Patriots' top needs start at left tackle, off-the-line linebacker

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A view of the New England Patriots' priority in terms of need:

1. Left tackle. With Nate Solder signing a four-year, $62 million free-agent deal with the New York Giants, it has created a notable void in the spot protecting Tom Brady's blindside. Six-year veterans LaAdrian Waddle and Matt Tobin and 2017 undrafted free agent Cole Croston are the in-house candidates to fill it.

2. Off-the-line linebacker. While Dont'a Hightower's return from injury should help, this remains close to the top of the list, in part because of Hightower’s injury history (torn pectoral muscle in 2017; prior knee ailments) and more speed in mind. Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Marquis Flowers also are on the depth chart, and the team has won with them in the lineup, but the possibility of adding a three-down linebacker who can run well should still be high on the list.

3. Developmental quarterback. Even if the team signs someone such as Johnny Manziel, it could still draft a third quarterback if the player they liked was there. Brady and Brian Hoyer are the only options currently on the depth chart.

4. Tight end. While signs are promising that Rob Gronkowski will return in 2018, the same question about his status would be asked at this time next year.

5. Running back. They’ve lost speed and dynamic playmaking ability with Dion Lewis' free-agency departure. Rex Burkhead, James White, Mike Gillislee, Jeremy Hill and Brandon Bolden fill out the current depth chart.

6. Defensive end/outside linebacker. The Patriots had a good thing going in 2016 with a four-man rotation of Rob Ninkovich, Trey Flowers, Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard, and they could be getting back to that with Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Adrian Clayborn atop the current depth chart. There is room to add to that mix, with 2017 third-round pick Derek Rivers possibly a consideration, although he might fall more into the off-the-line linebacker category in standard packages.

7. Safety. No team runs its three-safety package as much as the Patriots, so while the top of the depth chart is intact with Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, feeding the pipeline behind them could be on the radar. How the team considers practice squad players David Jones and Damarius Travis would be a factor in how it views this spot.

8. Cornerback. The acquisition of Jason McCourty fills the void created by Malcolm Butler's departure; whether that’s an upgrade will remain to be seen. Stephon Gilmore, McCourty, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis and Jomal Wiltz round out the depth chart.

9. Center/guard. With starting right guard Shaq Mason entering the last year of his contract and after seeing what guard Andrew Norwell earned as a free agent this offseason, the Patriots must prepare to either pay Mason big bucks or have his potential replacement ready to go for 2019.

10. Wide receiver. Albeit with some injury questions, this group looks pretty well stocked with Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman (knee), Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell (knee), Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson, Riley McCarron and Cody Hollister.

11. Defensive tackle. Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton should have their fifth-year options picked up through 2019. Lawrence Guy is signed through 2020. And Vincent Valentine (knee/2019) and Adam Butler (2019) also are on the depth chart.

12. Kicker/punter/snapper. The trio of Stephen Gostkowski/Ryan Allen/Joe Cardona returns in 2018, and while Super Bowl LII wasn’t their best game as a unit, the overall body of work has been solid.