RB Joseph Addai, FB Tony Fiammetta, WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Jabar Gaffney, WR Dont'e Stallworth, G Robert Gallery, DE/DT Jonathan Fanene, DE/OLB Trevor Scott, OLB Bobby Carpenter, CB Will Allen, CB Marquice Cole, S Steve Gregory.
Early Draft Picks:
DE/OLB Chandler Jones, ILB Dont'a Hightower, S Tavon Wilson, DE/OLB Jake Bequette.
RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, WR Chad Ochocinco, OT Matt Light, DE Andre Carter, DE Mark Anderson, OLB Gary Guyton, CB Antwaun Molden, S James Ihedigbo.
2012 New England Patriots Offense:
The rich just got richer. The Patriots already had an explosive offense despite missing a legitimate No. 1 receiver. They filled that need - while barely sacrificing anything.
When Josh McDaniels was hired to be the new offensive coordinator, many linked Brandon Lloyd to the Patriots. Lloyd starred under McDaniels' tutelage in Denver, catching 77 balls for 1,448 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010 despite having Kyle Orton as his quarterback. The only obstacle to Lloyd landing in New England was his agent Tom Condon, whom Bill Belichick despises. The two resolved their differences for just this time only, but Lloyd had to make a big sacrifice; he signed a 3-year, $12 million contract, which is well below his market value. Lloyd made the right move, however. He has the best chance of getting the most out of his career by teaming up with McDaniels and Tom Brady. It's refreshing to see that unlike the Sidney Rices and Vincent Jacksons of the world, Lloyd actually cares about football and knows what's best for his legacy.
Brady, of course, has to be thrilled. He broke Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record last year (though finishing behind Drew Brees), throwing for 5,235 yards, 39 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. Despite his goofy haircuts and vicious wife, Brady is at the top of his game, and his offensive arsenal is more impressive than ever.
The future Hall-of-Fame quarterback will continue to utilize Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez heavily. Gronkowski is a freak of nature; defensive coordinators have not figured out how to cover him yet, as he's too big for safeties and too fast for linebackers. Double-teaming him isn't really an option either because Hernandez is also a very dangerous tight end, and Welker is always there to catch passes out of the slot. The one issue is that Welker, 31, is currently mired in a monetary dispute. He's looking for one last big contract, but it appears as though he's overplaying his hand because despite his impressive statistics, he's just a slot receiver, after all. He might be the best of his kind in the NFL, but someone like Davone Bess could also breach 100 receptions every season with Brady as his quarterback.
New England didn't just go after Lloyd; it landed Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth in free agency as well. Gaffney may replace Deion Branch as Brady's safety valve. While Branch is still reliable, he clearly lacks any sort of burst. Gaffney, meanwhile, caught 68 balls for 947 yards and five touchdowns last year despite catching passes from Rex Grossman. He impressed Belichick, hauling in six grabs for 92 yards and a score versus New England in a December matchup. He played with Brady in 2006 and 2007, so there won't be any sort of transition period despite the fact that he switched teams. Stallworth, meanwhile, will be an occasional deep threat if he makes the roster.
The Patriots have two potential holes on offense, one of which is at left tackle. Nate Solder, a first-round pick last April, will take over for the retired Matt Light. Solder started 13 games last year but really struggled at times. He'll have a full offseason for the first time in his professional career, so there's a chance he'll improve and end up serving well as Brady's blind-side protector. If not, there's always Sebastian Vollmer, who has left tackle experience. The talented fourth-year player is penciled in at right tackle.
The interior of New England's offensive front is pretty stout. Left guard Logan Mankins is one of the top players at his position. Right guard Brian Waters played pretty well last year despite being 34. Center is a bit of a concern with Dan Connolly currently slated to start over Dan Koppen, who was on the field for only one game in 2011 because of a broken ankle.
New England's second potential hole is at running back. Stevan Ridley was impressive for the most part during his rookie campaign, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. However, he dealt with some late-season fumbling issues, prompting Belichick to completely sideline him in the Super Bowl. The other second-year back, Shane Vereen, has big talent but barely played last year. The Patriots signed former Colt Joseph Addai this offseason, so given Belichick's love affair with washed-up veterans, Addai might be the starter early in 2012. There's no telling what the Hooded One will do.
2012 New England Patriots Defense:
As great as New England's offense was last year, the defense was equally bad. The team struggled to stop opposing aerial attacks, ranking 27th in YPA (7.9).
The Patriots opted to improve this aspect of their stop unit by bolstering their pass rush. They were actually third in sacks last year with 51, but they lost Andre Carter and Mark Anderson in free agency. Belichick responded by spending two early selections on pass-rushers, taking Syracuse's Chandler Jones in the first round and Arkansas' Jake Bequette in the third. He also signed former Raider Trevor Scott in free agency. Still, these are all downgrades until the two rookies are ready to play because Carter and Anderson combined for 26 sacks (including the playoffs).
A worse pass rush won't make things easier for a struggling secondary. The safety position, in particular, is in shambles. Free safety Patrick Chung isn't too bad, but the strong safety job will be up to newly signed Steven Gregory, who was awful for San Diego last year. Second-round rookie Tavon Wilson could push Gregory, but Wilson was a major reach, given that he wasn't ranked above No. 182 on any major big board.
There's a lot of uncertainty at corner. Kyle Arrington picked off seven passes and made some nice plays, but he surrendered five touchdowns as well. Devin McCourty, currently projected to be the other starter, gave up six scores himself, but had an excuse - he was laboring through a shoulder injury. Ras-I Dowling, chosen in the second round last year, probably won't push for a starting job; he's coming off hip surgery and has reportedly looked awful in OTAs. Sterling Moore has a better chance to unseat either McCourty or Arrington; Moore was waived last year, but was awesome in the playoffs, knocking a Super Bowl-clinching touchdown out of Lee Evans' hands in the AFC Championship.
New England had two first-round selections at its disposal, and it spent the second one on Dont'a Hightower, who is expected to start at strongside linebacker over Rob Ninkovich, who is really good in run support, but tends to struggle in pass coverage. The talented Hightower will play in a linebacking corps with stud Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, another great run-defender.
The best player on New England's defense is Vince Wilfork, one of the top nose tackles in the NFL. Just 30 years old, Wilfork is still at the top of his game. He'll play next to Kyle Love, who doesn't offer much of a pass rush, or perhaps Jonathan Fanene, a decent lineman signed over from Cincinnati.
2012 New England Patriots Schedule and Intangibles:
Since 2003, the Patriots are 69-12 at home. They were 9-1 last year, going down only to the Giants. History would repeat itself in February.
Stephen Gostkowski is one of the top kickers in the NFL. He went 28-of-33 last year, hitting 9-of-11 tries from 40-49. He was 1-of-2 from 50-plus.
Zoltan Mesko did a good job punting last year, maintaining a 46.5 average with 24-of-57 attempts pinned inside the 20.
The Patriots didn't return kickoffs very well, but they scored once on a punt return, thanks to Julian Edelman. They didn't allow any touchdowns.
Despite losing in the Super Bowl, the Patriots don't have a very taxing schedule. In addition to beating up on the Jets and Dolphins twice each, New England will have the luxury of battling the Titans, Cardinals, Seahawks, Rams, Colts and Jaguars.
2012 New England Patriots Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
2012 New England Patriots Analysis: The Patriots will always be a Super Bowl contender as long as Tom Brady is healthy. They should be able to win the AFC East, and there's a chance they'll secure homefield advantage in the playoffs. However, they haven't done enough defensively to help prevent another January (or February) collapse.
Goals Entering the 2012 NFL Draft: New England's needs are pretty obvious. The team couldn't get any pressure on the quarterback last year, which impacted an already-lackluster secondary. It should be mostly defense here, with the occasional receiver or offensive lineman.
2012 NFL Draft Accomplishments: The Patriots were infamous for trading down and stockpiling picks. Until now. They've changed their ways apparently - and understandably so.
Tom Brady will be 35 in August. His Super Bowl window is quickly closing. Unlike the Broncos, the Patriots understand that they need to acquire as much immediate help for their aging quarterback as possible. For Brady, that was pass-rushing assistance on the defensive side of the ball because he has the appropriate amount of weapons to work with on offense.
So, New England's plan was a great one. Its execution, however, wasn't very good. I liked the Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower selections, and Alfonzo Dennard was a mega steal in Round 7, but Bill Belichick made far too many reaches. Tavon Wilson, selected at No. 48 overall, shouldn't have gone until at least the fourth round. Meanwhile, Nate Ebner, as mentioned below, wasn't ranked anywhere.
Having said that, the Patriots still improved their roster and gave themselves a better chance of actually winning the Super Bowl this year.
2012 NFL Draft Individual Grades:
21. Chandler Jones, DE/OLB, Syracuse: B+ Grade
The pass-rushers were flying off the board, so the Patriots made an unlikely move and moved up for Chandler Jones. I don't have much of a problem with this. In fact, I think this is a decent move because Chandler Jones could have gone as high as No. 12. Unfortunately for the Patriots, Bill Belichick's run of having two first-round picks will conclude in 2013.
25. Dont'a Hightower, ILB/DE/OLB, Alabama: B Grade
Dont'a Hightower is a really good football player who fits the range. I didn't think the Patriots would pick him, but it makes sense because Bill Belichick loves players with versatility. Hightower definitely has that; he can be used at inside linebacker or on the edge as a pass-rusher. Belichick will have lots of fun using Hightower all over the football field. If the Patriots didn't trade up, this might have been an A-.
48. Tavon Wilson, S, Illinois: D Grade
Whoa. Major reach. Tavon Wilson's rankings on various major draft boards: 254, 212, 216, 245, 182. Yeesh. I'd like to give Bill Belichick the benefit of the doubt, but it's not like he hasn't ever drafted a bust before. Why couldn't Belichick have traded down? He could have probably obtained Wilson in Round 3.
90. Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas: C Grade
Another reach by Bill Belichick, though this one isn't nearly as drastic. Jake Bequette can play in multiple spots in Belichick's defense, so New England drafting him shouldn't be much of a surprise - though it would have been better served in Rounds 4 or 5.
197. Nate Ebner, DB, Ohio State: C- Grade
Nate Ebner was not ranked anywhere. Couldn't they have signed him on Sunday?
224. Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska: A+ Grade
Alfonzo Dennard was a first-round prospect in the fall. He looked bad at the Senior Bowl, so he fell to Round 2. Then, he allegedly punched a cop. This is the penalty for punching a cop. He's definitely worth the risk in Round 7.
235. Jeremy Ebert, WR, Northwestern: C Grade
Again, this is someone the Patriots could have obtained as a UDFA.
What happened to the Tom Brady who drove pick-up trucks, had a huge chip on his shoulder and always won in the clutch? Say what you want about New England's defense, but the Patriots were in position to win Super Bowl XLVI. Brady had the opportunity to cement his fourth Lombardi, but came up short like he has in every season since he started dating supermodels and taping weird Uggs commercials. It's upsetting from a football fan's perspective.
Patriots cut WR Chad Ochocinco
Patriots sign RB Joseph Addai
Patriots waive WR Tiquan Underwood
Patriots sign WR Jabar Gaffney
Patriots re-sign DE/DT Gerard Warren
Patriots announce retirement of OT Matt Light
Dolphins sign G Gary Guyton
Patriots sign C Dan Koppen
Giants sign CB Antwaun Molden
Patriots sign ILB Bobby Carpenter
Patriots sign FB Tony Fiammetta
Patriots re-sign QB Brian Hoyer
Patriots sign FB Spencer Larsen
Patriots re-sign WR Deion Branch
Bengals sign RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Bills sign DE Mark Anderson
Patriots sign CB Will Allen
Patriots sign CB Marquice Cole
Patriots sign TE Daniel Fells
Patriots sign G Robert Gallery
Patriots sign WR Donte' Stallworth
Patriots sign WR Brandon Lloyd
Patriots sign DE/OLB Trevor Scott
Patriots sign WR Anthony Gonzalez
Patriots re-sign C Dan Connolly
Patriots sign SS Steve Gregory
Patriots re-sign WR/S Matt Slater
Patriots sign DE/DT Jonathan Fanene
Patriots re-sign OLB Tracy White
Patriots franchise WR Wes Welker
Patriots cut DE/DT Mike Wright
Pass-Rusher: Make it two or three pass-rushers if the Patriots don't re-sign Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, who really stepped up in the playoffs. Bill Belichick will target players in free agency or the NFL Draft who can play in either scheme. Drafted Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette; signed Trevor Scott
Two Wide Receivers: Wes Welker and Deion Branch are free agents. Chad Ochocinco will get a huge extension (OK, maybe not). But the Patriots have to bring in some talent at wideout. Brandon Lloyd will likely follow Josh McDaniels to Foxborough. Franchised Wes Welker; signed Brandon Lloyd, Donte' Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney; re-signed Deion Branch
Defensive End: The Patriots can't count on Kyle Love or a 34-year-old Gerard Warren on the interior of their defensive line next year. Someone like Fletcher Cox or Michael Brockers could suffice in the 2012 NFL Draft. Signed Jonathan Fanene; re-signed Gerard Warren
Safety: New England's struggles versus the pass are well documented. The big problem is at safety, where Patrick Chung is the only viable option. Another player will have to be added via free agency because this year's rookie safety class is atrocious. Signed Steve Gregory; drafted Tavon Wilson
Cornerback: The Patriots need more than just help at safety to fix their secondary. Another cornerback, perhaps a Day 2 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, needs to be acquired to complement Kyle Arrington and Sterling Moore. Devin McCourty and/or Ras-I Dowling might be moving to safety. Signed Marquice Cole and Will Allen
Center: Both of New England's centers, including Dan Koppen, are set to hit the market. Re-signing Koppen will be key. Re-signed Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly
Linebacker Depth: The Patriots have a bunch of linebackers headed for free agency, so depth could be an issue. Drafted Dont'a Hightower; signed Bobby Carpenter; re-signed Tracy White
2012 NFL Free Agent Signings:
Brandon Lloyd, WR, Rams. Age: 31. Signed with Patriots
A legitimate No. 1 receiver, Brandon Lloyd has announced that he'll follow Josh McDaniels wherever he goes. That's a smart football decision, as Lloyd has thrived under McDaniels the past two seasons.
Tony Fiammetta (RFA), FB, Cowboys. Age: 26. Signed with Patriots
DeMarco Murray's production really dropped off when Tony Fiammetta was out of the lineup, and then it picked up once again when Fiammetta returned. Coincidence?
Jonathan Fanene, DE/DT, Bengals. Age: 30. Signed with Patriots (3 years)
Jonathan Fanene's best skill is stopping the run, as you might expect from a 290-pounder. He can also put some pressure on the quarterback, as evidenced by his six sacks in 2011. Unfortunately, he'll be 30 in March, so his best days are behind him.
Robert Gallery, G, Seahawks. Age: 32. Signed with Patriots
Robert Gallery used to be a very good guard, but various injuries have derailed his career. He could get healthy again, but then again, I could win the lottery tomorrow.
Bobby Carpenter, OLB, Lions. Age: 29. -- Signed with Patriots
Trevor Scott, DE/OLB, Raiders. Age: 28. -- Signed with Patriots (1 year)
Joseph Addai, RB, Colts. Age: 29. -- Signed with Patriots
Jabar Gaffney, WR, Redskins. Age: 31. -- Signed with Patriots (2 years)
Will Allen, CB, Dolphins. Age: 34. -- Signed with Patriots (1 year)
Donte' Stallworth, WR, Redskins. Age: 31. -- Signed with Patriots
Steve Gregory, S, Chargers. Age: 29. -- Signed with Patriots (3 years)
Marquice Cole (RFA), CB, Jets. Age: 28. -- Signed with Patriots
Daniel Fells, TE, Broncos. Age: 28. -- Signed with Patriots
Spencer Larsen, FB, Broncos. Age: 28. -- Signed with Patriots (2 years)
New England Patriots Free Agents:
Salary Cap: TBA.
Wes Welker, WR, Patriots. Age: 31. Franchised by Patriots
The top slot receiver in the NFL, Wes Welker is due for a big contract. He still has a few great years left.
Dan Koppen, C, Patriots. Age: 32. Re-signed with Patriots (2 years, $6 million)
Dan Koppen performed very well in 2010, but missed most of 2011 with a fractured fibula. He turns 33 in September, which is the concern.
Andre Carter, DE, Patriots. Age: 33.
Andre Carter is getting up there, but he had a dominant year for the Patriots before landing on injured reserve with a torn quad. It was no surprise to see Carter thrive in the 4-3 again, which makes you wonder why the Redskins installed a 3-4.
Mark Anderson, DE, Patriots. Age: 29. Signed with Bills (4 years)
Bill Belichick helped revive Mark Anderson's career. The former Bear went from being an afterthought to a double-digit sacker. It's hard to trust him outside of New England's system though.
Brian Hoyer (RFA), QB, Patriots. Age: 26. Re-signed with Patriots (1 year, $1.92 million)
The Patriots like Brian Hoyer, and I do too. I'd like to see him get a chance to start somewhere in 2013. For now, he'll continue to back up the Golden Boy.
Chad Ochocinco, WR, Patriots. Age: 34. -- Signed with Dolphins
Nate Jones, CB, Patriots. Age: 30.
Shaun Ellis, DE/DT, Patriots. Age: 35.
Niko Koutouvides, ILB, Patriots. Age: 31.
Kevin Faulk, RB, Patriots. Age: 36.
Mike Wright, DE/DT, Patriots. Age: 30.
Divisional Rival History: Buffalo Bills: Poor Bills. The Patriots have beaten them in 22 of the last 23 meetings, including the previous 17. Miami Dolphins: The Patriots used to have trouble with the Dolphins, but they've won eight of the past 10 meetings. New York Jets: Bill Belichick avenged his playoff loss to Rex Ryan, sweeping the Jets in 2011.
Features to be Posted This Offseason:
2012 NFL Draft Grades (Pick-by-Pick NFL Draft Grades as well - Live on Draft Day!)