The NFL offseason is in full swing.
After a week of free agency, the Patriots have swung a few trades, made a few signings, but also have seen some of their own free agents depart.
At this point, it would seem the Patriots’ roster right now is not as good as it was last year even with Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower getting thrown back into the mix. But, there’s still plenty of time for that to change, not only with free agency, but the NFL draft next month.
With that being said, here’s the top areas of need (in order) for the Patriots.
1. Left tackle
This was priority No. 1 entering the offseason and after Nate Solder departed for the Giants, it’s an even bigger concern. Left tackle is arguably the second or third-most important position to the entire offense, especially when it is protecting Tom Brady’s backside. Right now, the Patriots’ options on their roster are Matt Tobin (couldn’t start for Seattle), Andrew Jelks (hasn’t played football in two years), Cole Croston (not really a tackle) and Tony Garcia (got cleared to play football again Tuesday after blood clots in his lungs last year). Clearly, this isn’t a way to enter the 2018 season.
LaAdrian Waddle is the best free agent left tackle left on the market, which is telling. New England should prioritize this in the draft and use one of its first two picks on one. UCLA’s Kolton Miller, Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey or Texas’ Connor Williams all seem like options, although it should be made clear there should also be a veteran in place (Waddle, perhaps Tobin), so there isn’t tremendous pressure on that rookie to start Week 1.
The front-seven needed a major upgrade entering the offseason and defensive end Adrian Clayborn was signed, so this makes linebacker a bigger priority as of now. Right now, the Patriots have Hightower, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Harvey Langi and Nicholas Grigsby on the depth chart.
It’s clear they could use a fast and athletic outside linebacker who can cover running backs out of the backfield. This was a major weakness for the 2017 defense and it didn’t get fully exposed until Super Bowl LII against the Eagles. This is a tough area to address in free agency, so it seems like it becomes the second priority in the draft and should be addressed early on, as the player the Patriots select likely needs to be able to contribute right away.
3. Edge rusher
If Clayborn wasn’t added last week, this would be priority No. 2. Even with the veteran on board, the defense still needs another player who can get after the quarterback. Clayborn had 9.5 sacks last season, but it’s important to note six came in one game. He’s viewed more as a player who can set the edge, opposed to being a pass rusher.
There are a few pass rushers still available via free agency, which seems the more likely route than the draft. There are a few good pass rushers who will be available at the end of the first round, but does it make sense for the Patriots to take one when they have bigger needs?
4. Tight end
Even before all of Rob Gronkowski’s drama this offseason, the team needed to start thinking of the future at the position with him turning 29 years old in May. This was furthered with all the retirement talk, new contract talk, etc. It seems time for the Patriots to consider drafting Gronkowski’s potential replacement.
The issue is it’s clear the Patriots have bigger needs, so they likely can’t use one of their top selections on one. The tight end class doesn’t seem deep enough to get a long-term starter in the middle-to-late rounds, either. It is worth mentioning Bill Belichick was at South Carolina’s pro day on Tuesday where he had an interest in tight end Hayden Hurst, who is expected to be taken in the first few rounds.
While not a need for the 2018 season, with Jimmy Garoppolo gone it’s time to start searching for the next Garoppolo and Tom Brady's potential successor. Of course, this isn’t going to come via free agency, rather the draft. The problem with this is the quarterbacks class is said to be pretty weak once the first four are off the board, and the Patriots have no chance of landing any of them.
With all the other needs on the roster, and the talent level of the second tier of quarterbacks, it may not be worth using a second-round pick on a QB. Then, the question becomes is Luke Falk, Kyle Lauletta, or Mike White worth a third-round pick? It’s also worth noting the Patriots don’t necessarily need to draft a quarterback this year, as they could put it off one more year with Brian Hoyer under contract. Keep an eye on Logan Woodside, a projected day three selection, who could be a player the Patriots take a shot on without having to use a high pick.
Honorable mention: Safety, running back