As the various head coaches and front-office executives fielded questions at the 2014 NFL scouting combine, an emerging theme was that the first way to address roster holes is through talent development.
In the case of the New England Patriots, we saw Stevan Ridley blossom from 2011 to 2012, becoming a top NFL rusher in his second season. The same pattern emerged for defensive end Chandler Jones from his rookie to sophomore season, as he broke out with 11.5 sacks, nearly double his rookie-season total of six.
So while there are areas where the Patriots will look in-house to find answers, there are also needs to address both in free agency and the draft.
With free agency just around the corner, here's our look at the Patriots' five biggest needs this offseason.
1. Pass-catching tight end. Whether or not Rob Gronkowski is healthy and on the field for Week 1 of next regular season, the Patriots must find insurance for their big-bodied pass-catcher. He's dealt with numerous injuries in recent seasons (and a litany of surgeries to go along with them) and is now recovering from an ACL tear. Patriots reserve tight ends managed just 13 regular-season catches last season, as the position became decentralized within the passing game. We've also seen the Patriots have plenty of targets to accommodate to pass-catching tight ends within their offensive system, so finding a player at the position extends beyond a replacement part for any future time missed by Gronk. This year's free-agent class doesn't have a ton of options, but the draft class appears to have no shortage of athletic prospects who could fit into the Patriots' plans.
2. Interior defensive lineman. A quick note here: In a recent piece for ESPN Insider, we mentioned Armond Armstead as a potential "Step up" candidate for 2014. If Armstead returns to health (along with Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly), the Patriots are in a good spot along the defensive line. Players such as Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga will continue to improve and profile as above-average rotational linemen. But only the Patriots know the status of Armstead in his recovery, and if Wilfork or Kelly (with cap hits of $11.2 million and $2.66 million, respectively) becomes a potential cap casualty, the depth chart takes a hit. If there are any doubts about the trio for 2014, this position must be addressed.
3. Veteran edge rusher. Look past the Patriots' sack production in 2013 as it relates to the team's ability to generate timely pressure. An inability to get Peyton Manning off of his spot in the AFC Championship Game played a big part in the Patriots' being unable to get off the field more consistently on third down. It was our belief at this time last season that adding a veteran edge rusher to play just a portion of the defensive snaps (call it 25-30 a game) would behoove the team. That feeling still exists this offseason. The team courted both Dwight Freeney and John Abraham last offseason and would be wise to investigate similar options this year.
4. Wide receiver. Adding a reliable pass-catching tight end would go a long way, but the Patriots could have a hole at wide receiver if Julian Edelman departs in free agency. The team has shown an ability to find slot wideout replacements, as Edelman dazzled last season after previous years of just modest production. The Patriots also drafted two wideouts in the top four rounds last year, with both Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce offering upside entering Year 2. But being conscious of Tom Brady at age 37 and knowing that the team's best window to win a championship is in the coming years, a ready-to-play wide receiver makes some sense. If Edelman is retained, the team may not need to look elsewhere to beef up the receiving corps.
5. Safety. This is a new need after the news that the team had released veteran Steve Gregory. The Patriots have their presumptive starters in a Rutgers duo, with Devin McCourty likely to be paired with Duron Harmon. But beyond them, the depth chart is far less clear. Veteran Adrian Wilson has two years left on his contract after tearing his Achilles last year, but it's unclear just how much he has left physically. Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner are joined by Kanorris Davis as some of the other safeties on the roster, but all are better cast in special-teams roles. Much like they did with Harmon last year, the Patriots would be well-served to find a safety with enough versatility to man either spot in the back end of their defense (strong or free safety).