Injuries are common place in the NFL and the ability to deal with them is extremely important to the success of a team. The Patriots have had their share of injury problems over the last three years, but none more visible than this year, when they started numerous players in the Secondary and Linebacker core. In order for the Patriots to get back to the Super Bowl, this years free agency and draft will be the absolute key. Without picking up good players, the Patriots will continue to slip down the ladder of success.
I want to start with the Linebacker core, because I feel this is the most important position for a 3-4 defense to be successful. There’s a decent group of FA’s out there for Linebackers, including:
Na’il Diggs, UFA, Carolina Panthers
Diggs has been a steady linebacker for the Green Bay Packers since his second season in the league. Injuries forced him to miss seven games last season and he now has just a single season to prove to the Panthers that he deserves a larger contract. Diggs, while steady, isn’t necessity for Carolina, so expect to see him hit the market in the hopes that someone appreciates what he does on the field, maybe even over-appreciates what he does on the field. When Carolina lost Dan Morgan for the season, and perhaps longer, Diggs had a real chance to step up; he tallied just 61 total tackles and failed to register a sack or interception in fifteen games. A handful of teams should still be interested in bringing Diggs into the fold. Anyone looking for a veteran linebacker to make some tackles and hold his own will show an interest.
Cato June, UFA, Indianapolis Colts
Recent legal trouble could hurt his stock, but June was a first time starter in the Pro Bowl for the 2005 season. He’s relatively young and a tackling machine—his 142 total tackles were good for fifth best in the NFL—so it’s likely that the Colts will do what they can to retain his talents. There’s good chance that June hits the market, though, to see what other organizations have to offer him financially; if the Colts are unable to reach the Super Bowl, it may also factor into a decision to leave. June’s not an overpowering player, so a team interested in him will be looking at utilizing his speed as a top priority, in the same way that the Colts have done. June will be the most sought after linebacker on the market, and perhaps the most sought after defensive player.
Adalius Thomas, UFA, Baltimore Ravens
It could be difficult to keep Thomas around because of his emerging status as one of the better linebackers in the NFL. In 2005—with Ray Lewis lost to an injury for ten games—Thomas shined for the Ravens defensive unit and was credited with 86 total tackles, nine sacks, and two interceptions. This season—even with Lewis back from injury—Thomas continued upon his success with 83 total tackles, eleven sacks, and an interception. His free agent potential is enormous, and he could be one of the top two or three pursued players. Someone will throw big dollars his way, which means he could be lured away from Baltimore.
London Fletcher-Baker, UFA, Buffalo Bills
Fletcher is good, plain and simple. He’ll be 32 heading into next season, but he’s still producing as one of the top linebackers, with 146 total tackles, two sacks, and four interceptions credited to him during the 2006 season. Fletcher hasn’t missed a game in his career, and he’s also tallied 119 total tackles or more in every season since 2000. If the Bills don’t get him to sign an extension, expect Fletcher to garner attention from several teams looking for a veteran presence that can make things happen on the field. Wherever Fletcher ends up, he’ll be brought in to act as a defensive leader and to make big plays. Ultimately, he could be the cream of the crop in terms of available linebackers.
Other Free Agent Linebackers
Chase Blackburn, ERFA, New York Giants
Chad Brown, UFA, Pittsburgh Steelers
James Darling, UFA, Arizona Cardinals
Randall Godfrey, UFA, San Diego Chargers
Kawika Mitchell, UFA, Kansas City Chiefs
Rob Morris, UFA, Indianapolis Colts
I pulled this information from FootballsFuture.com. Of all in this list, the only one who isn’t an unrestricted free agent is Chase Blackburn of the Giants. As you can see, there is some quality to be had out there for linebackers. London Fletcher is intriguing, although older. I think this team needs to go younger, because it’s only a matter of time when Bruschi and Vrabel lose a step. Many think Bruschi could call it a career this offseason, and if he does that, that would leave a huge hole in the middle. London Fletcher would obviously be an easy fill, but at some point you need to get younger at such an important position. If they can’t get a good FA like June, they need to draft, but I’m not sure what the level of talent is in the rookie pool, so it leaves them in an interesting situation.
The secondary was able to upgrade itself last night by franchising the biggest key to the secondary puzzle, Asante Samuel. This move is huge because, at least for next season, they have a sure thing at Corner. Certainty is huge for the Pats secondary, because over the past few years, they haven’t had much.
With Samuel back in the fold, the concentration is on the safeties. Harrison isn’t a reliable SS anymore, and I think it’d be a big mistake for BB to rely on his coming through next year. I wouldn’t write him off, but free agency should be about picking up some insurance in case Harrison does go down.
As for Eugene Wilson, it’ll be interesting to see what he becomes. He was good the last year they won, but he was also injured, especially all of last year. As one of our readers mentioned, he’ll be playing in a contract season next year, so he could have an impact. Nevertheless, there is talent out there in free agency, and the Patriots should go after it. From FootballsFuture.com:
Nate Clements, UFA, Buffalo Bills
Clements should be the top target of teams looking for help in the secondary. He’s young, highly regarded, and very talented. Buffalo would like nothing more than to have him signed to an extension as quickly as possible, but his talent—he does have two Pro Bowl selections—may lead him to test the market. Without an extension, the Bills must decide if they are willing to franchise tag Clements once again to guarantee his presence on the gridiron for one more season. Since Clements has not been adversely affected by NFL officiating changes, most NFL teams will pursue the cornerback if he hits the market.
Ken Hamlin, UFA, Seattle Seahawks
Hamlin is a talented safety with the potential to get even better. After an injury caused him to miss ten games last season, he rebounded mightily this season with 96 total tackles, three interceptions, and a pair of sacks; he was able to equal his career sack high and just fall short of tying his high for interceptions and total tackles. The athletic defensive back could be a valuable asset to most teams, and the Seahawks will work hard to re-sign him, because—when healthy—Hamlin is one of the better safeties in the NFL.
Other Free Agent Cornerbacks
Roc Alexander, RFA, Denver Broncos
Jordan Babineaux, RFA, Seattle Seahawks
Jason David, RFA, Indianapolis Colts
Randall Gay, RFA, New England Patriots
Nick Harper, UFA, Indianapolis Colts
David Macklin, UFA, Arizona Cardinals
Other Free Agent Safety
Tyrone Carter, UFA, Pittsburgh Steelers
Deon Grant, UFA, Jacksonville Jaguars
Michael Lewis, UFA, Philadelphia Eagles
Donnie Nickey, UFA, Tennessee Titans
Tony Parrish, UFA, Dallas Cowboys
Ernest Shazor, ERFA, Arizona Cardinals
B.J. Ward, RFA, Baltimore Ravens
Gibril Wilson, RFA, New York Giants
Michael Lewis, UFA, Philadelphia Eagles
Mike Adams, RFA, San Francisco 49ers
Mike Doss, S, Indianapolis Colts
I would love to see the Patriots sign three guys in the secondary- a corner and two safeties, to sure up that group. Spend the money to make sure your defense can take the hits it will over the long year. If they can’t, we will most likely see the same problems we witnessed the past two years, and that never bodes well for a championship team.
The other key position is wideout. While towards the end, they found some talent with Gaffney and to an extent Caldwell, I would like to see them find a receiver who can establish a good relationship with Brady. Brady needs to be confident in one guy, and it’s never a good thing when your most potent receiver is a tight end. The list from FootballsFuture:
Donte Stallworth, UFA, Philadelphia Eagles
Stallworth hits the market, voiding the final year off of his contract by reaching minimum playing time benchmarks. The receiver missed four games this season, but was still able to post 725 yards and five touchdowns, including three games in which he surpassed the 100-yard mark. When healthy, he was one of the league’s best during 2006, whether it was Donovan McNabb or Jeff Garcia throwing him the ball. The former Saints player has never had a 1,000 yard season, but he will certainly be looked at as a number one receiver and may command money that reflects. Teams like New England and Buffalo—among others—would benefit greatly from a receiver of Stallworth’s caliber. It is unclear to what extent the Eagles will pursue an extension.
Drew Bennett, UFA, Tennessee Titans
Bennett might not be considered a special wide receiver in NFL circles, but the UCLA product has great size and good hands as a second receiving option. An uncanny connection with quarterback Billy Volek in 2004 helped Bennett to 1,247 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. With Vince Young being named the starter, production was up and down for Bennett, but he managed to reach triple-digit receiving yards in three different games, and totaled 737 yards with three scores. The Titans are closer to competing than previously though, it appears, but Bennett may look for work in a system focused more on the pass and with a chance to seriously compete sooner. Several teams could use Bennett to compliment a smaller and faster receiver, and if used properly, Bennett can put up strong numbers once again.
Kevin Curtis, UFA, St. Louis Rams
It is likely that Curtis hangs around St. Louis. He’s being used regularly in the offense and Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt are only getting older. He caught fewer passes this season, but the team used him to return kicks at times to get him more touches. If Curtis leaves the Rams, it will be because he doesn’t feel utilized enough and another team wants his services with a nice pay check offer. The Rams may just work an extension and save the trouble of Curtis looking around in the off season, but if Curtis does hit the market, he’ll make a solid second wide receiver for a team willing to use his speed in the right way.
Patrick Crayton, RFA, Dallas Cowboys
Crayton benefits from the talent around him, but he’s also a solid option in the passing game. Terry Glenn missed the Cowboys week ten game this season, so Crayton filled in and caught five passes for 104 yards and a score. He posted more than 60 receiving yards in five games this season as the third-string wide-out. He totaled 516 yards and four touchdowns in the passing offense. His RFA status will make his move out of Dallas more unlikely, but with his potential, there will definitely be teams looking to bump him into the number two receiving slot.
Bobby Wade UFA Tennessee Titans
2006 was a breakout year for Bobby Wade, and the arrival of rookie quarterback Vince Young played a major role in that breakout. While Wade’s 461 receiving yards are not overly impressive, his offensive unit was not all that effective in the passing game, leaving his numbers on the low side. And, he also contributed nearly 1,200 kick return yards with a solid average of 23.9 yards per return. His ability to return kicks and be a solid second receiving option means that there should be a good deal of interest in Wade on the market. The talent is there and teams know it.
TE Eric Johnson, UFA, San Francisco 49ers
The tight end free agent options are appealing. Johnson tops the list because it is almost absolute that he will be on his way out of San Francisco. The 49ers drafted Vernon Davis early in the first round, and Johnson won’t see the field next season—when Davis is healthy and more adjusted to the NFL. Davis’ freakish athletic ability will make that a quick process, so Johnson is going to be looking for a new place to play on Sundays. In 2005, Johnson caught 82 passes for 825 yards and a pair of touchdowns and he added 292 yards two scores in 2006, so a team looking for a pass catching tight end will take a chance on Johnson in the hopes that he can repeat that production—particularly his 2005 numbers.
Other Free Agent Wide Receivers
Marc Boerigter, UFA, Green Bay Packers
David Boston, UFA, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tyrone Calico, UFA, Tennessee Titans
Andre’ Davis, UFA, Buffalo Bills
Bobby Engram, UFA, Seattle Seahawks
Justin Gage, UFA, Chicago Bears
D.J. Hackett, RFA, Seattle Seahawks
Keenan McCardell, UFA, San Diego Chargers
Shaun McDonald, UFA, St. Louis Rams
Samie Parker, RFA, Kansas City Chiefs
Jerome Pathon, UFA, Atlanta Falcons
Willie Ponder, UFA, New York Giants
Edell Shepherd, RFA, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Travis Taylor, UFA, Minnesota Vikings
Scottie Vines, RFA, Detroit Lions
Peter Warrick, UFA, Seattle Seahawks
Kelley Washington, UFA, Cincinnati Bengals
Alvis Whitted, UFA, Oakland Raiders
Ernest Wilford, RFA, Jacksonville Jaguars
Other Free Agent Tight Ends
Kyle Brady, UFA, Jacksonville Jaguars
Daniel Graham, UFA, New England Patriots
Ben Hartsock, RFA, Indianapolis Colts
Zach Hilton, UFA, New York Jets
Reggie Kelly, UFA, Cincinnati Bengals
Jerramy Stevens, UFA, Seattle Seahawks
Boo Williams, UFA, New York Giants
Obviously, the Patriots have had a hard time finding legitimate talent at WR the past few seasons. Nevertheless, it’s imperative they upgrade this position. Tom Brady needs to get comfortable with at least one receiver, so there needs to be some trust and in order for that he’ll have to have a guy who can catch and hold on to the ball. I expect the Patriots to sign someone this offseason, a particularly good player.
This offseason will be huge for the Patriots. Not only will it dictate at which trend they plan on following, up or down, but it will cement relationships with the organization that will shape this team for the future. Tom Brady will not sit back idly and watch this team crumble around him, particularly when they have opportunities to improve and they fail. And for any of you who still think this team will be okay without Tom Brady, you are truly unfortunate and will absolutely regret his departure, if it ever were to happen. This team goes where Tom Brady goes, and if he leaves, so does this teams’ success. BB and company need to make some moves this offseason, smart moves, to show this team is committed to winning it all next year. Otherwise the confidence from their franchise qb, and to some extent their fan base, will shrivel. I think they have a good plan and will do just that, but only time will tell.