The New England Patriots had the league's best regular-season record. Their quarterback was the league MVP. Their coach was the Coach of the Year. And they won their seventh division title in eight years.
So what's wrong with this picture? This: The Patriots haven't won a playoff game in three years and lost their last three postseason starts.
Once upon a time that was unheard of, but there are cracks in Chez Belichick. The pass defense is porous. There is no deep threat on offense. Pass rushers are scarce. There's too much dependence on Tom Brady, so that when he's not Tom Terrific everyone suffers.
In short, despite the Patriots' gaudy 14-2 record New England might not be as strong as it seems.
That's not to minimize what the team accomplished last season. It played with a young secondary and without Randy Moss for most of the year, yet still lapped the field during the regular season. But the regular season doesn't count with New England. Patriots' success is measured by Super Bowl victories, and there hasn't been one in seven years.
With four of the top 60 draft choices and six of the top 92, New England can and will take steps forward. Jets' coach Rex Ryan already proclaimed his team as the club to beat in the AFC, but so what? He did the last two seasons, too. The club to beat is New England, provided it keeps Brady healthy and solves its shortcomings through this year's draft.
|Five possibilities: Patriots|
Ryan Kerrigan, DE/OLB, Purdue: Pats need an outside pass rusher, either at OLB or a DE. Kerrigan is one, though he projects more to an outside linebacker in 3-4.
Tyron Smith, OT, USC: You can never have enough linemen blocking for Tom Brady. Smith is young, huge and a terrific left tackle. Plus, he fills a need.
Mike Pouncey, C-OG, Florida: Guard Stephen Neal is gone, and Logan Mankins is unhappy. Pouncey has the versatility to play center or guard, a plus when you're protecting Brady.
J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin: The next Kyle Vanden Bosch waiting to happen, and that's good. Could be perfect for New England's 3-4 scheme at the five-technique.
Cameron Jordan, DE, California: Not a top-end pass rusher, but a high-effort guy who is solid vs. the run and understands gap responsibilities in 3-4 defenses.
Brinson: Patriots offseason checkup
Team Needs: All 32 teams
QB: Let's see, Brady led the league in touchdown passes, in passer rating and went 339 straight passes without an interception. He also threw for 36 touchdowns and was the first unanimous choice ever for league MVP. The Patriots are secure here. Normally, I'd say they might want to start grooming a backup, but there's no sign of Brady slowing down. If anything, he's getting better. Color this position rock solid.
RB: Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead combined for 1,555 yards rushing, averaged 4.8 yards a carry and produced 19 touchdowns. So why do I think the Patriots must improve here? Maybe it's because neither of these backs can take over a game if/when Brady is struggling. Green-Ellis and Woodhead were remarkably successful, but I don't want to count on them reprising their 2010 numbers. Instead, the Patriots must make an effort to find an elusive back who can turn the corner, catch the ball out of the backfield and pose a mismatch for linebackers. If nothing else, there is depth here that must be addressed.
WR: If the loss to the Jets demonstrated anything, it's that New England misses Randy Moss more than forecast. The Pats didn't have someone to stretch the field or produce plays outside the numbers, and it wound up costing them big-time. Deion Branch is OK, and Wes Welker is good for 100-plus catches a year, but where's the speed? Answer: There isn't any. OK, OK, so Brandon Tate has it and averaged 18 yards a catch. He also had 24 receptions, sixth best on the club. Branch and Welker are effective receivers, but neither demands double coverage -- another way of saying that neither will beat you deep. The Patriots must find a home-run threat to back off secondaries. Otherwise, get used to watching the Jets pass them in the playoffs.
TE: Few teams are as stocked as well at this position, largely because the Patriots drafted two tight ends a year ago who hit and hit big. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 87 catches and 16 touchdowns and were reliable second and third options for Brady when Welker and Branch were covered. Hernandez underwent offseason hip surgery, but should be OK. Alge Crumpler is the veteran here, but he's coming off surgery for a shoulder injury that bothered him last season and wasn't much of a factor. He's also 33.
OL: Stephen Neal is gone, Logan Mankins is unhappy and Matt Light is a free agent. The offensive line always has been a strength of this club, but now it becomes an area of need -- particularly at tackle. Sebastian Vollmer can play the right or left side, but the Patriots could use one of the top left tackles in the draft to cover Tom Brady's back. Center Dan Koppen is 31 and coming off a season where he allowed six sacks. The position is secure, but the Patriots can address the inside of their offensive line after the first round. Dan Connolly excelled after stepping in for the injured Neal, but you have to wonder what Mankins' next move is. He's terrific, but he's not a happy camper. All I know is I want as much protection as possible for Brady, which means I address this position with one of my two first-round choices.
DL: New England signed defensive end Marcus Stroud, but he turns 33 this summer and is on his way down, which means he's not a long-term solution. It also means New England can start looking for a pass-rushing defensive end now. The Patriots were bothered by defensive-line injuries all season and, out of necessity, sometimes were forced to play defensive tackle Vince Wilfork wide to plug holes. The result was inconsistent play by their front wall and sub-par results. New England couldn't stop the run or the pass in its playoff loss to New York, but the number that jumps out at you is this -- zero, as in sacks of Mark Sanchez. Comfortable in the pocket, he outdueled Brady by throwing three TD passes -- including a fourth-period clincher to Santonio Holmes. Mike Wright led the team with 5.5 sacks, and, sorry, but there has to be a difference maker somewhere other than Wilfork.
LB: The pressure on quarterbacks is supposed to come from here, but, as you figured out, there wasn't enough of it last season. The club relied too heavily on Tully Banta-Cain, who is not a premier pass rusher, and he produced five sacks. Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham looked promising, but neither is someone who backs off offenses. The same goes for Dane Fletcher. The Patriots haven't had a solid outside linebacker since Mike Vrabel left two years ago, and it's time they find one -- which means they could use one of their two first-rounders on the position. They're set on the inside with Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes but could use an elite pass rusher to team with them -- either at defensive end or outside linebacker.
DB: They're young, they're promising and they're vulnerable. Basically, that describes a secondary that allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 63.5 percent of their passes for 25 touchdowns and that failed New England in the playoffs. That's the bad news. The good is that this is the same secondary that helped produce a league-high 25 interceptions, with rookie cornerback Devin McCourty pulling down a team-high seven. Early injuries to Leigh Bodden and Brandon McGowan stretched the club farther than expected, forcing it to rely on defensive backs who either weren't ready or weren't able. Cornerback Darius Butler was a disappointment, but he's young. Safeties Brandon Meriweather and Patrick Chung bolster a back four rich in youth and in talent but short on experience. The Patriots have depth here, and the return of Bodden should give them a solid starter opposite McCourty. But they ranked 30th in pass defense, and I don't care if you boost the secondary or the pass rush, but that number must improve.