with all the NFL greats, I’d consider Gronk with my overall top pick. The problem is that this may be it for the big guy. It’s a 50/50 proposition whether Gronk returns for 2019. Of late, I’m starting to think he’ll come back for one more year and if that happens, great! However, I highly doubt it lasts longer than that, so the tight end position needs to be addressed right now. Dwayne Allen is second on the depth chart currently at that position and has caught 13 balls in two years. Third-string tight end Jacob Hollister hasn’t been able to get out of the tub. tight end is a must fix priority for the Patriots this spring.
Wide receiver. This is an annual theme and often a frustrating one for many, yet somehow the Patriots manage to figure it out. I’m going with history of this one and wouldn’t prioritize this position with a top draft pick, it’s simply not Belichick’s modus operandi. That said, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Hackett favorite Cordarrelle Patterson are all free agents now so something will need to be done. This will simply come down to money. Can you retain one, two or all of these guys at a value? If so they’ll be back. If not, they’ll be replaced. Don’t expect the poker chips to be cashed in here and if new faces do come in then continuity will take time. However, I have full confidence that Belichick will fill these holes enough to make it work. Best guess is that at least one or two of these guys comes back, but again it will all come down to money and their perceived value to Belichick.
Quarterback. Let me rephrase, the quarterback of the future. This doesn’t have to happen this year but considering all angles including addressing it this year does have to happen. A plan must be in place no later than the 2020 off-season otherwise they’re playing with fire. If there is someone intriguing to bring in I say go for it. The Josh Rosen rumor is a little interesting. The 2019 QB draft class seems a little underwhelming after the top two picks so I wouldn’t reach, but all considerations need to be part of the plan.
Personally, I have my eye on a specific 2020 free agent you may be familiar with, Jacoby Brissett. It would also be fun to spike the Colts once again and give Patriots fans yet another thing to celebrate next winter. Until then, a lot will change with this Patriots roster this spring as the wheels of free agency spin.